Till about four years ago, Ram Kali Devi, a 50-something Dalit woman in Kothal Khurd, a remote village in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, 128 km west of Delhi, used to dread the sunset.
Her husband Dhani Ram, 56, would visit one of the three country liquor vends in and around the village and drink himself silly. Sometimes, he would get together with some associates, and drink outside the local dhaba. Drinking at public places and public scenes of drunken behaviour were an everyday sight in this village.
Dhani Ram would return home, hurl abuses at her and her three children and beat them up. Ram Kali was living through a veritable hell. This routine, with minor variations, had been her lot — every evening — for more than three decades.
Hers wasn’t a unique case. A majority of the women in Kothal Khurd, and several nearby villages, faced the same lot. In fact, this is a problem faced by millions of women in most villages across the country.
Cut to the present. No one drinks in public places in the village any more — thanks to a bunch of gutsy women. In the process, they have also ushered in a modicum of caste and gender equality in a cloistered, hierarchical society dominated
by age-old prejudices.
The architect of the four-year long movement is the 30-something Roshani Devi, a Dalit sarpanch (village head) — and the only Dalit graduate in Kothal Khurd. “I promised, during my campaign for the 2005 panchayat elections, that if I got elected, I’d ban the consumption of liquor in public places,” she said.
She was elected with more votes than her nine other male opponents combined. But it caused a lot of heartburn in the male-dominated village, where women still had to follow the purdah system.
“I still remember my first day as sarpanch. A few upper caste men abused me and wanted to know how a Dalit women could be the sarpanch,” she recalled. The men disrupted the meeting and refused to let her carry out her duties. “They locked me up in a room for four hours,” she added.
“I complained to the local police but the station house officer (SHO) refused to take any action. None of other officials I approached, helped. I then met the Superintendent of Police who directed the SHO to take action,” she said.
Sensing that she meant business, the village elders asked her to take back her complaint. Roshani demanded a quid pro quo — they would have to agree to the closure of all liquor shops in and around the village.
The men, long used to subservient women, had met their match. Hard-nosed, and often tense, negotiations followed over the next few days.
Finally, the men blinked.
Roshani lost no time. She immediately passed a resolution in the panchayat, seeking the closure of all liquor shops within a kilometer of the village. This was then forwarded to the Mahendragarh Deputy Commissioner’s office. Within a month, three shops were closed.
But implementing the ban on the ground was more difficult. Men were still getting their liquor from neighbouring villages and from bootleggers and still returning home drunk.
Village women then formed different groups, patrolled the streets every evening and caught those found drinking. “We used to abuse and even assault these men,” said Ram Kali Devi, a victim of abuse, and a member of the group.
The following day, Roshani Devi and other women would visit the homes of those found drunk and tried to convince them not to drink. Some, like Sardar Singh, 60, a retired armyman, agreed to quit. Others, like Nirdhay Singh, 65, decided to cut down on their daily intake and consume liquor only at home. At the village chaupal (meeting place), many other men took the same pledge.
“The Haryana Excise Act and the Haryana Panchayati Raj Institutions Act empower panchayats to impose fines on those who drink in public,” Yadav told HT.
Taking a leaf out of the book of Kothal Khurd, voluntary women’s groups in 20 other villages in Haryana have also formed committees to prevent men from drinking outside their homes.
These may be the first tiny sparks, but these women are convinced that these sparks will lit a fire that will soon turn into a revolution.