Women in Kavthepiran, a village in western Maharashtra, show how it is possible for ordinary people to have a stake in electoral politics and transform public life.

Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are just around the corner. In Maharashtra, the scene is even more confused than it was during the General Elections. The only thing people can state with certainty is that it will be a fractured mandate. And that dynastic politics is a bug that has bitten all political parties, not just the Congress. So the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law of a range of politicians of different hues are contesting these elections. Yet, what they have to promise is neither new nor, it would seem, interesting for the aam admi or aurat. In fact, the one fact that comes through in the media reports where journalists have spoken to ordinary people is the increasing disillusionment with politicians and with politics.

In the midst of this rather bleak scenario, reports of a different kind of politics come as a breath of fresh air, and also provide a sliver of hope that another way is possible. In September, communal riots broke out in some villages and towns of Sangli district in Maharashtra’s sugar belt. As usually happens with this kind of news, there is a flurry of stories. And then, when peace returns, there is no further news. But from the initial spate of stories, the name of one village stood out — Kavthepiran.

Not your typical village

In some ways, Kavthepiran is just another typical village in western Maharashtra with a population of around 15,000 people. But it is exceptional for a variety of reasons.

This difference is what made the story of Kavthepiran so interesting. The village came into the news because the communal incidents, sparked by a provocative video circulating through the Internet and the depiction of the fight between Shivaji and Afzal Khan on a Ganesh pandal, led to a mosque in the village being damaged. The hundred-odd Muslim families who had lived for generations in the village took fright and wanted to leave.

The women of Kavthepiran intervened and prevented such an exodus from taking place. The 17-member Panchayat in the village consists entirely of women. They decided not just to repair the mosque but also to personally approach the Muslim families and assure them that they would be looked after. Since then Kavthepiran has disappeared from the news. Good news and peace are not really news.

Possibility of change

But the story of the transformation of this village needs to be told again because it is an example of what is possible even within existing systems of electoral politics. Until 2000, Kavthepiran had nothing to distinguish itself from other villages. Its claim to fame was excessive alcoholism, crime and filth. One man, Bhimrao Mane, ruled the village with his acolytes. No one else could have a say.

In 2001, Bhimrao went through something of a change of heart. On October 2, he called a meeting of the village, a Gram Sabha. Kavthepiran’s women used the occasion to express their disgust with the state of affairs and threatened to migrate from the village en masse. Bhimrao listened and publicly promised to personally give up alcohol and to ensure that it was not sold in the village. Taking the cue from him, the village women went around and destroyed all the liquor shops and stills in the village. Their campaign did not end there. If anyone was caught drunk in the village, his head was shaved and he was paraded on a donkey. Not exactly a democratic way of functioning but perhaps they felt that public shaming was the only effective way of curbing alcoholism.

In the elections that followed, women got elected to the Panchayat. With enthusiasm, they went about cleaning the village and successfully won the State Government’s Sant Gadebaba Abhiyan award for the cleanest village. Three years later, in 2006, they won the Nirmal Gram village award from the Central Government for having completely stopped open defecation. The majority of the houses in the village now have private toilets and public toilets have been built for those who cannot afford to build their own.

The women did not stop at this. They motivated families to maintain biogas plants, every woman in the village was encouraged to join a self-help group, the Panchayat installed 110 solar lamps in the village and made segregation of wet and dry garbage compulsory. The manure produced through vermiculture was sold, earning the village a tidy sum of Rs. 70,000.

This much one has gathered from the little that has been written about Kavthepiran. There is probably more. For instance, one would like to know what kind of attitudinal changes have taken place in the village, amongst the young, particularly young women. Do they draw inspiration from the way the women Panchayat members have transformed the village? Do more of them now want to enter electoral politics? Do they have more faith and less cynicism about politics than their counterparts living in towns and cities? It would be fascinating to find out as it would illustrate how ordinary people can have a stake in democracy.

There are similar stories of women’s initiatives in Haryana as well that have been reported in these columns. However, as Haryana approaches elections, we see similar politics to that in Maharashtra — political families proliferating yet little being said about the more serious problems the State faces. One of these is the increasing incidence of honour killings. In recent months, stories from places like Sanghi village, just 100 km from New Delhi and the home village of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, remind us that even as women in some parts of the country move forward, there are millions of others trapped within rigid traditions that refuse to grant them even basic human rights.

Other side

The story of the girls of Sanghi is that of the many in Haryana who are part of the Khap Panchayats that rule people’s lives. The 12 villages of which Sanghi is one consist of one Khap. Men and women from these 12 villages are not permitted to marry each other. If they do, they either have to run away or face the certainty of being killed. Girls in particular are given no choice. Their own families force them to swallow “pesticide pills”, or kill them by hanging. So in a State with the lowest female sex ratio, even the girls who are allowed to be born have no guarantee that they can lead their lives as free citizens of a democracy.

Yes, Sanghi and Kavthepiran are two sides of the same coin. There is progress, there is hope, there is change. But there is also entrenched tradition that refuses women the right to be independent human beings.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com