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Dalit Women’s Right to Political Participation in Rural Panchayati Raj (Part 2)

Dalit Women’s Right to Political Participation in Rural Panchayati Raj (Part 2)

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Dalit Women’s Right to Political Participation
in Rural Panchayati Raj


A study of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu

Continued from here.

Executive Summary


Jayshree Mangubhai
Aloysius Irudayam sj
Emma Sydenham


(Research done in Collaboration with Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat and Evidence, Tamil Nadu)



 IV. Responsiveness of the State

“I did not take other problems concerning the Vice President’s cheating behaviour to the police. I was well aware it would mean more expense and no action would be taken against the dominant caste man. I suffered it all within … Ever since I decided to enter the panchayat, I am fighting against injustice and atrocities … Be it a Dalit or non-Dalit woman, their participation in the panchayat administration is never appreciated in this patriarchal country. Then what is the value of social justice here?”

Pushpa, village Panchayat President, Thirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, after facing police inaction following her numerous complaints of obstructions during the election process

Overall, the Indian law enforcement machinery and district administration repeatedly failed in their national and international obligations to both prevent and respond to obstructions that Dalit women experienced while asserting their right to political participation. This denied the women their right to an effective remedy. These officials repeatedly failed to ensure the implementation of laws and to ensure access to justice for legal violations in relation to Dalit women’s political participation. This demonstrated disturbing signs of impunity – impunity exercised in the name of caste power, leaving dominant caste and male perpetrators free from accountability. Dominant caste power therefore remained entrenched both within the state governance and law enforcement systems as well as the local social system.

Women who did not Seek Redress for Obstructions

Given their socio-political situation, the majority of Dalit women kept silent in 71.3% of instances of obstructions: most felt unable to oppose caste-class-gender norms and discrimination (32.5%), or feared dominant caste reaction (16.3%), or felt it futile to raise protest (14.7%), or ignored or tried to resolve the problem with the support of their families (11.8%). For example, Sareekaben, a village panchayat President in Surendranagar district in Gujarat, while taking strong action in response to violations at various times, also let many go by without action. This was because: “they [dominant castes] have money and contacts with the police station, bank, taluka and district panchayat, right up to the State Assembly. In such a situation, any person – no matter how courageous or determined – becomes tired of fighting and loses hope. ….the [dominant castes’] influence is everywhere.

Women who did Seek Redress for Obstructions

Dalit women who did seek redress found more often than not that justice was not accessible for them. The women rarely approached non-state actors, especially from their community, with their complaints (only for 1.3% of obstructions). This may be explained by various reasons, including the women’s understanding that it was the government officials and other formal actors that were actually responsible for taking action to remedy violations faced by them, or the pressure on Dalit village elders to conform to dominant caste interests out of fear, or simply because of the women’s lack of faith in the elders’ responsiveness. Overall, therefore, just over two-thirds of non-state actors – mainly Dalit elders, traditional panchayat elders, political parties, NGOs, and family members – approached by the women regarding obstructions did not support Dalit women to achieve effective redress.

The most common recourse for those women who did take action regarding 28.7% of obstructions, was to approach mainly government officials linked to the panchayats or the police. Just over half of responses from state actors – the police, administrative and judicial courts, government officials and government related bodies – also suggest a breach in duties. A total of 24.7% of responses from state actors involved further obstructions to the women’s efforts, such as chasing the women away, taking no action, demanding a bribe, and refusing to provide any assistance. Pressure or advice not to file any complaint, or pressure to enter into a compromise comprised another 17.9% of state actor responses. Finally, 13.7% of complaints led to registration, but state actors refused to investigate the matter or file a charge sheet, and 1.4% of FIR cases went no further than investigation. This may be due to both compromises outside of police engagement or police refusal to take the matter further.

