When Dhoolla Ratnam, 48, was preparing for bed on the night of July 14, she planned to get up early and engage in her work as member of the Srungavruksham panchayat in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. But that was not to be. Her political opponents had a different plan. In the early hours of July 15, those opposed to women's empowerment and the smooth functioning of grassroots democracy set fire to Ratnam and her eight-year-old grandson. Their charred bodies left a chilling message for the villagers.
This barbaric incident took place exactly on the first anniversary of Ratnam's election to the panchayat (village council). She had contested the July - August 2006 elections.
What crime had Ratnam committed? After all, she fought the local government elections as mandated by the Indian Constitution and tried her best to discharge her responsibilities as a people's representative. The problem was that she belonged to the Yadava caste in an area where the Kapus - landlords - dominate.
When Ratnam wanted to enter public life, the landlords had a male candidate in mind for the same backward caste reserved ward. So when she filed her nomination, the landlords offered her as much money as she wanted - if she would withdraw from the contest. They wanted a "consensus" in the village, they said. But Ratnam's faith in democratic elections gave her courage in the face of threats.
Being a daily wage earner, Ratnam's campaign was limited to house visits and the printing of a model ballot paper. In contrast, her opponent, Yadala Nokaraju, distributed small silver boxes, little Goddess Lakshmi idols in gold, and about 80 saris. Of the 284 voters in the ward, 227 (80 per cent) cast their vote. Ratnam defeated her rival by 14 votes. Unfortunately, the election heralded a chain of irregularities and events that would end with Ratnam's gruesome murder.
In Andhra Pradesh, the president of the panchayat is directly elected while the vice-president is elected by the panchayat. However, Ratnam's opponents elected the vice-president in a secret conclave. Ratnam challenged this, saying no formal meeting for the election had been held. The mandal panchayat (a council of a group of villages) president apologized for the mistake. Yet, Ratnam's opponents protested, saying there was no need to apologize. "This is how we do things here," they said.
Then, during the panchayat meetings, Ratnam often raised questions about the practice of expenditure without the maintenance of records; payments to laborers without there being a formal list of names; and so on. Eventually, Ratnam's opponents decided that she was too much of a nuisance and needed to be taught a lesson.
So, one night they set fire to the heaps of harvested paddy in the two-acre farmland her family had taken on lease. Not one to take things lying down, Ratnam approached the District Collector, who asked her to file a report at the police station. When she did so, it didn't go down well with the culprits.
Another problem point was the INDIRAMMA (Integrated Novel Development in Rural Areas and Model Municipal) programme. Normally, the gram sabha (village assembly) appoints the selection committee to identify beneficiaries. But it has become an accepted practice in Andhra Pradesh for the local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) to do this. The Collector then puts the seal of approval.
When the committee was announced in the Srungavruksham, Ratnam raised an objection, pointing out that it was the gram sabha's prerogative to select the committee. As a result, she was abused and threatened by her opponents. They said they were the ruling party and could do whatever they wanted. An indomitable Ratnam caught the leader by his collar. According to the villagers, it was then that she got the ultimate warning: "I'll see that you are finished."
Only around a week before she was immolated, Ratnam, along with 30 women in the village, had complained to the tehsildar (district official) about malpractice at the fair price shop in the village - residents had thwarted miscreants from taking away 500 kg of rice one night. Consequently, the tehsildar sealed the shop. Three days later, there was a well-conducted panchayat meeting. Ratnam was urged her to withdraw the complaint but she refused.
Then came the evening of July 14. It was a rainy day. Ratnam had a visitor. Achyamma had come from nearby Kamrajpet to visit her sister. As it was getting late, Ratnam invited Achyamma to stay over. The guest slept on the verandah, Ratnam and her grandson in a cot near her, while the rest of the family was inside.
Villagers told me that the electricity was cut off just about two hours before Ratnam was set on fire. A villager who went to the field at night saw a few people taking petrol from the motorcycles.
Ratnam and Veerababu were doused with petrol and set on fire when they were in deep slumber. Achyamma was also caught in the flames but managed to run. She was taken to the Kakinada Government Hospital. She is now bedridden at her brothers' house in Kamarajpet, 50 km away from Srungavruksham. He is a milk vendor earning about Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 39.90) a day with a five-member family to feed. Achayamma is a widow with no children. No help has come from government agencies or the panchayat.
Ratnam's son (Veerababu's father), Satyanarayana, is a daily agricultural laborer. Very soon after the tragedy, Ratnam's husband - also an agricultural laborer - had to return to work. There was no food at home and he had to earn to feed the family.
In this region, a male agricultural laborer earns a daily wage of mere Rs 50, while a woman gets Rs 40. And, of course, the family of the deceased had not received relief from the government. Nor had a special panchayat meeting been held to condole the passing away of the elected member. I enquired from the villagers why they had not taken the early warnings seriously. They replied that the village had been a peaceful place and that no one had expected this to happen to a woman.
This is the price a woman had to pay for entering public life. We all argue that the new generation of panchayats is the nursery of leadership. But the ground reality is that even basic human rights are denied to poor and marginalized people.
While we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Independence, let us not get blinded by the small shining India. Instead, let us pay homage to the many Dhoolla Ratnams who are laying down their lives in Bharat - the other India.
(The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.)