Coming from one of the most backward villages in the country, Sandhya Ray found the support in her progressive in-laws. They didn’t just support her with her studies but also motivated her to join politics. Ray, who wanted to do a regular 9-5 job, is now the Member of Parliament from Bhind as she was elected in the 17th Lok Sabha election in 2019. Not only that, 46-year-old Ray is also the first woman to be an MP from her constituency.
In this candid interview, she bares it all about how she grew up, married early, joining politics and how she fell in love with her profession. She feels that the sole reason for her to work as a politician has been her husband who always deemed her as top priority.
Excerpts of the interview here.
How has your political journey been so far?
Sandhya Ray: My family had no interest in politics and even after I got married, except my husband, we didn’t have any political connection. My grandfather-in-law was a political activist who was also a prisoner during the 70s when Indira Gandhi government had enacted the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). After him, my husband, Suman Ray, joined politics when he joined the BJP during the leadership of former Madhya Pradesh CM Sunder Lal Patwa. He was elected as the District President for a few years and after that he has been working as a party worker for BJP.
Around 1995, I also stepped into politics along with him. While I didn’t have much interest, but, because my husband was working at the district level for so long, I knew somewhat about his work. It was him who really pushed me to enter politics. In 2000, I won the election for farmer market president (Mandi Adhyaksh) in Ambah near Morena district because in that year that seat got reserved for women. While I was the market president for five years until 2005, in 2003, when the MP assembly elections happened, BJP fielded me as their candidate from Dimani seat.
I won that election too and was an MLA till 2008. After that, the party didn’t give me the ticket for whatever reason but I kept working as a party worker and in various capacities. In 2017, I became a member of Madhya Pradesh State Women’s Commission. Finally, last year, the party gave me ticket to contest the Lok Sabha election from Bhind which I won.
Tell us about how you grew up amd how did your foray into politics happen?
Sandhya Ray: I never wanted to enter politics but it was my family’s wish and the party’s progressive outlook that pushed me in politics. BJP encouraged women to join the party and that’s when I was selected. I was only 26 when I ran for the market president post and around 28, I became an MLA.
Actually, since the village in MP from where my husband and I come from are very backward areas so I was married at the age of 10 in 1984 and in villages families used to do a ritual called, Gauna, when the bride actually goes to live with her husband. So my Gauna happened when I was 16-17. I had studied till class 10th at my parents’ house. I completed my school, graduation and post-graduation and law after coming to my husband’s house. I completed 11th privately, then 12th standard from Sheopuri district. Then I did B.A. and M.A. from Gwalior University. Finally, I completed LL.B when I was already an MLA in 2004 from Bhopal. My in-laws never had any issue with me studying so much. After I completed my studies, I wanted to work in a job but politics happened to me.
While my husband encouraged me to join politics, I didn’t have any interest. In 2000, the market president seat was reserved for women so my husband spoke to other party workers and all of them decided that I must contest in this election and fill an application of candidacy. I was still very disinterested but I signed the application. My youngest son was only three years old so I knew my priorities well. We weren’t thinking that it would come down to this that I would have to contest election, go out on roads for campaigning and whatnot.
Eventually, what had to happen, happened and I became the market president. Despite the fact that I didn’t like it, I continued to manage my responsibilities at home and as the post holder. It was after I became an MLA that I started to actually enjoy my work and understood the gravity of my position. I realised that even I could make a difference.
BJP has been in power in Bhind for three decades now and this time it fielded you as their candidate and with this win, you have also become the first female MP of Bhind. What does this achievement mean to you?
Sandhya Ray: To win the MP election in my first attempt and to become the first female from Bhind is indeed an achievement but I take this more as a responsibility than an achievement. I have been an MLA before from Morena which is very close to Bhind, so I knew this constituency very well too.
I have been an elected representative since 2000 in various capacities so I always had faith in myself. Initially, I obviously felt intimidated by politics and used to feel a little scared but because of the support from my husband, family and party’s state committee, I was motivated to work in politics. I faced a few challenges during my term as the market president but after becoming an MLA, I strongly took over that role and did my work sincerely. So this current role doesn’t seem like a challenge to me. I might have become an MP but I don’t see it as a power position. I only believe that it is a huge duty that I must fulfill earnestly.
