Four men were seated in the gram sabha office in Bankaranja village in Kaij taluka of Maharashtra’s Beed district, when sarpanch Maya Dahire, a Dalit woman, walked in. She avoided sitting on the blue swivel chair meant for the village head – the only distinguished piece of furniture in the prosaic room, otherwise occupied by plastic chairs, metal cupboards and a table. Instead, she chose a plastic chair on the side, which nearly shielded her from the view of gram sevak Bapurao Shinde.
“This [blue one] is your chair,” recommended Shinde, but Dahire brushed off the hint with an awkward smile.
Nothing about her manner remotely conveyed a sense of power or authority usually associated with the position of village head.
Dahire is the second Dalit woman sarpanch of Bankaranja but has no idea how she got there, and nor does she want to talk about it.
Her meekness is perhaps an indication of why powerful castes of the village chose to back her and manipulated the gram panchayat election process to oust her predecessor Aruna Dahire, a Dalit woman who is more assertive in comparison.
The trouble begins
In March 2011, the Maharashtra cabinet approved an increase in women’s reservation in local body polls from 33% to 50% to enhance their participation in politics.
In 2012, when gram panchayat elections were held across the state, the post of sarpanch in Bankaranja village was reserved for a woman from the Scheduled Caste.
“There were nine members in the gram panchayat [BJP supporters] and I was the only Dalit [NCP supporter],” said Aruna Dahire at her home in the Dalit basti of Bankaranja.
Aruna Dahire was elected as Bankaranja village’s first Dalit woman sarpanch, but her colleagues in the panchayat from the dominant castes weren’t happy.
Trouble began in January 2013, when a gram sevak passed a resolution approving the sarpanch’s signature for gram panchayat transactions. This is a routine procedure. “After every election a resolution is passed giving the sarpanch the signatory rights,” explained Aruna’s husband Shrimant Dahire.
The powerful caste members of the council, mainly Vanjaras (a denotified tribe) and Marathas, opposed the resolution suggesting that the deputy sarpanch be given the right instead.
“As the dispute dragged on, I could not perform my duties,” said Aruna Dahire. “Every time I decided to take up any development work, it was met with opposition. I have not even completed my term. This is atyachar [oppression] on the poor.”
According to the Dahires, as the conflict went on, panchayat members continued to be obstructionist and routinely abused them with casteist slurs. “They would say, ‘Hey Dedhgya [a local term for Dalit], let’s see how you do politics’,” recalled Shrimant Dahire.
The couple filed their first atrocity case in February 2013, but withdrew it after a compromise was reached during a village meeting where the couple were requested to take back their complaint.
In June, the panchayat members seized control by forcing a re-election. They first passed a no-confidence motion against Aruna Dahire, thus rendering the sarpanch’s post vacant. Next, they effected the resignation of an upper caste female member from ward two – a general, non-reserved ward that had no Dalit representation – and roped in Maya Dahire in her place. Finally, in June this year, they re-elected Maya Dahire as the sarpanch.
The new sarpanch ticked both the boxes of being a woman and a member of the Scheduled Caste, but unlike Aruna Dahire, she is a pliable proxy for the dominant castes who installed her.
When Aruna and Shrimant Dahire opposed the re-election on June 22, they were abused and badly beaten up outside the gram sabha. They subsequently filed a case on June 24 alleging caste atrocity.
“Officials from the local administration and the police were present, but no one intervened when we were being thrashed,” said Aruna Dahire, though officials denied this was the case.
According to the atrocity case, the couple was beaten with sticks and stones. When the former sarpanch escaped, she was again assaulted. The Dahires were admitted to the civil hospital where they were lying on the floor. They were given beds only after the intervention of rights activist Manisha Tokale. The couple were discharged on June 28.
One month later, Shrimant Dahire’s hand is still in a plaster, and the police have not yet found any witnesses to the assault.
The FIR filed by the couple invokes sections 147 and 148 (rioting); 149 (unlawful assembly); 323, 324 and 325 for causing hurt; 504 (intentional insult) of the Indian Penal Code; and section 3(1) (x) (intentionally insulting or intimidating with intent to humiliate) of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. There are 10 accused in the case from Vanjara, Maratha and Brahmin communities.
‘No caste role’
Officials in the local administration and the police denied the role of caste, blaming the incident on the rough and tumble of local politics. Some said a combination of caste and gender bias was playing out.
One local official even dismissed the injuries of the Dahire couple as “natak" – an act.
“It is not because of casteism, but because of village politics and hurt egos,” the official said.
However, no one could give a clear reason why a no-confidence motion had been passed against Aruna Dahire, except that the panchayat members felt she did not take them into confidence while taking decisions.
