Published on 19 March 2005
Translations available in: français (original) . Español .

Village Women Exercise their Understanding of the Charter Principles in the Local Self-government (Panchayat) Election

by Sudha REDDY
Associated Central Topics: Cross-culturalism, dialog and multilingualism .
Associated General Topics: Cross-cultural .

Disseminating the principles of the Charter of Human Responsibilities has indeed been a challenging task, especially in the Indian context where the term ‘responsibility’ takes on different connotations. Our first hurdle was to rework the language and even modify it after discussion with groups of people.
Here I am going to talk about how this was done with one group. That of democratic leadership training workshops we have been conducting for rural and urban grass roots women using the Charter principles.

Keeping the principles of the Charter at the core, a series of leadership training workshops have been initiated since September for illiterate and literate women from both the rural and urban sectors belonging to different castes, religions and languages. Till now these training programmes have benefited 300 odd women from in and around Bangalore city. As can be expected, the workshops were simultaneously multi-lingual.

What we did was to use the principles of the Charter, broadly outlined as they were, as a kernel to create a Charter that intimately speaks to us when we enter our homes and again intimately speaks to us when we step into the world.

We saw our proposed Charter as a Sutra, a thread that ties our thinking and practices for day-to-day living at home and the world. It was to be seen as two sides of a coin, two sides of a sheet, one for home and one for the world, but both adhering to the same set of principles but speaking to a different location, scale, concerns and conditions.

The process of disseminating the Charter has been an ongoing process, and as we continue the process we are trying to learn from the problems we face.

Here, I shall present the kind of problems in the first lap of our training programmes for the 300 women mentioned earlier.

Apart from some to-be-expected constraints that hamstrung our efforts to an extent, we faced linguistic barriers in communication. Language being culture specific, connotative meanings take precedence over denotative meanings in any language transaction and therefore conveying the exact sense of the principles to people of varying linguistic and cultural orientation posed a problem. For example, what the word ‘responsibility’ means to an activist is not what it means to a lay person; it is more an ambiguous term straddling between ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ or any similar synonym like ‘dharma’. Especially when it is applied to women’s role in Asian societies.

In a way, greater familiarity with the term ‘right’ detracts from the importance of ‘responsibility’.

Despite the eclectic nature, each group we interacted with appeared to be ‘rich’ in terms of real skills and experiences, of having lived a life full of struggles, of real bonding with others, of being victims of religious, political, caste identities and conflicts. The vast body of this real lived-experience was the context of our workshops.

It is here we learned how the people from diverse backgrounds were able to identify the purport of the Charter principles by situating it in their familiar cultural and linguistic contexts without in any way deracinating from the spirit. The moment they heard the first tentative attempt at translation in their language, they pounced on it excitedly, improved it and tossed it back to us with the conviction that it was emended, as they understood the import of the Charter principles. How they did it, as we learned, was by using the translation of a principle by connecting it with something deep within them – a real experience – and choosing appropriate words, sentence, rhyme and sound to formulate what they called the ‘correct’ version of the principle. Their formulation in a mnemonically attractive syntax and semantic content thus became their own: meaning and sounding exactly the way they wanted.

As the process continued, we realized that we had perhaps zeroed in on an unmarked and exciting process where women were re-articulating or re-birthing these principles in the light of their own life’s experience.

Just to cite a few examples from two sibling languages: Urdu and Hindi.

1.Principle- Sutra, a Sanskrit word which can be loosely translated as ‘magical formula or an easily remembered aphorism’ (In Urdu it is asool).

2. I promise to respect the dignity and freedom of the other person with the core of my own freedom and dignity is pithily translated as Izzat dekar izzat lena. (Give respect and take respect.)

3. I agree that consumption of natural resources to meet human needs must be integrated in a larger joint effort at education, active protection and careful management of the environment is put into Hamari Jarootattom ke liye prakriti/ parisar ka nuksan nahin hona chahiye, which smacks off the Gandhian quote ‘available for everyone’s need but not greed.’

4. We fully agree that in reaching decisions about short term priorities, precautions must be taken by evaluating long term consequences with their risks and uncertainties becomes Aaj ki Jaroorat ko poora karne se pahale kaal ka bhi poora dhyan rakkenge. (In fulfilling today’s needs, we must think about our future as well.)

The examples given above are the translations of the re-formed versions of the principles in English and may appear simplistic. But stress must be laid here that in the context in which the participants live and function, they become meaningful.

Our next step in dissemination was even more challenging.

We encouraged the women into visualizing these principles and creating posters, thereby giving a face or form to their verbal understanding. Initial inhibition about lack of artistic talent soon gave way to untrammeled impulse of putting their imagination to creativity. The posters they made were on the basis of their understanding of the principles as seen above in their translations.

We learned from these groups of women that they live their life around a core set of values that these principles suggest and the workshops provided them with an opportunity to connect their own core values with the principles. As a woman participant remarked: Gandhi brought freedom to our country and these principles bring us freedom in our thoughts and deeds.

We also explored the possibility of these principles displayed in their homes as new but important creative presence that would, perhaps, represent a fresh framework of belief and action – as a new set of mother’s principles - for all the members of the family.

A welcome result of these workshops is that the posters created by the participants form the basis of developing the Charter and even in the possibility of making calendars out of them for further dissemination and re-grounding of the principles more deeply.

The direct outcome of the workshops is that slowly but surely, these women have realized the necessity of applying the principles in their lives. Let me cite a single example of the role women can play in governance.. Recently, we had elections for the panchayats. (local self-government) In village Ullalu, the women nearly en masse participated in the electoral process, almost an unprecedented act. This proves that a conscientization process can be very effective. Four women candidates, two Muslim women, one dalit Christian and one backwards caste Hindu (backward castes are those in-between the four upper castes). The notable elements of the election process this time was, first, that the candidates were not chosen on the basis of some kind of party affiliation, caste, religion, language etc. And second, the contesting of two women from the Muslim community, a community generally perceived to be highly male-dominated where women are not to all owed to worship publicly, let alone enter into the public domain.
A highly gratifying consequence of the electoral process in this village was the role played by women voters of the village. Before the election they met the contestants and put their agenda about how the elected representatives should conduct themselves with responsibility it they were to receive continued support from the voters. Their agenda was a barometre of their understanding of the Charter principles and their desire, on the first collective occasion, to put into practice.
Their agenda had the following predominant elements.
• The elected representative should not play into the hands of men who would use her as a proxy or a puppet. She should be active participant in the local governance and not just a mere presence.
• She should be able to withstand the lures that authority often brings, like playing power politics, corruption, caste and family based nepotism etc.
• If she, in the course of exercising her responsibilities, is stonewalled by others the collective women power will stand behind her.
• She should not be averse to being monitored by the electors.
The effect of the salutary impact of the Charter principles, of course, can be gauged only in the long run.
Finally, a fortuitous outcome of our methodology in disseminating the Charter is that people of other states, especially NGOs, find our methods good for emulation.

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