The historic passage of Women’s Reservation Bill by Rajya Sabha marks a milestone for gender equality

However, the momentous achievement came after a century of struggles for women’s rights and equality.

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

Women supporters of the Congress greet Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi on March 10.-SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

Women supporters of the Congress greet Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi on March 10.-SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

The passage of the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008, popularly known as the Womens Reservation Bill, in the Rajya Sabha on March 9 came as a belated spring-breaker. The events of the previous day, which marked 100 years of the decision to celebrate March 8 as womens day, in fact, had served as a crude reminder of the long struggle that lay ahead for women on the road to equality.

While the insult to the Chair and the dignity of the House rightly remained the focus, the irony as well as the similarity of it, in terms of how much more brutal and intense the opposition and intolerance is to assertion by women in the public sphere as well as within the precincts of individual homes, would have escaped only those who wished not to see it. Do we not need to stop and wonder why this is the case? Also, why does policymaking on behalf of women meet with such severe resistance? Interestingly, the objectivity (read hostility) of responses from those opposing the Bill can be gauged from the fact that the formal passing of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, with an overwhelming majority, is being described as bulldozing. A well-known critic of the Bill even referred to the process as whip-lashing.

Further, hardly any thought has been given to the women in whose name this drama is being enacted: the vast mass of women who continue to struggle on a daily basis to hold their head high in the midst of poverty and unabated adversity. Many of them are either Dalits or from tribal communities or belong to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or minority communities, all of whom face marginalisation within society and the economy. When leaders, acting supposedly on their behalf, compromise their real interests, it is the dignity these women command and seek to preserve in their daily lives that takes a real rubbing. The fallout of the undemocratic ways of such leaders is the violence that women suffer in the face of criminal neglect of their real-life issues on a continued basis by elected representatives.

Such histrionics, as were on display in the Rajya Sabha, deflect attention from the fact that the very survival of the poor and marginalised women is threatened in manifold ways. What is the experience these leaders have brought to debates on the deepening agrarian crisis, livelihood issues, the growing poverty, the unavailability and insecurity of work, and the poor working conditions and abysmally low wages? Notwithstanding the positive impact of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) where it has taken off, rural India, where the majority of women are located, continues to be in the grip of a crisis, while governments get away with no thought to investment in agriculture, paying lip service to the unfolding phenomenon by acknowl-edging that there is feminisation of agriculture. Also, the fact that the artisanal communities have lost out with the capitalist advance, more so with the new technology-driven patterns of growth, is well established. That the Muslim community, residing in the small and medium towns (highlighted in the 1970s in the Hindi film Garam Hawa), is adversely affected by these is well-known. It is these towns that face greater food insecurity, resulting in an exodus to the cities, where in turn these people are at the receiving end of anti-migrant rhetoric.

There is no denying that Dalit, tribal, OBC and Muslim women form a large section of those affected by the neoliberal paradigm of jobless growth and the inequalities that have increased concomitant with this growth. However, have the leaders of these communities highlighted this in any sustained manner from the platforms they have access to? Have these leaders intervened to check this skewed growth paradigm?

Women on the whole, and specifically those of the marginalised groups, have been at the receiving end of these policies. This is reflected in the macro-data on work. Womens work has increased mainly in the low-paid sectors of the economy, marked by service-oriented jobs and domestic and care-related work. They are also concentrated in home-based, self-employed and increasingly unpaid segments.

The Sachar Committee has similarly highlighted the dismal socio-economic conditions in which non-Ashraf Muslim women are living. The absence of security in the domain of civil society is today directly linked to the manner in which the state intervenes in the lives of the people. Increasingly, this has taken on a more repressive face. The violence and crimes that women face are a further indication of their status, and, on this front, the situation has only declined. Leave alone issues such as the increase in the demand for dowry and the declining sex ratio, the manner in which the market today interfaces with their lives, commodifying womens bodies and body parts, raises a series of fundamental ethical questions about the gross domestic product-oriented growth paradigm that is pursued. Further, the fundamentalist and divisive rhetoric, which threatens the secular democratic fabric of society, impinges on womens lives in many more ways.

Crimes against women recorded an increase of 12.5 per cent in 2007 over the previous year, consequent upon a continuing trend of increase during 2003-07 (Crime in India, National Crime Research Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, 2007, Pt. I page 79). It is on the basis of these and many more issues that women in India today emphasise the need for alternative policies. Their presence in decision-making bodies is required to ensure that India remains firmly committed to a path of democratic advance with a socially transformative agenda on the promise of a better quality of life to the citizens.

Clearly, the womens movement has no desire to pitch itself against the OBC or Muslim leadership, even as it may have serious apprehensions about the direction that they have given to debates on issues concerning the provision of better opportunities to women within their communities, including in the sphere of politics.

