by Danish Raza May 3, 2012
Shivkumari and her son working in the fields: Naresh Sharma/Firstpost
Amethi, Uttar Pradesh: Shivkumari’s home is a tiny five foot by five foot room. It is bare except for a lantern, a few utensils, and a bale of hay lying in the corner. She feeds her family by working in the fields during harvest season. In these three months, she earns Rs 3000 a month. For the rest of the year, she does odd jobs at Brahamin and Thakur households in the village.
Today, the mother of five is disillusioned but resigned to her fate. Yet she still remembers the night that made her famous; 15 January 2009 when she stood in her tiny home, trembling with hope.
“Do you feel cold?” asked the man holding both her hands.
“No. I am scared,” she replied, gasping.
“Look at me, I am your brother. I am here to end all your woes,” he assured her, breaking her precarious reserve. Shivkumari began listing her many woes: her inability to pay the loans taken by her late husband, Lallan Harijan,and how much she wanted work under MNREGA, a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, or a house under the Indira Gandhi Avaas Yojna scheme.
“I will change everything. You will not remain a Dalit,” responded Rahul bhaiyya, as Shivkumari called him.
The next morning, Rahul Gandhi’s motorcade left Semra, Shivkumari’s hamlet in Amethi, leaving behind a cloud of dust and hope of a better life.
The overnight stay of Rahul Gandhi and then Britain Secretary of State David Miliband at her shanty home made Shivkumari an overnight star. In the months to come, she posed for and spoke to almost every news organization — local, national and international. Her village became a landmark of sorts in Amethi.
She was sure that her destiny and that of her village was change for the better. She was no more Shivkumari, the ‘dalit’.
But that hope proved to be a mirage. Two winters have passed, and yet Shivkumari continues to live in abject poverty. Not one of the many woes she conveyed to the Congress general secretary has been addressed.
“Rahul bhaiyya has forgotten me,” she says with a stoic face.
Shivkumari with her children at her home in Semra village, Amethi: Naresh Sharma/Firstpost
For weeks after Gandhi’s visit, Shivkumari says, the attitude of the villagers, especially the upper castes, changed towards her. They were very cautious in how they addressed her. But that respect proved to be temporary.
“Soon they realised that it was all sugary talk and I was still the same harijan,” she says. Adulation turned into sarcasm. “They would say, why have you come to us to get your work done when you have direct access to Rahul ji.”
The village pradhan did indeed give her work under MNREGA. But she was never issued with a job card and could work for only three months. “She never became a beneficiary on paper,” says Dhananjay Singh, a Kashyap (upper caste) native of Semra village.
According to Singh, Shivkumari’s experience has become a lesson for his fellow villagers, who no longer pay heed to Gandhi’s visits to Dalit households.
“There is not a single instance where people from the Party state unit have done follow ups of such visits. Rahul ji’s intentions may be good, but if this is what he would make of a Dalit [sic], he will never get their vote,’ he says.
This inability to deliver is what likely hurt the 89 Dalits fielded by the Congress in the last Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, of whom only five won their seats. Semra was just one of 85 reserve constituencies traversed by Gandhi during his long UP campaign.
“Will you vote for Congress in the next elections?” I ask Shivkumari. “I cannot go against the mandate of my village,” she says. And there is little doubt as to what that mandate would be in Amethi.
But what if he returns?
Her answer is proud: “I will not beg before him. If he comes back, it is fine. Otherwise, I am happy with the way I am.”