It is 7 AM. Twenty six-year-old tehsildar Harshalata Gedam is waiting for her driver on the steps of the Ramtek state revenue and administration department office. She, along with some members of an NGO, has to visit a resettlement colony in her jurisdiction. But the wait is endless. The driver does not turn up. "This is what it is like to be a woman, a tribal woman in a government office in a small town," says Gedam. "Even my driver disregards me and does not come for duty as he has the backing of the higher ups."
Gedam, who is single, is one of the very few tribal women in Maharashtra to occupy the responsible post of tehsildar, in charge of revenue collection and implementing welfare schemes. A tehsildar also conducts raids in case of non-payment of dues. Gedam's appointment in 2001 to Ramtek tehsil (district Nagpur) was considered a breakthrough for those fighting caste politics. But in the last two years, Gedam has learned how difficult it is for a woman to continue in such a post. "Ramtek is dominated by right wing Shiv Sena members. The local Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) is from the Sena and so is the Member of Parliament. They don't take kindly to either women or tribals in important posts", Gedam recounts. "When I was first appointed here, things were all right. Trouble started when the new Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) B A Aaglave arrived." Aaglave was allegedly close to Sena members and summoned Gedam to his office. "He told me I must do what he says or I'll be in trouble."
The local MLA, Ashish Jaiswal, declared her as his enemy the day she visited his mother's house to collect dues two years ago. He threatened to kill her when she went to his mother's house. And after Gedam's visit to Jaiswal's mother, the Sena activists started a defamation campaign against her, churning out salacious stories about her alleged 'relationships' with several men. "I came to know about this only when a copy of a question-answer column in a local paper reached me through someone I knew. It featured a question on breast enhancement methods asked by me! The question also had my address," says Gedam.
Soon, Gedam was issued a show-cause notice by the SDO based on a complaint made by Jaiswal, which included a charge of sexual misconduct. "I was prepared to answer to all the complaints but allegations on my character were unacceptable." Though Gedam demanded that such complaints be removed from the notice and she be allowed to see the original letter of complaint, both requests were denied by the SDO. A few days later, in February 2003, 50 men (mostly Shiv Sainiks) barged into Gedam's office and began to protest against her. "They shouted abuses and sang obscene songs in my office for two hours," describes Gedam. The police arrived but preferred to be mute witnesses to the chaos. Later, the SDO called Gedam in his office and in the presence of a group of Sainiks, announced her dismissal. An upset Gedam went on leave (February 17-20) and when she returned she was informed that her deputy had been asked to take charge.
Although the district collector has stated in an order that the naib (deputy) tehsildar take charge only in Gedam's absence, the SDO tampered with the dates on the order - to say that the naib tehsildar was meant to take charge of Gedam's duties with effect from February 26, when Gedam was already back from leave! The extreme harassment in this case meant that Gedam had no work and no office. A bewildered Gedam complained to the district collector and the divisional commissioner but met with little success. A month passed and only when the local press questioned the collector and the divisional commissioner was Gedam able to resume duty.
While her return to work was a victory of sorts, Gedam feels far from vindicated. The entire Nagpur official machinery appeared to have joined hands to harass her. Till date, no action has been taken against those who spearheaded the salacious campaign. When the Superintendent of Police (Nagpur Rural), Bhushan Kumar Upadhyaya was asked why he didn't protect Gedam, he simply said that it was not possible for the police to deal with a 250 strong mob!
Gedam's family too has suffered. "They don't want me to move around in the district fearing that I might be attacked," says Gedam. "It is difficult being a woman in circumstances when the whole system is against you," says Gedam. "While officially we have all the rights, there is little one can do when the system itself turns hostile. But my return to office is itself a small step ahead in the right direction. And it will take a lot many such steps for the women in government service to really come to par."