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A failure of will

Print edition : Jun 06, 2003 T+T-

The Women's Reservation Bill falls through despite months of active campaigning by women's groups, primarily because of the lack of political will on the part of the government.

in New Delhi

A political system cannot be based on ideology alone but must keep in touch with the actualities of the social situation... The continuing under-representation of women prevents their proper participation in the decision-making process in the country... When one applies the principles of democracy to a society characterised by tremendous inequalities, such special protections are only spearheads to pierce through the barriers of inequality.

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) Report, 1974.

THE CSWI report is the first comprehensive dossier on the status of women in independent India. Among other things, the committee debated the question of providing reservation for women in legislative bodies. There was no unanimity on the issue, but the members of the committee received overwhelming support in favour of a system of reservation from several groups of women from different parts of the country. The proposal to provide statutory reservation for women in legislative bodies was rejected. However, the committee recommended the setting up of women's panchayats at the village level.

Three decades later, the debate continues, although the ground realities have changed qualitatively. The women's movement, with its rich history of struggles came around to accepting the harsh reality that women by and large continued to be under-represented in the legislative bodies. One way of rectifying the situation, it was agreed, was to ensure their increased participation in the activities of various political parties and affirmative action in legislative bodies to correct the gender imbalance. However, some mainstream political parties have opposed this steadfastly over the past one decade.

Now, the Constitutional Amendment Bill providing for the reservation of one-third of the seats in the State Assemblies and in Parliament for women has been shelved once again because of the lack of political will on the part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Bill could have been passed if the government had shown some sincerity, as major parties such as the Congress(I) had given their support in writing.

The Left parties, which have been the most consistent votaries of the Bill, extended their full support to the legislation in its present form. Constituents of the NDA such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) continued to voice their support for the Bill. In a change of stance, the Janata Dal(United) and the Samata Party expressed their support. However, the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal continued to oppose the Bill. Given this situation, women's groups were apprehensive about the very prospect of the Bill being placed in Parliament.

Oppostion parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) continued to oppose the Bill in its present form. As soon as it was placed for discussion, uproarious scenes erupted in Parliament and the government succumbed to pressure.

A women's studies scholar said: "They are simply scared of the prospect of having 180 women in Parliament." Despite several assurances made by senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the Bill was not even debated. On an earlier occasion, the Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had called the Women's Reservation Bill a piece of "revolutionary legislation".

The Bill, which was drafted during the tenure of the United Front regime headed by H.D. Deve Gowda, was put through an endless charade of consensus meetings and discussed at all-party sessions. A Joint Select Committee of Parliament, headed by the late Gita Mukherjee, endorsed the proposal to reserve seats for women in the State Assemblies and Parliament but rejected the demand to provide reservation to women belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minority religious groups.

Apparently, there is no need for further consensus when a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament has endorsed the Bill. According to a country-wide survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 1996, 75 per cent of the men and 79 per cent of the women among the respondents favoured the reservation of seats for women in legislative bodies.

There is no reason to believe that there has been a change in public opinion since then. But the government seems to be toying with the idea of presenting an alternative proposal - to make it mandatory for political parties to ensure that one-third of their candidates are women. The suggestion was mooted, among others, by former Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill, who favoured an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make it possible. However, the suggestion was turned down by national-level women's organisations such as the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the Joint Women's Programme, the National Federation of Indian Women, the Centre for Women's Development Studies, the Young Women's Christian Association and the Mahila Dakshita Samiti. The apprehension was that the move would result in women being allocated seats where the chances of a victory were slender, and women, in a show of tokenism, being fielded from constituencies where money and muscle power decided political fortunes. That would result in a fall in the representation of women in the legislatures as few would opt to contest such `tough' seats.

PROGRESSIVE women's organisations have staunchly opposed the proposal to ensure women's political representation through means other than elections. During the drafting of the National Perspective Plan for Women (1988-2000) or NPP, they opposed the suggestion to co-opt and nominate women to the extent of 30 per cent in the panchayats and zilla parishads. They argued that for leadership to emerge at the grassroots level, elections had to held to the local bodies. Finally, the NPP recommended the reservation of 30 per cent of the seats in local bodies for women. At that point there was no debate on providing representation to women in the State Assemblies and Parliament.

But after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments guaranteeing the reservation of seats for women in panchayats and municipal bodies were passed by Parliament in December 1992 and ratified by all State governments in April 1993, ensuring the entry of more than one million women into panchayati raj institutions, it became clear that it was time to take the debate ahead. Significantly, the passing of the pathbreaking constitutional amendments were not hindered by attempts to forge a consensus. For a society that was still in the nascent stages of social and political transformation, the two pieces of legislation marked a big leap forward.

Today, women's organisations are visibly angry. On May 7, representatives of 10 women's organisations met Vajpayee to protest against the deferment of the Women's Reservation Bill for the fourth time, on the pretext that there was lack of consensus. A joint statement released by the groups stated that never before had a government kept a piece of legislation pending despite support given in writing by two major Opposition parties. The failure of the government to take advantage of the unstinting support offered by Opposition parties showed that it was either not fully committed to the Bill or was incompetent, the statement said. Other organisations that lent support to the statement included the Muslim Women's Forum, the Guild of Services, the Joint Action Front and the Centre for Social Research and Forces.

At the meeting with Vajpayee, the groups rejected any alternative proposal, stating that such moves were intended to dilute and divert attention from the Bill. Some of the women's groups feel that although a law mandating political parties to allot one third of their total nominations to women could be passed, it should not replace the Women's Reservation Bill.

With the relative exception of the Nordic countries, all other nations conducted politics in a manner that excluded nearly half their people ("Power and Representation: Reservation for Women in India", Kumud Sharma, Asian Journal of Women Studies, 2000, Vol 6, No. 1, page 77)

According to Narayan Banerjee, director, Centre for Women's Development Studies, one of the "side-effects" of the government's procrastination will be the emergence of alternative Bills. There was hardly any opposition to the concept of rotating seats in the panchayat elections because the stakes were not high, he said. Banerjee said that the fear of candidates not being able to nurture their constituencies was also unfounded because wherever a political party was strong, its candidate won. Narayan Banerjee said: "Rotation of constituencies has succeeded at the panchayat-level and we do not hear complaints from the States about women panchayat leaders."

Of late, the government seems to be enthusiastic about alternative proposals, primarily on the lines of the Election Commission's recommendation. At the same time, it has been reiterating that it is committed to the passage of the Bill. At an all-party meeting on March 7,Vajpayee assured members that even if a political consensus was not forthcoming, the government would ensure that the Bill was passed.

In contrast to the Women's Bill, which has been pending for almost seven years, in the case of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the government promulgated an Ordinance before seeking consensus.