Limits of the Modern Political System: The Case of an Erukula Woman Sarpanch in Telangana

This article maps how the social status of an elected woman from a tribal community did not change, and questions the limitations of modern state power in the form of democratic decentralisation through the panchayati raj act.

This article narrates the story of a tribal woman sarpanch (village head) from the nomadic Erukula (or Yerukula) community who participated in local body elections and got elected to the position. The paper is an ethnographic report that maps how the social status of elected women from a tribal community does not change, and questions the limitations of modern state power in the form of democratic decentralisation through the panchayati raj act. It highlights how tribal society is more democratic than the statist narrative of democracy. It also brings in the question of tribal autonomy and how it is pushed to the periphery through modern democratic politics. The paper also seeks to unpack or uncover layers of oppression and highlight the structural conditions that determine tribal women’s lives. It seeks to examine whether forms of local governance actually make a dent in those structures or whether their stranglehold on the lives of nomadic women remains unchanged.

In 1977, the Janata Party government tried to redefine the scope of panchayati raj institutions. The Ashok Mehta Committee was set up to look into the question of enabling real local self-governance. The committee, in its 1978 report, recommended greater decision-making power to all the local self-governance bodies under the act. It called for the integration of the functioning of panchayati raj institutions in developmental planning at the local level. The bill was eventually passed as the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts on 22 December  1992 (Bhalerao 1964). Even as the 73rd amendment legislated the setting up of panchayati raj institutions across the country, it also provided the space for states to legislate on their specific needs. Panchayati raj institutions have been places where political questions regarding social justice and redistribution have been contested. The panchayati raj Act makes stipulations for reservations of electoral seats for marginalised groups such as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and women.

On 24 May 2019, while everyone at home was busy finishing dinner, our three-year-old, Harshith, brought his new storybook titled Muniya Found Gold to me and began flipping through the pages. He then pleaded with me to read the story out to him. We read out half the first sentence and he completed the rest. Small everyday instances of this kind in our domestic life often make us think about our own school days and everything that our “illiterate” parents did to get us educated. However, this time, it also made us think about what the lack of education meant to a once nomadic tribal woman like Valuvai Chandramma, whom we met in a village in Telangana during the fieldwork  for a research project in 2018. Since both our kids were too young to be left alone at home, we would usually schedule our field trips during weekends or holidays. On the way, we would stop at various places so that the kids could see the beautiful lush green fields. They were happy to be with us since it was like a picnic for them. Since both of them were born in a metropolitan city, the sight of a green paddy field was always a welcome break from the urban din.

Getting to Know Valuvai Chandramma

Chandramma belongs to a nomadic community called Yerukula or Erukula which is now listed in the ST category in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. According to the 2011 Census, the Erukula population in both states together is 5,19,337. The word Erukula is derived from Eruka which means people who have knowledge. They are also perceived as fortune tellers. However, they bear the burden of being perceived as profoundly immoral people and are deeply criminalised. Indeed, they were branded criminals under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Now, most of them have become basket-makers and pig-rearers. Some of them are also into the business of selling pork. A very small number of community members have gotten the opportunity to access education. While Erukulas live close to mainstream society, the latter treat Erukulas as inferior.

On the way to Chandramma’s village, Macharam, we saw many women working in the paddy fields to make their living. It was obvious that they were toiling day and night in an attempt to provide their children with food and education. A couple of women who were closely observing us glanced at each other and tried to exchange something between themselves. Having lived in similar conditions, it was not very difficult for us to guess that the subject of their conversation was our two kids who were well dressed in modern attire—which not only indicated our socio-economic condition but also our educational status. We stood in silence as we were not only disturbed by the condition of these women but had also become self-conscious and embarrassed of our own privileged positions suddenly, which we had gained through education. Our children were surprised by our silence and started questioning why we were silent and why “the aunties” were working in the field, to which we had no convincing answers. And, we continued with our journey. Eventually, we reached Chandramma’s village who is a thrice-elected village sarpanch of Telkapally gram panchayat of Amrabad Mandal located in the Mahabubnagar district of Telangana.

