A Tale of Two Women

She is the elected head of Harmara Panchayat (a local council), Rajasthan, India. She, a dalit (bottom of the caste structure), won by 735 votes in February 2010, – a very large margin in Panchayat elections.  Her name is Naurti. When the elite dismiss the electoral process and talk of changing the pattern of democratic governance, I resent their arrogance, which dismisses the courage, opinions and views of hundreds like her. Corrupt as the system is, people like Naurti demonstrate that all hope is not lost.

For all the courage I have, I will not contest an election. It is not merely the winning and the losing. It is perhaps distaste for leaping into the indeterminate chaos of an Indian election. Including the slander and invective heaped on women who dare to oppose tradition. I salute Naurti’s courage, and that of independent rural women all over who defy tradition and all odds to contest elections.

Women and men from rural India (Bharat), understand the working of electoral politics better than us. Their lack of privilege has forced them to see life as it is. They do not have the luxury of distancing themselves from that reality. Yet, knowing all, they choose to continue to have faith in electoral politics. The vote is steadily becoming a powerful tool to establish the rights of women like Naurti. Their ideal therefore is political representation with transparency and accountability. That is why, despite frustrations, they have not talked of trashing parliamentary democracy.

I have had the privilege of being Naurti’s friend in 33 rich years of learning. I, a woman from a privileged home, and Naurti, a dalit woman worker, have formed strong bonds. Despite grappling over a recurrent and perplexing set of contradictions in our viewpoints we have been privileged to share a journey, bonded by a political commitment to equality and justice, and an understanding that struggle is essential for change.

Naurti and I share an angst and anger against injustice. The minimum wage battle for drought relief workers was just the beginning. We connected again with the hundreds of women who assembled to protest against the outlawed practice of Sati (widows being burnt on the funeral pyre with their husbands) in 1987. The historic public campaign had the local feudal lord or Thakur in Harmara threatening to impale Naurti for having the temerity to speak against the mores of his caste!

The rape of an eleven year old, and later of a woman called Bhanwari Devi brought us out together again. Rape was a dreaded topic then – an issue which evoked the palpable fear of violence and anger; of being ostracized by the community. Everyone trod carefully; everyone spoke in whispers.

Naurti who should have been handicapped by gender and caste led the vanguard of the local struggle. And even if I had been timid, would have been shamed into action by her determination and courage.

Naurti and I have traversed another trajectory together. She too got her share of projection, and her awards and recognition. We shared our resistance to being singled out and the awkwardness of receiving awards. We saw each other deal with it, critiqued each other, but have always been happy that to both of us the tinsel and the temporary glitter has made no difference. Forthright and full of common sense, she has fostered my political understanding of the world I have chosen to live in. She has been an ideal and an enigma, a friend who pleased and exasperated in turn!

Naurti is a great speaker; she understands issues and speaks concisely. We will always remember her for the set down she gave Surjit Bhalla the right wing economist in a TV talk show. He suggested that India’s rural employment guarantee act was money down the drain – a dole to every family would do better. She contemptuously suggested to him that if that was the case he should stay at home and twiddle his thumbs – she would pay him a daily wage (even if what she earned in a month would probably be less than what he earned in a day)! He blustered indignantly, as she asked him if he knew anything about the dignity of work.

I celebrate women like Naurti. It is women like her who work to make this country[, and the world,] a better place for us all.  There are thousands like her who take the big and the small, with equal courage, grace and dignity. We rest on the shoulders of people like her.

The Author is a social activist and in TIME Magazine’s world’s 100 most influential women.

-Aruna Roy

-PHOTO/Gaurie Gill 2005