Supreme Court asks NGO to move govt against sarpanch-patism

Expecting the court to do something to stop unelected male relatives from exercising the real political power behind elected women in the panchayat system was an “unrealistic expectation”, the SC says

July 06, 2023 05:31 pm | Updated 05:31 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The women should be given the “right support” mechanism, advocate Swati Jindal, representing NGO Mundona Rural Development Foundation, said. File

The women should be given the “right support” mechanism, advocate Swati Jindal, representing NGO Mundona Rural Development Foundation, said. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The Supreme Court said on Thursday that the government, and not the judiciary, should look into the problem of men often wielding the actual power behind elected women who remain “faceless wives and daughters-in-law” in grassroots politics.

A Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia advised an NGO, Mundona Rural Development Foundation, to make a representation before the Ministry of Panchayati Raj on this issue.

‘Mockery of democracy’

The NGO, represented by advocate Swati Jindal, said that the phenomenon of unelected male relatives wielding political and decision-making power behind women amounted to a “sheer mockery of constitutional democracy”. This is the situation 30 years after the Seventy-Third Constitution Amendment Act, 1992 provided a one-third quota for women in village, block and district levels of panchayat governance, including in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

“The amendments were inserted in the Constitution to help the women population at the grassroot level break cultural barriers and improve their socio-economic conditions through representative democracy,” the petition noted. However, State Governments had not been able to prevent men from acting as “sarpanch-pati, sarpanch-devar, pradhan-pati” while wielding the actual political and decision-making power. The NGO termed this tendency among male relatives to exercise power, in lieu of the elected women, as “sarpanch-patism”.

‘Evolutionary process’

“But how do you stop the wife of an influential person from contesting if she wants to lend a shoulder? It is an evolutionary process and we are not an executive authority,” the court addressed Ms. Jindal during the hearing.

“Despite the passing of the amendment, the letter is there but the spirit is lacking…” Ms. Jindal said.

“How do we judicially create this spirit? You say that these men run the office by proxy… How do you prevent that? Would you preclude women from contesting? It is like saying ‘empower women more’. Certainly, but how do we empower women more…” Justice Kaul asked.

‘Not the court’s job’

Ms. Jindal argued that an expert committee should be formed to look into the issue. The women should be given the “right support” mechanism.

Justice Kaul said this was an “unrealistic expectation” from the court. “Have you written to any government department?” the Bench queried.

“There are many departments,” the lawyer responded, urging the court to step in.

“That is like saying the country has problem, please solve it,” Justice Kaul said.

“We believe this is not the function of this court… We feel that it is for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to look into the grievance made by the petitioner as to whether there is a better mechanism to implement the object of the reservation,” the court observed.

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