Far from the norm were the experiences of state officials being responsive to Dalit women – 5.5% of state actors advised the women on how to approach the problem; 16.4% investigated and resolved their problems; and 11.0% filed the women’s complaints, investigated the matter and helped the women to reach a compromise or solution. For instance, the District Collector helped Janaki, a village panchayat President in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu, by pacifying the Vice President who opposed her, and ensuring the construction of the road she had planned.

Finally, a small number of cases went to the stage of judicial proceedings, with 8.9% of state responses leading to court proceedings. Breaking down these cases, 4.8% are still pending (seven through police action and one through a woman filing a petition directly with the court), 3.4% had verdicts in favour of the Dalit woman (four cases initiated directly with the court and one filed through police action) and finally, in one case Shiviben, village panchayat President in Kheda district in Gujarat, lost against a no confidence motion brought against her when a witness turned hostile during the judicial proceedings.

Interactions with Government Officials

Government officials were often complicit in reinforcing dominant caste male power by adopting the role of neutral facilitator regarding Dalit women’s political participation: that is, they failed to intervene when witnessing proxy representation and discrimination, or pleaded lack of power to take action. A BDO in Tamil Nadu stated, “During my tenure [as BDO], many Dalit women members and presidents sought my help. When they come to speak about their problems, their husbands accompany them and they only speak.” In fact, some government officials suggested that their sole jurisdiction over issues Dalit women elected representatives brought to them concerned only development schemes and funds. As an Assistant Director for Panchayats in Tamil Nadu emphasised, “There could have been caste discrimination or violence [in the panchayat]. But the panchayat representatives give more importance to administrative problems and not to any discriminatory practices. We cannot go and force them to talk about such problems… And it is not our duty or responsibility at all to respond to caste problems. We monitor only Dalit women’s administration.” The afore-mentioned BDO similarly pointed out that officials had no duty to take action on complaints of caste or gender based discrimination. This was confirmed by a TDO from Gujarat, who while noting the problems Dalit women elected representatives faced due to caste and gender discrimination, insisted that government officials cannot intervene in these practices as these are ‘very sensitive and emotional issues for the community‘. Thus, while constitutional provisions render illegal discrimination on grounds of caste or gender, and reservations in the panchayats aim to correct structural discrimination against Dalits and women, government officials expect those affected by discrimination to deal with such problems. The only conclusion to be drawn is negligence by these officials in the execution of their legally mandated supervisory roles over the panchayats.

For the 117 Dalit women elected representatives who visited government and other officials in connection with their panchayat responsibilities, positive indications are that 39.3% of women had their invitations accepted by officials to visit their panchayats; 36.8% mentioned how officials implemented schemes requested by them or otherwise supported them in implementing schemes; and 34.2% stated that officials took prompt action on the women’s requests or complaints.

On the other hand, officials also harassed Dalit women elected representatives by making them frequent visit government offices to deal with the same matter, or delayed in implementing schemes despite repeated requests from the women, as mentioned by 23.1% of women. Linked to this, 17.9% of women had to wait for a long time to meet these officials to discuss official panchayat matters. A further 2.6% of women also mentioned how government officials expected bribes in order to render any service to the women. Further, as noted by Jasodaben from Surendranagar district in Gujarat,: “Whenever I approached government officials, they never responded immediately and they didn’t do work fast. Only if they [dominant castes] approach do government officials respond quickly.” Another 6.0% of women experienced government officials taking little or no action on their requests. Finally, in the case of four women, they experienced overt forms of discrimination from government officials based on their caste and gender. Government officials also generally failed to adequately monitor the reserved panchayats, displaying a lack of accountability including turning a blind eye to corrupt practices such as the diversion of funds meant for Dalit development.

The Indian state, therefore, appeared to limit its obligation to providing free access to panchayats, vis-à-vis specially protected groups such as Dalit women, via the reservation of panchayat seats. This stops far short of ensuring that the women enjoy the benefits of this policy in its implementation – that they enjoy free and independent political participation. In a complex society structured along highly unequal caste-class-gender lines, to place the entire burden of safety and security in accessing political participation on the shoulders of Dalit women who are
traditionally excluded from enjoying this right, and to expect them to act with freedom and independence in the electoral process, suggests abdication of state duty.

