Woman power

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Women Members of Parliament of various political parties unite to demand the tabling of the women`s reservation Bill, in November 2007 in New Delhi.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The issue that has fired the imagination of women in India in recent times is their demand for reservation in Parliament and the State Assemblies.

WOMANPOWER stalls Musclepower, announced a newspaper headline the day after the womens reservation Bill was placed yet again in Parliament on May 7.

Surely, the headline highlighted a very basic challenge facing Indian democracy both inside and outside Parliament. While it would appear that a long struggle lies ahead for representative politics in India to become truly representative of popular will, aspirations and interests, it must also be recognised that if there is one issue that has fired the imagination of women across the country in an explicitly positive sense over the past decade and more, it is the demand for 33 per cent reservation in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies.

What were the factors that propelled the demand for the Bill?

The demand was a logical continuation of what had been achieved relatively easily at the level of local representative bodies after the adoption of the 73rd-74th amendments to the Constitution in 1993. There have been many attempts to understand why women want greater representation including the theory that they are driven by compulsions as crass as naked political ambition or that they desire important positions! Some may even believe that the demand comes from international platforms such as the Beijing Conference in 1995 where womens role in decision making was seen as a mark of achievement. Others may see in it an expression of feminist politics coming of age.

Somehow, none of these recognises the basic fact that women contribute equally to this society with men, that they demand and deserve a share in decision making with regard to policies and planning, and that their struggle for equality is today an integral part of the struggle of the Indian people to ensure the strength and stability of Indian democracy.

Amidst this welter of views, it may be useful to put on record the extent to which the demand for 33 per cent reservation galvanised women in a sustained campaign spread over nearly 15 years now, notwithstanding the drama enacted in Delhi before every Parliament session. First, as anyone who has been actively involved in the contemporary womens movement would vouch for, the question Didi, what is happening to 33 per cent? has come up in virtually every corner of the country over the last decade.

The demand for womens representation in elected bodies has perhaps featured in every other memorandum at the State and Central levels, in discussions, workshops, training programmes and interactive discussions across the regional divide. It has been raised by the so-called autonomous womens groups, by the more political mass-based organisations, and by womens wings of political parties, thereby cutting across the so-called divides within the movement. A mass protest before Parliament in the summer of 1998 drew an unprecedented response, with nearly 10,000 women landing up in New Delhi to press the demand.

There has perhaps not been a single Prime Minister or Lok Sabha Speaker in the past decade who has not been petitioned or has not had to field questions from women representatives on the subject. It is one issue on which leaders of political parties have been petitioned several times and quizzed on why this demand has not featured in their election manifestos.

The issue has drawn in scholars, activists, policymakers, media personnel and even members of the Election Commission, who are normally not drawn into such controversies.

With the notable exception of the Left parties, which have consistently backed the demand, verbal support for it has come in wavering undertones from some parties (such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress), while the opposition to it has been strident in others such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Women activists have made public their distaste for such patriarchal mindsets even as they have debated the question of patriarchy and searched for more nuanced definitions of it.

Meanwhile, women continue with their dharnas, memoranda and petitions, and leadership training camps even as they engage with the dilemmas and challenges that representative politics poses for the womens movement within the context of globalisation and a state that is committed to a neoliberal economic agenda.

Furthermore, the issue has brought women in the South Asian region closer through all the turbulence of the past two decades military rule, the struggle against monarchy, and the divisive conflicts thrown up by fundamentalism and ethnic strife. There were ironies that emerged.

Women from Bihar on a visit to Parliament House. A file picture. The social base of women entering panchayat bodies has broadened and now includes a cross-section of women from underprivileged groups.-R.V. MOORTHY

The same women from Pakistan who despaired of any kind of representation given the virulent opposition to it from fundamentalists in their country managed to inch their way to 22 per cent representation in their parliament.

However, in India, where the campaign has been stronger and more widespread, the record is poor. The highest representation of women was a dismal 9 per cent in the Lok Sabha in 1999 and 15.4 per cent in the Rajya Sabha in 1991. Indeed, in 2005 the percentage actually came down to 8.2 and 11.4 respectively.

The womens movements decision to foreground the demand for reservation in the 1990s marked a shift in stance as until that point it had upheld the historical legacy of the freedom struggle in respect of the rejection of reservation by the pre-Independence womens movement. In fact, a majority in the Constituent Assembly rejected a proposal for reservation for women.

