Political Participation of Assamese Women
Abstracts: A nation is called progressive or successful if it provides equal treatment to all of its citizens regardless their caste, class, sex. The women in India since the period of epics pasteurized as an object for sacrifice and placed them beside her male counterpart. The tradition is still continued and we find that women’s participation in the decision making process is very low in the entire India. Only a fair and equal treatment can bring success to the Indian democracy. In the context of Assam, despite having a pride history, they are still fighting for their survival and participation level in the mainstream politics is very low. But as compared to its neghbouring states Assam is still in good position in terms of women representation. As a voter Assamese women removed their traditional customs and showed a remarkable progress in the recent years. Almost 65% voters turn out Assamese women have shown their faith on Indian democratic traditions. However to bring them forward we must take a positive attitude and it is the education through which we can think for a drastic change in the structure of our society.
A nation is marked as progressive and successful if it is able to provide equal status to all of its citizens regardless of their class, caste, sex etc. Since the ancient period we know that politics is generally dominated by menfolk and even in the matriarchal societies women could hardly play a dominant role in the decision making process. But it does not mean that they do not have interest in it. The basic fact is that the patricidal society does not favoured their participation and assigned entire household works to them. In Indian society women are often describe from two sharply contradictory aspects. In some aspects they are treated as the mother goddess with multiple visages, identities and functions and even worshiped in the male dominated society. On the other hand they are treated as an object of providing domestic services free of cost with limited functions. Form this prospects their functions are limited to the household works only. Even the great epics Ramayana also pasteurized a dark picture of women and treated them inferiors to their husbands. Even they were forced to sacrifice their lives in for the sake of their husband. Customs like Sati, dowry also make them inferiors. The situation improved a little during the British period. Many social activities were taken by the British government and Indian people to improve their positions.
After gaining independence India adopted the representative democratic system and it is well known that the success of a democratic system greatly relies on the active participation of its people. It is well understood when Abraham Lincoln define it as the “the government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Democracy is that form of government where people can participate in its decision making process without any distinction. Indian constitution has to ensure greater participation of people in its politics guaranteeing to its citizens’ Justice, Liberty, Equality of Status and of Opportunity and Fraternity assuring dignity of the individual and unity and integrity of the Nation. In addition to these the fundamental rights which are incorporated in Part III (Art. 12 to 35) of the Indian constitution ensure the people’s right to participate in its politics without any distinctions. Further, through the directive principles of state policy (Part IV, Art 36 to 51) it tries to secure minimum standards to its citizens. It further strengthens through Articles 325 and 326 of the political equality and equal right to participation in political activities and right to vote respectively. In short we can say that the constitution of India which is stands on the principle of equality before law guarantees equal protection to all its citizens and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth. Hence, it is clear that Indian constitution provides a greater opportunity to participate in its political as well as socio-economic sphere, it does not matter whatever his or her sex is. We know that elections play an important role in a democratic country. It is an instrument of the people through which they can participate in decision making process of its government. Again it is political right of every citizen. Through the active participation in the elections as competitor or voter women can bring fair and equal treatment for them.
Position of Indian Women in the British and Post British Era:
The history of women’s participation in Indian politics dates back to 1917, when a delegation of Indian women set forward a memorandum before the secretary of state Ewin Montagu demanding the Right to Franchise for them. Finally the British government in 1920 provides the right to vote to women but it was only for the propertied class and they were not allowed to participate in legislature. In 1930 they got their much needed right to participate in the legislative procedures and Muthulakshmi Reddi became the first woman legislator. They also demanded 5% reservation for them in the legislatures under the leadership of Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz and Radhabai Subbarayan. And finally through the Government of India Act, 1935, broadened the concept of participation through universal adult suffrage and paved the way for the formal induction of women in the political process both in reserved and general seats.
The participation of women in the decision making process initially began with the Swadeshi movement in Bengal (1905-8). Joining of Gandhi in Indian National Congress resulted in grater women participation. Thousands of women joined in the salt Satyagraha, which is “generally remembered as the first time ‘masses of Indian women’ got involved in the struggle for Independence” (Kumar 1995, p. 78). Nehru in his book The Discovery of India write that when all the leaders were in jail, women came forward and took charge of the struggle and displayed an un-imaginable state of courage and daring. Woman leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Aruna Asaf Ali were played a decisive role in the freedom struggle. Assamese women were not also far behind than their counterpart. Thousands of Assamese women joined the freedom struggle actively. Leaders like Kanaklata were shot dead by the British. However their participation in active politics is not so impressive. Only the higher caste women were involved in the politics.
