Jind, Haryana: The class 12 board examinations had only just finished a few days ago when Sunil Jaglan, the sarpanch, or head, of the Bibipur village council in Haryana, got a call on his mobile phone. It was the daughter of a member of the village council. She needed his help.
“Her parents had found a match (a boy to marry) for her, but she wanted to study. She wanted me to intervene, but did not want her parents to know that she had called me," Jaglan says. The next morning, Jaglan made his way to her home, where, with what he terms a cunning mix of cajoling, shaming and arm-twisting, he persuaded the girl’s father to not only call off the planned wedding, but also send for college forms for her.
“The women of the village know that I understand their concerns and they can count on me," he says.
Jaglan’s claim is no exaggeration. The women in his village in Jind district do count on him to sort out their problems, to lend them a ear, and, most importantly, to understand them.
After all, he is the man who has helped them find a voice. In 2012, he started a mahila gram sabha—a separate village council for women—where, for the first time in Bibipur, women were encouraged to speak up. He also organized a maha khap panchayat—a grand council of upper-caste villagers—the same year, where the main subject of discussion was Haryana’s scourge—female foeticide. From young mothers under pressure to bear a son to grandmothers who both supported the pressure and yet despaired of it, everyone was asked to talk, a first for them.
Bibipur more than any other village in Haryana perhaps needed Jaglan’s campaign as its sex ratio of 877 females for 1,000 males is lower than even the state average of 879—the lowest among Indian states.
Jaglan shot into the limelight when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking in his monthly radio address to the country, mentioned him and his campaign “Selfie with Daughter", in which Jaglan invited people to send him their selfies and announced a small cash prize for the best one.
Modi said: “In Haryana, the number of girls is less than that of boys. Across the country, there are about 100 districts where the situation is worrisome. In Haryana, the situation is more serious."
For Jaglan, tapping into the selfie craze was an interesting way to create awareness about his pet project—saving the girl child. “I was confident about the idea, but its success overwhelmed even me." Selfies poured in, not just from Bibipur and the neighbouring areas, but also from as far off as Bihar and Maharashtra. “I have had people approach me saying that for the first time they feel bad about not having daughters."
Jaglan wasn’t always such a champion of gender rights. Female foeticide might be a bitter fact of life in Haryana, but few actively think about it, even though he comes from a household that is progressive even by urban standards. His schoolteacher father’s influence is clear in the impressive list of degrees Sunil and his three sisters boast of. While Sunil has a masters in mathematics, two sisters hold a masters in English literature and a third has done her MPhil in English literature.
The turning point was the birth of his daughter, Nandini, in January 2012, when, he says, “The nurses refused to accept sweets".
“In Haryana, we have a tradition of beating drums when a baby, particularly a boy, is born. My youngest sister Ritu beat the drums and everyone assumed it was a boy in spite of us telling them otherwise. It was only after six days, when, as per tradition, outsiders came to see the baby did the villagers see that it was a girl we were celebrating," recalls Jaglan.
That experience set Jaglan thinking. “I started noticing that there would be a pregnant woman in the neighbourhood and then a few months later she is no longer pregnant. No one asks questions; no one even raises an eyebrow. I started reading up on the sex ratio, saw YouTube videos about sex selection and foeticide. I don’t want to be a member of a gender-biased society. More importantly, what did the women have to say about this? That is when the idea of the women’s gram sabha and khap came up."
The Selfie with Daughter is Jaglan’s 101st innovative idea in the five years since he’s been sarpanch, he says. Other schemes include a women’s race where the prize was a kilo of ghee, the idea being to get people talking about women’s nutrition and physical wellbeing.
Moreover, the khap maha panchayat and gram sabha had led to a door-to-door campaign against female foeticide and the creation of a committee that keeps track of families that might contemplate aborting a female foetus. “I have seen pregnancies end overnight. Now it is inconceivable that anything of this sort could happen. We will not allow anyone to get away with it," says Sheela Devi, a member of the committee.
In her 70s, Sheela Devi says female foeticide wasn’t widespread when she was young. “It’s taken a turn for the worse as times have changed. People have succumbed to a false sense of honour and pride vis-à-vis the girl and boy child."
