The continuous attacking of DMK’s ‘gram sabhas’ as “illegal” by AIADMK leaders gives an impression that the ruling party is shaken by the crowds thronging the informal meetings organised by the opposition party, in election-bound Tamil Nadu.
The AIADMK is so concerned that party coordinator and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami even said the DMK is trying to ‘confuse’ the people by conducting ‘gram sabhas’. “If (DMK chief) Stalin meets the people in an honest way, they will at least give him the status of the opposition party,” he has said.
The DMK started conducting the ‘sabhas’ by mobilising people in each village in every district from December 23, as part of its election campaign. The meetings, planned till January 10, aim to cover all 12,620 village panchayats in the state.
The attacks over DMK’s gram sabhas continue despite the party clarifying to the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) department that what they hold is a ‘People’s Gram Sabha’ and not a formal meeting conducted by the elected representatives of local bodies.
The clarification to the RDPR department had come in response to a circular sent out to all district collectors by the department, in which they were told not to grant permission for such meetings. The said circular is one such classic example that shows how the ruling party is abusing its executive power to curb the actions and decisions of the DMK in their process of reaching the public through meetings, the letter claimed.
It may be noted that this is not the first time the DMK is holding such ground-level meetings; that the party, that ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 2019, the party had conducted several ‘Thinnai Koottangal’, or verandah meetings.
How does DMK’s ‘Gram Sabha’ differ from the formal one?
The legal and formal ‘Gram Sabha’ meetings are held four times in a year. The elected representatives should conduct ‘Gram Sabhas’ on January 26 (Republic Day), May 1 (May Day), August 15 (Independence Day) and October 2 (Gandhi Jayanti). The meetings are convened and conducted as per the procedures stipulated under the Tamil Nadu Grama Sabha (Procedure for convening and Conducting of meeting) Rules, 1998, framed under Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act, 1994.
There should be seven days’ notice prior to the ‘Grama Sabha’ day, maintaining of quorum, an agenda prepared by village panchayat president, the presence of presiding officer and an observer, submission of the minutes of the meetings to the Inspector of Panchayats (district collectors) within three days — which are some of the basic requirements to be followed in formal ‘Gram Sabha’ meetings.
“Its trite in law that meetings conducted in consonance with and in compliance of the above Rules only will only be called and accepted in law as Grama Sabha meeting and no other meeting shall be treated as Grama Sabha meeting, even if it is with such nomenclature,” said the letter by DMK.
Comparing their ‘mock gram sabhas’ with mock-assemblies, mock-Parliaments and moot courts, the letter stressed “there’s no legal prohibition or impediment to conduct mock-meetings similar to the original one.” DMK has also demanded the withdrawal of the RDPR circular which it has termed as ‘unconstitutional’, terming the conduct of such meetings as ‘fundamental rights’.
It was due to DMK’s continuous legal fight that the government had conducted rural local body elections in December 2019, in which both the Dravidian majors had put up a more or less equal fight. The DMK had secured 12 district panchayat chairman’s seats as against AIADMK’s 13; DMK 243 district panchayat councillors (AIADMK 214), DMK 125 panchayat union chairmans (AIADMK 140) and DMK 2,110 panchayat union councillors (AIADMK 1,797).
Some nuanced arguments over the usage of ‘Gram Sabha’
According to K Saravanan, a social activist who is working towards creating awareness on the Panchayat Raj, the DMK’s choice of using the words ‘Gram Sabha’ will favour them and that there is a reason behind AIADMK’s fear.
“Firstly, a responsible Opposition party should have not used the words ‘Gram Sabha’. Even if they rename it ‘People’s Gram Sabha’, it’ll create an impression among the people that DMK has achieved what AIADMK has not (of mobilising people). For a layman, there is a possibility that he or she will consider DMK’s Gram Sabhas as the formal one,” he said.
There are more nuanced arguments regarding the usage of the term ‘Gram Sabha’, Saravanan said.
“The Constitution has said that 29 subjects can be devolved to local bodies and states can decide on devolving the powers. For example, in the past, teachers in panchayat and municipal schools were appointed and had their salaries paid by the local bodies.So the local bodies could question the teachers for their absence and quality of teaching. But now the power has gone to the education department. Likewise, for many other needs like maintaining water resources etc, the local bodies are to depend on the state government” he said.
In order to create awareness and make people reclaim their rights, it’s essential to conduct Gram Sabhas four times a year. The government must ensure all the procedures to conduct gram sabha meetings are followed and all stakeholders are present in such meetings, he added.
“But that is lacking. Hence many times, a panchayat president, even though he or she is apolitical, comes under the control of ruling party politicians. When the president is from the opposition party, there’ll be a dispute. However, no political leaders can participate in Gram Sabha discussions and may remain only as an observer.
“Most of the time, the resolutions passed during Gram Sabhas are overlooked by the state government. So, the state government’s fear that DMK-inclined elected representatives passing resolutions against government schemes may affect them electorally, is basically unfounded. But the fear is that of the crowds that’re supporting such informal meetings,” said Saravanan.
It’s possible that due to this fear of crowds gathering behind DMK, the AIADMK had tried planting members from its women’s wing in informal ‘gram sabhas’ to create a ruckus, as was witnessed in Coimbatore on January 2. On that day, a woman sporting a DMK cap, who had asked Stalin a question, was asked if she belonged to that particular panchayat. It is to be noted that individuals from one village panchayat cannot participate in the gram sabhas of another panchayat.
When the woman refused to reply to Stalin’s question and it came to light that she was from another panchayat, the DMK workers allegedly manhandled her. Later, a video in which the woman telling what happened during the meeting to Municipal Administration Minister SP Velumani over phone, had gone viral.
“It is contradictory when the DMK says it’s not conducting a formal ‘Gram Sabha’, but also follows the formal Gram Sabha rules by expelling a woman from another panchayat. The party needs the term ‘Gram Sabha’ and conducts party meetings but does not allow others to participate and expels whoever questions.
“This will set a bad example. The elected panchayat presidents may learn wrong lessons that they can expel anyone from the meeting if they raise any question,” said S Nandakumar, general secretary, ‘Thannatchi’, an organisation that works towards local governance.
The Gram Sabha meetings where Stalin participates alone get more attention than the meetings conducted by other party functionaries, said Nandakumar.
“The fear that a DMK-inclined panchayat chief may mobilise people and thereby turn the voters against the AIADMK, is also unfounded. Because in many places, such presidents were made to sit on the floor while the district-level functionaries were on the stage. Moreover, in these ‘People’s Gram Sabha’ meetings, the party accuses the ruling government more than discussing the real panchayat issues,” he said.
Given that the AIADMK government has conducted the local body elections after three years’ delay and formal ‘Gram Sabhas’ were not conducted in 2020 due to COVID-19 (except January 26), DMK’s ‘People’s Gram Sabha’ will definitely be reminded by the people during elections.
“One good thing is that the people became aware of the term ‘Gram Sabha’. We should look out for January 26, when the year’s first formal Gram Sabhas will be held. If they are conducted properly and more people participate, then we can appreciate DMK’s meetings for being a change-agent. If that’s not going to be the case, we can consider the party’s usage of the term ‘Gram Sabha’ was for pure political mileage,” added Nandakumar.