Women in an unorthodox democracy
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Ever heard of Najima Bibi? If you haven’t, let me do an introduction for you. She is trying to script history in a little-known part of India. The consequences could be dangerous for her as the extremists have threatened her.
Najima Bibi’s difficulties began when she made up her mind to participate in the assembly polls in Manipur. If she had joined hands with a so-called ‘established’ party, things wouldn’t have been so tough. But she chose the People’s Resurgence And Justice Alliance, founded by her equally strident comrade, Irom Sharmila. Irom is living proof of the perversities of Indian society. You may be aware of how she went on a hunger strike for 16 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). She spent those golden years, when young women fall in love, get married and start a family, fighting the establishment. Till the time she was on hunger strike, her family and the people she consider ‘her own’ kept praising her. It helped boost their prestige. People said Irom came from ‘this’ family and stayed in ‘that’ neighbourhood. In the process, they became victims of the ‘VIP syndrome.’
But their attitude changed when she fell in love with an outsider and decided to take her battle to a new paradigm. Subsequently, Irom decided to break her fast and join politics. This was the juncture when her family and her closest supporters turned against her. As her illusions were shattered, in this poignant moment, she must have realized that the people for whom she gave away everything she possessed, only wanted to deify her as the goddess of sacrifice. They never intended to stand by her.
Irom and Najima’s struggle is also extraordinary because they’ve both decided to follow their own beliefs. Which money-bag businessman would finance their endeavours? In the absence of funds, they are campaigning for elections on bicycles. Will their voices go unheard? Whether they win or lose, the example that they have set with their dignified struggle will keep inspiring young people for a long time.
If we look at the 2017 assembly elections closely, we will discover that Indian politics may boast of a few names, decisions and events, but it disregards the needs of close to half our population. Statistics from the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand reveal that the voting percentage for women might have increased but their participation as candidates and the possibilities of their victory are shamefully low. According to data collected by www.indiaspend.com, the number of women candidates went up in 2012 but 85% of them lost their deposit. In reserved seats, this number was relatively less disappointing, but it was still abysmal because just 79.8% women could hold on to their deposit. Just 7.1% women won from reserved seats and in non-reserved seats, just 4.7% women emerged victorious.
Will the assembly elections in 2017 play a part in increasing the representation of women in Indian politics? I am not very optimistic.
Just pick up the list of candidates and you will realize what I am saying. Most of the ‘winnable’ women candidates come from political families. They are being fielded so that another seat comes into the family fold. Over three-and-a-half decades of political reporting I have always felt that many women who are made to file nominations from certain constituencies cannot even retain their deposits. Their name is used to split the votes going to political opponents of their family members. If women from political families are considered ‘winnable’, how does one perceive women who are forced to be scapegoats of other’s ambitions, owing to their humble background?
In many villages of Uttar Pradesh, where women are village panchayat chiefs, their husbands introduce themselves as ‘pradhan pati’ (husband of the panchayat chief). These are men who could not contest on their own owing to women’s reservation, but fielded their wives instead. They still want to confine women to the four walls of their homes. Can there be a bigger betrayal of democracy than this?
This is the situation in Uttar Pradesh that prided itself as a role model for women’s emancipation many decades ago.
The country’s first woman chief minister was Sucheta Kriplani in UP. She presided over the largest state in the country from 1963 to 1967. She was married to Acharya J.B. Kriplani. Kriplani was an opponent of the Congress and his wife was the chief minister from the same party. What can be a better example of democracy within a family? The same state also gave us Indira Gandhi, the only woman prime minister of the country so far. This is the state from where Congress national president Sonia Gandhi has been elected to Parliament. Mayawati, one of the leading contenders in these assembly elections, has many records to her name. Not only was she the first Dalit chief minister, she has also set a record by becoming chief minister four times.
For how long will the first democracy in the history of the world to bestow equal voting rights upon women keep preening about its glorious past? We have to get into the habit of setting new records.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.
Read more by Shashi Shekhar here.