Upper caste landlords threaten Dalit village headwoman

By Imran Khan, IANS

Patna : A Dalit village headwoman in Bihar has been told by upper caste landlords to pay extortion money to continue in office or be killed.

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The woman has moved every authority – from the local police station to the district administration and to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar – but her plea for help has fallen on deaf ears.

Gangtia Devi hails from a village near Bakhtiarpur, Nitish Kumar’s hometown. Her troubles began 20 months ago when she was elected chief of the Rupas-Mahari panchayat near Bakhtiarpur in Patna district.

Initially, the family was overjoyed. But she soon realised that the powerful upper caste landowners in her village were not ready to accept her as village council head in a state known for its steep gender and caste polarisation.

“In the beginning, I was hopeful that everything would work out. But I was wrong. It is not easy for them to accept me as a ‘mukhiya’ (head) as I belong to the poorest of the poor,” Gangtia Devi said.

After her election, Gangtia Devi was regularly abused, humiliated, harassed and threatened for not paying extortion money to the powerful village landlords.

“Soon after I became the village council head, some villagers belonging to the powerful landed upper-caste started abusing and harassing me. They questioned how a ‘chamain’ (a woman belonging to chamar caste, traditionally the cobblers) could become a ‘mukhiya’ and sit in a chair in their presence,” she said.

Landless and illiterate Gangtia Devi was threatened regularly. Her husband, who works as a labourer, is afraid to leave home for work after the landlords threatened to set his hut on fire.

“No action was taken against the upper caste men, nor was any security provided to me,” she said.

Last year, another Dalit village head of Methwaliya panchayat in Chapra district was prevented from hoisting the national flag on Republic Day.

In 2006, 50 percent seats in the panchayat elections were reserved for women by the Nitish Kumar government.