Twenty Years Too Long: Women’s Reservation Bill Continues to Languish in Lok Sabha - By Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The Bill was introduced by the Deve Gowda government in 1996 and was passed by the upper house in 2010 after being tossed around for various reasons.

At any given point of time, several draft legislations listed under the category of ‘pending bills’ in the Lok Sabha exist. One of them, however, has been pending since 2010 and is likely to remain so, given the patriarchal tendencies of most political parties that share power in the country and the indifference of successive governments towards the political empowerment of women.

In fact, on September 12, the 108th Constitution Amendment Bill, or what is popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, completed 20 years of being in existence – while managing to get only the assent of the Rajya Sabha, thus far. In the last two decades the Bill has seen much drama in both houses of parliament, clearly aimed at scuttling the measure, with some members even attempting to physically attack the then Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari, to disrupt its tabling.

The bill’s journey began on September 12, 1996, when it was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the United Front government of H.D. Deve Gowda. The bill called for reserving 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and all state legislative assemblies for women. As per the draft, the seats were to be reserved for women on a rotation basis and would be determined by draw of lots, in such a way that a seat would be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections. It said reservation of seats for women would cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the amendment Act.

The bill, however, failed to get the approval of the house then and was instead referred to a joint parliamentary committee. The committee submitted its report to the Lok Sabha two months later.
In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who headed the the first National Democratic Alliance government, reintroduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha. After Vajpayee’s law minister, M. Thambidurai introduced it in the house, a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP snatched it from the speaker and tore it into bits.
Thereafter, the Bill lapsed and was reintroduced – in 1999, in 2002 and 2003.

The parliamentary impasse
Even though the Congress, the Left and the BJP were heard openly pledging support for the Bill, it just couldn’t be passed in the Lok Sabha. In 1998, the Vajpayee government was certainly dependent on other parties for survival which many political observers often suggest was a reason for not being able to “assert” itself. After the 1999 mid-term polls, even though Vajpayee returned to the saddle, the mandate was for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which won 303 of the 544 Lok Sabha seats – yet again a situation where he “had to keep” all the parties together. However, given the support pledged by the Congress and Left, the Bill would have sailed through the house had it been formally put to vote.

In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Two years later on March 9, 2010, a huge political barrier was overcome when it was passed by the house in spite of high drama and scuffles between members. The BJP, the Left and some other parties came together with the ruling Congress to help pass it in the upper house. 

Six years have passed since that moment when top women leaders from three major parties – Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat – gave a rare moment to media photographers by walking hand in hand in impromptu celebration of that ‘historic occasion’. And yet, in 2016, it has still not seen the light of the day, simply because the political will to help make it a law has been lacking in the lower house. The UPA II government, in spite of having 262 seats in the Lok Sabha, too couldn’t make it happen, citing the same excuse of being in a coalition.

Grounds for opposition
One of its coalition partners – the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – has been one of the three most vocal opponents of the bill. The other two have been the Janata Dal (United) and Samajwadi Party (SP). It was JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav who infamously used the term “par-kati mahilaen (short-haired women) in Parliament in June 1997, to ask how would short-haired or urban women would be able to represent “our women”, meaning women from rural areas.

Some of the common points of concern for the parties opposing it, as per PRS Legislative Research, has been that “it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit.” Furthermore it said, “They also contend that this policy diverts attention from the larger issues of electoral reform such as criminalisation of politics and inner party democracy.”

Another concern was, “Reservation of seats in parliament restricts choice of voters to women candidates. Therefore, some experts have suggested alternate methods such as reservation in political parties and dual member constituencies.” Also, rotation of reserved constituencies in every election may reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency.

It was also pointed out that “the report (of the joint committee) that examined the Bill recommended that reservation be provided for women of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) once the constitution was amended to allow for reservation for OBCs. It also recommended that reservation be extended to the Rajya Sabha and the legislative councils. Neither of these recommendations has been incorporated in the Bill.” However, many women activists backing the bill have gone on record saying patriarchal thinking has actually been behind the opposition to it. Well-known activist, Aruna Roy, in an article in The Hindu Business Line in March this year, also argued that “India ranks well below the global average in terms of women’s representation in parliament, as well as amongst countries which have mandated the minimum representation of women in parliament through law.

