When Norti Bai, sarpanch of Harmara in Rajasthan, refused to give in to the demands of upper caste men in her village, her daughter-in-law Ram Peari was branded a “witch.” The villagers called for Peari's “social boycott” and excommunication.

In Alwar district in the State, Sunita Bairwa of Bahedakhah was assaulted because the upper castes were unhappy about a Dalit being elevated to sarpanch.

These and similar testimonies were shared at a day-long public hearing on caste bias and atrocities faced by Dalit elected representatives, held here on Tuesday. Organised by the All-India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, the event highlighted the stories of discrimination and violence against Dalit women elected representatives from in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

“It took us days to get the police to file a complaint. I was victimised because we are from the lower caste and my mother-in-law was doing some good work for the village. The upper caste men could not tolerate it, they wanted her to toe their line and when she refused to, they accused me of being a witch and of performing black magic on another woman,” said Ram Peari.

Most elected representatives facing harassment complained that the police and the administration were also not supporting them. “As chairperson of the district council of Aurangabad, I am not even kept informed of the day-to-day functioning. When I raise important issues, I am told that because of my caste, I will not even be heard,” complained Ranju Devi from Bihar.

In her village, she alleged, her husband was beaten up by upper caste men who objected to her candidature.

No change in status

Syeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission, who addressed the hearing, said the status of the Dalit women representative was same as it was years ago. The Centre and State governments would have to work collectively for the empowerment of Dalit women and there was need for a multisectoral approach to development and proper implementation of policies, she said.

Following the testimonies, a jury put forth certain recommendations. They called for establishing a special office in each district to act as a support mechanism for Dalit, Adivasi and women panchayat presidents. The office should provide advice, training and information as well as monitor the performance of duties and interventions by others such as panchayat members and government officials.

The special office should mediate and resolve problems encountered by panchayat representatives.

In another recommendation, the jury said the State Election Commissions should set up a fund to provide basic financial support towards election cost to Dalits, Adivasis and women in general falling within a stipulated low household income bracket.

It called for setting up an autonomous statutory directorate for all reserved panchayats at the State level, headed by a Dalit, Adivasi woman IAS officer, and assistant directorates at the district level, headed by a Dalit/Adivasi woman officer below the rank of IAS, to function under the directorate. These two institutions should fall under the jurisdiction of the Legislative Assembly through the Governor. They should monitor and review the pre and post-election performance of the reserved panchayats, and submit annual reports to the Assembly.

The jury called for mandating the National and State Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Women's Commissions with sufficient powers, funds and staff to specifically inquire into political obstruction or violence committed against Dalit women and men, Adivasis and other women elected representatives.

A resolution to strengthen the legal framework such as the SC/ST (POA) Act, 1989, and enforcement agencies particularly those focussing on Dalit women was passed.