Five decades since the Assam agitation, women of the state remain a footnote in development and politics.
Women made a mistake trusting the government, Hira Rani Chetia told me.
It wasn’t that the bait dangled in the recently held election in Assam was too good to resist but the women they targeted were too desperate.
Chetia was referring to the micro finance loans that the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised lakhs of women in Assam to relieve them from in their campaign rallies leading up to the polls. A whopping 12,500 crores of micro finance loans from 26 lakh customers with 45 lakh bank accounts is currently outstanding in Assam from 40 lenders. That is an average of a 48,000 loan per borrower.
A Dibrugarh based school teacher, Chetia has been leading the movement against micro finance harassment in Assam for quite some time. In the run up to the polls, she was among thousands who protested against the banks in Dibrugarh with the support of new political parties like Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal.
Since the last two years, Chetia has seen thousands of women in Assam resorting to drastic measures to repay the multiple loans, which micro finance institutions like Bandhan Bank and Arohan Financial Services have trapped them in. The situation has become worse now after the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping through rural India, crippling their income sources through the lockdown.
“In this second wave, I’ve seen women more preoccupied arranging money to pay off their loans even when their husbands were on oxygen support,” she said.
On 2 May, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance returned to power in Assam. Former health and finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma became the new chief minister of the state and he squarely credited the party’s victory to women voters. Out of the overwhelming turnout of 82.4 per cent of women voters this election, at least 50 per cent are said to have voted for the BJP on the premise of cash transfers and promise of loan waiver for women from families below poverty line and tea garden areas from the beginning of the year.
In particular, the Orunodoi scheme – a monthly transfer of Rs.831 to the accounts of women with special priority to those who are widowed, unmarried, divorced, differently abled and poor –introduced in January locked in their votes as the benefits started rolling out even before poll dates were announced.
However, in the weeks since the reelection of the BJP, women’s groups are becoming increasingly restless and angry with the party for failing to ‘waive off’ micro finance loans as promised in the election rallies. All this while, the party told the media that they could only provide support for repayment of these loans by waiving off the interest and extending the repayment window.
Although the Reserve Bank of India guidelines restrict micro finance institutions from giving more than two loans per woman, many women in upper Assam have been burdened with as many as seven loans per family. Moreover, Chetia said, the loans that were meant for setting up small businesses were utilised in personal or household expenses, another violation of the RBI guidelines that the banks allegedly did not bother with.
“Most of the loans are used to buy a new TV, mobile phone or to repay the husband’s loans,” she said. To repay one loan, she added, women ended up taking another loan, getting caught in a cycle of debt and paying an interest rate from 10 to 15 per cent despite having no regular income.
“A day before the bank comes to collect the payment, women are beaten by their husbands. In some other cases, they have either died by suicide or run away from their homes leaving behind their children,” she told me. “Some have even resorted to selling their bodies.”
On June 18, Sarma announced that the government would completely waive off loans only for those who were ‘poor and needy’ after placing ‘certain conditions’ based on the recommendations of a committee formed in May. Borrowers with an income of over one lakh and owners of four wheelers were excluded. However, he added, that the government had managed to negotiate with banks to write off over 4000 crore loans that violated the RBI norms.
Post COVID, what CAA?
Women in Assam wield a great degree of influence in the local politics. But their participation in the frontline has been time and again taken for granted with little conversion in political leadership and decision-making.
In December 2019, when the Centre had passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, women across age groups broke curfew, protesting the new law that was abhorrently seen as ‘pro-foreigner’. The CAA changed the citizenship rules identifying non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in India before December 2014 as eligible for citizenship.
While protests elsewhere in the country were against profiling Muslims, who were feared to be later disenfranchised through a National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Assamese were outraged that the new law would naturalise the recently identified ‘doubtful’ citizens on the basis of religion.
Months before the CAA was passed, a five-year long exercise flowing from the accord had just been completed to update the 1951 NRC in Assam, excluding 1.9 million applicants. For the Assamese, who had staged mass protests against the unchecked flow of ‘illegal’ foreigners from 1979-85, the NRC was a fulfillment of the promise made in the Assam Accord that identified 24 March 1971 as the cutoff date for determining citizenship.
“Regardless of whether All Assam Students Union (AASU) or Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) or any other organisation that called people to come out on the streets, women had organically come out to protest,” said Bidisha Barman, a Guwahati based activist.
A year on, a sea of women on the streets of Guwahati and other Assamese Hindu dominated districts in the valley were seen waving the BJP flag, endearing Sarma – the clear contender for the CM seat – with hugs and kisses in gratitude of direct cash transfers like Orunodoi. Such a sea change in their sentiment, Barman reasoned, was largely because the CAA movement itself was purely ‘sentiment driven’.
Barman said that after all the cash doles that were distributed among the women in mainstream Assamese communities or the Adivasi (tribal) women working in tea gardens, no one was talking about the CAA anymore. “The loss of jobs during the first wave of the pandemic had put people in dire straits, especially the migrant women who were forced to return,” Barman told me.
