In ancient India, the panchayat system was based on the age-old caste system, social status and family. Although the local selfgovernment concept was introduced in 1882, it took more than 100 years for the local self-government institutions to become a part of the Indian Constitution. While tremendous possibilities have been opened up in the areas of development, social justice, people’s participation and grass-roots democracy, what has the new phase of decentralization meant for Dalits in the country? Reservation of seats and offices of the chairpersons for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) in proportion to their population has the potential to radically change the socio-political structure of this country.
The reason why Dalits have still not fully exploited this empowering tool is the nature of Indian society—its inequality, social hierarchy, the rich and poor divide. Who are the victims of this inequitable social system? They are mainly the former untouchables who now call themselves Dalits. How can decentralization strengthen the elected panchayats? Do decentralized institutions increase the violations or enhance the possibility for respecting and observing their rights?
Although historically excluded groups and communities are now included in these decision-making bodies (more than 660,000 elected members, i.e. 22.5%, in the rural and urban local bodies are from SCs and STs), there has been a sharp increase in caste-based violence in the panchayats in the last 20 years. The dominant castes see panchayats as one of the tools for the lower castes to assert their rights. The prevailing trend is to weaken and destroy these instruments.
It is evident that the upper castes that have been controlling the affairs of the village and the local community are yet to reconcile to the empowerment of Dalits, which has exacerbated tensions and inspired violence against these groups. Panchayats have opened up the possibilities of bringing to the surface most of the things previously swept under the carpet.
Gram sabhas and gram panchayats provide a democratic forum to grapple with social and political issues in the open. In several cases, the presence of a Dalit sarpanch or a Dalit ward member has greatly contributed to the participation of greater numbers of the Dalit community in gram sabha meetings.