Mobilising People With Constitutional Values - Shalutai Tripude
Shalutai Tirpude is our fellow from Samta Fellowship - 2019-2020.
Shalutai Tirpude has been mobilising with the grassroots organisation Mahila Rajsatta Andolan (MRA) for over 9 years, but has been active in local political processes since 2008. Located in Silli-Bhandara, she plays a key role in facilitating greater political engagement among women in rural areas across the district. With experience fighting gram panchayat elections, Shalutai represents women and the marginalised castes in local self-governance and has been proactive in organising local Bacchat Gats that pursue specific Constitutional rights and values. Central to MRA’s mission is the idea of unlocking women’s access to, understanding of, and participation in local, grameen political processes. This includes confronting those socio-cultural practices that thwart equality from the intersections of caste, class and sex/gender. Shalutai has thus focused her efforts on foregrounding 4 particular Constitutional values at the levels of Self, Family, Group, and Community in MRA’s various initiatives. Her work consciously links Equality, Fraternity, Freedom, Justice to local issues. As a Samta Fellow, Shalutai’s work demonstrates clarity in the strategic use of awareness, advocacy, and positioning to design activities on Constitutional values with women, men and children in local, grameen contexts.
Mahila Rajsatta Andolan, Saunsthas, Sangathans, and Bacchat Gats
Shalutai’s journey as a local self-governance activist began in 2008 when she first entered as an aspirant in gram panchayat elections. Unsuccessful in her bid, she joined the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan 2 years later and began organising a cross-section of women into Bacchat Gats. Over a period of 5 years, she facilitated trainings, workshops and activities that encouraged women to achieve financial independence, create community-level awareness on the significance and benefits of financial inclusion, and also inform / educate women on how political processes can be used as tools to challenge a variety of social problems such as caste atrocities, patriarchy, and various other forms of exploitation. These trainings also cultivated a space for women to think critically on local issues and raise questions on the spectrum of cultural, social, economic and political practices that systematically discriminate against women from childhood. For example, gendercide / femicide (the systematic killing of females at birth, for dowry, intercaste relationships, etc), restricted movement or visibility in public spaces / places, participation in decision-making processes, freedom to choose for themselves and their children, representation of the self and their interests in the private and public domains, inclusion, education, and sexuality.
These Bacchat Gats extended to become support groups or saunsthas for women, but also included men in the discourse. Mahila Arthik Vikas, a group mobilising across 10-12 villages, pursued the objective of creating awareness on the importance of financial inclusion in enabling women to become active in decision-making process within and outside their homes. During this time, Shalutai submitted her candidacy for Zilla Parishad elections and ran a “corruption-free campaign” that sought to create a strong counter-narrative to the widespread prevalence of party-politics that involves bribery and the open purchase of votes. Though once again unsuccessful in the elections, she continued developing the narrative and practice of “corruption-free” politics through her work upon joining MRA in 2010. The consistency of this campaign was and continues to be compelled by her belief that despite the increase in rates of literacy and formal education, peoples’ behaviours and practices do not reflect any understanding of Constitutional Rights and/or Values.
Shalutai’s have consistently focused on the understanding and application of 4 Constitutional Values: Equality, Fraternity, Freedom, and Justice. In her proposals, the original application submission and revised version, she explains that she believes these 4 to be the foundation of future society. Moreover, he has been using these in her public awareness programmes to prepare people on the Constitution (IMPORTANTLY: members of both the Elite and marginalised castes / classes) through the dissemination of information, but also ensuring that they internalise and practice it. This internalisation and implementation is measured through sustained discussions, advocacy, positioning, and activities carried out at the local levels.
Our (Nagesh and I) field-based observations confirm that MRA’s advocacy, positioning and activities are focused on identifying and developing leadership competencies among a diverse group of women. Moreover, we heard testimonies from women within the organisation that Shalutai’s trainings on the link between Rights, Issues and Values have been particularly impactful because she introduced the idea of using everyday and local examples that women can relate to in order to explain how and why the Constitution is a critical guide to solving their problems. They also added that her use of Constitutional terms and concepts has trained them to use Constitutional vocabulary in their own awareness, advocacy, positioning, and activities. We consider it a mark of progress that the women themselves were explaining Constitutional concepts and ideas lucidly but in technical terms without any prompting from Shalutai.
Shalutai’s work also includes the development of local level grievance committees or Tanta Mukt Samitis, that are led by women and not men, who otherwise traditionally serve as the heads of panchayats. The meeting we participated in was attended by the current leader in the area, a young woman who has been connecting her work and struggles to the Constitution, and used it as a reference for challenging the status quo in decision-making. The meeting was also attended by a woman who mobilises OBC women to engage with the Constitution because she found, through a baseline survey, that it is typically Dalit women (but also some Tribal women) who take ownership of it as a means to challenge discriminatory practices. On the other hand, women in the “Open category” demonstrate a preference for maintaining patriarchal norms and show reluctance to engage with the Constitution primarily on the basis of its association to B R Ambedkar. This motivated her to leave her business and get into grassroots mobilising by joining MRA. One important way in which she engages women in Constitutional discourse is by identifying where / which sections ensure women’s political participation and how can these arguments can be used to strengthen MRA’s efforts. In this way, Shalutai has inspired women within MRA to refer to the Constitution in its textual and conceptual form in the development of a process that enables women across castes to share power and realise the power in political self-representation.
KEY ACHIEVEMENTS / OUTCOMES
Among the tangible outcomes of Shalutai’s process are:
(1) Organising meetings at the village level with women on the different dimensions of the Constitution;
(2) Facilitating a workshop called “Rasta Vikas” that focused on Constitutional values and the contexts in which they materialise or may be implemented;
(3) Preparing groups of Constitutional advocates who carry out campaigns, programmes and awareness activities at the local village and district levels;
(4) Highlighting the significance of Constitutional values in the Gram Sabha;
(5) Creating a study circle to for the reading and analysis of the book “Bharat Mazha Desh Ahe” (India is my country).
More specifically, at the levels of Self and Family, Shalutai:
1. Framed the Constitution’s Preamble and hung it in her sitting room next to the calendar. She explained that the calendar is the center of her family’s life because all their individual and collective activities are organised in it. It is a practice that she started in her home with her family so that everyone had access to eachother’s schedules and commitments. Knowing that every member of her family visits the calendar everyday, she placed the Preamble next to it in order to generate a curiosity about it. Eventually, it started to become the topic of discussion as her daughters began asking questions about it aand the words within it. This allowed Shalutai to converse with her daughters about the Constitution, its Rights and Values, without imposing it on them as a fundamental text. It also helped her understand it better and practice relating it to the women in MRA’s Bacchat Gat and the saunsthas she works with; and
2, Shared with us that she and her husband agreed that child rearing involves the equal sharing of parental responsibilities. While we were visiting Bhandara, she told us that her daughter had been unwell and admitted to a hospital in Nagpur. When we asked why she wasn’t with her daughter and whether we could give her a lift to Nagpur, she explained that her husband was at the hospital, and that it was as much the father’s responsibility to care for his children as it was mother’s. As a result, she did not feel any guilt or shame in not having visited the hospital, nor did she let that interrupt her work and travel plans to other villages.
At the level of Group, we witnessed:
1. The cultivation of a culture of sanvidhanic practice in the local gram panchayat office we visited;
2. A high number of women staff in the gram panchayat office. The reason for doing so is that a greater presence and visibility of women makes these places more equitable and hospitable. The local sarpanch, a man, explained that the official space also accommodated family and child-care needs; and
3. Widespread use of constitutional language or vocab among women (members of MRA) to resolve, mediate and arbitrate conflicts at the local level.
At the level of Community, her efforts reflected in:
1. Following up with a lady she noticed in a saree shop who was refusing to purchase a blue saree because of the colour’s strong association to Ambedkarism. Apparently, the lady had liked the colour and the saree but was influenced by the reactions of those accompanying her. Comments were made about the saree and its colour, to which Shalutai advised the woman (who was not known to her) to buy it if she liked it. Eventually, the lady left the shop without buying it but Shalutai knew where she lived and began conversing with her casually on Constitutional issues, questions and values while indirectly linking them to the colour-bias of her decision not to buy the saree;
2. Her development of the sangathan Mahila Shakti Abhiyan;
3. The Bacchat Gat and MRA leaders’ understandings of how to locate themselves with reference to the Constitution, and also how the text empowers their participation in civic, political and economic processes;
4. Her facilitation of widespread village level discussions with women on the importance of organising the demand for a women-centered budget in the Gram Sabha;
5. Facilitation workshops on the constitution with women members and sarpanches of MRA in 10 villages;
6. People requesting her to conduct more such workshops in Gram Sabhas;
7. Her facilitation of a Workshop on Rights at the district level for women, because of which the women’s reading levels have steadily increased and improved;
8. The use of RTI in 2 talukas;
9. Increasing strengthen of Mahila Sangathan networks;
10. Implementation of a process by which 5 women with leadership competencies and potential are selected in each of the 10 villages that MRA works in. These women are trained in Constitution concepts, tested in exams, and move through levels of education, after which they receive certification. These women are also trained to arbitrate local level conflicts and situations after having been mentored by Shalutai and other senior leadership of MRA; and
11. The implementation of the 33% women’s reservation enacted in the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Legislative Assembly (Vidaan Sabha);
(1) Women were led to understand how Constitutional values are linked to everyday activities, especially in the private / domestic sphere through parallels in procedure, that is, likening the preparation of a curry or masala tea to internalising the various aspects of the Constitution;
(2) Women want to continue being a part of the Constitutional study group even after the syllabus / curriculum has been completed;
(3) Women show a lot of enthusiasm for the Constitutional workshops, even those who belong to communities and families that were initially opposed or resistant;
(4) Women (mostly from the SC and ST communities) have themselves begun to demand and agitate for rights.
RISKS, CHALLENGES AND OVERCOMING THEM
Risks and challenges abound in Shalutai’s field but in her own words, “I readily embrace the risks and difficulties. In fact, I enjoy taking on challenges because they make this work more meaningful” (November 2019). It is in this spirit that Shalutai has adapted and re-scripted her approach to the advocacy of values across Nagpur district. Among the incidents that compelled, or rather inspired, her to do so involved a local BJP politician who advised her against campaigns and workshops that promoted Constitutional discourse. The threat was explicit and cautionary, not violent. He pointed out to her that even prominent politicians in the district did not touch on Constitutional values during their campaigns, and that she ought not to either, particularly because her husband is employed by the local government. The threat was clear and implied risks at multiple levels. Recognising the consequences of direct advocacy, she revised her approach by using a more subtle, contextually relevant and colloquial vocabulary to link the Constitution’s substance to local socio-political dynamics.
This shift in approach was also instrumental to connecting MRA and women belonging to the OBC castes. Early in this journey of working on Constitutional values, Shalutai observed that an assertive, jargonized pedagogical method did not resonate with OBC caste women. Instead, it only served to drive them away. Unexpected however was the rise in number of SC caste women participating in these same baithaks. But this was somewhat expected because, in her opinion and experience, many women from the SC castes are informed about the Constitution because of its association with Dr. B R Ambedkar. It is viewed with a sense of ownership, pride and endearment. These women tend to be more vocal, willing to occupy public spaces, articulate their rights and entitlements on the basis of sex/gender, caste and class, and also mobilise quickly on issues that affect the social well-being of their communities. In contrast, OBC caste women remain bound to patriarchal norms, status quos and a practice of silence on issues that may be seen as threatening kinship structures and the practices that enable their communities to make specific claims to historical superiority. Determined to connect with the women in this demographic, Shalutai restructured her modules such that the thematic order reflected, firstly, the primacy of everyday problems that emerge in women’s immediate environments; this was followed by ways to develop leadership and community engagement; and lastly, the contents of India’s Constitution. The medium for communicating the latter was also tempered by colloquial terms and local frames of reference, rather than a technical or legal vocabulary that is widely considered alienating. In sum, relateability was the key.
This method of embedding Constitutional content in local contexts and colloquialising the terms of engagement – what we may understand as a localisation of the entire process of advocacy – was and continues to be successful in the case of Village shakhas where MRA conducts readings, study groups, Constitutional literacy, and leadership development activities. The title “Ganv Shakha” emerged from the failure of “Sanvidhan Shakha,” which, as they realised, did not appeal to the OBC demographic or the women’s families – who were opposed to Constitutional leadership trainings. In making Constitutional rights, principles, responsibilities, duties, and values implicit, Shalutai and her fellow leaders at MRA were able to galvanise women from the OBC castes and bring them into the fold of their socio-cultural, political and economic movement.
A third challenge, quite unlike the first two, has been responding to the hostility from government officials who work in the buildings where she facilitates MRA’s programmes. She observed that officials, especially male staff who often authorised the events, would use passive aggression to show their displeasure at what was being discussed. For example, they would get up and leave the programme or not participate. This behaviour has endured and Shalutai continues to grapple with the resistance to accept that Constitutional discourse is integral to collective progress. Towards this end, she has been engaging with such officials in dialogue and has made some headway by subduing the Constitutional rhetoric; still, much remains to be done.