V. Key Recommendations

“Our challenge today is to institutionalise this system of local self-governance, but also to make it the world’s most representative and participatory democracy.”

~ Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, inaugural speech, Conference of Chief Ministers, New Delhi, 29.06.04

The institutionalisation of the Panchayati Raj system – with all its aims and ambitions – must be further revisited on the basis of the core issues elaborated in this research. There are major weaknesses in the current interpretation and implementation of reservations in Panchayati Raj, as well as in broader strategies to transform a society pervaded by caste-class-gender discrimination. At present, these dramatically limit the ability of the panchayats to fulfil their core objectives of equitable development and social justice. Specifically, they impact negatively on the space for Dalit women to create development and social outcomes in line with these objectives.

Essentially, required reforms must recognise that political participation cannot be viewed in isolation: efforts to realise other enabling rights – especially the rights to education and information, to free employment, alongside the right to equality within the family and in society – must be integrated with efforts to ensure Dalit women’s enjoyment of their right to political participation. Sustained systemic change requires multiple state and non-state actors at the state and national levels working together to influence formal and non-formal local institutions of power and to strengthen Dalit women’s sense of confidence, skills, power and support networks. Creative ways must be explored, with Dalit women as well as Dalit men and non Dalits, to capitalise on the success stories of Dalit women’s political leadership, and cultivate their growth. Inspiring examples of Dalit women elected representatives speak of the great potential for further political and social reform through active participation in panchayat governance. Ultimately efforts must lead to a supportive environment for these women’s political participation in order to transform access to and control over resources and benefits in society, as well as promote a human rights culture that itself demands accountable governance and equality for all.

1. To the Government of India, Governments of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu:

Panchayat Structure and Special Support Mechanisms

* Effectively enforce the reservation policy by ensuring the rights of Dalits to freely and safely vote and stand for election and to exercise their full mandate if elected to their reserved seats (as per CERD Committee Concluding Observations on Indian Government Report 2007). This includes adequate police and government official monitoring and protection of Dalit candidates as well as elected representatives.

* Devolve greater functions, funds and functionaries to the panchayats so that they have effective political authority and discharge their duties and functions as local institutions of self-government within the meaning contemplated by the Indian Constitution. This includes lessening bureaucratic control over panchayat programmes and making bureaucrats more accountable to the panchayats, especially as regards abiding by panchayat decisions.

* Institute quotas in the lower level bureaucracy for SC women and men, ST women and men, and women in general as per panchayat quotas, to ensure that government officials, especially BDOs/TDOs, are representative of these sections of the population. Moreover, the reserved panchayats should come under the direction of these government officials. Similar quotas should be established in the local and district police forces.

* Establish a specific office in each district to act as a support mechanism for Dalit, Adivasi and women panchayat presidents, including providing advice, training and information as well as monitoring their implementation of duties and interventions by others such as panchayat members and government officials. These offices should mediate and resolve problems encountered by the above panchayat representatives and ensure the efficient and effective running of the panchayats. Dalit and Adivasi women and men, as well as other women, should be all represented as much as possible in each office.

Planning and Budgets

* Facilitate a mandatory process of village, taluka/union and district panchayats preparing a scheduled caste development plan with a clear gender component, which should become a charter to work towards the economic development of Dalit women and men in the panchayats (as per recommendation of National Commission for SCs/STs).

* In Gujarat: Allocate separate funds to the Social Justice Committees, which can independently decide on utilisation of these funds. These funds could be used to organise gender awareness camps and camps on the SC/ST (PA) Act.

Gram Sabhas

* Give the gram sabhas greater powers to monitor the functioning of the panchayats and decide on budgets and the allocation of funds and other resources, as well as the identification of beneficiaries for panchayat schemes. Village development plans should be formulated by the gram sabhas, which would then feed into development plans at the taluka/union and district levels. Information on gram sabha meeting agendas must be publicly shared in advance.

