Numbers Alone Not Enough: Bihar’s panchayats seek real share in power

If this battle gains ground, it is bound to pose a major challenge to the upper-caste domination of rural society, culture and levers of power. The need is to transform the character of this struggle from a Gandhian to the one patterned on the battles of Phule and Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar viewed villages as a virtual mine of evils, rooted in feudalism. Ignorance, casteism, communalism and a frog-in-the-well syndrome rule the roost in most rural areas. While Gandhi advocated Gram Swaraj (village republic), Babasaheb Ambedkar was of the view that urbanisation and economic progress would better the lot of the Dalits.  In Bihar, the rumblings of a movement to afford Bahujans a place in the rural power structure, in keeping with Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘Gram Swaraj’, are distinctly audible and this movement is raring to spread over the entire state.

Under the banner of Mukhiya Mahasangh (confederation of village chiefs), a battle, seeking effective decentralisation of powers and empowerment of village panchayats has been launched. As part of the campaign, a Panchayat Adhikar Rally is planned at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on 30 September.

In Bihar, the Bahujans dominate the panchayats. Bahujan representatives hold 70 to 75 per cent positions in the panchayats. There is a reservation of 22.5 per cent for SC/STs and 20 per cent for EBCs, besides 50 per cent for women, in panchayats. OBC and Dalit candidates have also been elected from general seats. This has dramatically altered the power equations in the rural areas; though, at the same time, the government has drastically curtailed the powers of the gram sabhas. Mohan Mukul, who has been elected from a general seat, is one of the panchayat office-bearers, including mukhiyas, who are fighting to secure the rights of the panchayats under the banner of Bihar Mukhiya Sangh. Talking to FORWARD Press, he said, “The representation of deprived sections in the politics of the villages has increased. We are struggling for these sections. The government has crippled the panchayats by taking away the powers of the gram sabhas. Even the right to prepare the list of BPL families and approve it has been withdrawn. It is the BPL list which forms the basis of rural development.”

This movement first arose at Bhitiharva in Champaran – the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his first Satyagraha – and is being supported by many eminent Gandhians. The movement has been slowly and gradually gathering strength over the last many months and it may reach a decisive stage at the proposed rally at the Gandhi Maidan. Priyadarshini Shahi, the state president of the Bihar Mukhiya Sangh says,, “There are 8,423 mukhiyas in Bihar. Besides, other reps of the three-tier Panchayatai Raj system have also joined the struggle. More than one lakh people are likely to gather at the Gandhi Maidan. Whosoever gives power and rights to the villages, will dominate the future politics.” Shahi’s claims are not empty rhetoric. He has reasons to be confident. On 11 October 2012, more than 5,000 panchayat reps – mainly mukhiyas – had gathered at Shri Krishna Memorial Hall in Patna. Their numbers swelled at least one-and-half times in the two-day workshop of gram panchayats at Rajgrih on 19–20 January 2013.

The battle for the rights of panchayats may emerge as a big challenge for Nitish Kumar. The panchayat reps have kept their political affiliations aside to join this struggle for their rights. It seems that Nitish’s rival Laloo Prasad Yadav has got a foothold among these rural people’s representatives. The social background of the protestors – who are mainly Yadavs or hail from some backward or extremely backward castes supporting Laloo en dash is also one of the reasons for this. If this battle gains ground, it is bound to pose a major challenge to the upper-caste domination of rural society, culture and levers of power. The need is to transform the character of this struggle from a Gandhian to the one patterned on the battles of Phule and Ambedkar. At the time of writing of this report, there was some talk of inviting Ramdas Athavale and other Dalit-Bahujan leaders to the Gandhi Maidan rally.

Published in the August 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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