Two months after winning a thumping majority, Telangana Rashtra Samithi announced its first list of 12 Cabinet ministers – noticeably not a single woman appeared in the list. In a cheeky response to reporters questioning the absence of women in the list of Cabinet members, one of the newly inducted member’s response was “women are at home”.
Would Chityala Ailamma (or Chakali Ailamma), Kamalamma, Regalla Acchamamba, and several other women warriors of the Telangana Movement forgive the minister for what he uttered? Will the fight these women fought several decades ago for their dignity and the Telangana identity, to break away from the shackles of exploitation, repression, and patriarchy, be dismissed with such remarks? Will the bronze statue of Ailamma that stands tall and proud with the baton in her hand, only remain a token? Or will it remind the politicians the “Her-story” that she and her fellow sisters made in not only standing beside the men, but often leading the agitation?
Telangana is synonymous with armed peasant agitation. It is impossible to think of the state without reflecting on the Telangana Movement of 1946 to 1951, as peasants, students, and more specifically, women, joined hands in equal strength and courage, to bring an end to both the autocratic rule of the Nizam and the feudal oppression of the zamindari system. The demand for statehood came after a lot of struggle in 1969, 1997, and subsequently in 2009.
The formation of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in 2001 led by current Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), who rode to success on people’s long nurtured sentiments of ‘Telangana Identity with distinct history and culture’ (Prof Haragopal, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 42 (OCTOBER 16-22, 2010), pp. 51-60) was successful in translating the dream into a reality in compelling the Centre to declare Telangana a separate state in 2009, and subsequently announce through a resolution the formation of the new state in July 2013. The state was officially carved out on June 2, 2014.
Needless to say, each surge of agitation brought out students, and women played a pivotal role.
The elections for the 16th Lok Sabha were held concurrently with Assembly elections of United Andhra Pradesh, on April 30 and May 7, 2014. During these elections, TRS held a massive sway in its favour, winning 63 of the 119 constituencies from the Telangana region of united Andhra. Less than a month after the election, as the region was carved out, the entire state turned ‘pink’ as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi formed the government in the new state.
Telangana armed struggle women; credit archives
Six MLAs but no ministerial berth
Women came forward in large numbers to file their nominations to occupy the political space. One hundred and thirty four women contested the 2014 Assembly elections in the newly formed state, nine of whom contested successfully – six from TRS, and three from INC.
But although the ruling party had six women MLAs, who contributed 7.3% of the total votes garnered by the TRS party across the then Telangana region of united AP, not a single woman was offered a ministerial berth, not even the clichéd Women and Child Development ministry that most states offer as a token. Tummala Nageshwara Rao, the male MLA from Palair constituency in Khammam district, handled the WCD portfolio, along with a more lucrative Roads and Buildings Department. Rao is an ex-Telugu Desam Party (TDP) member who switched over to TRS as a ministerial berth was promised to him.
Vexed by this blatant discount of women in the council of ministers, Congress MLA from Gadwal, DK Aruna filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2015 seeking court directions to state governments to induct women in their Cabinet to ensure gender equality. The petition was subsequently dismissed by the Apex Court citing "overstepping its own steps" if it were to interfere in such matters.
That the young state was callously immune to women’s political aspirations and did little to nurture their leadership, despite women’s monumental contribution to the formation of the state, becomes clear as Telangana touched its milestone of conducting its first independent State Assembly election.
Women in party politics: Reality check
During the 2018 Assembly election, 137 women contested elections in the state’s 119 constituencies; this figure is only marginally up by three numbers from the 2014 elections.
Even these nominations represented only 80 constituencies in 2018, and 77 constituencies in 2014. In other words, 39 and 42 constituencies were left unchallenged by cisgender women and transgender contestants in the 2018 and 2014 elections respectively.
Meanwhile, a whopping 1,636 men contested across the 119 constituencies in 2018.
Not a single party, not even some of the important national and regional political parties, fielded the token 33% women candidates to contest elections under their party banners. Ironically, however, almost all the parties claimed in their manifestos to fight for 33% reservation for women in legislative bodies.
The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) fielded only four women this election, much less than the previous election where it fielded 10 women.
Indian National Congress (INC) fielded 12 women candidates, as compared to previous election’s nine. BJP, too, brought in a few more women this election, fielding 12 as compared to five in the previous election.
