Ground Reports

I Travelled From Delhi To Nagaland In Election Season — Conversations With These Three Women Stood Out

Banuchandar Nagarajan

May 27, 2024, 05:09 PM | Updated 05:08 PM IST

Insightful conversations.
Insightful conversations.
  • A chronicle of interactions with three women who made a lasting impact.
  • I had travelled for around 6,500 kms from Delhi to Nagaland and back as a part of Swarajya's ground reporting project called "Hridayapath".

    I had sent dispatches touching upon the political landscape, on developmental challenges, the infrastructure successes and so on from the remotest parts of our country.

    As with any travel, more than the places, the people that you meet make it memorable.

    In the sheer warmth and innate decency of common Indians you get to see the best of humanity. Social ills do remain. But, godliness is also present, indubitably. It inspires you to work towards the betterment of your fellow citizens in some possible way.

    Of the many amazing people that I had met, I will chronicle my interactions with three women in this piece.

    They were simple folks facing challenges in their own lives. But, they have managed to accept their state-of-affairs with stoicism and tried to do the best for themselves and their families.

    These discussions often left me with a strange sense of emptiness. I was left wondering about how much of a better person I could become, had I had the tenacity, the wisdom and cheerfulness of these ladies.  

    Begum Khatoon, Kishanganj, Bihar

    Kishanganj is a typical congested small town in Bihar on the banks of the Mahananda river. It consistently ranks among the poorest districts in India. Kishanganj is a Muslim-majority constituency. It has always voted for the Congress. In 2019, it was the only constituency from Bihar that went to the Congress.

    I was hoping to speak with Muslim women to get their perspectives. I visit the Daftari mall hoping to see if I could meet a bunch of Muslim women, without making it awkward.

    I meet with Begum Khatoon, who was the floor manager in the apparel section of the mall. She came across as clear-headed. I introduced myself and got chatting with her on various issues related to Kishanganj.

    I asked her how women-friendly the government was. She said that she had been working for a few years and always had managed her finances.

    She appreciated the government's efforts to empower women by opening bank accounts in their names. She had also benefitted from the Sukanya Samruddhi scheme for her child.

    She said that the free ration was great, but the quality had to be improved tremendously. The schools were okay but apparently there were discrepancies on the money being given for uniforms. Her kids liked the mid-day meals.

    She was availing of the gas cylinder subsidy, as well. She spoke about all of the above with enthusiasm.

    In the middle of the conversation she casually mentioned that she had lost her husband just a few months before due to medical negligence.

    There was no proper MRI machine in the local government hospital and she could not afford to go to a private hospital. She mentioned it in a matter-of-factly and deadpan manner with no sense of rancour. I was left stunned.

    After a few awkward moments, I tried to continue with the conversation. I asked her if she had planned to get her daughter married off. But she said that she would let her 13-year-old continue studying and she would start searching for a groom only after she turned 20.

    She said that she got married at a very young age and it had been gruelling and that girls should not be put through that ordeal.

    I moved to "riskier" topics. On the triple-talaq issue, she welcomed the legislation. But, on the ground it was not a big issue because, there were very less divorces anyway. She said it all depended on how liberal the community leader was.

    She did not wear a hijab but she insisted that her daughter wore one. As a single mother she was worried about what the neighbours in the community would say. She said there was no big animosity between Hindus and Muslims, unless politicians try to instigate something.

    She had always voted for the Congress and she would do the same in the upcoming elections as well. But, she did not feel confident about Congress's chances. People were looking positively at All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and even Mujahid Alam of the Janata Dal (United).

    As a single mother in a conservative community, she was facing the odds with a stiff upper lip. She was unperturbed by the hand dealt to her by fate. All she wanted was some basic support so that she got by. The impact of the social security net on poor single parents should be studied.

    Shewali Nath Rabha, Bongaigaon, Assam

    I was passing through Bongaigaon district of lower Assam. Suddenly, I see a crowd of around 200 women gathered in a particular place. I stopped to see if I could get some local insights.

    It was a meeting of self-help groups. It had the air of a semi-political meeting. There was sort of a ‘boss’ lady who was encouraging everyone to vote for the BJP. There were younger members, who had gathered in a corner in group of tens and taking oath to protect the interests of their village.

    I approached to meet with a lady that seemed gregarious and cheerful. I was tentative, being aware of the fact that I was the only male figure in the place. Shewali was a soldier's wife and she seemed very proud of it. She called a few of her colleagues and introduced me as her brother from Delhi.

    I got chatting about the village, what they grew, how the harvest was etc. Shewali started speaking about the all-round development in Bongaigaon district. Roads had become better. Water supply system was working very well and every house had a toilet. She complained about the voltage fluctuations.

    Shewali just had given birth to a child. She vouched for the excellent counselling and support at the local hospital. Being an army man's wife, she could not avail of the labarthi benefits. But, her friends said that the PM Aawas Yojana had just begun, they are hoping to build houses of their own.