The Telkapally gram panchayat seat has been reserved for STs for the last three terms. Chandramma’s is the only family in the gram panchayat that is from the ST group and so Chandramma got the opportunity to be the sarpanch thrice, uncontested. The rest of the village consists of members from the dominant Reddy, Velama and Mudiraj castes, who, during our interaction with them, expressed their displeasure over the lack of development in their panchayat.
 
We went to the gram panchayat several times to meet Chandramma but she was apprehensive about interacting with us out of the fear and suspicion that we were from the district collector’s office and might share the details of our conversation with the higher authorities. Therefore, initially, she refused to meet us. It was only much later, after several attempts when we finally managed to convince her that we were from a university and were actually trying to study the problems faced by the Adivasi panchayat heads, she sat down to talk to us. It was surprising that though she had been elected sarpanch thrice consecutively, she still felt so scared and utterly powerless, and continued to be poor.
 
Chandramma had received no education and was unaware of the gram panchayat funds. The officials took advantage of this and cheated her while writing the panchayat account records. They took her signature on the expenditure sheet but provided only meagre sums of money to her, thus pocketing significant amounts. Such fraudulent activities have benefited the administrative officials who took advantage of her illiteracy. However, the villagers belonging to the dominant castes see her as the problem and blame her for not ushering in positive developmental changes in the village.

During our interaction with them, we sensed that their antagonism towards Chandramma mainly stemmed from the fact that she belonged to the stigmatised Erukala community. They believed that she did not deserve to occupy such a position. Some of them openly said that they were ashamed of having a pig-rearing woman who knew nothing about village governance, as their panchayat head. They blamed the policy of reservation, which they believed was responsible for all their misfortunes. They asserted that they would oppose it in the next elections and demand that their panchayat seat be brought under the general category. Ironically, when Chandramma had tried to initiate several reforms in the panchayat, it was the same people who maligned her instead of extending support. Adding to her woes, the bureaucrats from the district collector’s office, who belonged to the dominant castes, went to the extent of deceiving her into signing a paper that read “I have taken money from a contractor.” Consequently, she was suspended for three months on claims of corruption.
 
Chandramma was heartbroken and had to fight anxiety, and was under tremendous stress to free herself from the false allegation of corruption. Her entire life now was oriented towards getting rid of the “blot” that was wrongfully thrust on her. She wanted to clear her name and walk free with her head held high. During our conversation, suddenly, she began to cry. With a heavy heart, she said, “I served this village without expecting anything from the villagers or from the government.” Pointing at her broken hut, she asked us if we believed that she had accepted bribes. “If I had taken a bribe, this house would not have been in this state,” she said. We could feel her honesty in her soft-spoken voice and the tears that rolled down endlessly. She cried silently with folded and clasped hands. Our conversation was muted, with the research questions appearing diminutive at that moment as she went on crying, demonstrating silent answers. She still had to work hard despite the fact that she suffers from knee pain.

The Limits of Political Power

Chandramma’s hardships made me introspectively reflect on my own journey from my Thanda to the vast metropolitan city—now home to my children. Moreover, several questions began to pop up in my mind: How do we understand the so-called “empowerment of Adivasi women” and their “imagined” (non)participation in local governance? Is it sufficient to merely reserve a seat for the STs? How would have Chandramma managed had she been literate? Should the state sensitise people from dominant castes? Will that really work? Are they merely prejudiced against Adivasis? Or, is their prejudice coupled with their own economic and political interests? The issue seemed more complicated than the normative and simplistic ways in which the Adivasi issue is often thought about within the statist and mainstream academic discourses.

