The Womens Reservation Bill would not have made it through the Rajya Sabha but for the support of the Left parties. Brinda Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha, has been one of the advocates of the Bill right from its inception. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:
It has been a long struggle, from the Geeta Mukherjee Committee report of 1996 to getting the Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha. What was different this time round and why was there a feeling that the Bill might see the light of day after all.
It partially saw the light of day. Until now there was a complete eclipse, but because of its passage in the Rajya Sabha you can see the sun. But it has a long way to go because the basic issue here is about the governments political will to see it through the Lok Sabha even though it has the numbers. Certainly the Left, which at that time was supporting the government, had a role to play in the introduction of the Bill. Since the opponents of the Bill were very much present in the Cabinet at the time, getting the Bill introduced was itself a very big step. The standing committee went through the democratic process of wide consultations. The report was finalised but it was not tabled before the 2009 elections. Soon after [President] Pratibha Patil made a commitment [in her speech], the standing committee report was tabled. That in itself was a change to some extent. Once the report was tabled one could not postpone it indefinitely because questions could be raised about the governments credibility and commitment.
The other thing that was different this time was that the opponents of the Bill were not in the Cabinet. The support of the Left was always there and could be taken for granted. The support of the BJP was also very important. The support of parties such the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], the AGP [Asom Gana Parishad], the TDP [Telugu Desam Party] and the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], despite their differences with the government, was also very crucial.
How crucial do you think was the support of the Left in getting the Bill passed?
In the Rajya Sabha, it is a question of numbers. As we were the third largest group in the Upper House, certainly the numbers were required to get a two-thirds majority. Apart from that, there was the issue of floor strategy. Clearly, the government had no floor strategy. If you ask me, I think it was circumstances that propelled the Bill through the Rajya Sabha. There was a spontaneous momentum in the process when it started. Even in the afternoon meeting that we had, there was a question mark whether there would be a discussion on the Bill and whether it would go through.
I can tell you categorically that what unfolded in the Rajya Sabha was not according to any plan. It was a happy circumstance that the Bill did get discussed and was put to vote. Even at that time when the government was trying to shift the blame and responsibility, the Left made it clear that it was the responsibility of the government. The Left had taken a consistent stand that the Bill should be voted upon that day itself.
The nature of the opposition seems to be the same the quota-within-quota demand and the fears that the wives, daughters and daughters-in-law of the elite and elected representatives will take over.
Firstly, I would not put the OBC [Other Backward Classes] and Muslim grievances on the same plane. I strongly believe that the minority communities, particularly the Muslim community, in India have a genuine grievance in that the number of Muslims in the House has actually come down. It was posed as though it was a question of Muslim reservation versus womens reservation. I dont agree with that presentation because as far as Muslim reservation is concerned, it is a fact that both Muslim men and women have been denied and deprived by the present political system of their rights in elected and decision-making bodies. There is no question of that not being a very legitimate issue.
Now how do we deal with this? The Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendation to consider Muslims to be OBCs and a socially and economically backward category has shown a way forward to increase the rights of women as far as the economy is concerned. I am happy and proud that the West Bengal government is the first to have accepted the recommendation and reserved 10 per cent of the jobs for Muslims. In Tripura, since there is already 50 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in government jobs, it will require a constitutional amendment to lift the 50 per cent limit laid down by the Supreme Court. We have been demanding from Tripura that it is not right that OBCs and Muslims are not represented in government jobs, but the Central government is not doing anything to facilitate this through a constitutional amendment. These are genuine issues. But in politics, there has been no discussion with the Central government to set up any such commission that will give recommendations within our framework of equality to suggest affirmative action for the Muslim community.
The Womens Reservation Bill cannot be a magic wand to deal with a fundamental problem of the Indian parliamentary democracy, which is low representation of women. The fear of the Muslim community that the reservation of 180 seats will deprive Muslims of the chance of contesting from those seats may not be well-founded. What we have seen at the local and the panchayat levels is that Muslim women have a much better opportunity of getting elected from seats reserved for women rather than from the general seats. That is a tendency. I would only make an appeal that this should not be a reason to prevent the Bill.
As far as the OBC question is concerned, it is not relevant, as at the panchayat level, where there is OBC reservation for men and women in some States, never have they asked for similar reservation in State Assemblies and Parliament. And I believe that in Parliament, the difference will not be caste but gender, because caste consideration will remain the same. Parties will be forced to let OBC women share the benefits of post-Mandal mobilisations, which have broken upper-caste monopoly in politics.... And also the idea that it is disadvantageous to be a daughter in an OBC family has been disproved. OBC women have proved that whenever they are given the ticket by their parties they can do very well. In Bihar, more OBC women have been elected than other women. The same is true of Uttar Pradesh. So, I am confident that OBC women will benefit; they will get the ticket and will win elections. And they will form, along with S.C. and S.T. women, the largest group in Parliament, which will be a very positive aspect for Indian democracy. Women across caste and community will benefit from them.
As far as the other argument, about women relatives of elites entering Parliament, is concerned, this is absurd. I cant understand why women who are opposed to the Bill speak such a patriarchal language. Never have we heard them speak of the beta-bhatija [son-nephew] brigade. Perhaps because in their mindset that is fine. Whether it is beta-bhatija or bahu-beti, this will have to be dealt with in another way. Any other alternative suggested will not keep away the bahu-betas or betis from fighting elections.
A recent analysis of elected representatives of different States has shown that it is only MLAs and MPs belonging to the Left parties who have risen merely on the basis of their work at the grass-roots level in the party and not because they are related to anybody.
Those who support the Bill argue that increased political representation of women will help get womens issues some prominence insofar as policies are concerned. Essentially, it will put womens issues on the agenda in Parliament.
In my limited experience, I have seen that when women across parties do get mobilised and unitedly raise their voice in Parliament, it does make an impact. As their numbers are not adequate, the impact is much less. I believe that in political debates in general, the gender perspective is missing. For instance, how does a policy affect women? I think that women will be in a better position to raise those issues in Parliament....
I believe that there is a perspective that women will be able to bring in Parliament. I do not believe that only women can speak about women. Nor do I believe that women are going to be less free of weaknesses and flaws. Why do women who come to Parliament have to prove that they have to be superwomen and that they have to deal with every single evil in the system?
I think the most important impact will be in the cultural area, in the sense that women wont be looked at only as family carers who are not able to enter public life. Already that notion has been shaken to a great extent by the tremendous role women have played at the panchayat level. That has been one of the most propelling and compelling reasons for the validity of this Bill. They have shown through their work that their role in public life can shake up the stereotypical ideas of what women should do.
The Bill breaks the ladies compartment mentality in the sense that the elected women will represent men and women, children and old people of their respective constituencies. They will represent everyone not only women.
The Bill is expected to be introduced in the Lok Sabha in April. The equations in the Lok Sabha are different. Already sections within the Congress and the BJP have expressed their displeasure at the way marshals were deployed in the Rajya Sabha. Are you optimistic of its final passage?
The Prime Minister said that it was a momentous event in the history of Indian democracy a historic moment. It cannot be a historic moment in the Rajya Sabha and a historic dustbin in the Lok Sabha. The government should get its act together in the coming session of Parliament and should not send confusing signals about its approach.
At this point, I would like to congratulate the womens movement and the womens organisations. But for them, the Bill would have been put in cold storage.