Why it's more than a photo-op for sarpanch behind #SelfieWithDaughter

Since January 2012, the Bibipur panchayat has hosted over 60 Mahila Chaupals that have witnessed an ever-increasing attendance by local village women.

 |  4-minute read |   30-06-2015
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Narendra Modi may have elicited a flood of social media responses with his call for #SelfieWithDaughter on his weekly Mann ki Baat radio show, but the man who inspired the prime minister is about a lot more than a photo-op.

Sunil Jaglan, 32, the sarpanch of Haryana’s Bibipur Village, who got 800 Haryanvi dads to pose proudly with their daughters for his "beti bachao, selfie banao" campaign in June, could possibly teach the PM more than a thing or two about women’s empowerment.

On July 14, 2012, Jaglan, the proud father of two daughters, convened a mahapanchayat of 112 khaps, representing rural communities across Haryana, Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, and actually got them them to endorse a common resolution demanding capital penalties for female foeticide.

He remembers the day: “Women participated without restraint, questioning senior khap leaders, for the first time, without fear.” The unshakable pradhans (leaders) capitulated. Years after the laws of the land proscribed sex-selection, khap elders unanimously concurred to demand that foeticide be equated with "murder".

Jaglan believes that the khap leaders' willingness to endorse a resolution against the age-old preference for male children was driven by a growing awareness and heightening concern over dangerously skewed adult sex ratios that are set to become even sharper given highly distressing SRB (sex ratio at birth) being reported from scores of villages.

More than half – 3,974 out of 7,363 – the villages in the state reported an SRB (0 to one year) below 500 in 2013. These include truly appalling instances like Gajarpur in Mewat district, Kharal in Jind, Mangepur in Faridabad, Bopur in Kaithal and Suri village in Panchkula where the ratio stood scandalously low between 76 and 143 females per 1,000 male births. There are some 2,400 villages including a few small hamlets that failed to report the birth of even a single girl child in 2013.

The 2012 mahapanchayat and Jaglan’s continuing campaign to include women in decision-making seems to have had a small but significant impact. On April 20, 2014 the Satrol Khap, a caste collective of 44 jat-predominant villages of Hisar district, voted unanimously to reverse a 650-year-old tradition and publicly proclaim support for inter-village and inter-caste marriages.

Jaglan, who attended the Satrol panchayat at Hisar as a special invitee, sees the decision as "historic and revolutionary". Significantly, the sarpanch says, "They (leaders of the Satrol Khap) also decided to recognise love marriages.” In fact the elders have since also instituted cash incentives of Rs. 21,000 for every inter-caste marriage solemnized within its area.

Besides the role he played in instigating change in Satrol and other Khaps, Sunil Jaglan, who was elected sarpanch in June 2010, has single-mindedly pursued an agenda to include the womenfolk of his village. His move to involve the khaps and get them to endorse a resolution against female foeticide in July 2012 may not have paid off significantly in inspiring wider relaxations on questions of inter-caste and inter-gotra marriages, but it is a vital beginning.

Since January 2012, the Bibipur panchayat has hosted over 60 Mahila Chaupals that have witnessed an ever-increasing attendance by local village women – school and college students, housewives, mothers and mothers-in-law.

Bibipur’s womenfolk are decidedly more vocal than its men. At one such congregation in February, Santosh Devi, whose only estimate of her own age is the memory that she “was already bearing children when Pakistan was formed,” cheered the loudest when Jaiwanti Sheokand, one of the speakers and a former IAS officer, declared that “a girl can never go ‘bad’ by going to school and reading books.”

The village women, many of them casting off the traditional ghunghat (veil), were happily at home with mountaineer and sub-inspector Anita Kundu in her hip-hugging jeans, sneakers and closely cropped hair. “I wish I too had a daughter like you,” a woman said to her. Kundu smiled and told her: “your girl will be exactly like me, just make sure she goes to school.”

Statistics on women’s education in Haryana are almost as damning as the data on missing girl children.

Jaglan says, “barely 20 per cent of the school going girls make it into colleges simply because their parents fear they will be sexually targeted going to or coming back from colleges which are invariably some distance away in cities.” The panchayat is currently campaigning hard for the state government to provide “secure last mile connectivity” for rural girl students.

In 2014 Jaglan and his colleagues in the panchayat adopted a formal resolution giving women complete control over 50 per cent of all cash awards and one-time grants to the village. Bibipur swims against a tide of patriarchy in celebrating its women: a gate at the entrance to the village makes a point of welcoming visitors to “Bibipur – the Women’s World.”

Jaglan now hopes that progressively more and more khap leaders will pay heed and break with dubious traditions. The #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, he says, was a miniscule effort to get Haryanvi fathers acknowledge and treasure their girls. Endorsement from Prime Minister Modi was a completely unexpected "icing on the cake".


Asit Jolly Asit Jolly @asitjolly

Journalist with India Today magazine.

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