Dalit March

mk gandhi

Dalit Arts & Culture

Political Participation

The Dalits, also known as “untouchables”, are often limited from equal and meaningful political participation due to the persistence of discriminatory practices and their weak economic, social and political position in caste-affected countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Dalit women are particularly vulnerable and marginalized as they suffer from multiple discrimination as women, as poor and as Dalits.

While some governments have enacted constitutional safeguards and affirmative action to promote equal access and opportunities, e.g. reservation policies in public sector employment, implementation of such laws and programmes remains weak and insufficient.

Some governments have yet to introduce legislative measures, while others are in the process of establishing systems of proportionate representation in the restructuring of the state.

Direct political participation of Dalit women in local governance (Panchayati Raj) is a central human right in itself and enables the realization of a host of other human rights. Political voice and decision-making power concerning basic services, economic development and social justice are critical factors in challenging and transforming structural caste-class-gender discrimination, and enabling Dalit women to realize their fundamental rights. Political participation also demands accountability from state and non-state actors to guarantee and respect these women’s equal political voice and development. This requires a transformation of power relationships both within institutions of governance and in the women’s social environment.

Recent legal and policy reforms in India to ensure the representation of marginalized social groups in decentralized governance, including Dalits and specifically Dalit women, through constitutionally mandated reservations (affirmative action quotas) in Panchayati Raj institutions bring these issues to the fore. They demand analysis to determine how Dalit women are enabled to claim their right to political participation in local governance, and the extent to which this participation is an effective tool for empowerment and realization of human rights for excluded social groups.

In terms of accessing local governance institutions, recent research shows that dominant castes often engineer elections by propping up Dalit women as proxy candidates. They exploit these women’s vulnerabilities as ‘low’ caste illiterate women, as dependent on dominant castes for their livelihood, as lacking sufficient financial resources to meet election expenses. Another method of electoral engineering is through determining consensus candidates under the guise of tradition or community harmony. In some States such as Gujarat, this is further legitimized by the State itself granting monetary rewards for local governments which forgo the election process in favor of adopting consensus candidates.

Other women face direct obstructions anywhere from the time of filing nominations right up to announcement of the election results, including: caste and sexually-based verbal abuse; disparagement of the women’s political capacity; harassment, threats or physical assaults; property destruction; restrictions on freedom of movement; and illegal and fraudulent voting practices. The clear trend is to weed out potentially independent-thinking and acting Dalit women from successful nomination. This is done to ensure that local government development benefits remain in the hands of dominant castes and do not reach the Dalits.

In terms of exercising authority when successfully elected to local governments, while around one-third of women are able to freely and independently exercise their right to political participation against tremendous odds, the majority are made to effectively act as proxies for primarily dominant caste men. Most elected Dalit women feel they are treated differently from other local government representatives primarily due to being female and Dalit. Overt discriminatory practices are prevalent in local government offices, including prohibitions on Dalit women sitting on chairs alongside other elected representatives; drinking water or tea from vessels used by dominant caste elected representatives. Some Dalit women attempt to actively participate in meetings and taking decisions, but are silenced or ignored; subjected to ‘no confidence’ motions to remove them from office; denied information and support to undertake their duties; etc. This situation is not helped where government officials refuse to address caste and gender discrimination or proxy representation as part of their monitoring local government functioning.

All these obstacles prevent Dalit women from exercising effective political authority, which then compromises their ability to deliver more caste and gender responsive development outcomes. Instead, they see development schemes and funds, even those earmarked for Dalits, being siphoned off towards dominant caste communities, further exacerbating the large development gap between them. Political participation through quotas, therefore, in the absence of other measures, has potential to lead to a situation where caste and gender hierarchies are reinforced, and Dalit women are deterred from effective political participation in future.

Recommendations to improve the situation
  1. Focus explicitly on the political empowerment of Dalit women in national development plans;
  2. Make adequately funded education and development plans for Dalit women in local government mandatory;
  3. Implement and monitor strictly government sanctions against proxy candidature as well as gender and caste discrimination;
  4. Provide mandatory trainings to government officials on such issues of proxies and discrimination, and sanctions against those who allow both practices to operate;
  5. Monitor the election of Dalit women as well as their participation in local governments, conduct special capacitation trainings for them, take prompt action on complaints from them, and to facilitate this work, establish support offices with adequate facilities.
  6. UN bodies should request states for information on the political participation of Dalit women separately in all relevant reports.