It was an interesting discussion. The subject was the recent ordinance promulgated by the government of Rajasthan banning men and women without a Class X certificate from contesting zila parishad and panchayat samiti elections. To contest at the sarpanch level, a candidate will need to have passed Class VIII (Class V in tribal areas). In this state, with a particularly poor record of literacy among women, tribals and Dalits, it will mean that, in the short term at least, the glass ceiling in public administration will become even more impregnable for marginalised groups. This despite an earlier law in 1998 to reserve 33 per cent panchayat seats for women.
Panelists berated the BJP, the party in power in the state, charging it with a hidden agenda to keep women, Dalits and tribals from political office while spokespersons for the Rajasthan government and the BJP defended the ordinance. The debate followed predictable lines. Suddenly, actual panchayat members bluntly asked: Why erect barriers of formal educational qualification for rural panchayats alone? If the idea is so good, how about applying it to the state assembly as well?
If she knew her village, had managed the village school for 10 years and handled work online, was it not enough, asked a veteran of several panchayat elections. Why impose the two-child norm only at the panchayat level, while MLAs can go on producing progeny? As if on cue, her male counterpart added that if the people elected him more than once, and he could read government notifications, take notes and maintain accounts, how did it matter that he was “Class VIII fail”? If you want more educated representatives in panchayats, why not first create more schools and better teaching facilities in rural areas?
True, there is room for improvement in the panchayat system. But there is also proof that violence against women is rising across India in even more complex forms, as near-dead caste, communal and gender biases are brought back to life. So, despite all those Beti Bachao schemes and apps to alert the police when facing violence, the reduced physical safety of women is a pan-Indian reality. Health and literacy levels among women and marginalised groups in many states, including Rajasthan, remain below the national average.
Given all this, a peculiar tension surfaces each time there is a collision between traditional ideas of sex or literacy (which continue to carry the backing of custom, tradition, money and institutions) and an emerging cluster of new ideas about gender and democracy. These new ideas are being debated all over the media, but mostly in English. These debates crackle with freshly gathered evidence couched in the expressive power of a global language, but they remain incomprehensible to target groups.
Tradition and money and their various institutions, on the other hand, support the old order. This mindset is communicated to the masses easily, but remains in denial about how, over the decades, following the panchayati raj constitutional amendment and Mathura rape case, law and reality have changed. Since the supporters of new ideas lack uniformly accepted structures or a popular language to communicate nuance, several forceful thoughts about empowerment and gender definitions are summarily dismissed on the ground that these may be products of the West and inapplicable to the Indian grassroots reality. Jurists, activists or politicians, when called forth to define a safe space for women and underprivileged groups, are continuously heckled about having a “Western mindset”.
A muscular way out of this mess was pointed out by the three representatives from panchayats in Rajasthan, who steered the discussion towards recorded facts about the state of education and the panchayati raj system in rural Rajasthan. As the politicians and activists were silenced and data was presented, a complex ground reality began to emerge. Yes, available research shows panchayat members being well educated will generally yield better results, but without a substantial dip in corruption levels. Also, India’s rural school system remains mostly poor and far less accessible to women and marginalised groups. So while no law allows the state to exclude women from panchayats, that may not be necessary after implementation of the ordinance creates eligibility barriers.
A generation ago, the main obstacle to gender equality was not hatred for women — though that existed — but people who advised “maa-behens” to stay away from dirty politics. Today, in the light of data, issues from rape to redefining criteria to participate in panchayat elections need less simplistic and more nuanced thinking in many languages. Like the Delhi gangrape case, the Rajasthan ordinance shows us in a flash the complex reality of actual legislative, political, linguistic and social barriers to gender equality, and how biased institutions can coexist and support each other. The result is our present day, intricately crafted law-politics-and-society hall of mirrors. Sitting within its portals, the occasional haphazard tweaking of welfare schemes may seem to herald a new era , but it will not bring forth democratic empowerment.
The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati