Laali Thakore looks rather amused when asked about the ban on young women owning mobile phones that was recently issued in her village. The 16-year-old class XI Commerce student from Suraj, an obscure village in Becharaji taluka of Mehsana district in north Gujarat, has never owned a mobile phone. “The ban imposed on our community girls on keeping mobile phones hardly holds any significance since we have never owned one. We learnt about this ban from newspapers only,” she says.
On February 9, former sarpanch Romaji Thakore imposed the ban after an 18-year-old woman from the Thakore community eloped with a young man from the same community, from a nearby village. Anybody violating “the law” would be fined Rs 2,100.
“That was nearly 10 months back and the girl has not returned. We learned that she used to hide a mobile phone in the dustbin and the last time she was spotted, she was talking on her mobile phone. Two-three similar incidents in the past have happened in our village,” he says. The sexagenarian estimates that five per cent of the Thakore population owns/uses a mobile phone, and nobody had been penalised.
But a fortnight later, on February 20, when men and women from the community came together to oppose the order, Romaji had no choice but to revoke the ban. After all, he was only the Thakore community’s leader, not the actual sarpanch. Devshi Vankar, 45, the present sarpanch, is a Dalit and his community constitutes about 20 per cent of Suraj’s population; the Thakores constitute 70 per cent of the village population. Vankar considers the mobile ban and its subsequent withdrawal as a matter within the Thakore community, and not of Suraj as a whole. “As the village sarpanch, I never passed such an order. The former sarpanch faced the wrath of his own community who forced him to revoke his own orders,” he says.
Perhaps, Romaji’s apprehensions are rooted in his perception of the mobile phone as an instrument of freedom — one that can be used by a growing population of girls in the district. According to the 2011 census, Mehsana recorded an increase of 10.73 per cent in its population in comparison to the 2001 census. That year, its sex ratio stood at 926 women per 1,000 men; the average national sex ratio in India is 940. “Till 1990, there was not a single girl studying at the primary school. Today, girls are dominating boys with over 100 in number against nearly 90 boys. Girls have started going to college in nearby towns,” says Romaji.
The most likely reason for the failure of the ban is that most villagers, especially young girls, don’t own or use mobile phones. “We have not attended any of the community’s meetings as we hardly get time from school and coaching classes. But we agree with our elders that owning a mobile phone does not reflect emancipation of females or their independence. It can only be achieved through education and financial self-dependence,” says Kiran Vadher, who is Laali’s batchmate at the private Gujarati-medium school they attend in Sankhalpur, nearly 10 km from Suraj.
The girls are getting ready for the “swadhyay” lesson, an hour-long session at the village school that is led by a “madam” from nearby Becharaji town. Every Saturday afternoon, a group of 10 girls attend sessions that include prayers, discussions, meditation, yoga and debates; this week’s topic is “pitru devo bhava”. On the way, they are joined by Dharma Thakore, 14, a class XI student, and her mother. “We do not feel the need to give one to our children. Nobody except her father carries the mobile phone,” says Dharma’s mother Manjulaben. Jassiben Rawal, 30, who has four children and runs a grocery shop, agrees: “Only my husband uses one.”