Patterns stitched: Women voters in Sikkim and their relationship with elections

Patterns stitched: Women voters in Sikkim and their relationship with elections

The voting rights for women was legalized not too long ago thus the privilege to participate in public affairs for women was realized only during the 20th century. When we talk about women’s participation in ancient Greece and republican Rome during the 17th century women were denied of such social rights This meant that men were preferred in the public domain of governance while women were denied one of the fundamental rights in a civilized society However at the turn of the 20th century countries like Great Britain and United States were some of the first countries that championed fundamental rights of women at par with men.

There were various movements to secure this right. Some of the prominent movements are for example, the women suffrage movement in USA which was launched in the year 1848. During this movement the women’s right convention was held in Senesce falls, New York where groups of people came together to express their solidarity (library of Congress). The members of this group were led by Susan. B. Anthoney and Elizabeth. C. Stantion began to educate the public about the importance of women’s suffrage.. The suffragists as they came to be known circulated petitions and lobbied congress to pass a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women.

By the end of the century, women reformers in the Club movement and in the Settlement house movements wanted to pass reforms legislation. However, many politicians were not in favor thus the reformist realized that in order to achieve desired change they first needed to win the basic Right to vote following. This was one of the most important achievement of mass movements following which they could give impetus to the reform. In the 20th Century .

The National American Women Suffrage association (NAWSA) and National Women’s Party (NWP) was reformed and was named as the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the chairmanship of Carrie Chapman. Along with it the National Women’s Party under the leadership of Alice Paul came together and fought for the overall rights of and freedom of women. And in 1920 due to combined efforts of these two groups the 19th amendment enfranchising women was finally ratified and social and political rights were given to females at par with the male population. This event was the largest extension of democratic voting rights in the history of USA which was achieved through peaceful protest and movements.

Similarly, in Britain, the women suffrage was first demanded in the 1840’s by the Chartist movement. Great intellectuals like J.S mill and his wife Hamlet Mill started to involve themselves in women suffrage committee from 1850’s and the first women suffrage committee was framed at Manchester in 1865 and in 1867 Mill presented a petition to the parliament which demanded the right to vote for women which contained 1550 signatures, but the reform bill of 1867 contained no provision for women suffrage, meanwhile the women suffrage gained popularity and societies started forming in many major cities of the country (Biswas 2018) again in 1870 they submitted another petition full of demands of the franchise for women which contained almost about three million signatures. However, in the year 1870, parliament did grant women tax payers the right to vote in the municipal elections and in the following decades women became eligible to sit on country and city councils.

The right to vote in parliament was still denied to women despite the considerable support that existed in parliament for legislation  and to this effect in the year 1897 the various suffrage societies united into one national of women suffrage societies which brought greater degree of coherence and organization to the movement, under the leadership of Emmeline Panshunst. However under her daughter Christabel the movement became more militant while the government lacked in containing the actions of the organization  

After the return to power of the then Liberal Party in 1906 the succeeding year saw the defeat of 7 suffrage bills in the parliament, as a consequence many suffrage groups became violent and some were even sent to prison by the government for their violent actions   But these groups still continued their protest by engaging in hunger strikes as a result public support grew in volume and public demonstration were made more frequent which was organized with the sole purpose of empowering women’s right to vote  

In 1947 India adopted the universal adult franchise which gave rights to people including women above 18 years of age to rightfully vote. The first ever general election of India in the year 1951-1952 in which about 173 million people voted, 80 million voters were women, unfortunately 12 million women voters had to be excluded from the rolls because they failed to disclose their documents.

