Srinagar: On a foggy November morning, Meema Bano, 50, the sarpanch (elected head of a village) of Bundgam village tucked away in central Kashmir’s Budgam district was doing household chores in the courtyard of her decrepit single storey home.
Neither the children playing on the rutted street outside nor the villagers who helpfully directed Article 14 to Meema’s home recognised her as the sarpanch.
They believed instead that Meema's husband, Syed Ahmad Musvi, was their sarpanch.
At her home, upon realising that a journalist wanted to speak to the sarpanch of the village, Meema herself said the sarpanch was away—her husband had gone out for some official work.
It was Musvi who carried out all official work assigned to the sarpanch, she confirmed, not her. In a bypoll in 2021, it was Meema, a mother of three, who was elected unopposed as sarpanch of Halqa Bundgam of Sunoor Kali Pora block in Budgam. (Halqa refers to adjoining villages combined into single administrative panchayats.) The sarpanch’s position was reserved for women.
Musvi was elected as a panch, or a member of the panchayat, the local self-government body of the village.
While panchayat elections had been held in Kashmir in 2018, bypolls were held along with the maiden district development council (DDC) polls in November 2020, to fill more than 13,000 vacant seats.
Meema is not the only female village-level elected representative in Kashmir whose husband or other male family member carries out her duties. Dozens of other women in Kashmir, elected as panchs and sarpanchs through the reservation—meant to empower women through gendered decisions in subjects such as expenditure priorities and budgets—have been relegated to the background as male relatives work on their behalf.
Not only in village self-government bodies, but even in the district development councils, the recently elected female members are barely involved in any decision-making processes, dependent instead on a husband, father or brother.
Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of ‘Shakti: Political Power To Women’, a non-partisan advocacy group working to improve electoral representation of women, said the proxy practice, seen in several parts of India, was a “crime against democracy”.
The objective behind reservation for women in public office was to ensure that 50% of the population’s views do not go unrepresented, she said. “Women go through some experiences that men don’t.”
Tara Krishnaswamy added that elected women leaders have proven to be adept at handling people’s grievances on the ground that are otherwise ignored, even at personal risk.
Two Decades Of Women Representatives
Panchayati Raj institutions across India were dominated by men until 1993 when the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution was passed, framing the gram sabha or the general body of adult residents of a village as the foundation of the local self-government system, and providing for 33% reservation for women in all Panchayati Raj institutions at all three levels, including the positions for the sarpanch.
The provisions of the 73rd Amendment were not extended to Jammu & Kashmir at the time, due to the special status granted to the erstwhile state.
However, in 2003, the state government under provisions of its own constitution—it was nullified in August 2019 alongside the abrogation of Article 370, which provided limited autonomy to the former state — granted this 33% reservation for women in Halqa panchayats for panch constituencies, as per the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Act, 2003.
The DDC polls were the first major election held in the union territory (UT) of Jammu & Kashmir after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped the erstwhile state’s semi-autonomous status, dividing it into two separate UTs—J&K and Ladakh.
The union government introduced a provision to hold direct elections to the DDCs by amending the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, replacing the district development boards, to lay the foundation for a three-tier Panchayati Raj system across J&K.
Reservations for women in 2003 had been limited to the halqa panchayat level, not for block and district-level representatives. The reservation then was also limited to women panch members, not extended to posts of sarpanch.
Before the 2021 bypolls and the 2018 Panchayat polls, rural local body elections had been held in 2011, and before that in 2001, when reservations had not yet been announced. In 2011 too, women were reported to have contested as proxies of male leaders.
Since Meema’s unopposed victory in 2020, Musvi has been working as both a panch and sarpanch of the village. Besides doing his own work he has been carrying out the work of his wife also, including roles assigned to a sarpanch such as allocation of funds for various development works, and executing these works including providing clean drinking water, sanitation facilities or addressing other grievances.
The Sarpanch Who Did Not Know Of Her Nomination
On the day of Article 14’s visit, Musvi had gone to a local school to attend a meeting for implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission in Kashmir’s villages, a gathering meant to be attended by all panchs and sarpanchs of the block.
According to locals in her village, Meema allowed her husband to work in her place because she is illiterate, and could not understand finer aspects of the work of a sarpanch. Meema never went to school.
“She is not literate and she doesn’t know what needs to be done and what not,” said a local resident named Syed Baakir. “That is why most of the work on the ground is done by her husband.”