In independent India, the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1975) discussed the issue of the low participation of women in elected bodies. It, however, rejected the demand for reservation, with Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar registering their dissent.

Undoubtedly, the real push for reservation came from below, after the enactment of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1993. The entry of women into rural and urban local bodies forced activists to sit up and take stock of the ground reality in ways they never had to consider before. Those contesting the local body elections were willy-nilly drawn into party politics, as it was referred to. Many of these women who were elected found themselves ill-equipped for the job. They were forced to draw on whatever support was available, family or otherwise, and even before they were given a chance to perform they were derided for being proxies and rubber stamps.

Nevertheless, they plodded on, taking vested interests head-on. After all, if India lives in its villages, so does a significant section of its ruling elite, along with power brokers, criminals, extortionists, conservatives, reactionaries and militants. It was these deadly forces that these uninitiated women representatives of elective politics had to take on all at once.

As if that was not enough, before they could even contest they had to pass the test by fulfilling a long list of eligibility conditions. Consider, for instance, clauses that sought details on criminal proceedings pending against them, details of outstanding or unpaid loans, indeed clauses that would make many a parliamentarian or legislator wince in guilt.

To add to this, they became subject to a clause imposing a two-child norm for elected representatives. This formed a part of the population policies adopted by many of the States and endorsed by the Supreme Court in its misplaced wisdom.

Further, even as the demand for accountability and the right to recall State legislators and parliamentarians simply floundered, women elected to panchayat bodies faced an extraordinary backlash. In several panchayats women faced no-confidence motions that were brought in, and adopted to dislodge them, by those whose interests they threatened. These powerful groups comprised contractor lobbies or land mafia-backed criminals who wished to corner funds allotted for development activity at the local level. Some of them allied themselves with upper-caste sections who had hitherto enjoyed the benefits of these allocations.

Women representatives refusal to comply with instructions given to them or to buckle under these pressures was met with no-confidence motions, physical threats, criminal/sexual assaults on them or family members and, in some cases, even murder. This, even as they juggled their traditional roles and new responsibilities.

Despite the backlash, representatives of the womens movement have assessed this experience positively and chosen to push for 33 per cent reservation in elected bodies at the higher levels too.

In fact, the positive outcome of representation is evident at several levels, starting with enhanced participation and the emergence of womens leadership at the level of local self-government. The social base of women entering these bodies has broadened and now includes a cross-section of women from under-privileged groups those that suffer economic deprivation and social and caste discrimination. New developmental priorities emerged with women entering panchayat bodies.

Thus the womens movements subsequent demand for 33 per cent reservation in State legislatures and Parliament arose out of a recognition of positive interventions and of the experience of women members and chairpersons of panchayats in different States, specifically Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Kerala.

Sometimes the intensity of the conflict was greater in the supposedly backward States. Although this experience has been varied, uneven, and State- and locality-specific, it has enriched people-friendly governance, and its measurable success has strengthened the demand for reservation at higher levels.

Why is it important to place these facts on record?

The pressure from below to engage with politics in a meaningful and positive way comes at a time when the elite classes of India are united in hijacking politics to serve their own vested interests, thus spreading a certain cynicism towards politics, particularly amongst the Indian middle class, which conducts a continuous tirade against the political class.

Further, the wave of depoliticisation sweeping across the world since the 1990s has left the womens movement in other parts of the world facing fragmentation even disintegration and certainly seeking fresh moorings. Given the context of this phase of politics, marked by the end of ideology, can the womens movement in India afford to ignore the push coming from below for a more direct engagement in politics?

Significant issues have been raised in the course of the debate around the Bill over the past decade. Broadly these relate to the mode of ensuring increased representation of women; the quantum of reservation and the manner of its implementation; and lastly, the issue of quotas within the womens quota.

First, let us look at the number of proposals as alternatives to a reserved quota for women. There have been suggestions for double-member constituencies; for an increase in the overall number of seats in the course of delimitation, whichwill automatically improve womens chances; and even reservation within the list of candidates put up by parties.

These proposals raise more issues than they settle. For instance, on the issue of double-member constituencies, can only women represent women? Or, can women not be represented by men? Such tokenism or biological essentialism can never be the terrain on which women can argue their case.

The delimitation exercise has already reached an advanced stage and it is simply not feasible to incorporate womens reservation within its terms of reference.

Whereas there is no disagreement with regard to parties putting up more women candidates, in the current situation of fractured mandates and coalition governments, the importance attached to a candidates winnability by the party makes it unrealistic to expect that they will pay heed to such a proposal.

