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India’s (Jati) Panchayati Raj
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Anand Teltumbde

(First published in September 2011)

What has been the impact of reservations for women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in panchayati raj institutions? In case the reserved seat is for a woman, it is usually the wife or daughter in-law of the old sarpanch who is made to sign papers, while the husband or the father-in-law is de facto in control. In the case of reservations for the SC/STs, it is the bonded labourer of the sarpanch who becomes a proxy for his rule. In exceptional cases, where dalit sarpanches have dared to exercise their powers in the public interest, the dominant castes have unleashed terror against them.

We must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism…

– Marx

What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?

– Ambedkar

India formally adopted neo-liberal economic reforms in July 1991 with a definite blueprint that was spearheaded by men with Fund-Bank antecedents to oversee its execution. Within two months, a constitutional amendment bill was readied to institute panchayati raj in rural India, which was finally enacted by Parliament in April 1993. Urban India got its complement in the form of the 74th constitutional amendment. Although both the bills were meant to devolve power to the local levels in accordance with Article 40 of the Constitution (one of the Directive Principles of State Policy), the most radical aspect of the amendments was the prescription of one-third reservations for women, scheduled tribes (STs) and scheduled castes (SCs) in the local bodies as members as well as office bearers. It meant that not only one-third of the elected members but also one-third of the elected sarpanches (panchayat heads) or chairpersons (panchayat samiti heads) or presidents (zilla parishad heads) had to be from amongst these sections. The political-economic link between the two policies and the caste dynamics the latter unleashed, as its inevitable fallout – a recent incident in Tamil Nadu being a rude reminder – still remains inadequately explored.

Who Controls the Panchayats?

Although the panchayat is flaunted as India’s traditional governing institution, it was basically a jati panchayat, a la khap panchayat, and did not have much to do with its current avatar. Interestingly, like most other concepts, the roots of contemporary panchayati raj can be traced to the colonial logic of Ripon’s resolution of May 1882, which aimed at involving the “intelligent class of public-spirited men in the management of rural areas under the British rule”. It led to setting up district and taluka boards with nominated members to look after health, roads, and education, but failed to make the village the basic unit of local self-government. The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 revived the idea and in almost all provinces and native states, laws were enacted for the establishment of village panchayats.

After Independence, panchayati raj was re-inaugurated by Nehru in 1959, following the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee recommendations of 1957, but they miserably failed, impelling scholars to declare by 1960 that panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) were “the God that failed”. By 1970, the Nehruvian modernist project fructified, chiefly through land reforms and the green revolution, introducing capitalist relations of production in the agrarian sector. It brought huge gains to a section of the farming castes and, in equal degree, vulnerability to dalits because of the collapse of traditional jajmani relations. A class of middle and rich peasantry emerged out of the traditional farming castes, wielding the baton of brahminism from the erstwhile upper caste landlords, aggressively pursuing more power and resources, leading to the rise of regional parties and inaugurating an era of coalition politics. The Janata government, the first manifestation thereof, attempted to rejuvenate the PRIs through the Ashok Mehta Committee but without much success.

Over the years, local interests became more varied and complex, in fact, too complex for a centralised polity to handle. Paradoxically, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (LF) government in West Bengal was the first to realise the importance of panchayati raj for sustaining political power. The effective implementation of land reforms and the panchayati system there, since 1984, had buttressed the aspirations of the middle and rich peasantry and given them access to power and resources. This was the key factor behind the LF’s lasting electoral success until recently. At the centre, implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations was the strategy to placate these sections. But it is only after the adoption of the neo-liberal reforms, informally from the mid- 1980s and formally from July 1991 onwards, that concrete steps were taken to implement the panchayati system. The strategy was to prepare for a diminishing state role by relegating governance of local issues to the local elites, albeit under the progressive veneer of anti-caste, anti-patriarchy provisions as in the 73rd and 74th amendments, which would ensure the system’s sustenance without, in any way, threatening it.

The ground reality is that in a substantial number of cases the candidates who have won the panchayat elections are mere fronts for the old power holders. In case the reserved seat is for a woman, it is usually the wife or daughter-in-law of the old sarpanch who is usually made to sign papers while the husband or the father-in-law transacts all business. In case the reservation is for the SC/STs, it is the bonded labourer of the sarpanch who becomes a proxy for his rule. In other cases, some SC/STs may be lured to share the booty with the power elite under the tutelage of the latter. Only in exceptional cases, like the one discussed below, have the dalits challenged and confronted the dominant classes/castes. Thus, it is rich peasants and landlords of the dominant castes that exercise de facto political power at the local level and control the institutions of panchayati raj.