According to residents, as long as work in the village is getting done, they don't really have any opinion on who carries out the work.
Meema had not given a thought to contesting the election for the post of sarpanch of Bundgam, reserved for women, until Musvi conveyed to her that he had filed nomination papers on her behalf.
“My husband had gone to the block and had filed my nomination papers,” Meema told Article 14. “I had no idea until he came back and told me about it.”
She said Musvi attends the meetings she is invited to, and carries out all her official work. “He has a good acquaintance with this kind of work now,” she said.
Men Field Women Relatives For Reserved Posts
For the panchayat elections, several women in Kashmir were lured to participate in the name of women empowerment, said residents in Bundgam.
In Bundgam, many women were approached to contest the election but only Meema had filed her nomination papers.
With proxy sarpanchs working, women’s empowerment was not being achieved, said residents.
“To announce women’s participation in democratic set-ups, especially after the abrogation of Article 370, women were approached to contest the elections in our village too,” said one man from Bundgam village, preferring to remain anonymous. “In the whole village, only one woman agreed, that too not because she wanted to contest, but because her husband wanted to be sarpanch.”
Meema won because there was no opposition, the man said.
“She is mostly at home and everything is done by her husband including signing the documents.” A bridge construction project is underway in the village, and it is Musvi who keeps a check, the man added.
VIllagers said block-level officials are also aware that the elected head remains an elected representative on documents only. “The officials also communicate with her husband and conduct the meetings,” the man said.
A Contractor, A Sarpanch & A Proxy
Almost 87 km from Budgam, Harifa was elected as the sarpanch of Halqa Lawdara in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
Since then her husband Nadeem Ahmad, a government contractor, has been carrying out her duties.
According to locals in Lawdara, Nadeem had earlier contested elections to the post of sarpanch, but had lost.
Harifa is a graduate, but reportedly has no idea about elections or how official work is to be done. Her nomination papers were also filed by her husband.
“I don’t know anything about the official work, because I don’t work in the field,” Harifa told Article 14. “My husband works and he is experienced, so he is aware of the problems and challenges on the ground.”
While the panchayat house of the village lay in shambles, locals said they had seen their sarpanch only on the day of the polls. After that, for almost two years now, she has never visited on a normal working day.
Instead, Harifa showed up for prominent festivals and functions.
She visits the school during the formal protocol of unfurling the national flag on Independence Day and Republic day, said a school teacher. “The rest of the time, we do not see her anywhere working on the ground.”
Exasperated villagers said that Harifa had disappointed them. “Her husband is her helper, when we have any kind of work; it’s her husband who shows up instead of her,” said Imtiyaz, a local resident. He even carries the seals and a rubber-stamp pad for official paperwork.
“I have voted for her, not for her husband,” Imtiyaz said. “We cannot even talk about it as all the officials in the area are aware of the proxy work.”
Shafiq Mir, chairman of the All J&K Panchayat Conference (AJKPC), an independent body that works for the welfare of panchayat members across J&K, said they receive complaints about the proxy practice frequently. Unless the elected women leaders themselves step up to protest and demand to be accorded respect, little can be done, he said.
The elected women representatives were permitting the proxy system, he said. “This is an encroachment and it will continue until the women allow it,” he said.
Among senior citizens who are panchayat members, both male and female, almost 60% are illiterate or less educated, he said. “The ones who are less educated deliver less.”
Some villagers also said the work environment in villages is not conducive for women, who may be shy or illiterate.
Reservations in self-government bodies alone would not help empower women, said Ifra Jan, a Kashmiri political activist and official spokesperson of the National Conference, one of Kashmir’s biggest political parties.
“Women have been given tickets because the government has forced everybody to do so under the Panchayat Raj Act, but empowerment has not necessarily transferred/translated on ground for women,” she said. “The ticket has been given to the woman, but the patriarchy is still going strong.”
According to Ifra, the reason for the proxy system is the unhealthy work environment and accusations that women elected representatives often face on the ground.
“Not everyone has the strength to face all these things, so they recede back into their homes and allow the men to carry on,” Ifra said. She said men had used these women to access power “in an unethical way”.
Proxy Sarpanchs Common Across India
Kashmir is not an exception in the issue of proxy practice in rural local self-government bodies, where the de jure elected representative is subverted and a de facto representative wields power.
In most of the cases, men force their wives to contest elections to reserved seats.
