The tiny village of Helang in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is making headlines these days. It is in the news after an episode of alleged misbehaviour with local women by personnel of law and order enforcing agencies.

The area witnessed a protest on Sunday, and over a 100 women aired their anger over the alleged misbehaviour as well as the denial of land and forest rights. They were supported by activists from across the state.

This allegation, and that the women spoke up for themselves as well as the community, is a reminder of a sad phenomenon. The protest at Helang was miniscule when compared to the movements the women of this state have led in the past. Yet their plight has not changed. They remain just a vote bank, and yet many continue to lead many civil rights movements. They too never seem to get the recognition due to them.

It needs to be underlined that it was the women who had been the spine of the internationally acclaimed Chipko movement. It was a unique act when they hugged trees in the face of those trying to axe them down. This movement too had started from Gopeshwar in Chamoli district in the early 1970s when Uttarakhand was a part of Uttar Pradesh.

Another major movement with the women as its backbone was the 'Nasha Nahin Rozgar Do' (Give Employment Not Intoxication) campaign in the hill districts of the region a decade later. This was followed by the women leading the movement for carving a separate state of Uttarakhand. They faced assault, both physical and sexual alongside various other forms of harassment but continued to lead from the front.

Despite all this women were relegated to the margins once these movements were over. Activists point out that things eventually have come to a pass that liquor vends have been allocated in the name of women. This was done to destroy their campaigns against rampant sale of alcohol in the hills.

Women never got the opportunity to become policy makers and never got adequate political representation. Politics was to be dominated by parties with headquarters in Delhi, who did not understand the needs and aspirations of the people living in the hills. All this has defeated the purpose of creating a hill state.

Those who attended the protest last Sunday following the Helang episode, point out that the women have again shown courage and stood up for their rights. There are videos doing the rounds of women from common rural households giving powerful speeches.

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has ordered a probe into the episode. Filing counter allegations to oppose those of harassment levelled by women, the administration reportedly claimed that a distorted version of the event was propagated.

That the women of the state continue to be sidelined in the state is due to the dominating patriarchal and upper caste mindset here. When reporting from Uttarakhand this writer has witnessed how it is the women who are the backbone of the hill economy. The men largely work in the plains or are in the armed forces. Successive governments have failed to generate employment avenues here. The women here do all the work such as gathering fodder, sowing and harvesting crops, taking care of dairy activities, and also attending to the needs of the aged and the children at home.

"In Helang too, the women had been pointing at illegal dumping of garbage, and chopping of trees. It is only after the episode of their harassment has blown up that the administration acted on the complaints. It is sheer hypocrisy that on one hand the women are glorified, and on the other they are denied their share in the development. They are aware of the need to conserve the forests while protecting the rights of their community," said Indresh Maikhuri, a social and political activist.

Atul Sati who is based in Joshimath explained, "after every major social movement, the patriarchal and feudal set up here, like in the other parts of the country, has ensured that the women return to their kitchens and fields. They have never been given their share in the fruits of these movements. They will have to raise their level of consciousness to a level where they can claim their share of these fruits. Political parties have been using them just to collect votes. There is a reluctance to give them tickets to contest and emerge as political leaders."

His point was further elaborated upon by Nainital based Basanti Pathak who had been a participant in the march from Bhowali in Kumaon to Srinagar in Garhwal during the Nasha Nahin Rozgar Do movement. She said that the consciousness among women has increased with every movement that they have led. But the irony remains in their not being given proper representation.

"The time has come that they start giving a political dimension to their struggles and claim their space on the political domain. The problems that they have been facing have only become more complex. They need to dictate the politics, as they have the best understanding of the issues pertaining to 'Jal, Jungle and Zameen' (water, forests and land). The women definitely feel cheated. Their intervention in politics is much needed as Uttarakhand has a distinct geographical and cultural profile," she underlined.

Pathak pointed out that even the elected representatives to the state Assembly and Parliament are not able to ensure an increased participation of women in the socio-political affairs of the state. The elected representatives toe the lines dictated by their respective headquarters.

"Just think of it that till now no political party has made a woman president of its state unit. Women were the backbone of the agitation for creation of the state. Even a powerful politician like Indira Hridayesh was denied this post. There is another interesting aspect of women voters being more in number, as compared to the men in many of the hill districts," said Dehradun based veteran political commentator Jay Singh Rawat.

"Women getting their due is the basic need of this state where 84.6% of the area comes under hills and forests. Women here run the show, they engage in cultivation, collect fodder and wood for their household purposes. Yet they are not getting their due forest rights which is an issue of concern," he said, while adding that it was in this context that the protests around the Helang episode are relevant.