Assam’s Women Vie for Greater Role in State Politics, Despite Gender Disparity

A high turnout among women voters in the first phase of Assam’s elections is a welcome development, but the dismal number of women candidates in the polls highlights the endemic gender disparity in Assamese politics.

Tea tribe women show their inked fingers after casting their vote during the first phase of the Assembly Elections for Duliajan Assembly Constituency at Bordubi in Assam on Monday. Credit: PTI

Tea tribe women show their inked fingers after casting their vote during the first phase of the Assembly Elections for Duliajan Assembly Constituency at Bordubi in Assam on Monday. Credit: PTI

The jostle in the crowd was beginning to gain momentum. In less than an hour, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to be on stage. To keep the tempo going, a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader opened the platform to those already present on the stage to address the large number of people gathered in a sprawling rice field in Assam’s Majuli island. All, except the lone woman – BJP state vice president Swarnalata Pegu – took the mike.

“This is what angers us. Our male colleagues never allow us the same space in the party meetings as they have. BJP’s women members from Majuli wanted to welcome Modiji but the request was turned down. You can see the same male bias on the stage today too. Everyone present there was allowed to speak except the woman,” said Anu Pegu (name changed), a BJP member from the Majuli chapter and a prominent local face, unable to hold back her discontent.

Later, even though Swarnalata was asked to welcome Modi with a gamusa – a red and white woven cloth typically offered to a guest in Assam to show deference –Anu and her women colleagues, who were seated in the VIP area, recounted a number of incidents during the electioneering for the April 4 polls where they were “pushed to the back”. That it is an issue that has long vexed them is amply clear.

Gender disparity

Many women politicians may not be too willing to come out openly against gender inequity in the parties they represent, particularly when a state is undergoing an intense electoral fight, the kind Assam is witnessing this time. But the sentiments expressed by Anu and her colleagues in Majuli is not very different from what women in other political parties of the state commonly face. Interestingly, it is only during elections that this gender discrimination becomes inescapably evident.

The first indicator of this inequity can be traced to the list of candidates announced by the parties for the two-phased elections in the state, currently underway and set to end on April 11. A cursory look at those lists reinforces the predisposition towards men.

Against the male population of 1, 59, 54, 927 (as per the 2011 census), there are 1, 52, 14, 345 women in Assam. Yet, the total number of women candidates contesting the ongoing elections is 85, as against 1,095 male candidates.

The party-wise break-up of women candidates looks like this: BJP – 6 out of 89; Congress – 16 out of 122, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) – 2 out of 24, Bodo People’s Front (BPF) – 2 out of 16; All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – 5 out of 74; CPI-M –1 out of 9; CPI-ML –1; Samajwadi Party – 1 out of 26; All India Trinamool Congress – 1; United Peoples’ Party (UPP) –1 out of 10, Socialist Unity Centre of India – 3 out of 11; and 46 independent women candidates.

The tally shows that only 39 women were chosen to contest on the official tickets of political parties for the state assembly, which has a strength of 126.

Unfortunately, in 2016, the number of women contenders has remained the same as in 2011, at 85. Of the 85 women who contested the assembly polls in 2011, as against 896 male candidates, only 14 won.

“Often, northeastern women are perceived to be better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. However, in terms of their political participation, there is not much difference. Like parties elsewhere, patriarchy comes into play in the decision-making process of the parties in the Northeast too. This is what you are seeing in Assam,” points out Binalakshmi Nepram, an activist and founder of Control Arms Foundation of India.

Interestingly, the majority of the 85 women candidates in the fray this time are more educated than their male counterparts, but whether the voter will notice this will be seen when the results are announced on May 19.

“Though a better educated candidate may have an edge in the urban areas, it is never a factor in the rural areas of Assam, where voters only look at what he/she can deliver to them,” says Junu Bora, a Guwahati-based columnist and the vice president of the All India Progressive Women’s Association’s Assam chapter.

“The trend in Assam is similar to the rest of the country when it comes to parities’ decision on women candidates for elections. It is never on a woman’s capabilities but on compassionate ground, like one saw in the case of Ajanta Neog of Congress, to whom the party gave a ticket when her husband and party leader Nagen Neog was shot dead by United Liberation Front of Assam. The party hoped to get sympathy votes through her. Then, you see someone’s wife or daughter getting a party ticket. This is based on keeping the legacy of a leader going,” Bora adds.