Poor participation of women in parliament has a direct impact on the priorities and assumptions of policies and legislations.” She wrote, “Political parties will have to, or will soon be forced to, recognise that if parliament does not reflect contemporary trends in women’s education and excellence in varied fields, they will face a crisis of credibility.”

Shifting allegiances
Interestingly, the earlier stance of JD (U) on the bill seems to have changed now. Attending an event to mark 20 years of the bill by the National Federation of Indian Women (NPIW) in New Delhi on September 12, JD(U) general secretary K. C. Tyagi pledged his party’s support to the Bill.
“I have come to say that from today onwards you can remove the name of JD(U) as one of the parties opposed to the women’s reservation bill,” Tyagi said at an event. He, however, also said a quota for women from backward classes should be given within the bill.

When he was asked whether a ‘quota within a quota’ would be a pre-condition for the JD(U)’s support to the Bill, Tyagi reportedly said, “It should be passed without ifs and buts. If there are any conditions, then people will get an excuse to delay it. This (sub-quota) is our wish, not our condition.”

Certainly, this is a ray of hope for a bill that could help change the gender composition of parliament and the state assemblies. Even though the 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw the highest ever presence of women in parliament, it still stands at 61 (11.23%) among 543 seats. After the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, there were only 59 women members.

Support from staunch opponents aside, finally, what will lead to the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha is not their political will, but the attitude of the ruling dispensation, which has an overwhelming majority in the house anyway – a unique position none of the earlier dispensations enjoyed. “We are happy that the JD (U) has changed its stance on the bill, but what would matter the most is if the ruling party (BJP) expresses its willingness on the issue. The writing on the wall is clear, the present government doesn’t need any political party to pass the bill if it wishes,” said Kiran Moghe, national general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Alliance (AIDWA), one of the core forces behind the bill.

Referring to BJP women leaders like Sushma Swaraj’s continued support to the bill, Moghe said, “But top women leaders of the party will also have to push to pass it in the Lok Sabha. Mere support for it is not enough. After all, it was one of the BJP’s women members (Uma Bharati) who stalled it in the house along with some other party members.”

Speaking about the bill in 2010 as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, BJP’s Arun Jaitley said he had a feeling of “being a party to history in the making” when he came to the house that day. Jaitley is now one of the most important players in the Narendra Modi government but has not been heard talking about making that “history” complete in real terms. Prime Minister Modi has so far maintained a studied silence on the matter, even as the Lok Sabha reconvenes end September for a fresh session.

Women On Their Own
by Dilip Simeon (written in May 1997)

One of the memorable utterances of Sharad Yadav in his outburst against the women's reservation bill was his scorn for the idea that balkati mahila (presumably he was not referring to sanyasins) could represent "our women". This gave the game away, for it showed the deep insecurity among male politicians at the evaporation of their control over women. In this matter the leaders of the OBC's are no different from communalists of every hue, with their notorious efforts to impose "traditional" norms upon "their" women. References to the physiognomy of one's interlocutors are considered offensive in any civilised conversation. It is a telling commentary on the state of affairs that coarse behaviour towards women on the part of a senior leader of the ruling party in Parliament arouses only mild demurral rather than outrage.

Fifty years after independence, women in the Indian parliament number 7% of the total, the highest being 8% in the 8th Lok Sabha. If this is not a shameful indicator of institutional infirmities, I dont know what is. There has been a 47.6% increase in reported crimes against women between 1990 and 1995. In 1995 there were 4659 dowry murders (why are they called "dowry deaths"?), and 12,458 cases of rape. If the interests of "weaker sections" are safe in the hands of Yadav and Co., there is very little to show for it. The will to power of the OBC elite exists in inverse ratio to their capacity for statesmanship. This is unfortunate because the movement of the middle-castes for political power has been one of the hopeful developments of recent decades. But their successes seem to have strengthened patriarchal forces within peasant comunities - witness the recent cases of young women from the backward castes being murdered by their caste panchayats for choosing their own life partners. OBC leaders do not condemn such events, because social reform has always taken a back seat to political power. 

The demand for women's representation has emerged not because of male goodwill but because of a global upsurge in women's mobilisation and the successes of the women's movement in India over the past two decades.  The fact that women forced two state governments to introduce prohibition (even though one of these has since backtracked), shows that they are capable of using democratic institutions to influence political events.