In Sikkim the 22nd state of the Indian Union after 1975, women was granted Universal Adult Suffrage right after merger (SEN 1975:354). Before the amalgamation of Sikkim in India, it was under a monarchical setup under the rule of the Chogyal. The women of Sikkim are unique in many ways, they live their lives free from discriminatory inequalities. Traditionally women of Sikkim have enjoyed greater freedom as compare to other parts of the country. In the first election (1979) in Sikkim under a democratic setup the total population who voted was 117157 among which 42626 were male population and 33673 female population. The gap between men and women voters has narrowed over time. The women of Sikkim has always walked hand in hand with men in every field whether being active in politics or excising their voting rights

 Meaning of voting behaviour

Voting behavior means Understanding voter’s behavior i.e. how and why decisions were made by the electorate. Voting behavior reflects the voter’s choice, preferences, ideologies, concerns, alternatives etc. Voting in election is the most obvious and direct way in which a whole population can affect the very process of electing the government. It is an extremely complex phenomenon and driven by a variety of social, psychological and political factors Article 326 of the Indian constitution grants Universal Adult Franchise which grants all adult citizens exclusive voting rights.

Sikkim is a tiny state located in the Eastern Himalaya. It was a protectorate of India. It has an area of 2,818 sq. Miles. The name Sikkim is derived from two Limbu (also Limboo) words meaning “New palace” . The Tibetans called it Dernd Zong, or the land of rice, while to lepchas who is considered to be the native of the state as “Nye-ma-el which means heaven the population of Sikkim mainly comprise of Lepcha, Bhuia, Nepalese and other tribal and backward communities. The Lepchas are considered as original inhabitants of the state.

Their origin is shrouded in mysteries and myths. According to many anthropological surveys they are supposed to have come from the east along the foot of the hills from the direction of Assam and upper Burma, the second group of people to make their way into Sikkim were the Khambas, popularly known as the Bhutia They practice Buddhism and are generally very strong, hardy and good tempered by nature, then came the Nepalese immigrants which outnumbered Lepchas and Bhutia’s.

Sikkim has a total population of 6,10,577 persons out of which 47.09% consist of women population (Government of India Census 2011). Population wise it is clear that women are lesser in number compare to men, which also makes them to be in a minority group. Throughout the ages, women group all over the world has been widely been subjugated and excluded from political, social and economic sphere, in which Sikkim is no such exception. Empowerment means “to give strength and confidence” to realize an individual “potential and capabilities”. Empowerment “implies the equal distribution of power between those who have more power and who have less power”, The term also denotes increased control over lives, bodies and environment that is in decision making, economic self reliance, legal rights to inheritance, equal treatment and protection against social discrimination,

Thus, it becomes important to critically study the role of women, their status in the Sikkimese society and also to analyze their quest towards empowerment with the aid of state intervention in one hand and women participation in the other. In which former provides a platform by being a facilitator for the latter.

In the past, Sikkim under monarchy had no schemes to empower the local women, they had no roles to play in major decision-making process, the old law gave no rights to women it was basically about the men and the king (Basnet 1974). However, women played an active role in agricultural, household activities etc., along with male members and in some cases, women contributed more than male members Women during the eras of the king were confined to private sphere and we’re not allowed to participate even in the lowest level public sphere like village meetings etc.

During the monarchial period most parts of state was controlled by the landlords (the Kazis) who “acted as a barons”  in order to collect taxes for king and rule with an iron grip where no women hold the post of landlords and neither in the kings ministry and the people had to suffer the atrocities in the form of forced labor  especially peasant women they were utilized for pleasure by the landlords with the aid of its henchmen.Sociallytheywereexploitedandlegallytheydidn’thaveanyright

The old law of Sikkim also doesn’t give any property inheritance right to the women the customary law “permits women to get divorce from its men only after paying certain amount of money (zho) and if there was dispute over a child women are allowed to take the girl child only where as father takes the son”The law clearly showed the gender biasness which separated the child in form of a son from his mother and a daughter from his father.