The track record of OBC leaders with regard to expanding the rights and choices of women in their community as well as in the States that they have represented is poor. Uttar Pradesh still tops with a high rate of crimes against women. What the absence of planned development has done to women and their families in the face of short-term, long-distance as well as prolonged and continuous circular migration is anybodys guess. None of these States could even put together actively functioning State Commissions for Women. Added to this is the glaring gap in the number of seats they won and the women they returned to Parliament, prompting many to ask who is stopping OBC women from entering Parliament, the womens movement or the so-called community leaders?

With regard to Muslim women, the new-found enthusiasm among the communitys self-proclaimed leaders for the rights of women needs to be welcomed. However, it is to be received with caution, given the background of numerous instances of conservative assertion, apparently in the name of religion, to deny Muslim women even the freedoms based on existing constitutional rights.

There is ample historical evidence to prove that in the past when community leaders pushed the state to legislate in the name of Muslim women, they actually compromised their interests. It has taken years of work from womens organisations, including those of Muslim women, to convince some of them that there is a need to confront issues of womens rights and dignity on the basis of real-life conditions rather than only from a textual standpoint.

The falsehood that the Bill is anti-Muslim needs to be countered effectively. Numerous interactions over the past several decades testify to the fact that the womens movement in India has built strong linkages with Muslim women in their common aspirations. Rather than work on the presumption that the Bill is opposed to the interests of certain groups, it may be more interesting to see how these differences are addressed and confronted through the democratic political process.

The recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Constitution (81st) Amendment Bill, headed by Geeta Mukherjee (Communist Party of India MP), in 1996 have formed the basis for a broad consensus on this significant amendment. The committee recommended that not less than one-third of the seats in State legislatures and Parliament be reserved for women for 15 years on a rotational basis. Given the constitutional provision of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe reservation, this Bill would work in tandem with it, as in the case of the 73rd and 74th amendments. Several organisations, individuals and parties from different parts of the country deposed before the committee as also other parliamentary committees set up in later years.

In the past decade and a half, the provisions of the Bill have been discussed and debated at length thanks to the unceasing efforts of womens organisations. They petitioned successive governments, Speakers of the Lok Sabha and the Ministers concerned. It was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee headed by E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan and then another under the leadership of Congress MP Jayanthi Natarajan. With regard to the contentious issue of a quota within the quota, these upheld the view that reservation for OBC women be provided once the Constitution was amended to allow for that, while recommending that reservation of seats for women is a valid and necessary strategy to enhance womens participation in the decision-/policymaking process. On the basis of these recommendations, the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha.

Of course, there will be those who seek overnight to claim ownership and champion the Bill. The Congress apparently has been won over by the passion with which its chairperson Sonia Gandhi has pursued the issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose representative Uma Bharti first raised objections to the Bill in the 1990s, has undergone a makeover to a supposedly women-friendly avatar. Both the Congress and the BJP, who ensured the Bills passage overcoming their own earlier opposition, harbour among them large sections who habitually develop cold feet, if not moral uptightness, at even a whiff of democracy for women. One can only hope that the Left parties, the only steadfast supporters of the Bill, do not further erode their manoeuvrability in the legislature in the coming years. The opposition of the Samajwadi Party, the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) and a section of the Janata Dal (United) remains. Meanwhile, the classic flip-flop by Mamata Banerjee gives some clue to the sensitivity she will bring to discussions on womens rights in the eventuality of her becoming a leading political figure in West Bengal or at the Centre.

Nevertheless, the passage of the Bill signals the emergence of a certain level of consensus on womens reservation in the major political formations in India. This needs to be built upon. While the Bill must be passed after a debate, the consensus that has emerged should not be allowed to dissipate or be fractured once again. Given the strategy of attrition, womens activists have no option but to step up their efforts to get the Bill adopted by the Lok Sabha. As of now the signs are that they may have to wait for another such moment when the ruling coalition may find it more convenient to have such a Bill passed than face the heat on another issue, be it price rise or the civil nuclear liability Bill.

The issue of reservation for women first came up in the 1920s in the wake of the 1919 Act subsequent to women submitting a memorandum on the vote to Lords Montague and Chelmsford. As the demand for the franchise and self-representation resounded in the course of the freedom struggle, the demand by women gathered momentum. The British floated the idea of reservation in opposition to universal franchise. This was rejected by the movement, but a divide came about with Radhabai Subbarayan, social activist, and subsequently Jehanara Shahnawaz, a politician in British India and in Pakistan, accepting reservation on different counts.

At the time of Independence, historian Bharati Ray firmly spoke against reservation in the Constituent Assembly on behalf of women, for equality as against preference. However, any hope that Indian women had in the opportunities that the Constitution offered with regard to political representation was soon belied.

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (1971-74) undertook the most comprehensive review on womens status since Independence. It noted the difficulties being experienced by women in obtaining adequate representation and the declining trend in the number of women legislators, which it apprehended may result in women losing faith in the political process to change their conditions in life, may opt out of the political system and become either passive partners or rebels (Towards Equality, Report of the CSWI, GOI, page 302).

