Tamil Nadu: Dalit women panchayat presidents break glass ceiling, but the war still rages on
Vedanayaki, the panchayat president from Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri, said that when she assumed office, she was denied a chair and a desk because of her caste. Photo: The Federal

Tamil Nadu: Dalit women panchayat presidents break glass ceiling, but the war still rages on

On the occasion of Independence Day, The Federal speaks to Dalit women presidents of TN panchayats who recount how they still encounter casteism, sexism and harassment at workplace

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In 2022, almost all leading dailies published stories about V Amurtham, a Dalit panchayat president in Tamil Nadu's Tiruvallur district, who in a unique feat hoisted the tricolour on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.

Notwithstanding its headline-worthy nature, the act has had little impact on the lives of Amurtham and several Dalit women like her, who despite breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, continue to battle harassment for their caste and gender when the cameras leave.

‘Independence Day meaningless to us’

In several villages of Tamil Nadu, dominant caste groups prevent Dalit panchayat presidents from hoisting the national flag in blatant violation of the Panchayati Raj Act.A classic example is Athupakkam in Tiruvallur where dominant groups have stopped the panchayat leader from doing the honours for the past two years as they believe it is “demeaning” to have a Dalit hoist the tricolour.Amurtham’s son told The Federal that his mother’s election as panchayat president has not changed their social standing. In fact, the caste-based discrimination against Amurtham began the day she joined duty, he says.

“Initially, she was not even allowed inside the office. In the past three years, so many casteist and sexist slurs have been hurled at us that we have decided that it is safer for her to work from home. I’ve heard village elders say, ‘look at the audacity of this Dalit to even think she has power. She needs to know her place’,” he added. Two years ago, Amurtham's son, fearing for his mother’s life, quit his job as a supervisor at a reputable firm to be with her.

He says it is the Vanniyars and Chettiyar ward members who hold the reins of the panchayat. “What happens to us is way worse than what you see in the Tamil film Mamannan," he added.

“Why are we being treated like scum? What was the crime I committed? Was it my mistake to have been even born? We are also equal human beings who deserve to be treated with respect. We don't have any freedom, so this Independence Day is meaningless to us,” he added.

Once a Dalit, always a Dalit

Vedanayaki, panchayat president of Cuddalore, said that when she assumed office, she was denied a chair and a desk at the office because of her caste. “The clerk who was working there for 20 years, and who belongs to a dominant caste group, said I shouldn't sit on the chair because I was from a lower caste and that sitting by the window for passersby to look at wasn’t nice for a woman. I ignored him and bought myself a chair and a nameplate. When I took a picture of it, people said I should remind myself of my caste and take it down,” she said.

Once a Dalit, always a Dalit: Vedanayaki, Cuddalore panchayat president, said that when she assumed office, she was denied a chair and a desk at the office because of her caste. Then, she decided to buy her own chair. Today, she proudly works from the office.

Vedanayaki says certain ward members also tried to implicate her in a case by circulating false information of fraud against her. In her stint as panchayat president, Vedanayaki says she has taken several measures for the welfare of the village, but none has been acknowledged.

Stating that it was she who re-introduced the idea of grama sabha in her panchayat, Vedanayaki says she came up with the unique idea of inviting women to the meeting with flowers and fruits just like people invite guests for weddings. “I asked everyone to share their grievances,” she said. Asked if the perspective of people changed towards her, she said, "I've tried a lot, but nothing changed the way they perceive me."

‘A Dalit is no leader’

Panchayats are empowered with establishing rural housing, providing drinking water, setting up libraries, schools, irrigation projects, and installing healthcare facilities.

However, despite the power their post grants them, Dalit panchayat presidents are often dictated terms by their subordinates, mostly the panchayat-vice president, who belongs to the dominant community, says A Kathir, who heads Evidence, an organisation that works for the empowerment of Dalits.

Amurtham's son alleged that she was coerced to approve schemes where the majority of beneficiaries were dominant caste groups. He said many times people use obscene language against them, and when they retaliate, the former record the same on video and circulate it on social media.

Flower, fruits for women: Vedanayaki re-introduced the idea of grama sabha in her panchayat by inviting women to the meeting with flowers and fruits just like people invite guests for weddings.