When it comes to highlighting women’s issues, particularly during parties’ campaigns, they seem to be not more than mere formalities in the elections. Take Modi’s campaign rallies for instance; in the five rallies he addressed before the first phase of polling, he hardly mentioned anything related to the interest of women voters.

“What is shocking is that BJP’s women leaders like (Human Resource Development Minister) Smriti Irani and (External Affairs Minister) Sushma Swaraj also kept mum on women’s issues in their rallies,” says Bora.

Poll promises

The BJP’s vision document for Assam has three pointers on women empowerment: 50% reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj institutions and urban legislative bodies; 35% reservation for women in all state government services; and women police stations to be constituted in every district.

Congress’s poll manifesto also makes a few promises with the women voters in mind, such as loan waiver to women self-help groups and 50% reservation in state government jobs. In many of his rallies, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi called the women voters “Mula Gabharu” (referring to the Ahom princess who died fighting the Muslim General Turbak Khan in 1532 A.D.) and underlined the schemes he launched for them in his 15-year term.

However, the issues that really concern many women voters – their security and safety – were left out by both the major parties.

In an article on April 6 in the Assamese daily Dainik Janambhumi, Bora pointed out, “Although women of the state are increasingly facing crimes against them like rape, trafficking, murder, witch hunting, dowry deaths and domestic violence, the manifestos of both the main political parties contesting these elections are silent on these issues. The vision document of the BJP does mention that in less than a year’s time, about 19,000 cases of abuse were registered against women in the state but the party didn’t mention what would it do to stop it if it comes to power.”

Pratibha Brahma, the UPP's sole woman candidate.

Pratibha Brahma, the United Peoples’ Party’s sole woman candidate.

She also went on to say, “The poll advertisements of the BJP and Congress promise reservation for women in state jobs. But how do women voter trust these parties? I want to ask Congress, what happened to the same promise it made to women voters in 2004?”

Pratibha Brahma, well-known Bodo social activist and the lone woman candidate from the UPP, a Congress ally, tells The Wire, “One of the main reasons I chose to contest these elections is because I want to raise women’s security politically. Women feel strongly about them, particularly in the constituency where I am contesting from (Kokrajhar East, which goes to the polls on April 11) where the women voters are in majority.”

Brahma also blames the BPF of only talking about industrialisation in areas where 80% of the population are dependent on agriculture. “That nothing has been done for agriculture by his (BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary) party that has been ruling the four Bodo districts is also fueling women trafficking. Desperate for jobs, many fall for such traps,” she says.

Disparity endemic at organisational level too

Although women’s issues have fallen behind issues like corruption and the need for ‘poriborton’ (change) after a three-term Congress rule in the current polls, a comparison of data on voter turnout between the 2011 and 2016 assembly polls shows a jump in the percentage of women voters. In 2011, the percentage was less than that of men – 75% against 77.02% for men. Meanwhile, the first phase of polling (65 constituencies) on April 4 saw an 81.84% male-voter turnout, while 82.58% women voted, according to the State Election Commission.

“The rising number of women voters in Assam certainly indicates that the awareness among women about the need for political participation is rising. However, the dismal figure of women candidates in these elections indicates that women are not the decision makers in these parties. Often, women members are seen running around on party work but when it comes to giving the party tickets to contest elections, they are typically overlooked by their parties,” says Nepram.

The trend certainly stems from gender disparity practices in the organisational makeup of the state’s political parties. If you look at the list of present office-bearers of the state BJP, there is not a single woman heading any of the 36 district committees. Of the seven vice presidents, only two are women. Four out of the nine secretaries are women. Of the 12 spokespersons, only three are women.

The scenario in the Congress is worse. Only four of the 15 state vice presidents are women; three of the 17 general secretaries are women; and just 14 of the 67 secretaries are women. The 29-member executive committee of the party, which includes Gogoi, has only two female members. Of the nine permanent invitees to the party executive meetings, which includes former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, only two are women.

BJP’s ally AGP too has nothing much to show in terms of gender parity at the organisational level. There is a lone woman among the party’s 10 vice presidents.

Way back in 1980 – years before many states had their first woman chief minister – Assam had Syeda Anwara Taimur of the Congress (she joined AIUDF in 2011) leading it, albeit for a short while. Till date, her achievement stands as the sole succor for women politicians, not just in Assam but in the rest of the seven north eastern states as well.