Last year in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a strict nationwide lockdown on a four-hour notice, almost two months after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in India. Thousands of labourers in the cities were forced to walk back to their villages, before the government arranged special trains for the migrant labourers.
However, some women remained steadfast against the government despite the enticement of cash doles. Bokakhat based community leader and writer, Monikangana Barbora said that about 1,335 women in her Mising village in Jorhat district had instead campaigned for Pranab Doley, an independent candidate from the Mising tribe and a long time activist. “We prioritised our children’s future over the incentives they offered to keep our mouths shut,” said Barbora, who teaches in Jatiya Vidyalaya.
Barbora said that their campaign was led by a diversity of women, including those from the minority Muslim community in the area who were troubled by the polarising atmosphere in their state. “We’ve seen the climate around us becoming increasingly communal where previously amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims have now become distant,” she added.
But despite their intense campaigning going door to door and even learning to drive e-rickshaws with no funds to go up against a national party funded by electoral bonds from anonymous sources, the relief from financial schemes won over a majority of the local women.
“There was bias even in the Orunodoi distribution where most of the beneficiaries were BJP supporters or linked to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP, the regional party that won from Bokakhat and remains in alliance with BJP),” she said. “Many of our names were cut off from the list for speaking out against the government.”
Chetia reported a similar rift created by the incumbent government in Dibrugarh, where a new organisation, Sasithan Mahila Manch came up overnight in Tingkhong. “The BJP candidate Taranga Gogoi, who has now become an MLA, was a part of it,” she said. “We challenged the government to waive off the loans before the election. But Himanta Biswa Sarma used this mancha (platform) to spread the word in upper Assam that loans would be waived off if BJP came to power.”
In the tea garden areas, it wasn’t the CAA that stirred a revolution among the labourers but the BJP’s inaction to deliver on their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category of the state and the promised hike in wages they made in 2016. Women, who make up more than 50 per cent of the vote base that can sway power in close to 42 constituencies in the valley, had been protesting since October last year, often sacrificing their wages of the day to demand the promised Rs.351 per day.
Esther Baghwar, a member of the Assam Adivasi Mahila Samiti in Golaghat, said that while it seemed like the sentiment was leaning towards the Congress, which had assured a blanket hike of Rs.361 against the Rs.318 that the Sonowal led government could manage, the results had overwhelmingly favoured the incumbent party. “Since the women had started receiving the Rs.831 in their accounts, they felt indebted to pay back the government in votes,” said Baghwar.
Where is the women’s manifesto? And their leadership?
A glance at the ruling party’s manifesto offers key promises, including greater stake in the refinery corporations, delimitation exercise to prevent demographic changes influencing electoral constituencies and pattas (land titles) for landless ‘Indian citizens of the state’ in a ‘phased’ manner. Many of these points addressed the key concerns of land, resources and identity that were at the heart of the CAA protests.
By late last year, the government had already started distributing land titles to communities they identified as ‘indigenous’ to the land in lower and upper Assam. While women received Rs.831 to run their households and loan waiver promises, men were granted land titles.
Guwahati based activist Anurita Hazarika told me that irrespective of the economic condition, women were always seen as beneficiaries of the lowest denominator. In the 2019 general elections, the BJP government had offered one tola gold to brides, encouraging the practice of dowry that saw the highest registration of crimes against women in Assam. “If they were seen as agents, then parties would go beyond nutrition and food security,” said Hazarika.
To address this lacuna of issues specific to women and other marginalised groups, a network of five organisations floated a women’s manifesto in March. The manifesto detailed a host of demands from representation to equal wages and land entitlements for women, including transgender, women with disabilities, and those living in autonomous tribal districts.
Women from Hazarika’s own family had gone out to protest in their traditional attire, as asked by the student unions, since they were seen as ‘torchbearers’ of their cultural identity. “Women came out increasing the numbers on the ground and the organisations wanted to show their representation just as they did in the seventies,” she said. “But even today they are used as shields, not agents.”
While women were on the streets, Hazarika said, they were missing from the dais in public gatherings, and were not included in the central committees of dialogues with the government.
“If women’s agencies were represented in these movements, then the manifestos of the parties would have been very different and we wouldn’t have had a declining ratio of women in assembly,” she said.
In fact, women’s representation slipped to its lowest in 20 years, as Behanbox reported. Despite women playing a crucial role at the grassroots, Aparajita Bhuyan, the president of BJP’s Mahila Morcha (women’s wing) told Behanbox that they were missing in party campaigns and meetings.
Even the regional parties fielded abysmally lesser number of women candidates. AJP put up only seven candidates and a lone woman contender represented Raijor Dal. Numbers aside, not bringing women into internal discussions worked against both the parties.
