One of the first people I met in my first month in Uttar Pradesh (UP) was Padmavati (name changed).
I was traveling across the state to meet women who had contested the previous Panchayat elections and were currently elected representatives. I wanted to learn more about what inspired them to contest elections when most women are discouraged to do so, what sort of challenges they faced, the role of their Self Help Groups (SHG) in their decision and success, the challenges they now face as representatives, their ability to carry out their responsibilities, and their advice to aspiring women candidates on what to look out for.
I had heard of Padmavati from my colleagues and was expecting to see a bold, outgoing woman when I walked into her house (my preconception of what a ‘leader’ in UP must look like). Instead, I was met by a soft-spoken and calm woman, who wasn’t afraid to give honest answers to all my questions. Here’s her story:
Padmavati had contested the previous Gram Panchayat elections and had been elected as Pradhan (village chief, also called Sarpanch) by her village. She fought against a powerful local MLA of the time, who usually controlled whoever became the Pradhan.
She decided to contest the Panchayat elections after several unsuccessful attempts at getting the previous Pradhan to solve the women’s problems, including the allocation of a meeting place for the SHG to conduct their weekly meetings in the village.
When the family of the powerful MLA heard about the decision of the SHG to put up Padmavati as their candidate, they threatened her and even went to the extent of bullying the Block officials to not give her nomination papers.
She somehow managed to get the forms from a neighbouring block and submitted her application.
When they realized that with the support of her SHG women she is likely to win the elections, they kidnapped her husband.
Even then Padmavati didn’t give up, knowing that without sacrifice nothing can be achieved and that her husband would have also wanted the same thing. When the results were declared and she won by a significant margin, they killed him…
From there on until now, Padmavati has been nothing short of a brave, courageous, and inspiring woman, single-highhandedly raised her children, overseeing a lot of development work in her village, and continuing to aspire to reach greater heights through her sustained hard work and resolve!
Her inner strength left me speechless and in awe. Her children study outside UP and come to visit only during vacations, as Padmavati is too scared for their lives. She also has two constables guarding her at all times and carries a gun around her waist wherever she goes.
What disturbed me the most, however, was when I saw a gun in her 14-year-old son’s pocket.
I share this story for the real-life context behind this blog. We still live in an extremely violent, feudal, patriarchal setup, and some of the big words we use in our Constitution, party manifestos, classrooms, and debates often don’t live up to their meaning in reality (in perhaps most parts of the country). We speak about freedom, equality, and justice — yet the stories we hear and experience daily only reiterate how far we are from achieving real freedom, equality, and justice.
Living in UP is a tough feat, and all the more if one belongs to poor and marginalized communities. Political participation isn’t a ‘choice’ people have when it’s a question of their basic needs and entitlements. They are the class that most bureaucrats and politicians feed on.
How, then, do we ensure that their ‘participation’ is effective participation, where they have an actual say in politics and governance? And how does one ensure that women, who are mostly kept out of the public sphere, and especially politics and governance, are not told whom to vote for, where to speak up (or not), excluded from decision-making processes, and undermined even when elected as representatives, but actually engage and participate in a more meaningful and effective way?
Something Mahatma Gandhi said comes to mind: complete freedom can only be achieved “when the people begin to feel that they can change their destiny and situation by their own effort”.
It is with this belief — that people have the inherent potential to be their own change-agents but only need to realize this — that pushes us to direct our efforts to merely facilitate the realization of their own inner strength because they will manage the rest!
If thousands of women realize their true power, and more importantly, realize their collective power — to speak up and act collectively in an organized manner, perhaps that’s all we need to set the ball rolling! 🙂