    The wife of a ration shop owner said that the quality of grains have started to improve. She was happy that there was no hunger in the village. So, not everything we hear is part of the BJP's propaganda machine. It seems the implementation is quite good.

    Shewali was excited about the Lakhpati Didi programme. The SHG members would soon learn the procedures and apply for loans to be disbursed among its members. The training for the programme was planned for June. 

    Her younger colleagues always sought her out for advice. She has asked them to vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi because "he is the best for the country". She advised me to vote for Modi too.

    She said that wherever we were from in India, we should always think about our country. Things might not always be perfect, but at every point we have to choose from the best that are offered to us.

    Shewali's practical wisdom was so no non-sense and elegant. She communicated with such simplicity and ease. She seemed to be a recipient of the wisdom that kept our culture alive through centuries of slavery.

    In the conversations, she reaffirmed the sagacity that there would always be things beyond our control. Even when we do not have much, we could still be empathetic and righteous.

    Poonam Prajapati, Domariyaganj, Uttar Pradesh

    Taking the highway from Balrampur, hugging the border with Nepal in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh, beyond the Bangaga Dam, I entered Domariyaganj constituency (I searched for how the name Domariyaganj came about, but I could not find an answer).

    The name of the district is Siddharth Nagar. Pakistani national, Seema Haider, had come through this border to meet with her Indian lover. Locals were upset with her for the increased checking at the border post after the incident.

    Domariyaganj has been represented in Parliament by the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Jagdambika Pal for a long time. It is the beauty of democracy that people from remote places can make it big and even become chief ministers.

    He was a Congress MP first and then later switched over to the BJP in 2014. He is expected to sail through this time on the back of the Ayodhya wave. Domariyaganj votes in the final phase.

    In a village beyond Shohratgarh, there was a lady digging through dry leaves spread over a courtyard. She introduced herself as Poonam Prajapati. She had just got married and has moved to this village.

    She managed to gather a bunch of women that were taking respite from the afternoon heat. They all got pretty excited that somebody from Delhi had come to speak with them and they welcomed me with tea and biscuits.

    I asked Poonam how the women have particularly benefited from the government. There was a fair amount of arguments and friendly jousting. Everyone agreed that the mid-day meal scheme had got much better.

    I asked the kids nearby what they were given at school and they told me that they ate rotis and sabzi every day and that they were pretty good. Poonam said her favourite "reform" was having her own bank account.

    The women spoke about the Sukanya Samriddhi scheme at length and of course the gas connections and the toilets. The water supply seemed a problem here too like the neighbouring districts. (Jal Shakti Ministry should do an audit in these parts.)

    Not everything was hunky-dory. I asked about ‘women's scholarships’, but they said that not many women went to college from their village. The lack of employment opportunities meant that their husbands and brothers had to move out to the big cities, leaving them to live lonely lives.

    Apparently, for many of these schemes — such as the toilets, housing etc, — the allocation of priority was under the discretion of the village pradhan. It came up previously in Bahraich as well.

    Some of these women had not availed of the benefits because of the unfriendly pradhans (I realised why PM Modi did that e-meeting with village headmen). Some also alluded to tacit ‘jaatwaad’. Maybe there is an opportunity for local units of BJP or even NGOs to educate people about their entitlements.

    Decentralisation is good in theory, but tough in practice. We have to find a way to make local self government work. These women seemed to trust the Modi-Yogi duo than their own fellow villager to improve their lives.

    I asked the women where they get their news from. None of them said that they read newspapers. But all of them watched YouTube channels at least two hours a day. (Algorithms are important for many reasons)

    I asked Poonam about the dry leaves. She said that she had learnt from YouTube that these leaves could be used as cough medicine. She said that even though the ladies made fun of her as being cranky, she felt that one had to work to benefit the community. With the Internet, almost all information is available and it was just left to our interests and drive.

    What a big thought! If poor Poonam is so driven what stops you and me that have been blessed with much more in the world? And, what magic 5G connections are creating in India!

    Epilogue

    I have told myself that I should stop worrying about India's progress (as if the worrying helps). Even in the remotest parts of India you can see the verve and the jazba to do new things. The open society and democracy that guarantee our freedoms are our greatest assets.

    Top it up with good governance and reforms, the only growth trajectory could only be upwards. Just think about a billion and half Indians availing of the opportunities presented by the times we live in. We might be at the beginning of the greatest human development success stories ever.

    In this milieu, we often forget to say thanks to the women of our society. With increasing professional choices at all levels, the "opportunity costs" for them has only increased. But, they still nourish and care.

    It is credit to the Modi government that it has developed a special focus on women. The repeated exhortations of "nari shakti" has also helped in percolating the theme of "women-centric development" deep down in the society.

    The three wonderful women that we saw, cared for their families and nourished their communities. And, they did it gracefully and with a sense of duty. For me, I felt honoured to have got these opportunities of self-reflection.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as ₹2999. Click here for more details.

    Banuchandar is a political and public policy advisor. He posts at @Banu4Bharat.


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