“There is no doubt that they were beaten,” Anil Paraskar, superintendent of police, Beed, told Scroll.in. “Local politics is responsible for such cases. During elections, there is a spike in atrocity cases. In 2012-’13, there were 50 to 60 atrocity cases in Beed, whereas in 2014, which was the election year, there were 120.”
Asked whether caste wasn’t the driving factor in village-level political factions, Paraskar said: “Our mentality is still quite backward. Even though there is reservation, it has come from the top, whereas our social mentality has not changed to that extent. It’s like a Ferrari engine has been fitted to a bullock cart. Traditions and customs are more important than law. Many a time the opposition is not caste-based, but gender-based. There is this feeling that how can a woman make decisions.”
A committee headed by the Beed district collector periodically reviews atrocity cases.
“We will ensure that investigation in this case is completed within two months, collector Naval Kishor told Scroll.in. “When there is an atrocity case, the possibility of suppression of Dalits cannot be ruled out. It is very easy to say we have reservations for women, but are we accepting women in local bodies?”
Discontent over rise of Dalits
Often, dominant castes harbour discontent over having to cede political power, and consequently their traditional clout, to weaker sections.
Counter-cases, especially on charges of dacoity or outraging the modesty of a woman are common against those who file complaints of caste atrocities.
For instance, Aruna Dahire and her husband have been accused of theft and outraging the modesty of a woman respectively, in a case filed by Maya Dahire.
Ashok Jadhav, son of Kalavati Jadhav, former sarpanch of Waghe Babhalgaon village in Kaij taluka, alleged that members of the upper castes, who were jealous that he was doing well, had foisted false cases of corruption on him.
In 2012-’13, Jhadav had filed an atrocity case after he and his family, including his mother, late wife and children were beaten up by upper castes. “These false cases have been committed to sessions court, but nothing has moved forward on the atrocity case I filed,” said Jadhav.
The post of sarpanch at Waghe Babhalgaon village, where the Jhadavs are from, was also reserved for a woman from the Scheduled Caste during the gram panchayat elections. When his mother was elected sarpanch, Jadhav said that he and his family were subjected to remarks such as, “Why do these Dedh and Mang people want to be in such posts?”
His mother was ousted in a manner similar to that used against Aruna Dahire. Here too, the new sarpanch was a Dalit woman compliant to the interests of upper castes.
“I got approval for schemes worth Rs 1.27 crore for the village,” said Jhadav. “I have been on several government committees. The savarna mentality could not tolerate that I was doing well. They felt threatened and brought a no-confidence motion against my mother. She stood again for the election, but lost.”
Seizing the opportunity
Sarita (name changed) a Dalit woman sarpanch from a village in Beed taluka too reported facing casteist violence from an upper caste computer operator who maintained the village records. The matter ended only after he passed away.
“Before my term, his relative was the sarpanch,” said Sarita. “So, he found it difficult to take instructions from me. He would speak in a disrespectful manner and abuse me in casteist terms, saying that I was a ‘Mahar’ (a lower caste), so how could he listen to me. Since he was previously friendly, I had never thought he would behave in this manner.”
She added: “One day, he came home with nine people. I was alone, while my husband and other family members were away. They started beating me with sticks. I fell unconscious after the attack. Later, I registered an atrocity case.”
Rights activist Tokale recalled an incident in Nathra village in Beed district seven years ago, where a Dalit woman sarpanch was made to give an undertaking on a stamp paper that she had nothing to do with the panchayat and all its affairs would be handled by the deputy sarpanch.
“Having Dalit women in politics hurts the traditional sense of supremacy of the savarnas,” said Tokale. “They think, till recently, Dalits bowed before them and now they are managing the village affairs. So they employ several means to crush them.”
Pride at work
Given their history of caste and gender oppression, Dalit women who are thrust in a position of authority seize it as an opportunity to break free and prove their worth to the village.
“Often people offer a futile logic that women do not understand the village affairs, but they should be given a chance to learn,” said district collector Kishor.
Sarita can’t stop talking about the work she has done in her village – building roads, nullahs, public wells, Anganwadi centres, getting approval for an Ambedkar Bhavan and so on. Her village got the most number of approvals in Beed district under Maharashtra government’s Gharkul Yojana, a scheme to help the rural poor build homes.
The village was up in arms against Sarita when the first list had a large number of Dalit beneficiaries. It was only after the second and third list, which included other communities as well, that their anger subsided.
“I have to think of everyone. I have a great desire to develop my village,” said Sarita.
Among the changes she brought about was the appointment of more women in the gram panchayat: talathi (revenue officer), health worker and social health activists. “Now the gram panchayat of nine has five women members,” she said.