One of the first people I met during my first month in Uttar Pradesh (UP) was Padmavati (name changed). I was traveling to various districts in UP to meet with 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 in a context where most women are discouraged to do so, what sort of challenges they faced, role of their Self Help Groups (SHG) in their decision and success, challenges they currently face as representatives, their ability to carry out their responsibilities, and advice to aspiring women candidates on what to look out for. I had heard about Padmavati from my colleagues prior to my meeting with her. I was expecting to see a bold, outgoing person the first time I walked into her house. Instead, the person I met was a soft-spoken, seemingly introverted woman, whose confidence resonated in her calm yet firm answers to my questions.
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 contested and became the Pradhan. She decided to stand for elections after several unsuccessful attempts at getting the previous Pradhan to solve their 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 not to contest 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 put in her application. Upon realizing that through the support of her SHG she is in all likelihood going to win, 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 her husband…
From there on until now, Padmavati has been nothing short of a brave, courageous, and inspiring woman, having single-highhandedly raised her children, done a lot of development work for her village as the Pradhan, and continuing to aspire to reach greater heights through her sustained hard work and resolve! Her inner strength leaves one 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 and bullets wherever she goes. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I noticed a gun in her 14-year-old son’s pocket. I suddenly had a glaring realization about the violent reality of the world we live in!
I share this story to give context to what I’m talking about through this blog. We still live in an extremely violent, feudal, patriarchal set up, and some of the big words we use in our Constitution, party manifestos, classrooms and in 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; and yet the stories we hear and experience only reiterate how far away 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’ many of them make- when it’s a question of their basic needs and entitlements, they are the class that most bureaucrats and politicians feed on! How, then, does one 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 Gandhi said resonates in my mind- that 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 and in an organized manner, maybe that’s all we really need to set the ball rolling!