The Fate of Feminism in India’s Grassroots Politics

Introduction: Understanding the Problem Statement

The essence of democracy is recognized with the right to equal opportunities for all human beings irrespective of their sex, caste, color, and religion. However, there are certain sections of the society which are downtrodden and excluded, more visibly in politics. The United Nations observed that women constitute the world’s largest ‘excluded category’; and, for the attainment of true democratic spirit, any nation needs to invest its energy to ensure political indulgence is made withstanding gender justice. To effectuate the meaning of equal treatment to women in politics, and the avenue to ensure such policy depends on the charismatic leaders who set examples with their endeavors for society to fulfill equitable political goals. This article analyzes the theoretical ideals and constitutional provisions related to the participation of women in grassroots politics; and later draws a comparison between the ideals and the real-world scenario by providing a ground report of Jharkhand, India. Further, in conclusion, suggests a line of action to ensure active participation of women in politics.

In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi with a great emphasis, said that;

As long as women of India do not take part in public life, there can be no salvation for the country. As long as women do not come to public life and purify, we are not likely to attain sawaraj to which women have not made their full contribution.

History of Panchayat and Women Participation

The inception of the Panchayati Raj System was based on a descriptive study that was done by SC Dube in the 1950s, at the village of Shamir-pet, situated in Hyderabad. The insightful insinuation done by him explored India’s social reality which gained political perspective with his study ‘India’s Changing Villages’, depicting macro-settings of institutions examining the various units organized in the account of village social structure. Dube recognizes the obvious fact that; 

Indian villages varied greatly in their internal structure & organization, in their ethos and world-view, and their life-ways and thought-ways, on account of variety of factors.” 

He argued that women remained ‘secluded’ from the activities of the public space. At public meetings, women sit in one corner whereas men actively participate in politics; women do so passively, trickling down the patriarchy and male dominance which has been legitimized by traditional norms of the society. According to such traditional norms, a husband is expected to be an authoritative figure whose will should always dominate the domestic sphere. 

The monumental report of Committee on Status of Women in India entitled ‘Towards Equality Report’ (1974) revealed that the dynamics of development has adversely downcast a large section of women and created new imbalances and disparities. This directed the legislative consciousness of the Government in laying Fifth Five Year Plan dedicating a separate chapter that included initiatives for Women’s development. The Eighth Five Year Plan focused on empowering women, especially at the grassroots level, through Panchayati Raj Institutions. Later, after much political pressure and many campaigns by the women organizations, the process for reservation of seats in the local self-government was initiated by the government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. 

Constitutional Provisions: Providing equal opportunities to Women

The Constitution of India enacted in 1950 also promises; “to secure to all its citizens’ justice, social, economic and political; and, equality of status and of opportunity” through provisions like fundamental rights and directive principles. The Constitution of India is considered as one of the best constitutions in the world, which takes care of the underprivileged and the minorities, including women; and ensures equal representation.

Further, the 73rd Amendment added the Articles to the Constitution providing reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institution: Article 243(D)(2) for reserving one-third of the seats reserved for women belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Article 243(D)(3) extends political reservation to the women stating that not less than one-third of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election in every panchayat shall be reserved for women and such seats shall be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a panchayat. Article 243(D)(4) also extends political reservation to the elected offices as well. The office of the chairperson in the panchayats or any other level shall be reserved for SC or ST woman in such a manner as the legislature of the state. Thus, these provisions make women significantly involved in decision making usurping issues related to maternal health, child rights & women welfare.

Report from the Ground – West Singhbhum, Jharkhand

On the basis of ethnographic engagement done in West Singhbhum, one of the tribal-dominated aspirational districts of India marks the low performance in regard to the social indicators of education, employment & poverty; it is situated in Jharkhand which has also been known as the impetus of insurgent like Naxalism, activities that tend to cause impediment to the establishment of the progressive path. The state continues to register massive cases of early child marriage, stunted childbirth, along with a low literacy rate amongst girl the child who dropped out of school even before completing elementary education. These are the primary reasons causing volatility of a vision projected by Panchayati Raj Institutions to provide political standing to tribal women, asserting their right to representation in panchayat quorums that remain unoccupied. Initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, residential schooling offered by Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, also fail to contemplate the political course of a girl child, as it occurs, a matter of shifted onus between parents and state. Calls for the social responsible measures to be taken under the virtue of Parens Patriae, wherein its legitimately expected by giant industries operating in the areas to constructively invest in strengthening the infrastructure of educational institutions which must be established within the ambit of accessibility, amongst the rural population, generating political avenues, creating spaces for acting on the analytical application of political rights. 

Conclusion and Suggestions: Ensuring Gender Justice in Grassroots Politics

Indira Gandhi, the first lady who emerged to the prime minister’s post overthrowing the preconceptions and prejudices around women leadership, said

True Liberation of Women reverberate the usurping ideology confirming political participation by females. Indian women are traditionally conservative but they also have the genius of synthesis, to adapt and to absorb. That is what gives them resilience to face suffering and to meet upheavals with a degree of calm, to change constantly and yet remain changeless, which is the quality of India herself.

The political participation of women has been low, despite the fact that females account for 49% of the population. The Survey for 2017-18 tabled in Parliament said factors such as domestic responsibilities, prevailing cultural attitudes regarding the role of women in society and lack of support from family were among the major reasons that prevented them from pursuing politics. The survey pointed out a better scenario adopted by developing countries like Rwanda which holds more than 60 percent of women representatives in Politics in 2017. Whereas, India stands along with countries like Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand where women’s representation in politics stands at less than 15 percent.

Further, a cursory glance over the history of human civilization reveals that women have never been recognized as equal partners in the public sphere and political governance. The improvement and progress which Indian women are experiencing today show that India has also been influenced by the international agenda of women empowerment and India’s commitment to the international norms of democratic and gender-sensitive governance along with the pressure of the non-governmental and women groups in India. However, there are three key factors that can be defined as strong reasons affecting political rights and participation of women in the public and political life are; first, decision-makers such as governmental institutions; second is the senior staff such as bureaucrats; and lastly, the media. 

Facilitation of political journeys must be deemed as an inherent responsibility of the three institutions mentioned above. They must conduct workshops, sessions, and should establish associations that educate women to fulfil roles greater than domestic boundaries; and this education must not be limited to a time-bound event, instead, it should be offered by state machinery as a powerful instrument whose application could be tested on field analytics.

Further, the Reservation and Reverberation of Equal Rights must go hand in hand. The advent of male domination in political power from top to bottom is yet not ready to accept the 33% share of women in political power, by virtue of the Women Reservation Bill, which carries the potential of infusing reforms against social conservatism. Political parties must also ensure the presence of females endorsing candidature in their groups to maintain an adequate representation of policies favouring equal rights is framed. Apart from the statutory commitments made by the government, there’s a dire need to advance political accessibility amongst women to uphold gender justice.

Namrata Das is a student of Masters in Law & Development Program at Azim Premji University, India, and a District Collector’s Fellow. Mohd Rameez Raza is a student of Bachelor of Law at Integral University, India, and a Changelooms Fellow; he is also a Research Analyst for CNES, JGU.

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