Despite the role played by the women in the freedom struggle there was a lack of concerted effort to bring them into the political process after independence. The space of women again drastically declined and has been limited to family connections rather than convictions and commitment. Women’s are allowed only if there is no alternative choice. However, many initiatives are taken by the government to improve their conditions. Indian constitution argued that the development is possible only through establishing gender equality.
However the participation of women is not improvised. In the first ever general election their strength was only 22 (4.4%) in the House. Women’s representation steadily rose in the next general election to reach 34 (6.7%) in the third Lok Sabha. But the trend reversed in the next three elections. Women’s representation in the 6th Lok Sabha was a meager 19 (3.4%), the lowest ever. The subsequent elections, on the whole witnessed an upward trend except 1989 elections, when the number of women MPs drastically dropped to 27 from 44 in the previous Lok Sabha. But from 1991 elections, the number of women MPs steadily rose to touch 44 in 1998 elections, accounting for 8.07 per cent and 49 in 1999, the highest ever. However, in 2009 it crossed its highest level. Table 1.1 shows the participation of women in the past general elections
Table: 1.1. Participation of women in general elections
Year of Election Number Percentage
1952 22 4.4
1957 27 5.4
1962 34 6.7
1967 31 5.9
1971 22 4.2
1977 19 3.4
1980 28 5.1
1984 44 8.1
1989 27 5.29
1991 39 7.07
1996 40 7.36
1998 44 8.07
1999 49 9.02
2009 69 12.02
Source: Election Commission of India‘s
In terms of North East India, one of the basic features of its society is diversity. Diversity as a social fact always existed in the world at a large but it becomes a problem mainly when it exists in the name of gender inequality. It becomes a problem when the gender differences become the basis of group inequality or when the different groups perceive one another as threat to their identity or a challenge to their status. We are talking about women empowerment but how much we concern about their political participation. Compare to the male candidates in the past elections, the number of women candidates were very less. Here in this paper I am going to discuss only the participation of Assamese women in the mainstream elections (Lok Sabha elections during the period of 1977 to 2009) and state assembly elections (especially in 2006) as a competitor and voter.
Position of Assamese women:
The society of Assam is patriarchal in nature and women got only a little chance to participate in its active politics in the ancient period. Though the Assam has a glorious history little is known about women’s role in politics till the close of the fourteenth century. It is only after the establishment of Ahom Kingdom in Assam that women got a remarkable advantage. It was the chief queen of the Ahom king Tao-Khamthi (1380-89), who played an important role in Assam politics. It is well known to the Indian people that Mula Gabharu, who died fighting against the Muslim general Turbak Khan of Bengal in 1532 A.D. to avenge the death of her husband at the hands of the enemy, it reflects the courage and dearness of Assamese people. During the British period many prominent women leaders came forward, among them Queen Kamaleswari Devi, widow of King Gaurinath Singha (1780-95) who even met the Governor General of India (Lord Wellesley) in 1806 for arguing military assistance to restore peace and good Government in Assam. And during the freedom struggle, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi women of Assam played a remarkable role. They owed high respect from Gandhi due to their expertise in field of spinning and weaving and their simplicity in dress and ornaments. The Quit India Movement also bring a glorious picture of Assamese women. Women like Kanaklata Barua, Bhogeswari Phukanani, Khahuli Nath, Rabati Lahon, Abali Kochuni, Golapi Chutiyani, Kon Chutiyani, Thuniki Das and others sacrificed their lives. Hence, it can be said that Assamese women have a glorious history, which inspired them to take part in the decision making process.
After independence and at present context due to the absence of the dowry system (except those who came from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and other places) the status of women is high in comparison to the women of some other States of India. But still they are subjected to domination by the male counterpart and the crimes against women are increasing day by day. The political participation is also not improvised. They have a poor position in the both houses of the parliament. It is observed that women’s participation in Parliament has never exceeded 2 per cent of all seats whereas in all India level it is 15%.
Assamese women in the Lok Sabha:
Despite having a glorious history the status of women in Assam is the worst in terms of their position in decision making bodies. Assam has 14 Lok Sabha seats and 7 for the Rajya sabha. Since its first general election women form Assam do not get proper representation in the both houses of the parliament. They are still lagging behind the male counterpart.