For Jaglan, the ideas come in the form of slogans: ‘Daadi chahegi to poti aayegi’ (If the grandmother wishes, a grand-daughter will come home) to ‘Bahu dilao vote pao (Get us wives, earn our votes) which he had launched during the 2014 general election. “In my village, there are 53-54 unmarried men. Families have tried to bring in brides from outside by paying cash to middlemen, but it has been a mismatch. The women are unable to adjust and settle."
The lack of brides, too, is connected to female foeticide. The low sex ratio over the years has meant that there are no brides for men to marry—Jaglan says it’s a big problem.
At the aptly named Bibipur (Urdu for wife), Jaglan takes the reporter on a walk, pointing out physical spaces created for women—a naari shakti sthal (women’s power place), a gateway that leads to the mahila chabootra where women can meet, mingle and discuss issues. Everywhere there are signboards that tell you about the laws under which crimes against women can be registered. A path encircling the village has been named Lado Marg and there’s a lake nearby called Lado Sarovar—Lado is the affectionate term used in Haryana and Punjab for a little girl.
A campaign needs its symbolic representations, too.
You can see the impact on the ground. Says Kamlesh Jhangar, a village elder: “Initially, I was worried that my elder son has two daughters, but since Sunil started his campaign, that worry has gone." Her older grand-daughter Ritika has skipped school claiming a stomach ache, but breaks into giggles on seeing a camera. “She loves to pose," says the proud grandmother as she lets the child wrap herself around her.
“We have to understand that daughters are as important as sons. They too take care of parents, can be relied upon in our old age, and feel a far greater sense of responsibility. One has heard of cases where a son has physically abused his elderly parents, so it makes you wonder why we should harp on a boy child so much," says Jhangar.
“We realized early on that it was important to make young women, the daughters and daughters-in-law, part of this discussion—what did they think, how did they feel? Once their views started emerging, it was a revelation," says Sushila Jaglan, Sunil’s 29-year-old sister. She, too, is actively involved in her brother’s campaigns and has even written a play about women’s activism for the khap. “It was performed by the women of the village—from a child to a grandmother, a lot of us took part."
The success of the Selfie with Daughter campaign means Jaglan is portrayed as a miracle-maker sarpanch who has turned around a village. But it’s been an uphill climb for him.
Convincing people about the cause was difficult. People, especially the men balked at what he was suggesting and had reservations. While young women were being encouraged to speak up, there was the fear of disapproval among family elders. “I have had at least 15-16 administrative enquiries initiated against me by people who are unhappy with what I do. They alleged financial irregularities, but I have not misappropriated any funds. Even the cash that is handed out for all the campaigns comes from my own pocket," he says.
Ram Niwas, 50, a taciturn farmer from Bibipur, supports Jaglan wholeheartedly, but admits that bringing about change was difficult. “Mindsets don’t change overnight. It’s been a struggle, yes." So what made him change his mind? The gram panchayat and khap maha sabha, he says. “For the first time, I heard women speak about what troubled them. I heard daughters-in-law ask of their mothers-in-law: ‘If your mother had been encouraged to abort you, you wouldn’t have been here either’."
Ram Niwas did not take a selfie with his daughters, but he did pose for a picture with them at Jaglan’s insistence.
This year Jaglan says more girls have been born than boys. “Twenty girls for 15 boys. Till last year, it was (an average of) 45 girls for 51 boys."
To be sure, there is no independent confirmation of Jaglan’s claim of improving sex ratio. On 30 June, Hindustan Times published an article citing Kurukshetra University professor Mahabir Jaglan claiming a 2012 survey by his university showed there was no difference in the sex ratio in Bibipur and other Haryana villages included in the survey.
One of the girls born in Bibipur this year was Jaglan’s younger daughter, Yachika. This year also saw a village girl, Ekta Goyat, take admission at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, to pursue a PhD degree. “She wanted to study and the efforts of the past three years made it possible for her. In fact, we see more and more girls now being vocal about their choices as far as education is concerned," says Jaglan.
Today, even as he handles all the media attention, Jaglan is hoping that he gets to meet the Prime Minister. He claims to be apolitical, but says he admires Modi’s attempts to bring the issue of the girl child to centre-stage. “Before him, no politician had addressed this issue at the national level. I want to ask him to spread the scope of this." Till then, he will be busy thinking of more innovative challenges and catch phrases to build awareness.