Half of the human race possesses characteristics of a disadvantaged minority, with social disabilities which show no sign of being eroded without institutional safeguards. Reservations for women have an explosive potential for transformation. An opinion poll in August 1996 showed a massive 75% support among women and men for such reservations. The experience of quotas in panchayats since 1993 has shown a groundswell of enthusiasm. A survey from Madhya Pradesh shows that the presence of women in panchayats led to greater urgency towards the provision of drinking water, the enforcement of the presence of schoolteachers, provision of health facilities, legal literacy and protection of the environment. Dr Vina Mazumdar has a similar assessment with regard to the experience of the Nari Vikas Sangha of West Bengal and other women's mass organizations. Women representatives in localities she observes, tend to have an innate sense of responsibility and have demonstrated a strong awareness of issues such as communal violence and lawlessness, the harm done by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and monoculture and the availability of water. They also have an earthy understanding of social issues - Punjabi village women made a connection between alcoholism and the patriarchal upbinging of sons.

The demand for an OBC segment within the women's reservation is intended to obtain reservations for OBC men under threat of sabotaging the Bill. The constitutional provision for SC/ST's will remain in place within the women's quota, but proportional reservations for OBC's and minorities will carry separate ramifications. There is no estimate for OBC's, as the last caste census took place in 1931. The Mandal recommendations were not about proportional estimates, since OBC's number well over 50% of the total population. As for minorities, a number of the Mandal castes are Muslim in any case - communal reservations in legislatures will raise a hornet's nest. Another debate will completely sidetrack the question. Gender discrimination occurs in all castes and communities, and is autonomous of other forms of discrimination. Issues concerning women as a group exist apart from matters of ethnic identity. These range from dowry murder, female infanticide and domestic violence, to education, laws governing migrant labour and informal sector work, the availability of child care, maternity benefits and the provision of toilet facilities in public places. Reservations are intended to correct historical injustices. 

The oppression of women is an historical injustice if ever there was one. The principle of the autonomy of gender-related issues and the human rights of women has to be brought home forcefully to those who control legislative institutions. Nothing prevents them from fielding OBC candidates for reserved seats. Aren't they confident of the loyalty of "their" women?

National institutions tend to be distant from issues which concern localities. Yet a more equitable representation of women in legislatures might complement the panchayat reservation and correct this alienation. The presence of a bloc of women in Parliament will make legislators more amenable to amending laws which make rape trials humiliating for victims, and more sensitive to issues which manifest the sub-human status of women. At the very least, it will reduce the number of goondas in legislatures and the expenditures incurred to guard persons from whom we need protection. In turn, the disabilities suffered by panchayats in terms of a lack of adequate powers might be overcome with greater admnistrative devolution - which will become easier with the presence of  sympathetic MP's.

Why 33% ? Questions about this "magical" figure have a snide ring. It is indeed arbitrary. But 33% is a sight better than 5% or 7 %, which is all that women may expect under the current dispensation. Indeed, 33% will be a major victory in the struggle for social democracy. Citing the tendency of male bus passengers to treat non-reserved seats as their preserve is frivolous  - one does not remain in a bus for years, nor have the opportunity of arguing with one's interlocutors. And surely the possibility of a more equitable distribution of seats in buses would brighten if there were a larger number of women demanding it?

Patriarchal oppression will not end with reservation, nor is thoroughgoing gender justice possible under the capitalist system. Capitalism is a seemingly objective mode of control over human labour which despite being muted by impersonal market forces, perpetuates violence, chauvinism and patriarchy. Nonetheless, combatting patriarchy in each of its bastions is necessary in the ongoing struggle for social democracy. The women's movement in India is at a crossroads - the health of Indian democracy depends on its struggle for the Reservation Bill. A Lok Sabha elected on false promises is now seeking to extricate itself by procrastination. Mr Gujral should not hesitate to go to the country on the most far-reaching constitutional development since 1950. It will stamp him with the mark of a statesman and redeem the egalitarian promise of Indian democracy.

An afterthought. Take a shave, Sharadji. How long will you keep hiding behind the fungus

see also
Javed Anand: Bhagwat ka Bharat; Mahesh Rathi: इण्डिया से खफा संघी भारतवंशियों की व्यथा कथा !

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