In India, A Domestic Servant Rises To National Politics

Married at the age of five and speaking neither English nor Hindi, 68-year-old Pramila Bisoi has seen the hardships of life up close.

Pramila Bisoi, 68 years old
Pramila Bisoi, 68 years old
Sweta Dash and Abinash Dash Choudhury

ODISHA — On a hot summer afternoon in March, a surprise awaited 68-year-old Pramila Bisoi from Cheramaria village in Odisha's Ganjam district. After a brief telephone conversation in the morning, a vehicle arrived at her modest house. "I thought I was going to receive some award," says Bisoi. Little did she know that there were other plans. She was declared Biju Janata Dal's official candidate from the Aska Lok Sabha constituency for India's upcoming national elections.

It happens rarely, but the electoral democracy of India in such occasions demonstrates the true spirit of inclusiveness. Transcending the elite and masculine nexus of electoral politics even while it is embedded in the broader matrix of party-politics, the news of Bisoi's candidature was a milestone in Odisha's history.

Historically, the Aska constituency has been of immense importance to the ruling party, BJD. Aska was where Naveen Patnaik's long, illustrious political career began in 1997 when he first entered as a novice. And since then, the BJD has held the fort for 22 years, with Patnaik holding the Hinjili assembly constituency which falls within it. In that light, Bisoi's candidature is more than symbolic.

Bisoi, fondly known in the area as mausi (aunty), belongs to a humble farmers' family, owning less than an acre of land. Her eldest son runs a small tea stall and the youngest one works in a garage. Two of her daughters are married, and Bisoi confides that they have no stable source of income and depend largely on their production of wheat and ragi. Their annual income is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 ($150-$300).

She has no high school education and speaks only Odia. Married at the tender age of five, Bisoi has seen the hardships of life up close. Yet, she has never been one to give up hope. She began working as an anganwadi sahayika, cooking meals at a meager salary. As an active part of a self-help group (SHG) for over 18 years now, she has been a true leader for people from nearby villages.

Bisoi has been a representative for Mission Shakti, the women's SHG movement of Odisha. She advocates for women's participation in civil society and has been involved in ensuring their employment. With her guidance, women from Chermaria have encouraged children to join schools and ensured regular meal provisions for them. They have also undertaken works on sanitation, health, and nutrition in nearby villages.

How can this uneducated woman represent us?

Life in Chermaria used to be very different: vegetation was sparse and agricultural income was abysmally low. Situated on rocky barren land between a river and a dense jungle, the village suffered floods and droughts. The families often did not have enough water for irrigation, agriculture and household chores. Bisoi knew that their world cannot change without the involvement of the women who were hidden behind the long veils and confined to the four walls of their houses.

"Nothing will change if we do not work for it, and who but women know how to turn things around?" she says. She admits that there was quite a lot of reluctance at her attempts at mobilization initially, but she lured them in with the promise of her ever-so-enchanting songs and stories.

The women knew carrying large quantities of water from the river was never going to be enough, and called for community meetings to plan a sustainable model for agriculture and water conservation. Seeing their unwavering determination, not only the men of the village but also the forest ranger and divisional forest officer assured their full support. Together, they worked tirelessly for months for their seemingly impossible mission. Today, Chermaria has not just large agricultural lands and jungles, but also safe drinking water and direct piped water supply."Without a provision for income here in our villages, the sons of our lands have to migrate to far-off places like Surat and Mumbai. The pain of their mothers, wives, and sisters remains," says Bisoi.

Still, the upwardly mobile middle-class has never warmed to Bisoi. Kharabela Swain, who joined the BJP recently, asked: "How can this uneducated woman represent us at the Centre? She cannot speak English or even Hindi."

For most in Odisha, Bisoi's inability to speak English and Hindi is already a hindrance to being a responsible legislator, if she wins. The media attention that she has received is mostly patronizing. A local media person asked her condescendingly if she had ever seen an airplane up close. Very slyly, he also asked if she could survive the fancy lifestyle in Delhi, a sharp contrast to her modest ways in the village.

In her village, however, things are different. One of her supports declared: "If Narendra Modi can talk to international leaders without knowing their language with translators, why can't Bisoi explain our problems in Odia?"

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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