There are other important aspects of Chandramma’s life that we could talk about. She was born and nurtured in a small village. Her first language is Erukukal. In the world that she inhabited and came to know of, she had numerous experiences that resulted in the production of images through which she made sense of her surrounding domains of life. Some of these essential and prominent images are encoded in the language she grew up speaking. As she recalled her early childhood, the synchronised images and linguistic utterances constructed precise meanings for her. She learned much from that language, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that a good part of her knowledge was probably gained through that medium.  However, she was forced to learn Telugu, which is the dominant majoritarian language in the state, as well as one of the two official languages of Telangana, the other being Urdu. Chandramma made serious efforts and learned to speak Telugu quite fluently, although not always correctly. But the fact is that the impact of growing up speaking Erukula transports her back to early childhood which does not dishearten her at all.
 
From her childhood, she was consciously trained to be a forest-going girl. Later, she was trained to be a gatherer and was trained to take care of pigs in a country where a considerable section of the population is immediately scared and socially repelled to see pigs to the extent that they hate not only the poor creature but also its caretakers. It was tough for her to face such people making faces while she took the pigs out to graze. But her parents, like any other tribal parents, learned to live with it. Getting bothered about it was a distant and unattainable luxury.

As a child, Chandramma had to wake up early in the morning, sometimes reluctantly, for she had to accompany her parents to collect seasonal forest produce. They would not let her sleep until she joined them. Sometimes, lovingly and affectionately, they would coax her to wake up, and at other times, they had to be strict and use harsh words. But mostly, they were kind to her. During the course of their walk to the forest, they would watch wild animals and listen to the sounds of the birds. According to their sensibilities, the world of animals was not demarcated from their existence, which is not the case for the bureaucratic officials at the forest department. Chandramma recounted how collecting a lovely gold and white-coloured fruit with her mother, remained a sweet and inspiring memory in her life. Her own struggle to sell the forest produce and earn enough money to send her children to school seemed almost incredible in hindsight. Her parents took up other jobs entrenched in different forms of manual labour and had to work quite hard to survive. After they returned from the forest, Chandramma would take the pigs out into the fields.
 
Nomads in India mainly depend on the forest to eke out their living. Chandramma was glad that her parents and others from her community had that opportunity in the past; the situation is worsening now. The majority of the tribal population is in danger, including those who migrated to cities in search of work and landed up in blue-collared jobs. It is clearly visible during the present COVID-19 pandemic. In the name of development (open cast coal mining, dams and thermal projects), very soon, private companies may prevent Chandramma too from entering the forest which has provided her community their economic and cultural livelihood for centuries. The private neo-liberal forces are threatening the economic, cultural, and sociopolitical existence of nomads all over the country.
 
Poverty and hunger have taught Chandramma a lot. Sometimes her family missed a meal; sleep was the only thing they had for dinner. Maybe once in a day or two, her parents would get something to eat with red chilli powder. She watched them eat and felt as if they were enjoying a delicious meal. Hunger makes food tasty, she says. Sometimes, she would say to herself that hunger was not the worst part of being poor. She tried to endure all the suffering and manage to withstand all the hardships due to the unconditional support and love from her family members.

Confronting Established Patterns of Domination

Chandramma never imagined that she would one day become the head of a Panchayat.  If not for reservation, it would have been unthinkable. Most people in this country believe that reservation transforms the life of Adivasis. Chandramma, too, felt that she had entered the popularly perceived “civilised” form of life after assuming the post of the sarpanch. But that was not the case. Instead, she refers to her journey as one from “civilisation to barbarism.” Was it because the other local village communities failed to understand her language and the egalitarian cultural norms that she aspired towards? Chandramma once told us, “even if I take my dog for hunting, I will give her the share she deserves.” Such endearing forms of social norms appear to be lacking in her village.
 
Chandramma had neither political background nor the money to contest elections. Since there was no one else to contest the elections from her village, and the dominant castes in her village did not want her literate son to contest, she became the apparent choice and got elected unanimously. She never realised that it was a case of foul play scripted by the upper-caste members of the village. Once the “election festival” got over, they started visiting her but maintained physical distance while speaking. Nevertheless, she thought that she was now endowed with a great responsibility to find solutions to the problems of the village and was unaware of the fact that the dominant castes did not really expect her to do anything of that kind. They were only interested in siphoning off the gram panchayat funds. When she tried to address the issues in the village, they made it clear to her that she had no role to play. Above all these new and unforeseen problems, she encountered yet another livelihood problem. Those who had earlier offered work for a wage, now began to say, “Now you are a sarpanch … you might leave the work in the middle and go away to the Panchayat office when the authorities summon you. We could hire someone else instead.” Thus, she was forced to go back to the forest and to pig-rearing. For an Erukala woman, hunger, poverty and responsibility are part of life since a tender age.
 
