A great divide

There is a contrast between the status of women and their political presence, as Nagaland and Haryana show

Published - August 15, 2017 12:22 am IST

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The incidents of protests and violence by tribal bodies in Nagaland earlier this year over 33% reservations for women in urban local bodies have once again highlighted the issue of women and representation.

In this context, it is interesting to look at the case of Haryana which conducted elections to rural panchayat bodies in January last year. The State amended the State Panchayati Raj Act, even including criteria such as educational qualifications and standards for candidates to meet while seeking election to panchayat bodies. Academically, men from the general category had to be matriculates, women and Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates had to have passed out of middle school, while SC women should have passed standard five. This raised criticism as it disqualified 68% of SC women and 41% of SC men. But quite interestingly, women’s representation increased to an average of 42% across all levels in comparison to 36% in the fourth panchayat election held in 2010.

Decoding the data

Along caste categories, State Election Commission (EC) data show that SC women panches were 32.81% in comparison to women from the Backward Classes (BC) category who constituted 27.49% of elected women panches. In fact SC women have higher representation than BC women at all levels of local governance except for the office of the sarpanch wherein the difference is 2.41% in favour of BC women when calculated as a percentage of the total number of elected women sarpanches. Also, 9.24% of the total seats in panchayat elections were reserved for BCs (both men and women), while 10.87% were for SC women. Therefore, reservation for SC women did bolster their numbers, enabling them to overtake BC women representatives.

The second development with regard to the category of gender is that the representation of SC women exceeds that of SC men among the panches at the village level and among members of the zilla parishad. This is again heartening given that reservation for SC women as a total of SC reservations for panchayat members’ at all three levels was 48%, while for SC men it was 52%. Primary research makes it clear that the spurt in women’s representation was not by design but by default. A newly elected woman panch from a Jat-dominated village in Ballabgarh block in Faridabad district said that she had heard of her nomination after it was announced by the locals and when she was not present in the meeting. Her nomination was a result of the new criteria introduced in the amended Panchayati Raj Act of Haryana. An amendment to the Act resulted in her husband being disqualified from contesting as he had a criminal case pending against him while her son was ineligible being a minor. In a bid to retain the panch seat among her community that is concentrated in a particular area of the village, it was decided to nominate her instead of her husband. Therefore, she was a consensus candidate.

West to east

Data from the Haryana EC website shows that 42.3% women candidates at the level of the village panch were elected unopposed. Women campaigned actively in the panchayat elections. Women nominees also participated in village rallies and sought electoral support. Most election posters used pictures of both the woman candidate and a male relative. Scaling up the analysis to the level of the Legislative Assembly, Haryana has the interesting distinction of electing the highest percentage of women representatives among all States, namely 14.44% or 13 out of the 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). On the other hand, there is no woman MLA in Nagaland. Yet, in terms of sex ratio and female literacy, Nagaland scores over Haryana. According to the 2011 census, female literacy in Nagaland was 76.69% as against 66.77% in Haryana. The sex ratio in Nagaland was 931 women per 1,000 men as against 879 women per 1,000 men in Haryana, which is the second lowest in the country. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the low social status of women in Haryana and the comparatively higher political presence that they enjoy in representative bodies. The more vexing question is the case of Nagaland, wherein women have formal agency in terms of literacy and numbers but lack a democratic voice as political representatives and decision makers. The question that one must then ask is this: Can democratic rights and representation be traded off for tradition and the promise of development?

Radhika Kumar is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Motilal Nehru College, New Delhi

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