Opposition to the Bill has come up on two major grounds. First, given the wavering support for the Bill even among those who do not oppose it, some have argued for a diluted demand. Why not settle for 15 per cent or even 20 per cent? some well-wishers ask.

Pro-reservation activists have stood their ground on two main counts. First, they point out that while successive governments took the plea that they were waiting for a consensus to introduce the Bill, the fact that the Bill had been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which submitted its report in 1997 under the chairpersonship of the late Gita Mukherjee, was conveniently buried. Women activists have rightly said that the Bill, drafted along the lines of its recommendations, be placed in Parliament and debated forthwith without any bargaining.

Secondly, they have stood their ground on the principle of 33 per cent as it will provide the necessary critical mass for women to make an impact. Further, if there is a compromise here, it could spur efforts to scale down one-third reservation in local bodies as well.

The second major objection to the Bill is more complex as it apparently uses a weapon from the arsenal of the womens movement against itself. If greater inclusiveness is a goal of reservation, then what of the marginalised groups from amongst women? Can the goal of inclusiveness be achieved without inbuilt sub-quotas for Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities?

The debate has privileged the issues of non-homogeneity within women as a category and the politics of presence in the context of the marginalised sections more sharply, and has built pressure on the womens movement to be ever more sensitive to the histories of discrimination and exclusion on the basis of caste and religion.

There are several issues involved here. First, a quota for Dalit women will form part of the reservation for women as per constitutional norms.

Secondly, why have those parties and forces that have used this as a plea to reject the Bill not placed before Parliament concrete proposals on reservation for OBC categories at a more general level? Also, if OBC representation in representative bodies is going up, then who is responsible for blocking the entry of women from these sections coming into the same bodies?

Finally, while it is true that majority fundamentalism has targeted and further alienated women belonging to religious minorities, it is unclear whether this issue can be addressed within the purview of this Bill. Reservation for minorities is a matter that requires constitutional amendments of a more complex nature.

The demand for religion-based rights and reservation was debated at length when the Constitution was being drafted, and was rejected on the basis of a clear understanding of secularism and democracy. The majority of womens organisations today would, therefore, reject a demand for re-negotiating this issue. As the Sachar Committee report highlights, the problems of minority rights and reservation have to be addressed at multiple levels.

In other words, the reservation Bill cannot be a piece of catch-all legislation that should address all historical inequalities and challenges women face before it can settle the issue of womens reservation. In fact, it is in recognition of this reality that many womens organisations have made concerted efforts to reach out to women from the minorities and other marginalised sections in an attempt to address the specific discriminations faced by women of these sections and to take forward the discussion on democratic rights. This has often brought them into conflict with fundamentalist forces from both within and outside minority communities.

Interestingly, the issue of caste and its links with patriarchy has been central in much of the academic writing in womens studies with some interesting critiques of Brahmanical patriarchy from a non-Brahmin perspective. These have focussed on issues of consciousness and perception from both gendered and caste-based perspectives. While that has added to the complexity of the debate within the movement, it should not be assumed that the political forces opposing womens reservation in the name of caste necessarily share the same concerns.

In fact, the disconnect between historical movements or individuals who foregrounded issues of caste before 1947 and the present-day champions of caste-based reservation could not be sharper. Despite their ideological differences, leaders such as E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and E.M.S Namboodiripad located the institution of caste within the framework of pre-capitalist relations and ideology. Some of them successfully mounted a challenge to it because they firmly placed the struggle against caste within the context of anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles. Also, from their varied perspectives they shared a commitment to equality for women.

In contrast to this, some of the modern champions of caste and reservation neither understand the material basis of the phenomenon nor challenge the context of globalisation and liberalisation within which caste operates. They merely press for representation based on identity and are at best silent on the subject of womens equality.

To conclude, the debate around the womens reservation Bill has thrown up interesting questions. It has generated a significant political momentum. In the event of its passage, it will create the conditions for meaningful interventions by women in particular, and progressive forces in general, in the struggle for a more egalitarian and humane path of development to take India forward.

This is necessary if social justice, inclusiveness and the right to dignity are to acquire real meaning, going beyond the rhetoric of their use as mere slogans by those who often choose to stall parliamentary proceedings rather than focus on real issues. For those united in sharing a concern for Indias advance to a secular, socialist future, the principle of 33 per cent reservation for women will in time, hopefully, transform the context and terms of representative politics itself.

Indu Agnihotri is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Womens Development Studies, New Delhi.

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