He said while the State Human Rights Commission had called for a report into allegations of abuse against his mother and senior revenue officials had conducted inquiries a year ago, no action has been taken so far.

“Even this morning, a person threatened us with murder. Every time we walk on the roads, we hear threats of how they will beat us to death. They have already thrown cow dung at our house and broken the nameplate at the panchayat president’s office,” he said. “No one is ready to accept a Dalit as a leader. So nobody respects her,” he added.

Boycott at workplace

When 37-year-old Vidya, the president of Pazhayur panchayat in Madurai district, began taking steps to lay roads, provide potable water, install streetlights, and construct a community hall, she started receiving threats to stop the work. Despite filing a complaint with the police, there has been no tangible action, she alleged. Vidya told The Federal that she has been under a lot of pressure to withdraw her complaint.

She alleged that in 2021, she discovered that people from the dominant caste community had mixed urine and faecal matter in the overhead water tank of her house. In 2022, 40 streetlights installed under her supervision disappeared overnight. Several complaints were lodged, but there was no police action, she said.

Boycott at workplace: Vidya’s signboard was broken down by the dominant caste members to express their opposition to her taking up the position of the president of Pazhayur panchayat in Madurai district.

“When there is a scheme that needs to be approved, other ward members refuse to sign on it. So it doesn't get implemented. What is concerning is that these panchayat presidents tell me that none of the harassment complaints has ever been addressed even though they have struggled so much. So, basically nothing has changed. It is 2023 and they are still being told they are not worthy of an equal life," said Stalin Maria Lawrence, a Dalit writer.

82% of panchayat presidents not allowed to discharge duties: Data

A survey by Evidence last year found that 85 per cent of the 171 panchayat presidents from 10 districts polled in Tamil Nadu said they faced some form of caste discrimination. Over 80 per cent said the dominant caste groups interfered with their work. While four panchayat presidents said they faced physical attacks, seven said they had been subjected to sexual abuse. The report suggested that 12 of the 114 panchayat presidents said that they were told not to unfurl the tricolour during Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations.

The study also showed that despite threats and mistreatment, many of the elected panchayat presidents in districts like Virudhunagar, Ramanathapuram, Coimbatore, Dindigul, Madurai, and others have performed well by providing infrastructural facilities to the people.

‘Reforms underway, but will take time’

Scheduled castes (SC) and Scheduled tribes (ST) together constitute about 20 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population of 62 million people, according to the 2001 census. This issue is peculiar to Tamil Nadu because the population of Dalits and areas of concentration are limited and because they are divided within themselves, said Kathir.

He explained that even political parties do not extend support to Dalits as the “dominant caste groups have more numerical strength in their favour and so political parties in Tamil Nadu don’t want to antagonise these groups.”

Tiruvallur Collector Dr Alby John told The Federal that they have appointed nodal officers in every panchayat to keep a close tab on matters. “The official ensures that the woman leader is not barred from functions such as hoisting of the national flag and helps to conduct the gram sabha without any issue. We are taking precautionary measures to extend more support to vulnerable panchayats,” he said.

A Block Development Officer The Federal spoke to said caste is a deeply-entrenched feature in Indian society and getting rid of its evils will take time. “Historically, caste has played a significant role in hierarchy. So people will be wary to give so much authority to them because that will mean power will slip out of their hands. Things cannot change overnight.

Double burden of sexism

With husbands acting as presidents in the name of wives in several panchayats, women panchayat presidents who handle official matters by themselves, are often asked why they don’t have their husbands by their side. “When I go to meetings of presidents from different villages, I am one of the very few who speaks for herself. When an auditor once came to visit, she was surprised to see me sitting on a chair and questioned why I didn't seat my husband beside me. My husband smiled and said that I am sitting in the position I deserve and that he is seated where he was meant to,” Vedanayaki said.

Saravanan, Madurai Additional Collector told The Federal that they have monthly meetings with the panchayat presidents. “Ahead of Independence Day, we have reached out to all the panchayats to sense the mood and tension. We are very vigilant to ensure that there are no incidents of caste-based discrimination. Even if we introduce schemes, it is essential that people change their mindset. We are also training women to understand their duties and encouraging them to realise they are the leaders, and not their husbands or sons.”

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