However, it was not easy for anyone to fully comprehend the trauma that Chandramma had to experience.  While recounting her bitter experiences with the dominant caste people, she said that she was terrified of going to the gram panchayat office. Even while talking to us, at times, she would suddenly become stiff and fearful. She said that her fear increased with the false corruption case against her. Sometimes, she could not even move or get up to attend the call of nature. “Though my bladder was full, I could not get up. From this hut, I could see nothing, but I could hear the words that they spoke against me. I spent several sleepless nights. The false allegation against me bothers me a lot. Sometimes I feel that it is better to take care of the pigs and live my earlier life rather than be a sarpanch.”
 
When I asked Chandramma when exactly the corruption case was filed against her, she said “about three years ago.” She neither had a written record of it nor remembered when she got the letter from the district collector’s office. How could she write as Erukulas were historically denied the opportunity of reading and writing? When her parents were young, only Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas had the opportunity to read and write.

Chandramma’s parents worked hard to pay the expenses in order to resolve the case. Her father borrowed money from a landlord to meet the expenses, and worked as a labourer under him. The landlord treated him as a slave. One day, when he skipped work due to ill health, the landlord demanded that either his wife should do the work instead of him, or he should return the money immediately. Chandramma’s parents requested the landlord that her father be allowed to work after his recovery, which the landlord turned down. Eventually, Chandramma and her mother had to go to work. They had to work extra because of the unequal wages for men and women. The commitment of Chandramma’s parents to fight the case was remarkable.

Chandramma’s story perhaps would have been entirely different if she had access to education like our son. She would not have signed the document. Thus, it is not at all surprising that Babasaheb Ambedkar believed that education meant a lot to marginalised communities.

Promise of Participation and Progress

For many, panchayati raj institutions held out the promise of genuine democracy and decentralisation. However, over the last few decades, the state’s constant attempts to minimise the role of these institutions in democratic participation and administrative decision-making has made it difficult to hold on to such optimism. The introduction of panchayati raj institutions itself negatively affected the autonomy of tribal communities. For example, before the introduction of these institutions, all the issues were resolved within the community with a headman of the Thanda and Gudem in the village.1 After the intervention of political parties, people in tribal hamlets have been divided based on their political affiliations and started fighting among themselves. This, in fact, has affected the tribal structure for resolving their issues within the community. However, the introduction of grassroots forms of governance has helped in developing new leaders with different political party affiliations among the marginalised groups to some extent. Such leaders have taken up the responsibility of representing the interests of political parties not only in panchayati raj institutions but in the broader field of political demands and negotiations as well.

The state tries to conceptualise the space of grassroots institutions on the one hand and tries to implement its neoliberal projects of decentralisation without thinking about the pre-existing autonomy of tribal communities. The tribal woman becomes part of the power structure at the panchayat level but she never gets a chance in the decision-making process due to the humiliating nature of the dominating caste. As Sharmila Rege tells us in her essay on Dalit feminist standpoint: “The backlash is expressed through a range of humiliating practices…” (Rege 1998).

Nomadic women are disadvantaged by several layers of oppression ranging from the capitalist state to the patriarchal state, all of whom collude in their oppression. In the present context, there is a need to not only defend the right to political representation for nomadic women, but also to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the specific problems that they face, and of the possibilities of resolving them. The question of inequality, in this sense, cannot be read outside of the question of community. While individual empowerment is undoubtedly an important part of collective and institutional empowerment, it is not enough. In addition, one must also take into account the dimension of community in order to develop effective strategies and policies for the empowerment of marginalised groups.

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