Telugu Desam Party (TDP) brought it down to one as compared to nine in 2014. This year, of course, INC, TDP, TJS (Telangana Jana Samithi, a regional party founded by Telangana activist Kodandaram) and CPI came together in a coalition as Mahakutami, thus fielding 15 women under the coalition.
Another coalition, Bahujan Left Front, that also came together during this election, led by CPI (M), fielded seven women and one person from the transgender community. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) fielded five women during both the elections. Other smaller parties together put up 45 women candidates.
Interestingly, of the 137 women candidates, 36 have filed their nominations as independent candidates, demonstrating a streak of assertive political participation. Nevertheless, the numbers have seen an 18% reduction from 44 to 36 between 2014 and 2018, who fought independently.
Ailamma's statue at lower tank bund
The outcome: Declining women’s representation in the Assembly
Of the 137 women candidates who contested this election, only six made it to the winners’ list, compared to the previous election’s nine women. This includes three women from the ruling TRS – Ajmera Rekha Reddy from Khanapur constituency in Nirmal district; Padma Devender Reddy from Medak constituency in Medak district; and Gongidi Suneetha from Alair constituency in Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district.
The three other women in the House are from the Congress – Patlolla Sabitha Indra Reddy from Maheshwaram in Rangareddy district; Anasuya Dansari (urf Sitakka) from Mulug (ST) constituency in Jayashankar Bhupalpally district; and Haripriya Banoth from Yellandu (ST) in Bhadradri Kothagudem district.
Disturbing trends: Fewer women retain seats, fewer women continue to remain in fray
Electoral politics must be pretty daunting to women contestants. How else does one explain the attrition of 88% women from deploying themselves in this election? Only 15 candidates out of the 134 who contested the elections in 2014 (in the 119 constituencies in Telangana region) have filed their nominations again this year. This could be due to their parties’ apprehension in fielding them again, choosing other candidates over them.
There are twenty constituencies spread across the state from where not a single woman contested during both the elections. Encouraging has been 21 constituencies where women came forward to contest in the December election, however, not a single woman contested from 19 constituencies which had women’s participation in 2014.
Noteworthy is also the fact that none of the 44 women candidates who contested independently in 2014 entered the fray this Assembly election.
Raw deal for many contenders
The nine women who successfully contested were back in the fray – though not all were fielded by the same political party.
Of the six MLAs, TRS did not field two women, forcing them to seek tickets from other parties to retain their political relevance. Bodiga Shoba and Konda Surekha contested from BJP and INC respectively, as both were denied tickets from TRS.
While Shoba contested from her constituency Choppadandi in Karimnagar district, Konda Surekha had to contest from Parkal and not Warangal (East). However, both lost in this Assembly election. Bodiga Shoba managed 15,000 votes while Konda Surekha’s a little over 59,000 votes were not enough for her to be declared a winner against the TRS candidate.
The other TRS women MLAs from Khanapur (Ajmeera Rekha), Medak (Padma Devender Reddy) and Alair (Gongidi Sunitha) successfully retained their seats.
Yellandu MLA Haripriya Banoth deflected to Congress from TDP, however with the coalition of TDP and INC under Mahakutami, she successfully contested her Yellandu constituency in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, leaving her rival from TRS trailing behind by 3,000 votes. In the 2014 Assembly Elections, Banoth, who had contested as TDP candidate, lost to TRS.
Mulug MLA, Anasuya Dansari, popularly known as Sitakka, wrenched her seat from her TRS rival by over 50,000 votes, fighting on a Congress ticket. Contesting as TDP MLA in the previous Assembly Election, she had lost to him by 19,000 votes. Sitakka, too, had shifted party allegiance from TDP to the Congress, and benefitted from the Mahakutami.
Akula Vijaya was contesting for a second time representing BJP, however from another constituency, Gajwel in Siddipet district. She was a pitted against the Chief Minister, KCR. In the previous election, she had contested from Sircila, fighting against KTR, the son of KCR, where she lost but garnered 9.18% vote share. In Gajwel, she could garner less than one percent votes.
Parties must make space
“For all that fight I didn’t get back all my fields. Many people took them and sold them…..,” lamented Ailamma while recounting her story of struggle in the 1940s (“We were making History”, published by Kali for Women (1989).
Her cry perhaps resonates even in today’s situation. Telangana women have a revered place in the global feminist movement that sings paeans of the valour and courage of women who fought with strength and courage during the armed struggle. Those were battles of caste, class and gender.
That battle is far from over as it appears no political party, including the ruling party, wants to give up the space rightfully earned by the women.