Case of Krishnaveni

Krishnaveni, a dalit woman of the Arunthathiyar caste (scavenging community, the third major dalit caste in the hierarchy after Pariah and Pallar in Tamil Nadu), a school dropout and mother of two, had contested the elections as an independent candidate in Thalaiyuthu panchayat, Nellai district, when it was declared reserved for dalit woman candidates. She won by a margin of 700 votes and became the sarpanch. She worked sincerely and earned widespread respect. Her fellow-villagers generally spoke with admiration about how she managed the construction of roads, the building of a library, and the development of infrastructure with amazing speed. They also vouched for her honesty and integrity, and commended the way she courageously conducted herself in face of continuing threats from the dominant castes. In recognition of her work, she received the Sarojini Naidu award for 2009 from President Pratibha Patil for the best (among panchayats in the district) implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Her accomplishments however rubbed salt in the wounded egos of the old power elites, who could not stomach the fact that an Arunthathiyar woman was their boss. Apart from the caste prejudice, their material interests were also hampered as she would not allow panchayat funds to be siphoned off. Krishnaveni filed more than 15 complaints against these people, including the vice-president and ward members, as they were variously causing obstruction in her work. However, the district administration and the police did not pay any heed. Instead, the impression was created that she was quarrelsome and could slap cases under the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 against her detractors.

On 13 June 2011, at around 10 pm, as she was returning from the panchayat office in an autorickshaw, some people murderously attacked her. The trigger was provided by her plan to build a toilet for dalit women on paramboke (government) land, which was illegally occupied by a Thevar. She was hacked all over the body and left for dead in the darkness. She survived 15 stabs and a hacked ear after remaining for days in the ICU, initially at Tirunelveli and later in Chennai, thanks to the persistent efforts of the young activists of the Arunthathiyar community. They mobilised people to agitate in protest and even managed to get the established dalit leaders like Thol Thirumavalavan and John Pandian to support them. Still, they could not move the media and the state administration out of their customary neglect for dalit issues.

The case was strikingly reminiscent of the earlier two incidents that took place in the same Tirunelveli district, just a few years ago, when the panchayat presidents of Nakkalamuthanpatti, P Jaggaiyan and Maruthankinaru Servaaran, who belonged to the same Arunthathiyar community, were murdered by members of the dominant castes. In a similar manner, 15 years ago, a dalit panchayat president, Murugesan, and his six relatives were cruelly done to death near Madurai. In all these cases there was a recorded history of threats and harassment by the dominant castes and administration’s persistent ignorance thereof. Jaggaiyan’s case rather classically illustrates how panchayati raj becomes de facto the rule of the dominant castes. Before Jaggaiyan, when the post of sarpanch was reserved for women, the wife of Thirupathi Raja, a powerful landlord belonging to Kamma Naidus (Naickers), served as his proxy as sarpanch. When, the next time, the post was reserved for SCs, Raja financed Jaggaiyan’s election, expecting that he would carry out his writ. However, when Jaggaiyan showed his independence and defied his dominance, he was brutally murdered.

Towards Accountability

The rhetoric of decentralisation of power or eulogy to panchayati raj, without a conscious attempt to dampen the structural propensity under which power and domination play out in rural India, just amounts to encouraging rural élites to establish and maintain control over subordinate groups. A plethora of literature on panchayati raj suggests that formal regulations stipulating the participation of people like dalits and women have had minimal impact on the functioning of the panchayats. There is also evidence, albeit in limited cases, that decentralisation has helped these groups to make their presence felt in local political institutions. This implies that when they are empowered and made democratic, panchayats can act as agents of social change. The ideal strategy would therefore be to ensure that weaker groups are empowered and emboldened to challenge the dominant groups. Only then can the panchayats become effective forums for representation and democracy. The State has a definite role and responsibility in this. It must educate villagers about the panchayati system, monitor panchayat elections, train elected members, guide the process of decisionmaking and monitor the implementation of local plans. The district administration must be made accountable for the results– inter alia, the district collector and superintendent of police should be made personally responsible for any instances of violation of rights of the SC/STs and women.

This is the least the State must do if it really means what it professes about panchayati raj. Otherwise, atrocities against dalit sarpanches will continue to provide stark validation of what Marx and Ambedkar said decades ago.

[Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly, September 3, 2011]

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