Northeast’s Tribal Women See Little Hope in Elections

For years they've been told about the power they can wield with their votes, and how elections can bring so much change to this sprawling, often-chaotic nation.

But few of these women, marooned at the fringes of Indian society, believe such talk anymore.

They've been hardened by decades of forgotten promises, and by the countless politicians who showed up before elections with flowery words only to disappear as soon as the votes were cast. As India heads toward the end of its seven-phase national election, with voting that began 11 April and ends 19 May, it's hard for them to summon much optimism.

An Adi tribal woman Kinya Bagra, 33, stands for a photograph in Along, Arunachal Pradesh. Bagra says she will cast her vote for the development of her village. She hopes the newly elected leader will provide free education for women.
Padumi Miri, 32, a Mishing tribal woman feeds her pig in the river island of Majuli, in Assam. Miri said she does not know why she casts her vote nor has she ever seen a political leader in her life. She only knows she needs to vote every five years. 

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A Mishing tribal woman Jonmoni Mili, 30, makes a fire inside her house in the river island of Majuli, in Assam. Mili said it makes no difference who wins the elections but that she is uneducated and wants her daughter to get an education.

These voters already face immense hurdles in a nation where women are often relegated to second-class roles. But they are also tribals — India's term for the vast range of indigenous people of South Asia. They are Gaddis, herders who have spent centuries taking sheep and goats through the mountains of north India in search of good pastures, and Mishings, who live in elevated bamboo homes on Majuli, a huge island in the Brahmaputra River. They are the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong tribe who consider the mineral-rich Niyamgiri hills sacred, and Mizos, who trace their ethnic roots back to what is now Myanmar and China.

The biggest worry for many tribals is losing their land, which has grown increasingly valuable in recent years as India's economy has boomed. Many Warlis, for instance, are resisting a government plan to relocate them to housing projects outside the park. More fear being forced to move.

A Karbi tribal woman Lisia Ingti, 50, said she does not believe in exercising her franchise because the people in her village do not even have basic rights. There are no school teachers and no road connectivity that can enable them to reach a polling station. She did not cast her vote in the ongoing general elections. 

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A 65-year-old Indian Lambada tribal women Rukali stands in front of her home on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Rukali says she has voted twice in her lifetime but that the government does not do any work for her village.
A Gaddi tribal woman Kanta Devi, 57, sits in an open space next to her house in Naddi village in Dharmsa. Kanta has been voting with her husband Jai Shankar since her marriage 40 years ago. She and her husband, who is a daily-wage worker, recently had to help their son-in-law, who was seriously ill. Their requests to the local officials for financial support went unanswered. They are bitter about it but she says that they will vote as it is their duty. 

"I don't remember how long I've been voting for different candidates hoping that life will be smooth for us once the right person is elected," said B Nariyan Vignaya, a 70-year-old woman from the impoverished Warli community, who live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in northern Mumbai. "Our demands are not big; they are very small. We don't want them to make big hospitals or buildings. We just want toilets."

A Mishing tribal woman Jonmoni Mili, 30, makes a fire inside her house in the river island of Majuli. Mili said it makes no difference who wins the elections but that she is uneducated and wants her daughter to get an education.
A 100-year-old Lambada tribal woman Moti, only one name given, sits in front of her home in Hyderabad. Moti says she s only voting this year to get the small cash handouts some parties offer. 

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A Karbi tribal woman Aloti Tumung, 65, carries vegetables on her shoulder at a marketplace in Sonapur. Tumung said she voted in the current general elections because it is part of her rights. She says she is also anxious that failing to exercise her franchise may result in her losing citizenship. 
An Adi tribal woman Kargep Yao, 36, stands for a photograph in Along. Yao said that she will cast her vote for a better future, development and security for women. 

"“Our forefathers have lived here and died here, so we want the same right.”" - Sangeetha Nandini, 29, a Warli.

Combined, India's tribals total more than 100 million people. But they are scattered among hundreds of communities, and are often poorer and less educated than the people around them.

For many tribal women, elections have become little more than another chore.

Nandini, the Warli, says she's "decided to exercise my NOTA vote". Urmila Devi says she'll vote, but only because she believes it's her duty. A 39-year-old Gaddi, Devi says she'd love to see a childcare center and a medical clinic built in her village, but doesn't expect either will be erected.

A Gaddi tribeswoman Nirmala Devi, 45, weeds her barley field in her village in Naddi, near Dharamsala. Nirmala says she will vote but has little expectations from politicians who never keep their campaign promises. 

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Bum Nongrum, 91, smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, at her house in Nongpoh. Nongrum says she does not understand the concept behind exercising her franchise but has always cast her vote.

But the cynicism isn't universal.

Tungshang Ningreichon is a Naga, from India's distant northeast along the border with Myanmar. A long time rights activist, she believes the election "affects every part of our lives."

"The leaders that we choose will greatly impact how we put the idea of peace, justice and democracy into practice," she said. "So for me, these elections are really important."

(Published in an arrangement with AP)

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