* Establish separate quorums for participation by SC women, SC men, ST women, ST men and women in general in gram sabhas and sub-gram sabhas (i.e. ward sabhas).

Panchayat Administration

* Make it mandatory for all panchayat cheques to be signed in the presence of members, for funds to be sanctioned with the signature of the panchayat president alone, and for all accounts to be compulsorily shared with members in all meetings.

* Mandate that in all government contracts related to common properties, these contracts benefit Dalits in proportion to their population.

* Announce incentives (for example, monetary resources, land, government employment or scholarships for children’s education) before the period for filing nominations to panchayat seats to encourage Dalit women to file nominations for general panchayat seats, and award these to Dalit women who win these seats.

Economic Development

* In order to improve the economic conditions of Dalits in rural areas, necessary to facilitate their political participation, develop a national perspective plan with explicit short- and long-term goals for overall development of Dalit women within fixed time bound targets and allocate separate funding for this plan (as per recommendation of National Human Rights Commission).

* Enforce land reforms and land distribution to the landless on a priority basis and initiate a drive to remove encroachments on government lands and other common lands.

* To the State Election Commissions: Establish a small fund to provide limited basic financial support for election costs for Dalits, Adivasis and women in general falling within stipulated low household income brackets.

* Establish a minimum salary system for all panchayat president posts and members’ posts at the higher tiers, with increased travel allowance, dearness allowance and sitting fees considering their powers and duties, to encourage less corruption and more transparency in the panchayat administration (as per recommendations of Tamil Nadu Women Panchayat President’s Federation).

Monitoring and Accountability Mechanisms

* Establish an autonomous statutory Directorate for all reserved panchayats at the state level to be headed by a Dalit/Adivasi woman IAS officer, and Assistant Directorates at the district level to function under the Directorate and to be headed by a Dalit/Adivasi woman officer below the rank of IAS. These two institutions should fall under the jurisdiction of the Legislative Assembly through the Governor, to perform such responsibilities as monitoring and reviewing the pre- and post-election performance of the reserved panchayats, and prepare annual reports to the Legislative Assembly. Gram sabhas as well as local non-governmental organisations focusing on Panchayati Raj should be made part of the monitoring mechanisms appointed by the Directorate in consultation with the Assistant Directorates, and the monitoring reports should be made publicly available to villagers in the gram sabhas.

* Make it mandatory for government officials in charge of Panchayati Raj to pay monthly visits to the panchayats and monitor development works in progress as well as, explicitly, issues of discrimination and other obstacles prevailing in panchayats. They should also check the panchayat accounts during their monthly visits.

* The District Collector should convene monthly meetings with all village panchayat presidents, and a separate meeting with presidents in the different categories of reserved posts – Dalit women, Dalit men, Adivasi men, Adivasi women and general women – on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, in order to understand the different needs and obstacles faced by these different groups, and to resolve their specific difficulties and problems. BDOs/TDOs attached to the respective reserved panchayats should also attend these meetings.

* Monitor regularly government training programmes to ensure women are attending and not sending their husbands in their stead, with sanctions applicable to government officials who allow this practice.

* Evolve strict government rules and programmes to eradicate the presence of proxy candidates, by ensuring that: at all panchayat tiers only elected representatives attend panchayat meetings and meetings with government officials; panchayat funds are sanctioned with the signature of the president alone; mechanisms for closer monitoring of panchayats with Dalit, women and Adivasi presidents; educational programmes for all Dalit, Adivasi and women presidents and members with little or no literacy skills; comprehensive mandatory training at the commencement of the term for Dalit women, Adivasi women and other women on panchayat governance; establishing a rule that no two family members should contest elections for posts in the same panchayat.

* Implement strict legal sanctions against government and police officials who neglect to respond to complaints by persons who have filed nominations for panchayat posts or by elected panchayat representatives in reserved panchayats.