The committee refrained from suggesting reservation, given both the earlier experience and the basis of feedback from women in political parties. This was the only issue on which a note of dissent was submitted by three members. The committee strongly recommended action to provide women special opportunities for participation in the representative structures of local government.

With the initiative taken by Rajiv Gandhi, this materialised in reservation for women in the panchayati raj institutions through the 73rd and 74th Amendments in 1993. The positive experience with local self-governance gave a push to the demand for reservation for women in State legislatures and Parliament.

It is the gap between the promise of equality and the reality that the organised womens movement has been addressing over the past several decades. The movement has a vast spread and engages with issues from a multiplicity of perspectives. The campaign for 33 per cent reservation has effectively been led by a coalition of womens organisations at the national level, comprising the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), the All India Womens Conference (AIWC), the Centre for Womens Development Studies (CWDS), the Joint Womens Programme (JWP), the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and the Young Womens Christian Association of India (YWCA) along with the Guild of Service and the Muslim Womens Forum. Groups under the banner of the National Alliance of Womens Organisations (NAWO) have, since the Beijing Conference on Women, lobbied for a greater role for women in decision-making.

However, support for the demand spills far beyond the following of these organisations and has been strengthened by several ground-level initiatives subsequent to women entering institutions of local self-governance. Womens Studies has responded by undertaking research on the experience of women in participation in panchayats and urban local bodies, as well as on the implications of considering the demand for a quota within the quota.

An argument being advanced against the Bill is that 180 male legislators will be uprooted. This assumes that men have a right to be there while women are somehow worming/muscling their way in, and reflects blatant patriarchal bias. Fears expressed about the quality of performance of a House so constituted need to be dealt with head-on.

What has been the experience on this count thus far? To assume that merit is a male prerogative is to cut at the root of arguments for equal opportunity and discount the advantage of experience and exposure. To an extent, these are common to all arguments against reservation per se. In fact, there is sufficient experience available from different countries on the need for affirmative action to provide a level-playing field to those who have been historically subjected to exclusion.

The biwi-beti brigade debate, too, has been around for some time. The opposition based on fears that only elite women will enter the legislatures is also a variation of this. The womens movement has consistently opposed nepotism in politics. However, that this exists was established after the 2009 elections when the media gave actual numbers of how members in the new House were scions of politicians. Has this led to a serious questioning of their right to be there? Nor have questions been raised about their performance. Unless it can be established that women who come in with political connections have performed particularly miserably, what is the point in pitching this as a major criticism of the Bill? In fact, many women whose names are bandied about were active in politics before marriage. Of those from the generation of freedom fighters, some had even been to jail at a young age.

Assaying new roles in uncharted terrains, many contributed to taking forward the debate on womens roles and rights much ahead of their times. Rather than being undermined, the achievements of these foremothers need to be recognised. There is sufficient evidence to show that even in later times, many who came in through political connections have grown with exposure, opportunity and experience, undoubtedly drawing upon the advantages of familial location. However, to fix them in their familial identity and to ignore their own achievements is as good as saying that men are achievers in their own right whereas women make it only by proxy.

In fact, a distinction should be made between proxy and family support. Women are so deeply entrenched in socially defined roles that assuming political responsibility poses several challenges. Unlike the relatively more individualised existence of women in more advanced capitalist countries, Third World women continue to be more firmly entrenched in familial locations. Many who came in after the 73rd-74th Amendments have pointed to the support they received from their families. Experience shows that stepping out of the home to take on public roles on a sustained basis requires acceptance and cooperation from others in their social locations. Given the lack of education, opportunity and exposure, many show a reluctance to step into public roles but overcome this with such support. In its absence, the possibility of more women, especially from non-elite or non-political backgrounds, will recede and so may their confidence to enter the corridors of power. This support needs to be recognised and encouraged rather than derided. Many elected representatives have pointed to the pressure they felt owing to the combined roles they had to perform as a daily-wage earner and a home-maker apart from shouldering the new responsibilities in the panchayats. These are aspects that many from more privileged backgrounds fail to understand.

The Bill, if and when it becomes law, is bound to redefine political equations as much as social roles and responsibilities. The intense momentum generated by the 73rd-74th Amendments is yet to be fathomed. The dynamics that the new measure will set in motion cannot be anticipated in full measure now. Certainly, its impact will spill beyond the precincts of the legislature. That is where both the fears and the hopes lie. However, in the face of the deep-rooted cynicism of the urban middle classes, the enthusiasm that women display for the 108th Amendment is infectious. After the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1977 and the building on the 73rd-74th Amendments, it is hard to envisage or recall anything else that has generated similar hope with regard to politics in recent times as the womens Bill.

Dr Indu Agnihotri is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Centre for Womens Development Studies, New Delhi.

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