Twenty-Five-Year-Old Lalita Saini is sarpanch of the village where 17-year-old Roop Kanwar was burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre as the hysterical village looked on and hailed her sati. Just 11 years ago. Yes, Rajasthan's chauvinistic Deorala village has changed tremendously. Along with changing India. And, most significantly perhaps, Lalita has changed too.
Two years ago, when we had rushed to Deorala to report on the acquittal of the 39 accused in the Roop Kanwar sati case, a freshly elected and very unsure Lalita Saini had offered us the hospitality of her home for the night. After seeking her father-in-law's permission. That evening, as the men of the house had discussed politics and views on Deorala's Sati, Lalita joined the family's women to prepare a meal for the guests. Later, nursing her youngest to sleep at night, the young mother of three daughters had confided: "I became sarpanch only because this was a seat reserved for women. Actually the election was contested between my father-in-law and a Rajput family. I was the only woman in the family who had studied up to class IX. Left to myself, I'd rather be with my husband who works as a clerk with the police in town."
This week, we met a different Lalita. Welcoming us, her father-in-law said "sarpanch sahab" is getting ready for office. And minutes later, Lalita appeared in a crisp cotton sari, free of the ghunghat (veil) that had covered her face entirely last time, a purse slung on her shoulder, files in her hand and purpose writ large on her face. "I have to make payments to the labourers who are working on the road repair, listen to some complaints being made about the old doctor here who refuses to leave his quarters even after he's been transferred and then we'll come back for lunch. You will stay the night, won't you? You must!" By afternoon Lalita was in her little gram panchayat office, a stone's throw away from the Sati Sthal. Men poured in with complaints—old and young, some with problems, some with advice. For the elders she ordered tea. Listening patiently and promising to sort things out. One scolded her for being "too soft". She smiled submissively then, only to observe later: "They are old-fashioned and feel women are not strong enough to take decisions. But some things cannot be handled aggressively."
Keen on introducing the other women who work for her, Lalita beckoned the peon to call in panch Sudeshana Sharma. A 47-year-old walked in with her grand daughter, in purdah. The ration card forms for her ward would be submitted by the end of the week, she reported to the approving sarpanch.
So, who would the women in Sudeshana mausi 's ward vote for this election? "Families vote not men and women," said mausi. Then, Lalita took on: "Issues are not so important really. Everyone knows they keep changing every election. Here, we vote according to family loyalties to political parties." And yet, was there nothing that could win over the woman voter? "Sure, any party that puts a stop to this dowry nonsense will get my vote! Nothing will change the woman's status in her family till that changes."
Waiting to hear her area MLA out before she decides on who to campaign for this election, Lalita chuckled: "It's different now. Earlier none of these men would have even considered wasting time talking to women let alone convince us of how good they were as leaders. But now, with women in politics, they have to."
Work over for the afternoon, Lalita walked back to her home, warmly responding to all the "namaste sarpanch sahab" greetings coming her way. Meal would be ready for us, she assured. And her eldest daughter Tina must have returned from school. "Tina's father often jokes that she'll defeat me at my game and become an MLA one day!" Not such a joke, really. Deorala has changed after all. Sati Roop Kanwar to Sarpanch Lalita Saini. To MLA Tina Saini? Perhaps.