Dilwara Begum Chowdhury, who was also the only woman contender from Jamunamukh constituency in Nagaon district, believed that she stood a good chance given the high percentage of women voters and her legacy. Her father Alhaj Khalilur Rahman Chowdhury had won from the Muslim dominated constituency twice on an AGP ticket. After his demise in 2010, it became the bastion of Siraj Uddin Ajmal of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
“The women here had encouraged me to fight from Raijor Dal. But I lost a lot of support after Akhil Gogoi wrote his letter against AIUDF from prison,” she said. “The letter got twisted around and people believed the rumours that he was secretly in cahoots with the BJP.”
Later, Chowdhury got to know that Gogoi did it to secure his votes since he could only campaign behind prison bars. “He managed to win his seat at the cost of everyone else’s,” she told me.
Moreover, despite the AJP’s alliance with Raijor Dal and her pleas to the former, they went ahead and fielded another candidate in the same constituency – a move that only further split the votes against the AIUDF-Congress alliance.
Sidelining women is nothing new
Through elections, accords or political movements that I’ve covered in the Northeast region since 2015, there’s been an undeniable pattern of women and other gender minorities remaining an afterthought in policy or decision making process despite their contributions.
At my own parents’ hometown, in the Churachandpur tribal hill district of Manipur, when the three bills on land and identity were passed by the state assembly, 10,000 women gathered to form a human chain in protest. Women shouldered the responsibility of organising not only numbers but also solidarity across ethnic and religious communities. Yet they couldn’t find a place in the joint action committee that negotiated the terms of the bills and the demands of the tribal hill communities in the state.
Women in communities sidelined or targeted by a dominant identity (or nationalism) are left doubly marginalised by both the local leadership and feminist solidarity. Rehana Sultana, who teaches Assamese literature in Sibsagar Girl's College, said that the Bengal origin Muslim women only come up in the discourse of citizenship.
The citizenship process in Assam has systemically disfavored poor, illiterate women. The panchayat certificates (issued by the village head) used by lakhs of married women, who did not possess either birth, marriage or education certificates, to prove their citizenship were rejected during the NRC exercise.
“Neither the local leadership speaks up for them nor do they raise their voice. They lack political awareness beyond the status of their citizenship,” said Sultana, adding that unlike other areas, there were no political women’s organisations either to take up these matters.
The ‘Miya’ (a pejorative slang used for Bengali Muslims in Assam) women, Sultana said, were still relegated to mere spectators at mega rallies where political leaders like Badruddin Ajmal or Sonowal made grand appearances, landing their choppers in char areas (riverine islands). Ultimately, it’s the patriarch at home that decides who they vote for.
“The lack of education and literacy is only one reason for this. When the patriarchy at home doesn’t value their opinion, how can we expect them to break the glass ceiling outside?” Sultana said.
Hanging by wishful hopes
Thirty three years old Hanufa Khatoon, who has been working as an accredited social health activist (ASHA) in Akabasti Bengali Gaon of Sonitpur district since 2006, is awaiting the extra Rs.300 the government hospital authorities promised would be added to their accounts post the election.
While the BJP manifesto has promised ‘smart TABS’ to ASHA and Anganwadi workers by 2022, Khatoon is among 32,546 workers whose honorariums were cut by Rs.1000 after the pandemic hit. “Our hospital supervisor told us that the state government did not have sufficient funds to pay our full honorarium but it’s been more than a year now,” she wondered.
Forget a tablet, the government has barely equipped them with proper safety gear for field inspections as the ASHA baideows (sister) continue to use the one-time donated cloth masks and hand sanitiser bottle, which ran out long back. The situation is no better for the women working in the 800 tea gardens of Assam, which produces 50 per cent of the tea in India. Despite the spread of COVID-19 that has infected over 700 tea garden workers in 408 estates, women labourers continued to pluck leaves with threadbare safety gear and many still remaining to be inoculated.
In May, the government suddenly decided to withdraw the hike they passed before the polls that was taken to court by the Assam branch of Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies. While BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami told me in April that they would fight the case till the end, they instead increased the wages by Rs.38 (bringing it up to 205 per day), a raise that is undoubtedly more amenable to the Assamese owners of tea estates.
Instead of fair wages, the Hindu nationalist government controlled by New Delhi has its priorities geared towards increasing communal polarisation in the state. Last year, the Assam government announced plans to draft a bill, making it mandatory for couples to declare their religion and income a month before the wedding. It came soon after BJP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Karnataka passed laws against alleged forcible conversion of Hindu women through marriages aka ‘love jihad’.
“There’s already a group operating in Sivasagar that rescues Hindu women from marrying or running away with Muslim men,” said Bidisha Barman. The troubling thing, she added, was that they had support from locals, visible from their posts and commentary on social media.
Considering how the BJP has managed to polarise Assam’s culture and introducing the draft for a cow protection bill as their first order of business in assembly, she said that such laws could see a seamless passage. “Barring some progressive groups in rural areas and the cities, no one will oppose these laws,” she said.
On victory day, Assam BJP chief Sarma told India Today that women voted in favour of the BJP because of the government’s policies of ‘empowerment’.
If the new chief minister truly believes that they won on empowerment, not enticement, he’d do well to put women before cows. Or not treat them like one.
This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.