Dalit and women panchayat presidents are seemingly gaining acceptance, albeit slowly, in the caste-ridden villages of Tirunelveli and Madurai districts in southern Tamil Nadu.
WHEN Parliament enacted the Constitution (73rd) Amendment Act in 1993, the move was hailed as a breakthrough in bringing about a vibrant system of participatory democracy at the grassroots level and a paradigm shift in the process of development. The Act, which contains guidelines for the States to put in place three-tier panchayati raj institutions, generated a lot of hope about empowering the weaker sections. For the first time it provided for statutory reservation of elected posts in local bodies for women, besides the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes.
So, when the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, was passed under the provisions of the Constitution (73rd) Amendment Act, expectations ran high given the fact that the State had had no elected local bodies for more than a decade. At the same time there were apprehensions that elections to local bodies might add to the tensions in those parts of rural Tamil Nadu where Dalits were victims of caste-related violence of the worst order in the mid-1990s. Caste Hindu leaders challenged the reservation of elected offices in local bodies for Dalits. Before the October 1996 elections, announced under the new Act, they objected in vain to the delimitation of village constituencies by the State Election Commission.
In the elections, Dalits were prevented from filing nominations in several villages where panchayat presidentships were reserved for them. In five such villages elections could not be held for the full five-year term (1996-2001) or in October 2001. Elections were held in two of them in 2002, but the elected panchayat presidents resigned within days of assuming charge under pressure from caste-Hindus (Frontline, May 24, 2002).
A large number of elected Dalit and women panchayat presidents suffered humiliation at the hands of the vice-presidents and co-members and even government officials. In many cases it was found that the Dalit presidents had to take orders from caste-Hindu leaders and that a substantial number of women presidents were proxies for their husbands or other men of their families. The provision in the Act that the president and the vice-president should sign cheques jointly was often used by the vice-presidents to put pressure on the presidents. In fact, in 1997, caste-Hindu hostility led to the massacre of six Dalits, including Murugesan, president of the Melavalavu village panchayat in Madurai district (Frontline, July 25, 1997). Caste-Hindu panchayat presidents who were sympathetic to Dalit causes were also not spared. One such panchayat chief was hacked to death in Coimbarore district (Frontline, April 12).
For rural women and Dalits, most of whom were elected to these posts for the first time, it was an uphill task. Fear of facing hostile people prevented them from even convening the mandatory gram sabha meetings. The police and the administrative machinery only added to their woes. The only redeeming factor was that some departments of the Central and State governments and numerous non-governmental and inter-governmental agencies, besides the Left parties and Dalit/women's organisations, tried to help them, through workshops and training and capacity-building programmes, to overcome the impediments. The Left parties have consistently mobilised support for them.
SIX years after the three-tier panchayati raj institutions were put in place and nearly a year after the second round of elections to them were held, the ground situation with regard to the empowerment of Dalits and women appears to be changing for the better, albeit slowly. This seems to be the case at least in the southern districts of Tirunelveli and Madurai, which constitute the epicentre of caste-based atrocities against Dalits. While it is true that elections could not be held in five villages in this region and the elected panchayat chiefs of two villages had to lay down office, a churning process is very much visible in a number of other villages. There is a perceptible rise in the level of Dalit assertion; many Dalit and women panchayat presidents today speak with greater confidence than was the case a few years ago, and they are more aware of their rights and responsibilities.
At the other end of the spectrum, people from the dominant caste-Hindu communities and from the village orthodoxy have also indicated a change in their mindset. They possibly realise that continued hostility will not help, and fear that their villages will be left out in the process of development, howsoever slow it may be.
A matching response seems to come from the revenue administration also, although panchayati raj institutions are heavily handicapped by the poor and delayed arrival of statutory funds from both State and Central governments. Complaints of officials' indifference towards Dalit and women panchayat presidents are fewer these days than in the first three years after the 1996 polls. Several Dalit and women panchayat presidents said that most of the officials they met were no longer discourteous or non-cooperative. The elected representatives may also have realised the futility of complaining and may have built some working arrangement with the officials.
