“ Mein yeh maanti hoon ki anpadh nahi hoon mein (I do not consider myself illiterate),” Kamlesh Kaimri intones softly, in her unhurried Haryanvi drawl. Lack of school education had not really hindered her work. When she went to the Supreme Court, it was to retain her right to contest the panchayat elections from Kaimri village in Hisar, Haryana, regardless of the number of classes she had passed. She lost.
“ Yeh aas hai hamari toh… hum ladenge, hum jeetenge (It’s my wish to fight and win),” she says. A fortnight ago, the SC had dismissed the petition filed by Kamlesh, Rajbala and Preet Singh against the Haryana law that allows only those with a prescribed ‘minimum’ educational qualification to contest panchayat elections. It also barred those without toilets at home and those who had pending electricity bills or bank loans.
Kaimri, a village of 8,399 people, is not far from Hisar town’s bustle of hospitals and residential sectors. The centrally air-conditioned Aryan School slips past on the road to Kaimri, so too a railway gate, a canal, markets and bakeries. The template changes when we enter Kamlesh’s lane. The brick road is hemmed on both sides by open drains. Strolling buffaloes share space with children hurtling down the path. An all-woman meeting is on in Kamlesh’s courtyard. Her mother-in-law naps on a string cot under the lone tree in the courtyard. Her young daughter-in-law, in a shimmery pink salwar-kameez, dutifully goes around collecting blessings from the guests. At one corner, the door to the toilet is ajar. Shirts hang from a line inside the two-room brick house. Gleaming steel vessels are left to dry in a tray under the tree — a central character in Kamlesh’s courtyard.
As Kamlesh and her team of around 10 women belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Janwadi Mahila Samiti (All-India Democratic Women’s Association) sit around on cots and plastic chairs and talk, the dominant feeling is one of a battle lost but a war that must go on. They nod vigorously when Sakuntala Jakhar, state president of AIDWA, which filed the SC petition for Kamlesh and the others, asks them to carry black flags when leaders visit their village.
None of the team’s core members can now stand for a panchayat post. In a society fissured along caste lines, this ‘team’ is an aberration. “We have meals together. Something that did not happen a few years ago,” says Kamlesh, the group’s leader, who is a Dalit. Believed to be around 45 years old, she grew up in Jooyi village and had attended school briefly, far short of the Std V pass needed to qualify her for the panch’s post. Her teammates who belong to other communities, too, do not meet the educational qualification prescribed for them. “None of us are matric (Std X) pass,” says Ramvati. So, who will now fight in their place? The women mumble about daughters and daughters-in-law. Kamlesh too has younger, ‘qualified’ women at home. “But I wanted to fight. Everybody in the family wanted me to fight,” she says.
Savita, joint secretary of AIDWA Haryana, says the educational criteria alone will eliminate 83 per cent of Dalit women like Kamlesh from the electoral process. Had she been able to contest, this would have been Kamlesh’s third election. In 2005, she had fought to be the sarpanch. “As a Dalit woman she found it difficult to break in,” says Jakhar. In 2010, she stood for election to the block samiti and lost by 11 votes. “Kaimri overwhelmingly voted for her, but the block included the neighbouring Gangwa panchayat, where she got active a bit late,” Jakhar adds. A day after the SC stayed the Haryana law in September, Kamlesh had filed her candidature and the village elders had lent their support.
That acceptance, however, was not easily gained. Nirmala, a retired primary schoolteacher, remembers meeting a young Kamlesh 20 years ago. She had walked into school barefoot as she was mourning the death of a family elder. “I told her that walking around barefoot would not take her anywhere,” recalls Nirmala, who is also the district president of AIDWA. She then introduced to Kamlesh the ongoing literacy programme. “I told her if you want to study, I will teach you. She would come every day with four to five Dalit women and I would teach them for a couple of hours,” Nirmala recalls. Kamlesh now reads newspapers, keeps accounts for her team and records the minutes of meetings. “My mind is agile,” she says. As a young mother who couldn’t count, she remembers struggling once to pay the doctor’s fee.
The road to literacy opened to her many other alleys — leading to mentors and friends and social causes. Jakhar mentions a protest that Kamlesh had led in 2004, which had instantly de-linked her from the image of a typical ghunghat -wearing bahu of Kaimri. A pond was being dug in the village and the then sarpanch had deployed a tractor for the work. Kamlesh and several other women wanted him to assign the work to them instead. When he refused, the women approached the police and the district administration directed the sarpanch to halt the tractor. The story, however, did not end there. “At night we heard the tractor running, and we went and lay on the ground, asking him to run it over our stomach. We ended up getting work for 20 days,” Kamlesh concludes on a triumphant note.
In Kaimri, Kamlesh is defined by her work over the past two decades. The once timid woman who pleaded with Jakhar and Nirmala to accompany her on visits to the police station, has all but disappeared. “Now she gets a chair to sit on at the police station,” says Jakhar. After she stepped into the police station for the first time, however, her father-in-law had been ridiculed in the panchayat. “ Tumne to naak katwa di (You brought us disgrace),” he told her afterwards. When she intervened in cases involving domestic violence in upper-caste households, the men of her house bore the brunt. “ Tum marvaogi (You will get us killed),” her father-in-law and husband chorused. “Then I would stay home for a few days,” she recalls. Her husband, Satyavan, works as a labourer. Despite the threats, however, he never stopped her from her work, says Kamlesh. Other men in the village were unable to stomach her active role outside the house. An upper caste man had even offered to buy Satyavan two buffaloes to keep Kamlesh engaged at home. Her father-in-law had in the past chided her for appearing in public without the veil. Years later, when she stood for elections and her home buzzed with people, he was a changed man, telling her, “ Beta , you are fighting elections. Why do you need the ghunghat ? Take it off.”
Ask Kamlesh and the women what they do in Kaimri and their answer is a cryptic, “ Hum ghar basate hai (We fix broken homes).” Often, men drop into her house with their wives and request her to mediate in issues ranging from domestic violence, dowry and alcoholism to property disputes. “The other day, a pandit family had come to meet her,” says Jakhar. Young girls seek her out when they want to go to school. Convincing their parents becomes Kamlesh’s job. “The government gives bicycles to girls who live within 2km from school. Parents often don’t know about the scheme. We go around the village telling them. We also keep a watch when the final bell rings at school and make sure the girls reach home safely,” says Kamlesh.
As far as she’s concerned, fighting an election and winning are merely the means to bring about change. Having fought for quality ration, common toilets and drinking water, she says there is more work to be done — to access other existing schemes and introduce newer ones. “Sarpanch has the power to bring change. Dekhte hein , madam (Let’s see),” she says, exuding steely resolve.