Indore, Madhya Pradesh was one of the first field areas I visited while working with Chaitanya, the organization I’m with, during the fellowship. It was the reaping month of March. The vast expanse of cropping area had turned golden brown due to wheat and maize harvesting in the region. Sun shone right above our heads, and warm winds with little tinge of heat blew against our faces. I was riding behind Aarti* a colleague here, also a local who seemed to be well versed with every lane and road we took. She was riding her two-wheeler like a Ferrari, speeding up and racing against passing trucks on the highway. Along the way, she told me innumerable stories of her city, Indore, and how it made a hat-trick this time, of being the cleanest city in the country. She made sure to be a good host.
We were visiting various villages near Indore in order to look for women to form SHGs (Self-help groups) for my organisation. We first visited Morod, a small hamlet under Dudhiya panchayat. Since childhood, I had envisioned villages having small huts, with cattle around it, and a chulah inside for cooking. But all my assumptions got challenged on seeing big cemented houses, most of them two/three storey buildings with tiled floors and glass windows. What an awakening!
We stopped to ask the whereabouts of the Sarpanch, someone who is an elected head of the village panchayat. After criss-crossing various small lanes, we finally reached at the given residential address. As I entered the gates of this huge campus, Voila! I was greeted by a Bloodhound dog. That beast came pounding on us as if he just met his old friends. After he finished sniffing us like a bomb diffusing squad would do, we entered the house of the Sarpanch.
A lean and tall lady draped in a saree welcomed us inside her house and directed us towards her lavishly arranged sofas. I knew this village was better than what I had imagined. The house clearly indicated the level of disparity that exists in our society. Coming back to the woman who welcomed us, she served us with glasses of water to quench our thirst, sat in front of us and with folded hands, said,
“Ji main iss gaon ki Sarpanch hun, yaha kaise aana hua”. In reply, we too said Namaste followed by “Hum yahan mahila swayam sidh samooh banana aaye hain. Isi vishay mein aapse kuch baat karni thi.” Before we could proceed further, a tall man entered through the main gate.
I still vividly remember his appearance, a bulky man, wearing tide-white safari kurta with a half-coat. It wasn’t just his physique which was noticeable but his accessories drew my attention too. He wore heavy golden earrings, with a flashy golden bracelet around his wrist, coupled with golden rings on his eight fingers. It reminded me of the negative character Mogambo from Mr. India. The most astonishing part was that his waist was festooned with a pistol moving along as his legs moved. He came up and sat in front of us, enquiring about us and our intrusion in his village. On asking Aarti about him, she whispered “yeh Sarpanch pati hai” and added “yahan aarakshan ki wajah se naam aurat ka hota hai par saara asli kaam Sarpanch ka pati hi karta hai”.
Now, as per the provision in Article 243D of the Indian Constitution, 1/3rdof the seats and 1/3rd offices of the Chairperson at all levels of Panchayati Raj Institutions are reserved for women. Consequently, the wives contest elections in order to win a seat but the real work is done by the man of the house, usually the husband of the Sarpanch. She just acts as a name on paper required only to occasionally sign or put her official stamp that too where his husband tells her to do that. This is an open secret as every villager knows about it. They address Sarpanch Pati with respect and everyone coming to their home asks for the husband instead of the one actually in power.
After a brief discussion on our motive to visit the village, the Pati added, “Aapko jo karna hai, gaon mein kariye par humari rajneeti mein koi adchan nahi aani chahiye. Hum apne khilaaf jaa ke aapki koi madat nahi karenge”. It hit me hard to see him hungry for power. I wanted to shout this out at him but we thanked them and left for a nearby village named Damnay. Once again, we started looking for the house of Sarpanch by the same procedure of asking someone we saw on our way, and finally reached our destination.
The house had a name plate of Mahender Singh Rathore* with Sarpanch written under it. I got an impression of meeting a male Sarpanch now, which soon got wrecked. We were once again sitting in front of a woman and I asked her about a man’s name written outside. There was a long awkward pause. Everyone looked at each other or at their glass of water before my colleague finally broke the silence and explained our intentions to visit their village.
When she asked about various activities in the village, the Sarpanch said, “Mujhe nahi pata, mere pati dekhte hain gaon ka sara kaam.” We wanted to know if he’s around but he wasn’t. So, we left and told that we will be visiting again, to talk to the man this time, the Sarpanch Pati in power.
What is the real state of women? Have they been given power only for name-sake? The women who win in the elections, don’t even know much about their village and cannot communicate properly with anyone on her own. Both the women we met, chose to keep quiet and furnished the responsibility to the man. Even the well-educated staff with me seem to accept this crude reality without any hiccups, plus they shush the ones questioning the wrong-doings. They move on with their lives by saying, “Aisa hi hota hai yahan. Humare desh mein sudhar hone mein abhi kaafi waqt hai.” But my question is “Kaun karega sudhar?” We choose to keep our eyes shut to this inequality without any word or dissent, and cherry-pick to blame only the administration.
Margaret Sanger said, “A woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that woman in her which struggles for expression.”
*Name changed to protect identity