All this does not mean that all is well but some signs of positive changes are visible now. For instance, at Maruthankudi in Madurai district the situation is totally different from what it was in 2000. At that time V. Nagar, the Dalit president of the panchayat - the post was reserved for Dalits - had to run for his life since he did not yield to pressure from caste-Hindus with whose support he was elected. There was tension, and caste-Hindus viewed with hostility anyone even remotely seen as backing Dalits. The non-Dalit consolidation was evident (Frontline, September 29, 2000). However, this time around, Maruthan Mayakrishnan, the panchayat president, who threatened to resign under pressure from a section of caste-Hindus, appeared to have many well-wishers among caste-Hindus.
The village did not go to the polls in 1996 since caste-Hindus, angry at the reservation for Dalits, boycotted the polls twice. But they had to yield and the choice fell on Nagar. When he did not resign in tune with the pre-poll undertaking that he had given the caste-Hindu leaders, trouble started. Nagar had to go underground.
Mayakrishnan, the present president, who complained of lack of cooperation from not only caste-Hindu but also Dalit members, said that many caste-Hindu elders in the village did not want him to resign since they did not want to deny the village the benefit of whatever little development activity one could expect. K. Murugesan, a former president of the cooperative milk society, who belongs to the upper-caste Marava community, said he and his friends had persuaded Mayakrishnan not to resign. "We do not want our village to be left behind in development," he said. Another source of strength for Mayakrishnan, cutting across castes, is the local leadership of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), with which he said he had a long association. But it is not clear whether the support of these people alone will help Mayakrishnan steer clear of the hurdles.
The panchayat elections have thrown up some Dalits and women with more-than-average courage and determination. One of them is I. Elavarasan, the Dalit president of Shenbagaraman Nallur in Tirunelveli district. Many panchayat presidents had suffered for having confronted poachers, encroachers, the sand mine mafia and liquor barons, among others. Elavarasan successfully fought a caste-Hindu encroacher.
K. Parvathi (38) was elected for a second term in October 2001 as president of the Moolaikaraippatti town panchayat (reserved for Dalits). During her first term she had to confront a hostile and influential vice-president from the dominant Marava community. He brought under his control most of the 15 members of the panchayat council, but Parvathi refused to fall in line. The members prevented her from conducting the council meeting by bringing in supporters from outside. With police help she got the outsiders evicted from the venue of the meeting, and then met the ordinary people belonging to the dominant caste and explained to them her difficulties. The people themselves brought pressure on the trouble-makers to abandon their disruptive activities. "If I could get re-elected it was because I moved with everyone irrespective of caste and community and saw to it that development works were equitably distributed among all sections of the people," she said. Her experience as a social worker attached to the Rural Uplift Centre proved useful in discharging her panchayat duties. She was, however, sore that her own Dalit community did not stand by her fully in the 2001 elections, though she did her best to see that no Dalit had to depend on others for water and other basic needs. The reason is that she belongs to the minority Vathiriyar sect among Dalits.
The same is the experience of another Dalit panchayat president who won a second term - K. Chellappan (50) of Thadiyanpatti village, also in Tirunelveli district. He claimed that he won for a second time only because he had been fair to both Dalit and non-Dalit communities in distributing development schemes. However, a section of Dalits alleged that all benefits went to areas occupied by non-Dalits and the minority Dalit sect to which the president belonged. They claimed that Chellappan was under the control of caste-Hindus, with whose support he won. The fact, however, remains that no Dalit can expect to win without the support of at least a section of non-Dalits. The prejudice of the majority Dalits against the president was clear. With Dalits coming to power, differences among them have surfaced in several places. In Shenbagaraman Nallur, Elavarasan, who belongs to the minority Parayar caste, is cold-shouldered by the majority Pallars. In several places caste-Hindus take advantage of such divisions. "This, however, is only a passing phase," said a Dalit activist working for a non-governmental organisation. "Dalits will soon realise that their strength lies in their unity."