History was unmade and made again in Rukhsar’s village in Haryana’s Mewat district Sunday as she performed the late evening namaz with a relative at home.
Forced by a much-debated ban on uneducated candidates by Haryana government, Nimkheda, a quiet hamlet which created history ten years ago by electing the country’s first all-women gram panchayat (village council), reinstated the male dominance of this body — seven men and four women — this week.
But even as the new eligibility criterion ended a decade of trailblazing work done by the village’s first female sarpanch (head), Ashubi Khan (55), on grounds of illiteracy, it unwittingly brought a generational shift in Nimkheda’s gram panchayat.
The village elected its youngest-ever council Sunday. The new sarpanch Shakil Hussain (35) and the ten panches (ward members) are all under the age of 40. Twenty three-year-old Rukhsar, who has an MA in Sanskrit and recently completed her B.Ed, is the youngest among them.
“I’ve never wanted to contest before. In fact, I would have never considered it had it not been for the change in eligibility rules,” Rukhsar, who is a housewife and has a year-old-son, said after winning one of the four wards reserved for women. “I want to work on the problem of water scarcity in our village. I’ll also try to improve the literacy rate of my ward.”
The panchayat in Nimkheda, just like other villages of Mewat, has always been the preserve of the elderly. When the Centre amended the Constitution to introduce reservation for women, only the old were encouraged to contest here. Except for two ward members, Nimkheda’s last panchayat led by Khan was dominated by panches above 50 years.
Once the amendment to the Haryana Panchayat Act, 1994, barred the majority of the village population from contesting polls, Nimkheda’s old were forced to turn to its handful educated young to save the day.
The state law, upheld by the Supreme Court last year, requires that general candidates should have passed the Class X examination while women and Dalit candidates need to have cleared Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must clear Class V.
Faced with an acute shortage of educated candidates, many of the young contested from two wards simultaneously. Despite this, candidates Ismail (41) and Ishtiyak (28), won unopposed from two wards. Apart from the sarpanch post, the village has 10 wards of which four are reserved for women this time.
“Irrespective of the problems faced at the time of finding candidates, I think the Supreme Court ruling has come as a blessing in disguise for Nimkheda and, especially, its young women. Even though the village reluctantly relented on women reservation, none of the young girls was ever given the opportunity to contest. No one here could bear the thought of their daughters and brides to lead the way,” said Musharraf Dholwi (33), whose wife Mumtaz (30) contested and lost from one of four reserved wards.
Residents of Nimkheda are divided on the merits and demerits of the new Haryana law. The old guard is visibly unhappy. “An aged person has a better understanding of life and is better placed to bring changes. The young are prone to social evils such as drinking and gambling. How can we entrust governance to them,” asks Khan, who was barred from fighting a third term on account of her illiteracy.
Seema (26), an anganwadi worker who has studied till Class X and won the election Sunday, disagrees. “I completely agree with the Supreme Court when it said that an educated person can tell good from bad. Anyone can trick an illiterate into signing something wrong. Funds can also be easily embezzled if the panchayat members are illiterate.”
While the panchayat elections seem to have empowered the young this time, it has excluded the poor completely. All those elected in Nimkheda hail from middle or upper middle class families which have either had a sarpanch or a panch among their immediate or distant relatives. For instance, the new village head Shakil’s father was Nimkheda’s sarpanch for ten years. Rukhsar’s mother-in-law Mehmoodi was among the ten all-women panchayat elected in 2005.
Panchayat polls in Haryana are taking place in three phases. Nimkheda, which saw a turnout of 87 per cent Sunday, voted in the second phase. The final phase concludes on January 24.