For Lokamma (30), a Dalit woman leader, who won her seat in Hokarna Panchayat in Bidar district, in the Gram Panchayat elections in December 2020 in Karnataka, entering public office as a Dalit woman is a matter of great pride. Usually Dalit candidates, especially women candidates, are frequently forced to withdraw from standing for elections. It was true in her case too. When she first wanted to contest in the 2015 panchayat election, she was forced to stand down.
She has come a long way since then. Her presence in the office is a testament to her efforts to reclaim her dignity and her commitment to the idea of equality for all.
Lokamma’s long journey to public office started when she had just completed 10th grade. She was invited by the local partner organisation to join as a book-keeper for a newly formed self-help group to address domestic violence issues panchayat. This three year stint gave her the opportunity to know the community better. People began to recognise her.
Soon after, Lokamma became a mate (supervisor) at a MGNREGA site in the Panchayat, which also became a site of critical learning for her. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of 2005, one of the largest livelihood schemes in the world, guarantees a citizen’s right to work and provides employment opportunities to people in rural India. Yet, given the country’s size and population, schemes usually take a while to reach every sector.
The residents of Chintalgera Village faced similar problems while trying to secure work under the scheme. People had to visit the Panchayat office many times and apply for work until they were finally given a job.
Though the process continues to be tedious, Lokamma added new energy to the group. In the five years that Lokamma worked as a mate, she led a large group of women, ensuring employment for each of them, listening to their concerns and challenges.
With these experiences under her belt, she envisioned a role for herself in public office. In 2015, she contested from an unreserved seat for the first time.
“The opposing candidate belonging to the upper-caste community called me for a meeting and intimidated me into withdrawing my candidature,” Lokamma said. Entrenched caste hierarchy forced her to step back. Five years later, she was determined to contest elections again.
Lokamma had support from members of the Dalit community who felt that Lokamma’s presence in the public office would make a difference in their situation.
“My ability to lead as a mate has been a huge positive in encouraging me to enter public office”, she says. This time she contested from a reserved seat and won.
“The significance of having quotas is precisely that, at least, I know I am contesting from a reserved seat meant for people like me, belonging to marginalised castes,” explained Lokamma. “Because of quotas, nobody can dare to sideline me. Otherwise, we are forced to withdraw or compromise.”
Kashamma (60), Lokamma’s mother believes she spotted her leadership traits when she was a teenager. She has been extremely supportive of Lokamma’s decision to run for office. In the run-up to the election on 27 December 2020, Kashamma accompanied her daughter in her door-to-door campaign. “People told us that they know Lokamma and that they would vote for her,” Kashamma shares.
The confidence in Lokamma’s leadership is unanimous. The Secretary of the Panchayat District Office (PDO), 48-year-old Ravindra Reddy, had equally been certain about Lokamma’s win in the panchayat elections. “The people, especially the labourers, were behind her, as she had a good effect on people. She has the aptitude to resolve daily problems,” said Reddy.
Lokamma, however, never took her win for granted.
“For me, other hard-working people are a big inspiration. Seeing them persevere, despite struggles, gives me hope and confidence that I can also do it,” said Lokamma in her soft voice.
Lokamma is grateful for Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s role in uplifting marginalised communities and fighting caste-based discrimination.
“One thing I know for a fact is that I am here because he was there and fought for our rights. I may not be doing much in comparison to his concerted efforts, but I aim to do as much as I can within my capacity,” Lokamma said.
Beyond caste prejudices, Lokamma also had to tackle people’s judgments about her disability and her being single.
“As women, we face tremendous odds. People also saw my physical handicap as a barrier. They said, ‘She can’t walk or move around swiftly, what work will she get done, why vote for her?’ Women are also generally seen as weak, unable to influence, as passive bystanders. So, there are barriers to women’s participation in politics.”
Lokamma paid no heed, however, to the taunts and apprehensions of her naysayers. She believes that whilst most men pursue money and power, the majority of women in public office pay more attention to and have a better grasp of issues and can use their influence to get work done.
“More women should get into politics,” her mother agrees. “We need to enter this world and see how things are done.”
Lokamma is currently educating herself about different aspects of the Panchayat administration to be a good administrator.
She is also working on her skills to be able to engage with higher officials of the Panchayat. Her continuous efforts to become better at her job have not gone unnoticed. Her colleagues and residents of her village see a dedicated and sincere leader in Lokamma – someone who understands the needs and concerns of the people, is willing to take risks and has the skills to address problems.
“For me, a leader is someone who stands with marginalised people, the economically and socially disadvantaged,” says Lokamma. “I will stand by them, fight for their rights.”
[ In 2020, THP India undertook an elaborate photo project of visualising women’s representation and participation in local governance. We began with a documentation of the electoral process in the gram panchayat (village council) elections in Rajasthan, walking alongside three women candidates on their respective campaign trails. And culminated in Karnataka in 2021, where we conversed with three newly elected women representatives in village councils embarking on new leadership journeys. This six-part series includes profiles of women candidates and elected women representatives refusing to bow down to the status quo. The work is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo project and exhibition supported by THP Sweden and ForumCiv.]