Text: Praveen Donthi
Photographs: Virendra Singh Gosain
It's easy to miss Poonam Devi Yadav's tiny Chukti village on Bihar's NH 31. But you can't miss her residence Sambhavi Sadan, standing tall on a two-acre plot in the village, the most famous address in the area. It is from here that she became MLA of the Khagaria constituency in 2005 on a Janata Dal (United) ticket. Yadav is expected to win this time around again. The 20 Indian Penal Code (IPC) charges against her — including two relating to attempt to murder — are unlikely to spoil her chances.
The posters on the walls, about the padyatra she undertook in May this year, say she is supported by "Ranvir fans aur veer bandhu". Her husband Ranvir Yadav is as an accused in the 1985 Lakshmipur-Taufir carnage. Journalists say more than hundred people were shot dead, the official count is nine, hacked and thrown into the Ganges. More than 200 houses were plundered and burnt. Yadav got away with it but is behind the bars now on charges of murdering his cousin Bharat Yadav. His wife inherits a bloody throne. But she seems at home.
Yadav's first brush with politics came when she campaigned for Ranvir in 1990 when he contested from prison. "I was the star pracharak. My slogan was sindoor daan, jeevan daan (the gift of vermillion is the gift of life). Women thronged the polling booths. We are yet to cross the number of votes we got," she recalls. As Ranvir spent time in and out of jail, she continued to be the proxy candidate. The people of Khagaria constituency, who detest being part of his fiefdom, continue to hope for 'Chukti se mukti' (freedom from Chukti).
Criminals and candidates
Yadav is just one among 35 women with criminal charges contesting assembly elections in Bihar this year. Many of them are wives of dons or bahubalis (musclemen), but many others have serious criminal charges against their own name. This is part of a general trend of all parties awarding tickets to candidates with criminal records. According to National Election Watch (NEW), an organisation of NGOs, the BJP leads the pack in criminals contesting assembly polls in Bihar, with 63 per cent tainted candidates. Then come the RJD, with 59 per cent, LJP (54 per cent) and the Congress (38 per cent). The ruling JD(U) has the most number of candidates charged with serious offences. "Most of these charges against the women are filed because of the criminal background of their husbands and their supporters," says Anjesh Kumar, state coordinator, NEW.
What explains their electoral acceptance? "These constituencies are like fiefdoms of their husbands where they command respect. Pappu Yadav, for instance, used to corner government contracts and give them to young Yadav boys. When he went to file his election papers, 2,000 bikers went with him. People like him command respect in a society where the state has failed and unemployment is rampant," says Manindra Nath Thakur, Professor of Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who hails from Purnea. "Also, respect for women in Bihar is much higher than people think. You don't hear of bride-burning cases," adds Thakur.
How do the wives hold the husband's supporters together? "The husbands and their supporters mobilise support. And their wives just hope to win women's sympathy," says Vivek Kumar, Professor of Sociology, JNU.
Brave new better halves
Nitu Kumari, contesting from Hisua constituency on a Congress ticket, steps into the shoes of father-in-law Aditya Narayan Singh, 85, the undisputed winner from 1981-2005, jailed this week for destroying electronic voting machines. As her husband and brother-in-law are also in jail, the onus fell on her mother-in-law and her to jump into politics. "All the men in our family are in jail," she says.
The 16 IPC charges against her don't faze Kumari. "There hasn't been a single chargesheet, that is also a record," she says. The first time she agreed to contest zilla parishad elections was when her husband assured her that she wouldn't have to do campaigning. She won convincingly. Kumari is now hoping to become an MLA with bhumihar votes. Then she would approach Rahul Gandhi to get her husband out of the jail. What if he doesn't help? "Humlog chadke madad maangenge (we will make sure he helps us). He said ‘you win and come, we will see'."
That's the kind of bargaining power and immunity dons seek when they field their wives as candidates. In the presence of this reporter, when Poonam Devi got a call from the jailer asking to pay her husband's medical bills, she said: "He is an ex-MLA. Why should I pay? He is entitled to all these expenses. You will get a cheque in few days from the administration."
In Warsaliganj, Congress candidate Aruna Devi has 19 charges against her. Her husband Akhilesh Singh has a record 140 murder charges against him. Devi won as an independent in 2000 and on a Congress ticket in March 2005. But in November 2005, she lost by 555 votes. Singh had been convicted then. "I wasn't here. Main faraar thha. (I was on the run). That's why she lost," he says. He controls the constituency from Apsorh, a small hamlet.
Why did she get into politics? "Ghar mein ek vyakti rajneeti mein rahega to support milega. (If one person from the family is in politics, it will be a source of support)."
Devi's father was murdered and so was her brother along with seven others in her village during
Lalu Prasad's reign. All her husband's enemies are her enemies. She had to spend four months in a jail. But Nitish Kumar's reign has been tougher on the family. Singh spent close to four years of Nitish's five-year reign in jail.
Like other dons in Bihar, Singh and his wife also project themselves as fighting on behalf of their caste. And people accept dons' wives as they feel they would keep the social alliances intact.
Since caste can't be wished away from the political superstructure, local caste loyalties play a big role.
Is the lot of Bihar's women improving with this political empowerment? "The fact that these men are using them as a front is most unfortunate. At some point, they will make them act on heir behalf. They are not in it voluntarily," says Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research. "Ordinary women without a criminal history or clout lose out in the process." Adds Kumar: "These women are upholders of the same old values that are feudal, casteist, communal and violent. Their politics is not liberating but regressive."
Crime was the most lucrative industry during Lalu Prasad's reign. Now politics seems to have co-opted criminals and is getting them into the assembly on proxy. Bihar's muscle-women are playing perfect foil to their husbands and keeping the hegemony of dons intact.
Inputs from Dev Raj.