In 2006, the state government introduced a 50-percent reservation for women in Bihar’s Panchayati Raj institutions. Though the decision was lauded by many, real empowerment for women did not automatically follow. Large numbers of men forced their wives to contest the elections as proxy candidates.
In a recent incident at Madhya Pradesh, the husbands of elected women representatives, often referred to as sarpanch pati (husband of the sarpanch) , took oath in August 2022 after panchayat elections.
Besides attending meetings and programs organised by the government, these proxy candidates even perform the formal practice of unfurling the national flag on prominent occasions. On 15 August 2022, when India was celebrating its 75th Independence day, a proxy sarpanch hoisted the national flag in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh.
In 2015, prime minister Narendra Modi, while describing the reservation for women in rural local governing bodies as a path-breaking provision, sought a ban on the proxy practice. But on the ground, officials have turned a blind eye to the practice.
Despite criticism and calls for a ban on the practice, it has continued. However some states imposed a ban, though the proxy practice continues anyway.
The Challenges Of Kashmiri Panchayat Members
In Kashmir, the volatile political situation renders people wary of participating in elections to institutions of rural self-governance. Many avoid participation due to security reasons.
Elected representatives, including women, then have to face security concerns—most are provided security by the government.
Zaitoona Begum, a woman sarpanch in the Lar (Waliwar) area of Ganderbal district in central Kashmir, said her life changed after she contested elections in 2018. She had to seek security from the government after she felt unsafe in her own village.
"This job has always been unsafe and risky, but after I talked to prime minister Modi twice during Mann ki Baat two years ago, It became more life-threatening for me,” Zaitoona, 45, said. She eventually sought security from the authorities.
“The time I contested elections in 2018 was not easy. Everyone was afraid of participating in the polls, but I went ahead despite the risk,” she told Article 14.
According to Zaitoona, authorities provided her a separate house outside her village. For two years, she has had personal security officers (PSOs) living in her house.
While some panchayat representatives live under a security cover, others remain apprehensive.
Shameema, whose husband is a labourer, was elected sarpanch of Fakir Gojri in Harwan, in Srinagar, in 2018.
Shameema remained fearful of losing her life, but said she works to feed her family. “We don't know what will happen to us.” Shameema said, explaining that the field was risky but those who entered did so because they had families to look after and the community to serve.
“We don't feel safe even at home,” she said. “If someone knocks on the door in the evening, we see it as death coming.”
Many confessed on the conditions of anonymity that they don't sleep in their own homes and kept switching between places due to the fear of being killed, their fear exacerbated by threats of beheading on posters stuck in their areas, an apparent retaliation for their participation at an Independence day or other event.
According to the AJKPConference, at least 26 panchayat members have been shot dead and dozens more injured in attacks since 2012.
Some Women Representatives Inspire Others
There are, however, some exceptions to the proxy sarpanch system and women in Kashmir have inspired others to play an active role in local self-governance (here, here and here) and to break the stereotype.
Fehmeeda Begum, 45, has tirelessly visited government offices to get work done since her election as sarpanch of the Nadihal (C) Halqa of Bandipora district in North Kashmir.
“Sarpanchs don’t get paid enough but I manage to go to work every day and listen to my people and try to address their problems,” Fehmeeda told Article 14.
Fehmeeda’s husband is an auto driver, and she said she sometimes spends her husband’s money to get to work. If there is no money, she walks.
According to Fehmeeda, many women sarpanchs hold their position only on paper and have never been seen working on the ground or attending any meetings.
Proxy candidates are not allowed in training programmes or official meetings where the sarpanch is required to sign. “They stand outside and later enquire with us about the proceedings,” she said.
Fehmeeda said that there were almost 30 sarpanchs in the Bandipora block, including seven women. In at least five cases, their husbands are working as proxy sarpanchs, she said. “They are deceiving the people who elected them and trusted them.”
Political activists argued that the practice can be stopped by encouraging women representatives at all levels, treating them with respect.
“By developing a culture where women feel empowered and safe to work, where they can do whatever they want to without being judged, without being harassed… such practices can be prevented,” Ifra suggested.
“We also have to learn to accept the women for who they are and whatever they want to be,” she added.
This story was reported under the National Foundation of India Fellowship for independent journalists
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(Arjumand Shaheen is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. She is a recipient of the National Foundation for India’s 2022 media fellowship.)