Ever heard of Najima Bibi? If you haven’t, let me do an introduction for you. She is trying to script history in a little-known part of India. The consequences will be dangerous for her, the extremists have threatened her. So fatal, that she won’t even find place for a burial.
Najima Bibi’s difficulties began when she made up her mind to participate in the assembly polls in Manipur. If she had joined hands with an ‘established’ party, things wouldn’t have been tough. But she chose the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, founded by her equally strident comrade Irom Sharmila. Irom is living proof of the perversities of our society. She went on a hunger strike for 16 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa). As long as she was on hunger strike, her family and the people she considered ‘her own’ kept praising her. It helped boost their prestige. People said Irom came from ‘this’ family and stayed in ‘that’ neighbourhood. In the process, they became victims of the ‘VIP syndrome.’
But their attitude changed when she fell in love with an outsider and decided to shift her battle to a new paradigm. Subsequently, Irom decided to break her fast and join politics. This was the juncture when her family and her closest supporters turned against her. As her illusions were shattered, she must have realised that the people for whom she gave everything, only wanted to deify her as a goddess of sacrifice. They never intended to stand by her. Irom and Najima’s struggle is also extraordinary because they’ve both decided to follow their own beliefs. Which moneybag businessman would finance their endeavours? In the absence of funds, they are campaigning on bicycles. Will their voices go unheard?
Whether they win or lose, the example that they have set with their dignified struggle will keep inspiring young people for a long time.
If we look at the assembly elections seriously, we discover that politics may boast of a few names, decisions and events, but they disregard the needs of close to half our population. Statistics from the 2012 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand reveal that the voting percentage for women might have increased but their participation as candidates and the possibilities of their victory are shamefully low.
According to www.indiaspend.com, the number of women candidates went up in 2012 but 85% of them lost their deposit. On reserved seats, 79.8% women could hold on to their deposit and 7.1% women won on reserved seats and on non-reserved seats, 4.7% women emerged victorious.
Will the assembly elections play a part in increasing the representation of women in politics? I am not so optimistic.
Just scan the list of candidates and you’ll realise what I am saying. Most of the ‘winnable’ women candidates come from political families. They are being fielded so that another seat comes into the family fold. Over three-and-a-half decades of reporting, I have always felt that many women who are made to file nominations from certain constituencies cannot even retain their deposits. Their name is used only to split the votes going to the opponents of their family members. If the women from political families are considered ‘winnable’, how does one perceive these women who are forced to be scapegoats for others’ ambitions, owing to their humble background.
In many villages of Uttar Pradesh, where women are village panchayat chiefs, their husbands introduce themselves as ‘pradhan pati’ (husband of the panchayat chief). These are people who could not contest on their own owing to women’s reservations, but they fielded their wives instead. They still want to confine women within the walls of their homes. Can there be a bigger betrayal of democracy than this?
This is the situation in Uttar Pradesh that prided itself as a role model for women’s emancipation many decades ago. The country’s first woman chief minister was Sucheta Kriplani in Uttar Pradesh. She presided over the largest state from 1963 to 1967. She was married to Acharya JB Kriplani. Kriplani was an opponent of the Congress and his wife the chief minister from the same party. What can be a better example of democracy within a family? The same state also gave us Indira Gandhi, the only woman prime minister so far. This is the state from where Congress national president Sonia Gandhi has been elected to Parliament. Mayawati, one of the leading contenders in these assembly elections, has many records in her name. Not only was she the first Dalit chief minister, she has also set a record by becoming chief minister four times.
Until when will the first democracy in the history to bestow equal voting rights to women keep preening about its glorious past?
We have to get into the habit of setting new records.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan