How Dalit Woman Leader Asserted Her Right, Hoisted Tricolour
Despite being the president of the panchayat, she was stopped from hoisting the national flag.
On 15 August, most of India celebrated Independence Day. For 62-year-old Amrutham Amma, the president of the Athupakkam village panchayat, however, the day was a reminder that a large number of people are still considered unequal, and treated poorly, by their fellow citizens.
Despite being the president of the panchayat, she was stopped from hoisting the national flag on Saturday, because a few caste Hindu panchayat leaders in her village did not want a Dalit woman to hoist the tricolour. But on Thursday, Amrutham Amma asserted her equal citizenship – she raised the tricolour at the panchayat office in her village.
As Amrutham, dressed in a red sari and blue mask, saluted the tricolour, she was surrounded by Tiruvallur Collector Mageswari, Tiruvallur SP Aravindan, police officials and other supporters.
The panchayat secretary, Sasikumar, was suspended on Wednesday for blocking her from hoisting the flag on Saturday. Two people were further booked for the attack on a reporter, Ezhil, who tried to cover caste discrimination in the village in the aftermath of the Independence Day event.
The 62-year-old was elected as panchayat president in a seat reserved for the Scheduled Caste community last year, and says discrimination in the village is systemic. From being denied the chair reserved for panchayat leaders to sit in the office, to being denied a few kgs of rice given as aid, even before her victory, the panchayat president has faced it all. She and her family were not even spared from threat to life, she says.
The systemic discrimination against her was created by three caste Hindu people, Amrutham says, pointing to Haridass (former panchayat leader); Vijayakumar (the husband of the panchayat vice president); and the clerk at the panchayat office.
From Republic Day to Independence Day
For the first few months after she was elected, Amrutham says there was no struggle. But when she was invited to hoist the flag for Republic day at a school in January this year, the problems started.
“I was invited by a school teacher and headmaster to hoist the flag for Republic day. I accepted the invitation and on Republic Day, I was getting ready to attend the flag hoisting. Someone from our village came and told us that all the important people in the village are already there and the children are standing under the sun so I need to rush. Without any further delay, I went to school along with my husband and son. In the school, I did not find the villagers but Haridass, Vijayakumar and panchayat vice-president Revathy. It was clear from the way they looked at me that they did not want me to get on stage,” Amrutham says over the phone to TNM
However, Amrutham with vigour stepped on the first step of the makeshift stage. “Within the next step, Haridass immediately told the teachers to stop me. ‘Bring that woman down,’ he ordered and I stepped down. Soon he left the school and all the villagers gathered. The villagers asked us about what had happened and I told them the turn of events,” says Amrutham.
Soon after the incident, Amrutham along with her son went to register a complaint with the Block Development Officer.
The people in the BDO office welcomed her and told her to hoist the flag there. She obliged and hoisted the flag. However, there was no action taken on the complaint until April. The BDO also contracted coronavirus and succumbed. Hence, the issue continued without a solution.
On seeing this, the villagers gathered to solve the issue. Amrutham and Haridass participated in the hearing.
“Haridass was already staring at me and I took a seat by the side along with my family. He immediately told the village seniors in front of everyone, ‘How can she get the guts to hoist the flag when I am there with 15 years of experience?’ I did not answer that and I just told them that Haridass told me to get down from the stage. Haridass got angry with my reply and soon threatened me, ‘See for yourself if you will survive these five years. You’ll know as you go.’ This is the kind of threat to life I am facing after that,” explains Amrutham.
According to Amrutham, Haridass served as the panchayat president till the seat was reserved for the Scheduled Caste community in Athupakkam of Gudiyattam, Tiruvallur district. Haridass belongs to the Reddy caste, a Backward Caste Community, while Amrutham belongs to a Scheduled Caste community.
Last year, Amrutham won her seat as an independent candidate with 1,713 votes and a winning margin of over 1,500 votes, says Amrutham’s son Sasikumar. He also says that the people of Athupakkam wanted Amrutham to contest. The people believed that she was simple without lust for power and she would help people in difficulty. “Even now, they are supporting us and giving us a morale boost, not even once have I faced discrimination from the people,” he says.
Amrutham was able to file her affidavit smoothly and contest in the local body election conducted in 2019. Till she won the election, everything was smooth but then everything turned upside down because of the ‘dominance of Haridass’ in the village, says Amrutham. However, no one except a handful of people support him, she adds.
The threats also come from Vijayakumar, the husband of the vice-president. She was once told by Vijayakumar to stop declaring herself as the panchayat president and instead say that Revathy, vice-president and wife of Vijayakumar, was the panchayat leader.
“Vijayakumar told me if someone comes and asks you for a favour, tell them that Revathy is in-charge of the work and that she will do it for them,” she alleges.
Amrutham also claims that the clerk of the office was appointed by Haridass and he would not even come to the office on days she wanted to go to the office. “I do not even have my office keys with me. The keys are with Revathy and I hardly go to the office because they stop me or threaten me, or they do not open the office for me. They will even address me by caste slurs, I cannot explain the pain in words,” says Amrutham Amma.
Discrimination Repeats on Independence Day
Ahead of Independence Day, Amrutham Amma was once again invited to hoist the flag – this time, by a different headmaster, at a different school. And once again, she was blocked. Amrutham Amma alleges that Haridass, panchayat secretary Sasikumar, and Vijayakumar threatened the headmaster, who in turn canceled the invite for Amurtham to hoist the national flag.
Following this, a reporter from Puthiya Thalaimurai channel, Ezhil went to cover the caste discrimination. However, he was beaten up allegedly by Sasikumar, Haridass and three more caste Hindus in the village. The reporter suffered injuries to his eyes and chest. His mobile phone was snatched and he was also kept in confinement.
Ezhil immediately lodged a complaint with Gummidipoondi police station. The police booked charges under wrongful confinement, rioting and punishment for voluntarily causing hurt and arrested two persons.
The Tiruvallur Collector Mageswari on Wednesday addressing the press said that panchayat secretary Sasikumar was suspended for inciting discrimination and stopping Amrutham from hoisting the flag. And on Thursday, the administration arranged for Amrutham to hoist the flag at the panchayat office in the village.
Amrutham’s Ambition For People
Despite the humiliation, Amrutham worries that the lack of access to her rights has stopped her from helping the people in difficulty as a panchayat leader.
The caste discrimination has forced Amrutham to keep out of her daily activities. Amrutham was stopped from even monitoring the works undertaken under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. “Vijayakumar tells me to sign the papers but I don’t. They don’t even inform me why they need my signature, but will demand it. So I don’t sign on any documents. But I had to sign a cheque recently for paying salaries to panchayat and MGNREGA workers. They recently came to me and said that the salaries were not dispersed for a long time now. So I had to sign that but till now they haven’t informed me if they have disbursed the salaries,” she informs.
Amrutham says she contested the elections to help the people so from now on she wants to do more for the people. On the works she is planning to undertake, Amrutham says, “I want to repair the lights and roads. I want to check the water supply and ensure that everyone gets access to water. More than this, I want to provide a home for the homeless and give livestock for the unemployed. If a SC is elected to power shouldn’t she do all this?”
(This article was first published on The News Minute and has been republished with permission.)
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