What are some of the challenges Bhind faces and what are the issues you promised to take up as an elected representative while you were contesting for the MP seat?
Sandhya Ray: We fought the election on the basis of the national manifesto and it was also powered by honourable PM Modi’s wave. Since BJP has had a stronghold on this seat because of the development it brought in the constituency, people showed immense trust towards us. In this area, a lot of work around roadways was done to connect rural villages with the help of proper roads. My constituency is mostly rural so there are many villages that still don’t have electricity provision. Providing basic amenities like electricity, safe and clean drinking water, proper roads are some of the promises we made and will try to fulfill so people of Bhind and Datia—two districts that are in my constituency—can live a better life.
During this time of coronavirus, we realised that the people of my constituency were working across India as migrant workers, so when the lockdown happened, people started to come back to the constituency in thousands. We understood that if people have employment opportunities in their villages and cities then they wouldn’t have to migrate to other cities for work. I have raised this issue in the parliament as well and I will raise it further with better roadmap of how we will be able to recognise this. I will put this forward in the upcoming Monsoon session.
We still don’t have enough reliable infrastructure of school, hospitals and one of the major reasons for that is that doctors and other medical staff don’t want to move to villages and work. We need to come up with better solutions so that the medical staff is motivated to work from villages and don’t just stay restricted to cities.
What changes have you brought to your constituency and what are some of the new initiatives launched by you?
Sandhya Ray: There was a lot of discussion going on around an army school being opened in Bhind. Currently, there is only one Army school in MP which is in Rewa. Now it has been finalised that the army school in Bhind will be constructed which will be in my tenure. Secondly, Chambal Progress Way is another project that has been in contention for a long time which will cross Kota in Rajasthan, Sheopur, Sabalgarh, Morena and Bhind as well. These are the two projects that will happen in my term.
The construction of both these projects will also give way to employment opportunities to the people here as the Progress Way will eliminate the ravines of Chambal connecting many villages together and with other cities. People will be able to open a lot of commercial eateries along the Progress Way. Similarly, when the army school will open, it will have students from across the country so infrastructural development will also happen with it in neighbouring areas. These things will impact employment and development in Bhind.
Then there is this road that goes from Bhind to Etawah in Uttar Pradesh where road accidents happen on a daily basis. This is one of my major area of concerns as I want to propose that this way should be made into a four-lane or six-lane road, so accidents decrease on this roadway.
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How is your constituency tackling with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Sandhya Ray: We were following the guidelines provided to us by the central and the state government. We also took every step after discussing the COVID-19 situation in my constituency with District administrators, collectors and other officials because it was important to firstly stop it from spreading. Initially, when the lockdown was announced, people barely followed it but when the unlock started to happen, we would impose our own lockdown so the markets would open for four days and remain closed for three days. Bhind hasn’t reported a lot of coronavirus cases as yet. We have 619 cases in total and only 67 active cases with no death from coronavirus so far.
We worked collectively and I would say apart from the government, the businessmen, social workers and philanthropists etc., everyone came together to fight against the novel virus and we’re still raging our fight. When the migrant workers started to come back, we ensured that all of them had to be tested and put in institutional quarantine before they can enter the villages and be with their families. A lot of people on a personal level also opened their houses for this, while the government properties were also turned into quarantine areas.
Do you think caste-based atrocities are stil a reality in India as you belong to Scheduled Caste community and how much progress do you think marginalised castes have made in the last few decades?
Sandhya Ray: Dalit community continues to face oppression in our country and caste-discrimination is a real social evil till date. People from my community endure immense injustice. But I want to mention that I never did caste-based politics and I have always helped everyone across the board, irrespective of caste, whoever has come for help from me. I do see a change in the treatment of SC community. Our people have done tremendously in areas of education, administration etc. Additionally, even women from SC community are now working with me and in private sector, so I do see progress but it isn’t fast-paced.
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Reservation has helped in bringing up SC community people in various fields but there is still discrimination going on in several cases wherein lower caste people are not able to secure promotion as general category people do; seats reserved remain empty for years. These things need to be taken seriously and people from Dalit communities should be encouraged to take their due.
All pictures have been taken from Sandhya Ray’s Facebook Profile.