Assam is the most populous state in Northeast India. Despite its resources and diverse culture, the state has fallen behind the rest of India in important indicators of development. The financial set up of the state has not been helpful, with uneven geography, frequent floods, and lack of peace and stability for decades. Being a multiethnic state with heterogeneous social foundations, it encountered insurrection and ethnic warfare in the last four decades. This placed a tremendous strain on its social and cultural fabric, the most vulnerable being women. They have escaped some of the ills that pervade women in other parts of India - such as sati, female foeticide, lack of education, etc. This could be a result of more egalitarian and indigenous cultures. However, it is evident that Assamese women are as disadvantaged as women in the rest of India, one manifestation being their representation in the state politics.
A reckoning with Assamese politics must start with the very top - how many times has there been a woman CM? Syeda Anowara Taimur became the first and only women CM, serving from 6 December 1980 to 30 June 1981. She was a member of the National Committee of the Indian National Congress. As the first woman and Muslim CM of Assam, Syeda Taimur remains the only woman to have achieved this position in the 74 years since independence.
Old Challenges, New Issues, a New Hope in Mahila Dal
Despite the egalitarian impulses inherent in a democratic polity, women have been continuously shunned from occupying positions of power, a trend strongly seen in Politics. Women voters have expanded extensively, yet their political mobilisation isn't equivalent to men. This has resulted in women unable to gain equitably in terms of leadership roles. Men continue to be associated with aspects of governances and power, far more than women (RGICS, 2013). Studies show how deep-rooted social constructions resulted in deeply influencing women of their subordinated position, accepting their lot to be submissive.
In the 21st century, it is not just issues such as food security, maternal and child health, women’s education and employability, urbanisation, and migration, that are important. These have been so ever since India gained independence. Emerging development challenges, such as financial and economic independence of women, must be given equal priority when we talk about sustainable and gender-just development. Women must be involved in governmental issues with the capacity to engage in leadership roles, thereby changing the very idea of what power can represent.
In this context, a new political party called ‘Mohilar Dal’ was founded in 2020, which has fought to enhance positive attitude towards women’s representation. It has formed to counter the lack of prominent spaces for women in any political party in Assam, with none ready to implement 33% reservation. The president of the Mohilar Dal party Bhabani Boro said, “The Constitution of India talks about equality of status and opportunity. But we feel the women have been deprived of that, especially in the political arena. The patriarchy system is also in politics and that has not allowed space for women politicians to work.” (Ahmed, 2019)
Women’s Participation in Political Struggles
Some research has been undertaken on women's political participation in Assam, including on their emancipation and empowerment. A movement spearheaded by the Bodo community in 1985 had women playing a significant role. Going further back, the Non-cooperation movement portrayed in great measure the spiritual power of Indian womanhood, with Assamese women sharing an equal burden in these struggles. Women in Assam played a significant role between the 1920s to 1940s organising themselves as Mahila Samiti (Giri, 2020). Based on Gandhian ideologies, the first Mahila Samiti was established at Dibrugarh in 1915 followed by another at Nagaon in 1971 and the next at Tezpur in 1919.
In 1926, the state-level Asom Mohila Samiti was formed as Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti. Chandraprabha Saikiani was the secretary of this body which resulted in the formation of various other district and primary or village level Mahila Samiti. A large number of women joined in the movement, participating in meetings, organizing processions, boycotting schools, courts, and offices. The participation of women in India’s historic freedom struggle was a country-wide phenomenon. Through his experiment with Satyagraha (peaceful strike), Gandhi realized that women could be equally effective as political participants. He mobilized women in large numbers to join in the freedom struggle (Kakati, 2018).
Image: Members of the Assam Mahila Samata Samiti Source : Feminism in India
Women being politically engaged is an important driver of their empowerment. Engaged women create political opportunities, converting them into leadership roles both at the network and national level. Women are often excluded from playing legitimate and active roles in rural community life due to social and institutional constraints. Consequently, this has led to lack of access to education, health, and productive resources, particularly for women belonging to weaker sections of Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes/OBC and minorities. As per the 2011 census, there are 1,52,14,345 women against men with population of 1,59,54,927 in Assam. Women representation in state-level lawmaking bodies has been abysmal (RGICS, 2013). Total women candidates contesting the ongoing elections is 85, as against 1,095 men candidates. Many women politicians are not willing to openly fight against the gender disparity in the state of Assam. This can be directly attributed to men's dominance prevalent in Assam politics, women seemingly reluctant to contest against their men counterparts.
Ongoing fight for Women in Assamese Politics
In any government, state policy, institution building, and administration are far from being gender-neutral in their functions and carrying out responsibilities. Whether in state legislatures or the Parliament, ministries or administrative bodies, lack of women's representation shows us the deep flaws of our democratic achievements and policy-making. In Assam, despite its legacy of women fighting alongside men in consequential battles for freedom and rights, they remained absent in decision-making processes and party politics. But they have been active voters, with almost 65% of voters turning out (Giri, 2020) in the recent elections, indicating their faith in Indian democratic ideals.
Women have enthusiastically taken up leadership positions in rural self-governing bodies, though some of them continue to be backed by men relatives or patrons. Even at state-level, there are currently only 8 women MLAs out of 126. There are two alternative methods of representation suggested by some experts to correct this: representation for candidates within political parties, and dual member constituencies where some constituencies shall have two candidates, one being a woman.
It is unquestionable that women in India, and Assam, need to overcome many social ills simultaneously - traditional customs, unequal lifestyle, lack of access to resources, and so on. Many women continue to fight them too. Additionally, lack of interest from political parties, low status of education, low level of information, mobility, economic inequality, and lack of proper training barred women to take active participation in mainstream politics. Providing education to women could be a critical factor in ameliorating the present scenario. Improving their access to economic opportunities will also critically uplift their ability to engage constructively in state and local politics.
Image : Women Protesting against Citizenship Amendment Bill in Assam Source: India Today
Women’s presence at the decision-making levels will bring a different, explicitly women’s perspective to the political arena. The recognition of the right of every citizen to participate in public decisions is a basic element of democracy, which, to be effective, requires that the needs and interests of all members of the society are respected and represented. Even if others might claim to represent them, there is no guarantee of justice and equity if half of the population is consistently excluded from decision-making.
Gitismita Das, Advocate, Women for Politics
Gitismita is a postgraduate student in women's studies at Gauhati University. She is passionate about gender equality, social sciences research, women's leadership and believes in a positive outlook towards overcoming the challenges to women's lives. She could be reached on LinkedIn here.
This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics. The article contains edits by editors at Women for Politics. Follow us on LinkedIn & Twitter to get regular updates.