About fifty-nine kilometers from Srinagar, residents of Gund-A in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district are hoping for a change in their lives with the District Development Council elections. A reserved Scheduled Tribe women constituency, where five women candidates are contesting.
The first phase of DDC elections began on 28 November, with over 350 nominations received for the phase’s 43 seats. Thirty-three percent of the total seats have been reserved for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women after the Jammu and Kashmir administration amended the Panchayati Raj rules.
“We have always been very active in the elections, especially women but we never see any development on the ground,” said Nusrat Jan, 28. After the reservation of seats for women had compelled political parties to field women candidates, she is hopeful that a woman head of the DDC would better understand and solve their problems.
Forty kilometers far from the Ganderbal town, Gund Sarsingh block has about 505 households; in the past, it has seen significant participation by women but now, for the first time, five female candidates are contesting elections.
One of the youngest candidates is twenty-year-old Dilshada Rasheed Seyal, from Kalaspatti Rayil, a village located at a distance of five kilometers from Gund.
Dilshada, who is contesting as an independent candidate, is a higher secondary student appearing in her twelfth standard exam. She found the time to campaign for her bid at the public office after writing her exams.
At school, as the head girl, Dilshada was always enthusiastic about politics and decided to take part in the elections after the seat was reserved for women. Her father, Abdul Rasheed Seyal, a farmer, couldn’t be happier. “If I contest the elections supporting any party, people wouldn’t have trusted me because they are fed up with the NC and PDP,” she said.
Dilshada was accompanied by her younger brother, Muneer Ahmad Seyal, to file her nomination form. When asked to choose an election symbol, she instantly chose a cricket bat. “I love playing cricket and there was no other interesting sign, so I chose this,” she said, with a bright smile.
Dilshada said that many women in the Gujjar Bakerwal community, of which she is also a member, participated in elections as voters under compulsions, but not her. “Convincing my family was not difficult, but convincing people would be,” she said.
“I am a young female and not many people know me. I will have to work double than what other women would need to,” said Dilshada, who goes on door-to-door campaigns with eleven workers, eight of whom are her cousins.
Dilshada said that she wanted to present herself as a role model for other women, so that they come out of their fear and play a more proactive role along with men. “I know I am still young but I know my potential and I am not contesting the elections just for women, I want to work for the whole area and its people,” she said.
The tale of women empowerment is also riddled with challenges. For 32-year-old Sarwar Jan of Gund Sarsingh, also from the Gujjar Bakarwal community, elections had only meant casting a vote for the candidate her husband would tell her to cast her vote for. “It would always be his choice. I didn’t even know what difference my vote could make,” she said.
This time, however, some days before filing her nomination, Jan’s husband, 31-year-old Ghulam Rubani Chichi, surprised her when he asked her if she was interested in contesting the elections. Befuddled, Jan told him that she had no idea about the process. “You just have to contest,” Chichi told her. “I know what to do. You will win and I will help you.”
When the villagers came to know of her candidature, they told Jan: “We will help you win this election if you promise to help us later,” she said, adding that it was the continued indifference towards them that she would change if elected. “I have voted all these years but nothing really happened. People used to come to us and ask for votes but we are not informed enough to think who we can vote for.”
This election gave her a chance, even if prompted by her husband, to make amends. Days before the elections, when asked if she knew about the role of the DDC, Jan could neither say what the DDC was or what powers it had. “I don’t know exactly. All I know is that if I am elected, I will have the powers to help my people and my village,” she said.
Dr. Javaid Iqbal Khan, an Assistant Professor in Kashmir University’s Economics Department, who has authored a paper on women empowerment through the Panchayati Raj Institutions, said that most women take part in the electoral process due to the persuasion of their family members.
“Women are projected as candidates but the decision process is not their own. It is wholly the male members who decide on their behalf,” said Khan. “Patriarchy is still very much prevalent in the process.”
In Trahpoo village of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, 82 kilometers from Ganderbal, 40-year-old Shagufta Shafi Najar was busy in a door to door campaign along with her workers.
Shagufta is wife of 50-year-old Mohammad Shafi Najar, Trahpoo’s sarpanch. They are both affiliated with the Indian National Congress. Like Jan, Najar was also pushed by her husband to contest the elections but she initially refused because “I didn’t know a word about it.”
Shagufta was never interested in politics and wouldn’t have taken part in it if it wasn’t for her husband, she said. She never imagined that she would be contesting the elections herself one day.
However, Shagufta is not only afraid of societal backlash but also possible threats to her life. “The killing of the workers scares me even though I know I am not doing anything wrong,” she said, referring to the killing of three political workers in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district on 29 October. They were members of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“I was disturbed when I heard about it. That was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to participate in the election,” Shagufta said, adding that she changed her mind after she interacted with the public. She convinced herself that contesting elections was the right thing to do.
“These elections are for development and not propaganda,” said Shagufta. “I will work hard to live up to the expectations of the people.”
Women participating in the elections, said Shagufta, was a sign of progress itself. “Looking at the current situation of our area, it is a brave step that a woman is taking part in an election,” said Shagufta. “I am doing it for the people. I hope they realise it and help me win the election.”