SATHYAMANGALAM, India—A landless female laborer from a village in Tamil Nadu, India, has become the first woman in her marginalized community to run for presidency of her local governing body.
Kalamani, 37, won only threats from upper-caste landowners last year when she ran for president of the General Panchayat (a local governing body). She did not win in the polls, but she did inspire others in her community.
Kalamani only goes by one name, as surnames denote caste and thus make people vulnerable to discrimination. She belongs to the Arundhatiyaar community, the lowest among the lowest castes in Tamil Nadu State, known as the Untouchable caste. The age-old social practice of untouchability holds that the upper-castes should not touch any Arundhatiyaar.
In her village of Kondamathanoor, huts and tiny houses line both sides of a narrow mud lane. Dogs and hens roam. A scantily clad old man lies on a jute-knit cot. No upper-caste person ventures down the lanes of this Arundhatiyaar village.
Kalamani’s hut smells of dried fish. Her dinner cooks over a kerosene stove in the corner and her friendly dog hangs about.
“I got married at the age of 17 years. At that time, my husband worked as a bonded laborer in the fields of upper-caste landlords. I worked as an agricultural daily wager and earned 30 rupees ($0.54) a day.”
Meager Campaign Funds
Today, Kalamani does the same work but earns 200 rupees ($4) a day. Wages have increased in the past two decades, but so have expenses. She had no money to campaign in the elections; “I borrowed 50,000 rupees ($893) from my relatives and the women’s federation group,” she said.
In many villages of India, local politics are still controlled to a great extent by the wealthy landlords who are also the employers for most of the lower caste, landless laborers like Kalamani. Running in elections against them is taking a great risk.
“I came to this village 20 years ago to live with my husband after we were married. Since then, I have never seen anyone from here running for the Panchayat president’s election—everyone is afraid of upper caste landlords who hold most of the land here.”
When Kalamani ran for elections, she was mocked and threatened.
Kalamani recalled, “They said, ‘Don’t run for president; you can run for ward councilor [a low-level post in the governing council].’”
Kalamani took strength from 2,500 women of the Sakkiyar Women Society Federation (SWSF) she leads. The Federation organizes Arundhatiyaar women in 81 villages for thrift and credit and addresses local women’s rights issues.
“When I talked with people in my community, they choose not to say much, but some said they’ll vote for me. The upper caste candidate gave food, liquor, and 300 rupees to each person of our community in the village.”
Kalamani won only 85 votes out of the 5,000 polled. The winner got 1,601 votes.
“If I would have won, it would have been good. But I lost and I lost the money I spent on campaigning. My husband asked me why I ran for elections and lost so much money.”
Kalamani’s daughter, Annakodi, is a big encouragement for her. She stands by her mother and understands the amount of courage and perseverance that goes into her mother’s decisions.
“I’m a first generation school attendee,” Annakodi said. “I became the first girl in my village to complete school, the first girl to complete college, and now the first girl to study an M.Sc. [Masters of Science] course.”
“It would not have been possible without my mother’s support,” Annakodi said. Kalamani also took a loan from SWSF to support her daughter’s education.
While sitting down on her floor with her little niece, Kalamani pesters shy Annakodi to talk in English. “I want to become a social worker and encourage more girls in my village to educate themselves. Most of the girls drop out from school after eighth or ninth grades,” Annakodi said.
Out of six candidates for president of the General Panchayat, Kalamani was the only woman and the only lower caste person.
Kalamani remains hopeful for the next elections. “In 15 wards of the Panchayat, some villages don’t know me. If I’m able to reach them and gather their support, and if my own community overcomes its fear of rich landlords and supports me, I can win.”