* Every five years, evaluate the performance of the panchayat institutions, with specific evaluation of all reserved panchayat posts, both presidents and members, and provide gender-and-sex data on the numbers and functioning of elected representatives, numbers of no confidence motions initiated and ending with dismissal, etc. (as per recommendation of Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayat Studies).

Policy and Legal Amendments

* In Gujarat: Immediately withdraw the government Samras Gram Yojna policy (consensus panchayat scheme) and ensure that all panchayat posts are established through regular, democratic elections.

* In Gujarat: Promulgate a Government Order with a new rule to the Gujarat Panchayats Act 1993, to stipulate that reserved panchayats rotate after every two terms – i.e. ten years.

* Amend both the Gujarat and Tamil Nadu Panchayat Acts to ensure that where it is a SC women or ST or general women reserved panchayat, the Vice President and Talati/Clerk are from the same reserved category.

* Amend both the Gujarat and Tamil Nadu Panchayat Acts to impose an additional burden of proof on panchayats which dismiss presidents from office using no confidence motions. In addition, the use of no confidence motions against Dalit, Adivasi and women presidents should be strictly monitored by government officials, and timely investigations carried out in all cases to ensure that these presidents are given an equal opportunity to serve out their entire term. In this regard, in Tamil Nadu sec. 205 Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act should be repealed so as to remove the discretionary powers of the District Collectors to remove panchayat presidents.

* Amend the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to include offences related to interference with Dalits’ political participation: that is, any person not being a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe forcing, intimidating or bribing a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe to function as a benami for them; and any person not being a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe instigating false or malicious no confidence motions or complaints against panchayat presidents with the intention to remove them from office. The latter offence could be created through a suitable amendment to sec. 3(1)(viii) SC/ST (PA) Act – instituting false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe – to include no confidence motions in the panchayats.

* Mandate the National and State Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Women’s Commissions with sufficient powers, funds and staff to specifically inquire into acts of political obstruction or violence committed against Dalit women, Dalit men, Adivasi women, Adivasi men and other women elected representatives.

* Provide free legal aid for Dalit women panchayat representatives who seek access to judicial redress for obstructions in the performance of their official duties, and review the reasons why Dalit women are unable to access legal aid in many cases.

Capacitation and Support Measures

* Conduct open information sessions in all panchayat union/taluka headquarters immediately after the announcement of panchayat elections on election procedures, the importance of reservations and Dalit, Adivasi and women’s political participation.

* In addition to regular panchayat trainings for all panchayat representatives, devise and conduct special trainings for Dalits, Adivasis and women elected representatives, as  closely as possible to the start of their term of office, in order to specifically capacitate them for their panchayat duties. All trainings should include a gender and caste perspective, as well as legal sanctions which apply to those who block Dalit women’s political participation.

* Integrate gender and caste awareness training into all trainings for panchayat representatives, including methods of recourse in cases of discrimination and other rights violations towards Dalits, Adivasis and women. These trainings should further specifically focus on promoting a culture of inclusive development, accountability and transparency in the panchayat administration.

* Form associations/networks, or strengthen existing associations/networks of women panchayat representatives at the village, taluka/union and district levels with specific focus on the different experiences of Dalit and Adivasi women representatives. These should operate as both support networks to women elected representatives as well as an effective lobbying block to, among other things, restructure the allocation of resources for Dalit, Adivasi and women’s development.

* Capacitate all officials concerned with Panchayati Raj, including election officers, rural extension officers and particularly lower government officials dealing with the panchayats, to understand and respond to issues of caste and gender discrimination, encourage greater information sharing and less bureaucratic control over panchayat development schemes, so that these officials are able to better monitor and support Dalit women elected representatives in the panchayats to ensure others do not coerce the women into relinquishing their powers.

* Conduct training programmes to increase the awareness and capacity of local police and the local and district courts to understand and respond to issues of caste and gender discrimination and violence, including in the panchayats. This should include awareness on national and international human rights laws, in particular legislation concerning Dalits, and implications for these officials’ duties.

