“Where do women and girls want to go and what do they want?”
Until the day I visited a Sarpanch for the first time, as a part of my field visits, I realized that I had not given much thought to the little dots that we like to place on our foreheads as ‘bindis’. For me, it was just something that was and continues to naturally be a part of our culture, in both urban and rural spaces in India. But meeting Kanku Ben gave me a lot to ponder upon, most of which I hope to document and be able to reflect over constantly.
Kanku Ben Amritlal Vankar has been the Sarpanch of Juth (Group) Gram Panchayat that consists of four villages – Kukma, Nani Reladi, Moti Reladi and Lear, in Bhuj, Kutch. Kanku Ben has been leading the way since 2016, being a “Model Sarpanch”, as first introduced to me through this blog by India Fellow alum, Md. Faraz Ahmad who also got a chance to work with her.
Intrigued by the possibility of a connection between her work and Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), an organization in Bhuj, I found that the word ‘bindi‘ could be traced to its Sanskrit roots through the word bindu. It loosely translates to a drop or a particle, and however diverse it may be in its name and forms across the country and even the world, this ornament still remains to represent the same ideas.
On one hand, the vedas formulate the presence of seven ‘chakras’ or concentrated points of energy on the human body. The sixth of these is said to be found exactly where the bindi is placed on the forehead, called the ‘Ajna’ chakra, where ajna refers to the ‘brow’ or the ‘third eye’. As the Ajna is considered a representation of the eye of intuition and intellect, the vedas believe that anything seen by the mind’s eye or a dream is also seen by the Ajna. Hence, the bindi serves its purpose by allowing one to channel this ability to access inner wisdom.
A red bindi on the other hand, has two representations in Hindu culture. The first stems from the belief of human beings having an inner third eye, where the two on our face physically are used for seeing the outside world and the inner one for focusing inward, on God. And so, the red bindi signifies the idea of keeping God at the centre of one’s thoughts. Most importantly, and in the context of this blog, it serves as a symbol of an auspicious marriage.
When a new bride steps into her new house, her red bindi is believed to steer the way for prosperity and grant her the role of a new guardian for the family.
To connect the dots (both literally and figuratively), according to Kanku Ben, the idea behind their women’s safety audit was to understand how an where they felt unsafe in the village. To facilitate this, groups of women and girls from each mohalla were invited to meetings and collectively marked the places they felt unsafe on a detailed map of the village – using bindis.
Bright red bindis marked the areas where they weren’t comfortable, whereas maroon bindis were used to demarcate the regions where they didn’t feel threatened. Then, the panchayat combined the maps to understand the present situation and came to the conclusion that the scenario was much less than favourable, as the village came across as terrifying to its occupants.
To amend this, they chose to go back to the women who had marked the maps to understand why they found a certain area scary in the first place. Several issues emerged; including the lack of lighting and consequently, fear of the dark, dense wild bushes in the surroundings, the presence of drunk men on the sides of then roads and even rowdy boys hanging around the school gates. And so, lights were added to the dark roads and pathways, bushes were removed and trimmed, over 25 CCTV cameras have been added and the local police has been involved, helping to keep a regular check and establish presence at public places such as the school and streets.
“The women themselves had the solutions, and the ways to execute them were also given to us by them.”Kanku Ben
She further added, “Even if an area was ‘safe’ in its logistical sense, the way past experiences shaped women’s’ thoughts regarding their safety left a sense of constant fear, leading to yet more red bindis.”
As a resident of the village herself, and having experienced these issues throughout her life, as any women would, she was able to empathize and still have a strong will to solve this issue. Being a leader may mean a lot of different things to different people, but my interpretation of a leader is someone who doesn’t necessarily need a microphone or a pedestal to leave an impact, or get the work done.
In this case, one can see how through collective action and a simple ability to adapt as and when the situation required her to, the sarpanch was able to narrow down the crux of the issue and work on the core points, while acknowledging that the work is far from over yet. It is this participatory approach that makes room for discussion and taking the solutions off paper onto the real world, in real time.
I found this idea of using bindis in this context, especially fascinating.
There is a certain dichotomy in the way that bindis have been traditionally worn, i.e. as guardians of a house, versus the way they are being used to mark public spaces where women themselves feel unsafe and fearful.
Of course, I am aware of the fact that this was an exceptional case for me to witness, and that as an outlier, she is exemplary. The same case cannot be made for majority or even a large number of panchayats and local governments, all for several contributing factors and reasons.
After meeting Kanku Ben, I feel inspired and most of all, hopeful. If not only for the way decentralized democracy can benefit diverse sets of people, but also for the way women and young leaders are embracing spaces and making change. My journey with SETU Abhiyan has only begun, and I look forward to understanding the complexities and variations of the way local governance has prevailed in our country since the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India.