In the Lok Sabha elections of 1977 out of 14 seats only 3 female candidates were contested and 2 managed to win. But in the election of 1980 the number is reduced to 2 and none were elected. Interestingly no female candidates were contested in the elections of 1984 and 1989. However, the number is increasing day by day and reached to 7 in the 1991 elections (but no one got elected) and 9 in the election of 1996 where one candidate was managed to win. In the lection of 1999 out of 115 candidates, there were only 9 female candidates and only 2 managed to win. Again in the lection of 2004 out of 116 candidates, only 6 female candidates contested but none could win. The position is little bit improved in the 2009 elections, where out of 169 candidates, eleven female forwarded their candidature and two managed to win the election.
The participation of women in Rajya Sabha is also very minimal. Since its first elections only a few get the opportunity to represent in the Rajya Sabha. In the elections of 1994 and 1996 there was only 1 female member in the Rajya Sabha. In the present Rajya Sabha no one single women is there.
Thus the above discussions reflect that though they have pride of place in Assamese households and society, women in this state lag behind the men in the political arena. Assamese political parties, which depend on feminine charm to woo voters during elections, have failed miserably in providing a greater opportunity to participate in the decision making process. It is worth mentioning here that, not only the political parties but also the common people are not in favour to bring women in power. The number of winner clearly reflects the intention of Assamese people, that they do not want female parliamentarians.
Assamese women in its Legislative Assembly:
Assam has 126 constituencies but the participation of women in the State Legislative Assembly is not improved. The numbers of contested candidates compared to its male counterpart is very low. During the period of 1952 and 1985 the number of contested women candidates ranged between 4 and 20, while as compare to the percentage of the number of male contestants being 0.99 and 2.18 respectively. In terms of contesting candidates the number was highest (20) in the election of 1978, but only one candidate was managed to win. During the period of 1972 and 1978 the percentage of woman legislators were 7.02 and 0.79 respectively. The position is a little improvised in the 1996 elections and 45 female candidates filed their candidature and 6 managed to win same to the Assembly of 1999 which comprised of 4.92 per cent of the total members as against all India average of 5.63 per cent of women legislators. In the Assembly election of 2006 the number increased to 69. However they are still lagging behind the male, where 928 male candidates were contested for the same. In that election 69 constituencies did not have female candidates. However as compare to its some neghbouring state the Assam has a better position in terms of women participation. Table 1.2 indicates the women participation with its comparison of male candidates in the NE region as compared to the state of Assam.
Table 1.2: Women’s participation in NE region: compare to its male counterpart
Percent of Female
Source: Election Commission of India‘s Website (www.eci.gov.in)
The table clearly reflects that among the NE states in terms of women participation Assam occupied a better position. Mizoram and Nagaland have worse performance. Even no single female candidate contested. In the all states of NE region the politics is dominated by the male. Hence it can be said that still now it is believed that politics is only for the male. Women do not have to do anything with the political affairs.
Participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions:
Indian federation is known for its decentralized process despite having a strong central tendency. The state powers through three list divided between Central and the State Governments and the directive Principles of the State Policy through Article 40 of the Indian constitution clearly indicates the decentralization of powers with the provisions of establishment of Vilage Panchyats. Again the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts cemented the decentralization process through providing constitutional status to the lacal bodies and also empowering women with 33% reservation of seats in these local bodies.
The pnchayat elections of 2002 witnessed a large number of women participation with 34 elected members. 821 women candidates out of 2,478 joined as the President of Gaon panchayat and 8,210 women candidates out of 24,870 joined as the members of Gaon Panchayat. In terms of Anchalik panchayat the numbers of women candidates are also notably increasing. Out of 2,487 members, 821 women joined as the member of Anchyalik Panchayat and 129 women candidates joined as Zila Parishad members against the total of 390. The percentage is 33.0% while in the all India level it was only 31.32%.
Women as Voter:
The basic need for the successful operation of democracy is that people, man as well as women should participate in the electoral process. In the North-East, women voters turn out have always been very impressive. In 1998, it was 59% in Arunachal Pradesh, 61.06% in Assam, 74.38% in Meghalaya, 69.56% in Mizoram, 80.86% in Tripura while in the next general elections it was 72.15% in Arunachal Pradesh, 71.26% in Assam, 65.61% in Manipur, 56.16% in Meghalaya, 65.31% in Mizoram, 76.25% in Nagaland. Women have a big role in deciding ones political future. According to the 2001 census report they constituted approximately 40% of the total voters (out of 17443617 voters 8431467 are female).
Since the first election the women voter turn out in Assam is very impressive. It is seen that the number of men and women voters are nearly equal. In each election, the average rate of turn out is within 50-60 per cent, unless there is some particular issue, which attracts voters and women seem to have participated equally as men as voters. Basically after 1985 in each elections it is observed that more than 60% women cast their votes whereas all India level is 58.07% in the 2004 general election. Again the women voters are increasing in its legislative elections. In the Legislative Election of 2006 voters turn of women crossed 70% which is highest ever. The turnout of women voters for that election was 74.96% as compared to 76.64% of male.Many constituencies witnessed more than 80% women voters turn out. Table 1.3 shows the voter turn out of some selected constituencies (more than 80%) in the 2006 Legislative Elections.
