By Counterview Desk
The Gujarat government is planning a huge mela of village panchayat leaders from all over the country in Gandhinagar on August 17, 2013. Last year, it was a state-level function, where awards were distributed to those village panchayats which elected their bodies and sarpanches without contest, thus becoming “samras” panchayats. However, facts collected by Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad-based human rights organization, suggest that caste dynamics in villages are so strong that such “samras” show has little or no meaning. Latest information collected by the NGO suggest that the Gujarat ruling establishment’s all-out efforts to “encourage” homogeneity in the state’s rural areas by having as many “samras” village panchayats without elections as possible are already coming to a naught. Documentary evidence collected on the basis of field reports show that at a large number of places, the upper castes are not only refusing to give up their hegemony, but are doing all they can in their capacity to retain power, particularly targeting Dalit or tribal sarpanches, wherever they have been elected.
While the latest example – which has been highlighted a section of the media — is that of a Dalit woman sarpanch, Santokhben Babulal Solanki, from Chadasana village of Becharaji taluka in Mehsana district, who faced a no-confidence motion of from the upper caste-dominated panchayat only because she complained against caste-based harassment, this is not the only case. The no-confidence motion was passed against her on August 1 by a panchayat, whose majority members belong to the upper castes. Interestingly, this happened with a sarpanch who was honoured, on April 8, 2012, by the Gujarat chief minister at a local function. The chief minister called Chadasana an “example” of prevalence of homogeneity in rural Gujarat, where internal strife has become a thing of the last.
Chadasana village, significantly, is situated just seven kilomtres away from Bhechraji town, in whose outskirts the top car manufacturing company, Maruti-Suzuki, proposes to set up one of India’s most modern export-oriented plants. Indeed, the example of Chadasana is not an isolated case in Gujarat which suggests that the lure of development is not enough to bring about a positive change in the social sector. Yet another village, situated not very far away from Chadasana, Lakhvad, experienced a similar situation in April this year, when its Dalit woman sarpanch, Kamlaben Makwana, faced harassment at the hands of the upper caste panchayat members.
Located just three kilometers from the largest North Gujarat town of Mehsana, Lakhvad has a population of 4,000. Makwana, like most other Dalit and tribal sarpanches, was made SC sarpanch under the Constitutional provision of Article 243D, under which SC and ST seats in panchayats should be in proportion to the population of SC and ST population, and the post of village sarpanch should be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a panchayat. Though Makwana was elected unopposed under the samras scheme, the village homogeneity broke apart sooner rather than later, as the upper caste Patels retaliated and things went so far that she and her family members were arrested on the basis of a false complaint of breach of trust and criminal intimidation.
Significantly, this happened after Makwana filed multiple complaints of harassment against her predecessor, Prahlad Patel, and his then deputy, Ratilal Patel. Things went to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), where the Navsarjan Trust executive-director Manjula Pradeep filed a complaint saying that Makwana was “regularly abused” and “threatened” that she would be eliminated. They told her, said the complaint, that they would see to it that she “did not complete her five year term as the village head”. The complaint added, a “false crime” was registered against her and her family members in Mehsana police station, leading the investigation officer to arrest four persons, including herself, her son and her husband. They were illegally kept in police custody for nine days. The NHRC has called for explanation from the Gujarat government.
In another instance, in Pij village in Kheda district, situated just seven kilomtres from the district’s biggest town, Nadiad, two Dalit sarpanches were removed one after another, as the upper caste members of the panchayat found that the Dalits were “not fit for the chair.” The first one was Somabhai Rohit, against whom, say the Navsarjan activists, a “false complaint” was lodged, and he was put in custody, following which he died of heart attack in 2010. The second one was Gordhanbhai Solanki, against whom, again, members of the village panchayat moved to file complaints. Deputy sarpanch Ghanshayam Patel, who owns a rice mill, particularly played a very active part against the Dalit sarpanch.
While squabbles on “illegally” selling of trees removed within the periphery of the village, and suspension of a panchayat official belonging to the Dalit community, were a common feature during panchayat meetings, things reached a flashpoint when the Dalit sarpanch insisted that the water pipeline should be connected to their area, too, as it was deprived of water. A fight ensued, an atrocities case was registered against certain upper caste persons, and finally a no-confidence motion was brought in on July 16, 2013, and the Dalit sarpanch was unseated.
In fact, facts are piling up to suggest that sarpanches are harassed so much that they are simply unable to carry out work normally sitting in the panchayat office. The Bhingrad village in Lathi taluka of Amreli district chose a Dalit sarpanch during the last elections, Vinubhai Solanki. Yet, he was never allowed to sit on the chair of the sarpanch in the village panchayat office. According to a complaint he has written to Lathi PSI, he was told during the very first meeting that because he is a “Harijan” he cannot be allowed to sit on the sarpanch’s seat; he should sit instead of a separate wooden chair, a little away from other members of the panchayat, most of who belong to the upper caste.
“There is wide prevalence of untouchability in the village”, a Navsarjan document prepared on the village says, adding, “The Dalits are not allowed to enter the local temple, more are they are now allowed to buy goods of daily use from local shops. One of the members of the panchayat has long propagated that, with a Dalit sarpanch, the upper caste persons would have to go to his house for getting work done, which was unacceptable. The budget he put up for discussion was never passed. Things reached a flashpoint when the sarpanch objected to one of the influential persons encroached upon government land. The sarpanch was beaten up so badly that he had to be admitted to the district civil hospital in Amreli.”
In Raska village of Mehmedavad taluka of Kheda district, the sarpanch, Vinubhai Makwana, a Dalit, was mentally harassed by the local upper caste community. This happened after he protested against the move by an influential panchayat member to mine up huge areas, beyond what was sanctioned, and illegal felling of trees. A “fake inquiry” was instituted against him, and he was illegally detained for 24 hours “only in order to put mental pressure on him”, says a Navsarjan note. In yet another instance, the sarpanch of Anandi village of Sinor taluka of Vadodara district, Ansuyaben Vasava, a tribal, was not allowed to sit on the seat of the sarpanch of the village by the local strongmen from the upper castes. On intervention from higher up officials, the village panchayat office was opened in July this year, but now nobody attends any meeting she calls for!
— Rajiv Shah