Varsha Gaikwad is a four-time Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Dharavi - Asia's largest slum in Mumbai, India. As the education minister of Maharashtra, she has also had to oversee the transition in education during Covid.
Photo credits: Free Press Journal
As an ardent Phule-Ambedkarite, and one of the 3 Dalit women MLAs in the Maharashtra state legislative assembly, she believes it is important to pave opportunities for women from marginalised communities and vest them with diverse ministerial portfolios.
In a conversation with Women for Politics and Behan Box, Varsha Gaikwad talks about her journey as a Dalit woman in politics, and how the work of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule has inspired her work as a politician.
This is part of a new series titled “Women, Power and Politics”, where we bring to you conversations with radical and progressive women leaders from across the world. The first edition of the series features women political leaders from the South Asia region.
Tell us about your background, childhood and entry into politics.
I belong to the Dalit Magasvasrgiya community in Maharashtra and grew up with great financial difficulties, living in a big joint family. I am a first-generation learner in my family who studied beyond the 10th grade and attended college and university. I have a Masters degree in mathematics and also a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed). I was into academics before I entered politics. Considering my background, I feel fortunate to be in politics.
From what I remember, even as a 12-year-old, I wanted to join politics. I used to go around Dharavi with my father, who was the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and saw the immense goodwill he enjoyed among the people there. We were brought up amidst the ideology of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule and Mahatma Jotiba Phule. I was taught to fight for justice and equality must continue in their footsteps, no matter what our professions were. As ardent believers in their ideologies, it was only natural that I saw politics as a platform for rewriting social justice as envisaged by them.
I am a living example of the anti-Brahmanical patriarchal ideologies of Shahu-Ambedkar-Phule. My parents did not follow the usual tradition of pushing their sons to carry forward their political legacy. I remember that before the state assembly elections in 2004, my brother and I both went to the party office to be interviewed for tickets. The Congress party chose me. So, I believe, apart from my parents, I appreciate the faith the party, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, put in a Dalit woman candidate.
I was only 27 when I was first elected an MLA for Dharavi in 2004. I remember so many asking me “But why politics? You are so well educated”. My answer then and it is now is that just as you cannot measure the depth of the ocean while sitting by the shore, you need to be part of the system to be able to change it.
You talk so passionately about the Phule-Ambedkar ideology that you are such an ardent believer and follower of. How have those ideals guided you in your politics and policymaking?
Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule started the first school for girls along with Fathima Begum in Pune in 1848. The regressive society pelted stones at them but they carried on with their mission in the face of all sorts of attacks. Her students achieved a great deal like Mukta Salve who became a writer.
So, today if a Varsha Gaikwad who studied in a Marathi medium school can become the education minister of Maharashtra, it is only because of the path laid out by Savitirbai and Jotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. If she had not faced attacks and continued her protests against Brahmanical patriarchy, where would we be today?
The Phule couple adopted a child at a time when it was not the norm to do so. Not only that, but they also offered shelter and care for young kids, of widows and single women who were left destitute by society. They made provisions for water and food and more importantly respect and dignity for women, especially Dalit women.
These are the values that guide me in my work too. When I was the Women and Child welfare minister in 2014, I spoke to a lot of single women, especially sex workers directly - this I believe is important: hearing from people directly.
I visited places like Kamathipura with higher populations of sex workers, and they told me that they faced problems when school admission forms for their children asked for the father’s name and they could not provide this. They told that their kids were ridiculed or bullied. One of the first policies I made was to make the father’s name optional on the forms.
Similarly, I met a lot of transgender persons and they mentioned they faced a lot of difficulty in accessing welfare schemes and lack of recognition. We make policies for them but do not ensure simple things like documentation for them to be able to access that. I made policies on ration card access.
From Babasaheb, who is my idol, I learnt the principle of liberty, equality and fraternity - the basic ideals of our constitution. My heart aches when I see those basic values of the constitution being trampled upon today. As the education minister, I made the reading of the preamble of the Constitution mandatory in school assembly sessions and also explain it to children especially the values of equality and scientific temper.
What I learnt from all the three icons is the steadfastness of belief and the dedication and work needed to realise them. Savitribai even died serving people during the plague where she was helping her son Dr. Yashwant.
Elected women representatives are few in number. Dalit women are even fewer. What institutional barriers do Dalit women face and what can institutions do to increase their political participation?
You are absolutely right. In Maharashtra assembly, there are just 24 women MLAs, of which only 3 are Dalit women. For Dalit women, it is difficult to get elected repeatedly. This is why I argue for at least 50% quota for women in Parliament and state legislative assemblies.
Women are at an advantage as they can connect and communicate better with their women constituents. But getting more Dalit women into politics needs support from society and the political parties who have to give them tickets.