However, in 1960’s women were given chance with the support of Chogyal “King” Palden Thondup Namgyal along with his American Gyalmo “Queen” Hope Cooke who started to promote the national identity of Sikkim in international level in 1967, “which made the two Sikkimese women, Gayatri Devi Gurung and Chum Dorji Wangmo, travell to Manila to attend a conference on women’s leadership organized by the Associated Country of the Women World where they represented the Sikkim social welfare society where they displayed items like Sikkimese national flag, thangka (religious painting), booklets about Sikkimese history and society.

Such initiatives had a little impact on women community in general in the state but at the same time it promised to bring a positive improvement in future. However, it was on the backdrop of such developments, “Sikkim Durbar on 15th March 1969 initiated a proclamation scrapping Sikkimese citizenship from women who marries outsider (non-Sikkimese) not belonging to the state of Sikkim”

The first victim of the proclamation was Ruth Karthak Lepchani who was debarred from her ancient asset, simply due to reasons she married an Indian male who belonged to Muslim community, “she revolted against durbar politically by forming Sikkim Independent Front in 1966 and she was vocal about the cause for Lepchas” (Basnet 1974) Sikkim government alleged her of spreading rumors against the Chogyal. The king (Bhutia) was alleged of oppressing the Lepchas of Sikkim. She was later banished from the kingdom (Basnet 1974).

With the proclamation of the Property inheritance law (PIL) (Act 2008) women ceased to enjoy rights over property inheritance legally, which was the major blow to the women empowerment in the kingdom of Sikkim It was social injustice in the form of gender inequality

Prospects and problems

Women still remain largely involved in traditional and unpaid or meagerly paid economic activities mostly as agricultural labors and lower rung of other activities as well. Take for example the case of Pipon system.

In brief, the institution of Pipon is unique to Sikkim. It is the traditional local self-governance system in Sikkim. Traditionally, Bhutia women have no right to take part in the election of the Pipon (headman and the Gimbas (assistants to Pipon) in Lachen and Lachung, the exclusive Bhutia settlement. Among Lepchas particularly in Lepcha villages, chieftaincy remains a male preserve but men and women otherwise are regarded as socially equals.

Indeed, before merger, there had been also Monda! (village headman and which was also mainly male preserve) in the villages except Lachen and Lachung and the Lepcha villages under Dzongu areas (the protected areas for Lepchas), who used to collect revenues from public for government and also settle minor disputes. But after 1975 with the abolishment of Monda systems,

The Panchayat systems based upon the Panchayati Raj models prevalent in other parts of India seeped in Sikkim except for the Dzumsa in North Sikkim which has continued and given the status of indigenous local self-governance system by the government in Sikkim. Since 1975, in the course of time there has been number of women from all three major ethnic groups elected as member of Panchayat through Panchayat elections in Sikkim, and this has now been the trend of progress in the number of women elected as member in the Panchayat (both in Village Panchayat and Zilla Panchayat)
In Sikkim. Presently, women who are 18 years and above cast their votes in Panchayat, Assembly and Parliament elections from time to time .

There has been an increase (31.7 per cent) in the number of women electors from 1,03,437 in 1994 to 1,36,199 in 2004. The percentage of women elector to total electors has also increased from 47.6 per cent in 1994 to 48.3 per cent in 2004 Out of total 1.36,199 women electors in Sikkim 75.54 per cent of them cast their votes in 14th Lok Sabha Election in 2004 (Election commission on India-General Election 2004).

The status of women in Sikkim- their economic contribution, socio-cultural autonomy, authority, involvement in the decision-making process within the household- varies across communities. The practice of polyandry among tribal communities could be one of the variables explaining the higher value attached to women Similarly, local religious practice also plays a role in influencing the status of women

The women do all the household work. They manage the family affairs. Only the senior female member played a commanding role within the family by controlling resources, making crucial planting and harvesting decisions, and determining the expenses and budget allocations. Yet women's lives remained centered on their traditional roles- taking care of most household chores, fetching water and animal fodder, and doing farm work. Their standing in society was mostly contingent on their husbands' and parents' social and economic positions.