Table 1.3: women voters turn out in some selected constituencies in %(more than 80%), 2006
Sources: Chief Election Officer, Dispur, Assam,
Thus form the above table it is seen that in the Assembly election of 2006, Assamese women showed their faith to Indian democratic system in a large scale. Even in some constituencies they crossed their male counterpart. Thus it can be said that Assamese women voters are now in a position to take leading role. Again, it is very interesting to see that the constituency like, Jaleswar, Abhayapuri South, Dalgaon, Barpeta are basically dominated by the Muslim immigrants or in short minority people. The voter turn out of these constituencies clearly reflects that where in all India level, Muslim women are kept out form the decision making process and they are forced to stay behind the male, in Assam they come forward as equal to the man, even in constituencies like, Abhayapuri, Barpeta, they crossed their male counterpart in a huge margin. It is also the reflection of a higher level of awareness among Assamese women. It is a good sign not only for the Assamese women but it also may be an inspiration for all women.
The participation level in the national level elections is also high in Assam. The last 15th Lok Sabha election clearly reflects their faith of Assamese women to their democratic process. Almost all constituencies’ women voters crossed the margin of 60%. Table 1.4 proffed the participation level of Assamese women in the last General election.
Table 1.4: Women participation in the 15th general election (all figures in %)
Autonomous District 63.00
Source: CEO Assam.
With 66.8% voters turn out people of Assamese women have firmly demonstrated their faith in democracy and proved wrong the media’s concern about voter’s apathy. In some constituencies women even crossed the margin of 70% and interestingly those constituencies are dominated by so called minority class and other tribes, where it is believed that women do not get proper opportunity of participation. But the result of 15th Lok Sabha elections paved a new way of thinking about Assamese women.
Remarks: Challenges, Government Initiatives etc.
Though as voter Assamese women showed a remarkable progress, but still their participation in the decision making process is much lower. They are still regarded as the second class citizens the participation of women in the secondary and tertiary sectors is lower in Assam. Indian government since the beginning took various initiatives to limit the gender gap through various activities. India also took active participation in various International Agreements which are dedicated to improve women’s conditions and showed its firm believes on it. For example, we can point out India’s support to the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which has been supported by a majority of UN member states. Again, the government of India establishes many commissions to improvise the participation level of its women in every sector of social and political life. On the basis of the recommendation of the Committee for Status of Women Report, 1974 government allowed reservation for women in local level in the year 1983. Again the draft recommendations of the Government of India’s National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Women 1988, realized the problem of low participation of women and go with 30 per cent reservation for women in local governance, pahchayat, zilla and in local municipal bodies. And ultimately through 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment act it allowed 33% reservation for women in the local bodies. However, the negative attitude of our political leaders barred the women to take participate in the active or mainstream politics. Though women are regarded as deciding factor, still they are unable to occupy a major position in the political parties except one or two. Almost all the political parties do favour the inclusion of women as their leader or in a higher rank. Every political party before election raised the issue of reservation of women in the national level but due to the lack of interest they are failed to take a concrete step. The 81st constitutional amendment act of 1996 containing the issue of reservation for women in parliament has become a highly debated issue. Thus it is proved that women will continue to be under-represented, unheard and excluded from decision making processes. It is due to the absence of a conducive environment for women to enter into politics and lack of empathy by the larger society and the mainstream political culture.
In general it is seen that political participation among women is lower than that of men, which reducing the influence of women in the formulation of public policies and is therefore a cause for concern. In conclusion it can be said that though as voter Assamese women has shown a remarkable progress, still they are subjected to domination and still we can not remove our negative attitudes towards them. On the basis of sex ratio which is 1000: 932 according to 2001 census we can say that women are still fighting for their right to survival. So, there is an urgent need to create awareness among the people, particularly among the women to eradicate the evils of the society. They have to overcome the evils customs, traditional lifestyle in order to bringing socio-political changes. It is the duty of the entire society. In this context it needs mention here that providing education to the women can change the present scenario because it is believed that an educated woman can face the challenges of life without any fear. At last we can say that due to the lack of interest from the political party, low status of education, low level of information, mobility, economic inequality and lack of proper training barred an women to take active participation in mainstream politics despite having their interest in it.
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