Today, I have women workers who come to me and say that “Tai if there was a man instead of you we wouldn’t be able to open up so much and talk frankly because you are a woman and you can understand us”
Secondly, women need to be given more diverse ministerial portfolios. Why do we get only Women and child welfare, social justice or tribal affairs ministries? If Babasaheb Ambedkar can write the constitution of this nation, then why can I not be the education minister.
If Dalit women do not become ministers, how will we get a chance to make policy? We need opportunities to prove our capability. Our caste should not be the reason for exclusion from opportunities. Till the time this perception does not change, how will we progress?
As Dalit women, we have to prove ourselves over and over again to gain recognition and acceptance. I may be here because of reservation but I have also worked hard for it. Otherwise, I would not have been elected four times. I had a lot of support from society, my parents and my constituency and, the party that supports me, gave me a ticket and promoted me.
My father’s words, when I came into politics, ring in my ears even today.
He told me “ Always think hard before you speak because we have a big name to uphold. And that is Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.” So whatever I do, is to only glorify his name.
A few months ago, Maharashtra MLA Namita’s decision to attend the Assembly session in her 8th month of pregnancy made it to the headlines. There are incidents around the world where women politicians are reported to have been asked more questions about their household responsibilities. So, if you are being questioned in the same manner what will be your response to this and what are your thoughts about such questions?
If someone asks me this question, I will definitely say that we cannot leave behind our family as the family is our backbone however I am proud to be an ambitious woman.
Men in politics are not questioned about their background but woman are. We have built a different perception for women politicians.
A woman can too have ambitions, be it politics or other careers, and men should support them.
Most importantly, as a politician, I am a representative of all people regardless of their gender. I work on all issues relating to the lives of the people I represent and so, I hold views on all issues and not limited to my household.
If a wife can support her husband in his career, then why should my husband not support the wife in her career aspirations. Society needs to move away from patriarchy if it needs to be a progressive one.
What is that one thing you would like to change for women in politics?
I feel more doors should be open for women at every level in politics.
We need more progressive thought about women in politics. If we will give more opportunity to women, we will get to see more women in politics.
Until we get the opportunity how will we prove our worth in politics?
Jaya Lalita, Mamta Banerjee, Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have been inspirational role models. As a kid, I was inspired by Indira Gandhi and used to copy her persona.
I do not intend to demean the role of men in politics. However, somewhere we need to understand that for a man when 50% women can vote than for a woman 50% men can vote too.
What would you like men to know for becoming allies of women in politics?
Be supportive, be cooperative! I feel the view about women in politics is changing.
This time in the Maharashtra cabinet, there are 24 women representatives.
If everyone will start thinking like Jyotiba Phule and work towards supporting the women in the family, society progressive towards gender equality.
Education is instrumental in building aspirations and empowering people. If you want to encourage women in politics how do you think education can play that role in filling that gap?
Yes, I feel education gives the wings to aspiration. Education expands one’s knowledge and clears one’s vision. I say this, as an educated woman myself.
Initially, when we brought women reservation at the local level, there were many elected women representatives on paper but it was men in the family exercising the decision making. However, today educated women would not sign without reading a document.
This is a huge progress in empowering women decision makers, that has happened because of education.
I see that many women and girls are motivated to study and become independent today. To join politics, knowledge of law and politics is of great importance.
I believe there are two kinds of learnings in politics - the theoretical learnings and the experience learnings. I have had different learnings from both education and experience respectively.
As Baba has quoted – “Knowledge is the Power”. Education definitely broadens one’s perspective and helps one in building their ideology and vision for life.
What message would you like to give to other women who aspire to join politics in Maharashtra? How would you like to support such women?
People have a misconception that politics is a dirty place, it is a false perception. Politicians are also people, just like you. We are no different. In fact, we meet more people, get more exposure and understand people’s problems better. The first time I met transgenders, I was hesitant. But once I started eating with them and understanding them, I got comfortable.
To women aspiring to join politics, I would say you have to speak up about local and national issues, engage more with people, be consistent with your work.
Once you are in the system be patient, work hard and be focused. Go step by step and you will do justice to your responsibilities. No one can stop you!
Understand the ground realities of people and equip yourself with public speaking skills and knowledge about administration, governance and policy.
Politics is the best field because it gives you a solid platform to help others, help people in getting justice, make welfare policies and more. You can help someone get a pension, get a job and improve someone’s life.
I agree, there is a lot of struggle in this field. But you can overcome that difficulty by focusing on your work and staying motivated. I urge all the women regardless of their caste and background to come forward and join politics. I feel so happy when I meet young women who want to join politics and are passionate about it. I feel delighted by the way they carry themselves, their confidence and their progress.