A silent Revolution
Mewat has been traditionally known for its criminals and bandits. Today it is known for Ashubi Khan who, as the sarpanch of Haryana’s Neemkheda village, has ushered in some revolutionary changes
Reaching Neemkheda village in Haryana will unfold in itself bundles of logistical commotion. The official district websites do not have updated contact details of the sarpanch and the village can be located only after one clears a vortex of other adjoining villages. Seven years ago, this little known rural dwelling made history as it became the country’s first all-women Muslim gram panchayat. Ashubi Khan was born and brought up at Ferozepur in Punjab. After her marriage to Israil Khan, who has also been the sarpanch in 1989, she shifted to Neemkheda in Mewat. Muslims, locally known as Meos, form a majority of Mewat’s population. They speak the Mewati dialect, a slight variant of Haryanvi and Rajasthani. The place draws its name from Hasan Khan Mewati, a well-known ruler from the region, who fought against Babur in the Battle of Khanwa in 1527.
In 2005, Ashubi was elected the sarpanch, the village head of Neemkheda. In 1992, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act ensured that one-third of all panchayat seats would be reserved for women. This all-woman panchayat was formed by electing one woman from nine villages. Today, six of them have been retained in their positions. However, after what seems to be like a never-ending and frantic search for directions from villagers, when we finally reach our destination, it becomes apparent why Ashubi leads the panchayat. Her family is evidently the most prosperous family in the village. Now, almost a decade after her electoral victory, it is worth assessing what reconfiguration she has brought in to her village and how inspiring her journey has been. Speaking to us at her residence, which also serves as the panchayat ghar, a calm site that is beautified with a sprawling courtyard, kitchen-garden, trees and expansive interiors, she says, “There was no work for the women in the past. We went door to door urging them to come forward and contribute to social welfare. The men of course opposed, but gradually things changed.” Now aged 50, Ashubi, dressed in a white salwar-kameez, her tippet wrapped as a head-scarf, has a tranquil demeanour.
She says that both as the sarpanch and a woman herself, the common concern she harbours the most is that about female foeticide. Her biggest feat, she says, is that she could dissuade people against infanticide by evoking religion. “Murder is a heinous crime in Islam. It cannot be justified and has the potential to unleash a barrage of calamities as a consequence of not yielding to morality. I connected infanticide to religion telling them that God will not spare them for the harm that they are causing. Today as a result, the gender ratio of girls in the village is over a 1,000 births against the males, a magnificent mark for Haryana which is one of India’s most struggling States with its skewed gender ratio.” Ashubi organised seminars and spoke to the villagers in native Mewati to urge them to not be privy to the “sin”. Much apologetically, she confesses that she can neither write nor speak fluent Hindi, and the problem of communication is a major setback. “Whenever I apprehended difficulty in communication, I took my husband with me. Gradually, help and assistance from the district administration and the deputy commissioner’s office also started flowing in”, she says. Her husband adds, “So what if she has no refined language, should she not be empowered because of that?”
During her tenure, Ashubi has promoted women’s education and increased the number of schools in the village. She was awarded in Chandigarh for the same. In Neemkheda today, there is a girls’ primary school, a boys’ primary school and a high school sustaining themselves owing to her efforts. “The literacy rate of the girls aged 12 to 18 has gone up. We also offered practical classes for girls through some NGOs but unfortunately that endeavour has failed,” she informs. She proudly shows us the Rajiv Gandhi National Youth Development Organisation and Haryana Pradesh Kisan-Khet Majdoor Congress award that she won in 2008.
Interestingly however, till date, the village suffers from a sincere dearth of hygiene, particularly in the context of water sanitation. The panchayat members in their first term, had succeeded in connecting the village to the Ujina canal which flows from Delhi to Rajasthan. Given how villagers have to walk miles to fetch basic drinking water, the canal was an emblem of hope for the challenged irrigation conditions of the rain-driven agrarian economy. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the euphoric feeling of the past, the district continues its struggle with water scarcity. Ashubi says that it also happens to be her toughest challenge, “There were no Anganwadi centres, no underground water provisions in the village. Men were challenging the whole panchayat at the time of my election saying that I would not be able to make a revolutionary change, which is why water supply was a pressing concern for me and something needed to be done,”. She now personally supplies water from her home. “We have put a water supply board and have attempted to develop a centre to set an underground pipe. The hurdle is that the Government has turned deaf to our appeals. Much could have been done, but if there is no response from the Government itself, my hands would be tied,” she laments.
“In 2008, the Government declared Neemkheda a model village, but the problems are in abundance till date for a so-called model village,” says Shilauddin, a gram panchayat member who is also the principal of the local intermediate college and a doctorate from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.
Ashubi is privileged with the affection and respect of the villagers and claims that the region has been largely peaceful. She is said to have raised pertinent issues pertaining to health and education. Shilauddin continues, “Mewati society is passive about issues like polio and education. Ashubi Khan has been an instrument of change in these aspects. She managed to persuade people to overcome their distrust for hospitals and be open to scientific ideas. The villagers do not apprehend medical assistance now; earlier they would only resort to home remedies.”
The socio-cultural fabric of Mewat is ruptured. Statistics imply that criminal and terror activities are high in the district, and so is unemployment. Only three months back, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operative Mohammed Shahid was arrested from the district. Ashubi says, “If the youths stay in the village, then they would go astray. Historically, Mewatis have been fighters. They were worthy of forming an army and were aggressive. Government tends to overlook that society needs to be morally developed and the vision enhanced”.
The women in the panchayat are all aged above 40 and up to 80. However, young girls have eluded this group. While one may attribute this to a sub-conscious chauvinism, Ashubi believes that she has been supported by the opposition. “Men ridicule us at times but that is more like a friendly banter and is supposed to be accepted in a jocular way.” But there have also been moments of despair. She recalls, “Efforts to solve crises entail consistent knocking at the doors of bureaucrats and the unyielding administration. Promises and claims are made high and tall, but eventually all fall flat. Once we filed our resignations, frustrated with the administration not being receptive towards our requirements. Congress president Sonia Gandhi read about it and asked the then Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar to arbitrate. Meenakshi Datta Ghosh, former Secretary, panchayati raj, also convinced us to take back our resignations.” Oddly, a little of negative publicity also slipped into the village’s acclaim when “baseless” reports about the men in Neemkheda deliberately undermining the women started doing the rounds. She says, “While we came under the purview of national attention, our social repute faced a blow. The men nagged us in a humorous way, but we were surprised to read reports of them being misogynistic. It might have been a challenge initially, I agree, but soon we had a lot of encouragement flowing in from the whole region.”
Ashubi Khan has been largely successful in setting a brazen precedent in Mewat, a district that was perceived to be backward, with a supremely low sex ratio, and unemployment and criminality on the rise. Though she acknowledges that much can and has to be done, Neemkheda has quite often also infiltrated into public consciousness and media attention. Until next year, when her current term gets over, she strives to conquer what has hitherto been a distant dream.
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