* Ensure the universalisation of primary education among Dalit women, and promote their further education. Current strategies for increasing the female literacy rate, especially among Dalit girls and women, must be strengthened.

* Conduct a widespread social education campaign through the media and local fora on gender and caste equality and non-discrimination in order to support broad change in social attitudes towards Dalits, Adivasis and women in particular. One specific component of this campaign should focus on promoting inclusive democracy through the free and independent participation of Dalits, Adivasis and women in the panchayats.

2. To Civil Society Groups:

* Build up a widespread campaign and lobby the respective Gujarat and Tamil Nadu governments as well as the national government in order to strengthen political will to implement the political reforms suggested above. This includes applying pressure through monitoring and further exposing the failure of government monitoring mechanisms for panchayat governance.

* Conduct regular trainings on public speaking, leadership and managerial skills, problem solving and how to interact with government officials separately for elected panchayat representatives as well as those aspiring to become elected representatives.

* Address the female burden of dual responsibility between panchayats and households through greater education and economic programmes targeting Dalit women, as well as lobbying the government to implement or directly providing support mechanisms such as child care facilities.

* Initiate gender sensitisation programmes specifically aimed at Dalit men, to encourage them to extend greater freedom to women in their families and to support Dalit women elected representatives both within and outside the panchayats. Gender and caste sensitisation programmes should also be conduced separately for all male elected representatives as well as government officials dealing with Panchayati Raj.

* Initiate a political awareness campaign on the right to political participation by Dalit women and men, in order to highlight the importance of political unity across Dalit sub-castes and their participation for community development. As part of this campaign, facilitate and support discussions among Dalit elders, men, panchayat members, husbands and male family members about the importance of Dalit women’s free and independent political participation.

* Initiate district-level sanghams for women elected representatives, with a sub-group specifically meant for Dalit women, as a supportive network for all women and specifically Dalit women elected representatives. These sanghams should be strengthened through regular information inputs and capacitation trainings, and should then form a state-level federation. Support must be extended to the collective actions initiated by these groups, including their monitoring and taking action against government and police officials who fail to protect these women’s right to political participation.

* Increasingly liaise with the media to expose discrimination faced by women elected panchayat representatives as well as highlight successful efforts and strategies employed by elected representatives.

* Independently monitor the situation of local reserved panchayats in order to ensure discriminatory and obstructive practices against Dalit, Adivasi and other women elected representatives do not take place, and if they do, are exposed and appropriate legal action taken against the perpetrators.

* Monitor the next panchayat elections, especially in reserved panchayats, in order to expose violations of the rights of Dalit and Adivasi women to access the panchayats and bring cases to the attention of the State Election Commissions.

* Political parties: Establish quotas on the numbers of SC women and men, ST women and men, and women in general, in their party structures, especially at higher levels of leadership.

* Political parties: Initiate specific trainings for all party cadre on gender and caste social norms and practices, legal rights and political participation for development, in order to foster a culture of accountability and transparency, as well as drive for local participation in development.

8.3 To the International Community:

* To international human rights networks and academic institutes: Take up the issue of Dalit women in local governance as a central concern, raising awareness of the issue in their activities with government officials, United Nations bodies, civil society actors and the general public.

* To UN states governments: Take up the issue of Dalit women’s effective participation in governance as a focus policy area, including through support for the implementation of monitoring and accountability recommendations made in this research and support for relevant Dalit, Adivasi and women panchayat associations.

* To the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women: Prepare a report on the effectiveness of and problems faced by Dalit women in local governance and foster dialogue and debate on this issue in the United Nations.

* To the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination on the Basis of Work and Descent, and Independent Expert on Minorities: Work with local Indian organisations to take up cases of violence and discrimination against Dalit women including in local governance through, among other ways, their reporting to respective United Nations bodies and in dialogue with the Government of India.


Please read the first part of this Executive Summary here.

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