Women's Reservation Bill - The end of U turn?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Some scholars believe that in ancient India, the women enjoyed equal status with men in all fields of life. However, later (approximately 500 B.C.), the status of women began to decline with the Smritis (esp. Manusmriti) and with the Islamic invasion of Babur and the Mughal empire and later Christianity curtailing women's freedom and rights. The Indian woman's position in the society further deteriorated during the medieval period. Sati, child marriages and ban on widow remarriages became part of social life in India. The Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent brought the purdah practice in the Indian society. Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the Jauhar was practised. In some parts of India, the Devadasis or the temple women were sexually exploited. Polygamy was widely practised esp. among Hindu Kshatriya rulers. In many Muslim families, women were secluded to Zenana. [wikipedia, retrieved on 06th May, 2008]

Thanks to Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Jyotirao Phule etc. for igniting the thoughts of equal rights to women. Today, everyone of us (at least most of us) have a compassionate feeling about women's rights. But it has to be in both letter and spirit. Women's Reservation Bill can be the first step towards equality of women envisioned by our forefathers. I am glad that UPA government finally made its mind to introduce Women's Reservation Bill (2008). I hope that at least this time Women's bill will finally get president's assent. If it does, it will be a historic day in the democratic world and it would complete the U turn of women's status beginning with equal status in the ancient times to the oppressed state of women in medieval India and finally marching towards equality of woman in the modern democracy.

The idea of providing the legal status to the women's rights began with the historic Panchayati Raj Act, 1992 (73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment). Its quite interesting to note that 'Mannina Maga (son of the soil)', the former prime minister Mr. H.D. Deve Gowda made the actual promise for reservation of seats for women in Parliament and State Assemblies in 1996[...]. Here is the journey of Women's Bill so far[source],
  1. Women's Reservation Bill [Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996] was first introduced in the parliament on 12th September, 1996 by H.D. Deve Gowda's government. The bill did not get pass the hurdles of parliament. Mr. Gowda's government reduced to minority and subsequently 11th lok sabha was dissolved and hence the bill lapsed.
  2. In 1998, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government made another attempt by introducing the Women's Bill [Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill, 1998]. Ironically, this time too, the bill was lapsed because 12th loka sabha had to be dissolved prematurely; Vajpayee's government reduced to minority!
  3. Yet another attempt was made on December 23, 1999 with the introduction of the Bill in the Lower House. But this bill also could not be pursued due to lack of political consensus.

The present Bill has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha (May 06th, 2008) for the first time with the consequence that it will not lapse. We can only hope that UPA government can see this bill pass through both the houses of parliament. If it does, it will be interesting to see that a matriarch of the state will be signing the Women's Reservation Bill!

What will happen if this bill is passed and becomes a law?[source here and here]
  1. Reservation for women at each level of legislative decision-making, starting with the Lok Sabha, down to state and local legislatures.
  2. One-third of the total available seats would be reserved for women in national, state, or local governments.
  3. At least 180 seats in the parliament will be reserved for women. That means at least 180 male members will not be able to contest election.Also, there is to be a rotation of seats, i.e., a male member of Parliament can not represent the same constituency for more then two consecutive terms.

Some noises against the bill

Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party are the main opponents of the bill. "Lalu says the Bill 'would deny adequate representation to other sections of society.' He favours 10 to 15 percent reservation for women. 'My party is not opposed to women's reservation, but the case of Dalits, backward classes, Muslims and other religious minorities should not be overlooked,' is his argument. Mulayam favours making it mandatory for political parties to give 10 percent of election tickets to women"[rediff].

Possible consequences
  1. Though this bill can promise the brighter future, initially it can bring some rubber stamp women MPs to parliament, some of whom (not all, mind you!) might not be capable of handling political pressures. It is evident from the Panchayat Raj experience that some of the elected women in Village Panchayat's are dictated by husband/close relatives/some influential person in the village.Political Parties can very well use these elected MPs like a rubber stamp![some examples here and here]
  2. On the other hand, it can reflect the gender equality in parliament, "Increased political participation of women will help them fight the abuse, discrimination, and inequality they suffer from."
Are there any alternatives to women's bill? [source - Aysha Sumbu]
  1. One is to amend the Representation of People’s Act 1951, to compel political parties to nominate women for one-third of their seats or lose recognition (Interesting to note that the main opposition party, BJP, has decided to reserve 1/3rd of the seats to women). This, according to Rajindar Sachar, former Chief Justice of Delhi, is flawed, as it would violate the Constitution of India, which guarantees its citizens the right to form association under Article 19(1)(c) as a fundamental right.
  2. Another alternative is to increase the number of seats in the Lok Sabha, which is currently based on the figures of the census of India, 1971, when the population of India was 54 crores. The numbers of seats were limited to 530 till further amendments. Now the Delimitation Commission has been asked to take the 2001 census as the basis for delimiting constituencies. According to 2001 census, the population of India has risen to 102 crores, therefore the number of seats are bound to increase before the next general elections. This should be reason enough to pave the way for the safe passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

I feel that the reservation of 1/3rd seats should be done in two phase manner. What I mean by this is, 1/3rd representation can be achieved in next 2 general elections, need not be immediately. Reserving 1/3rd seats immediately may have some serious political consequences. For example, this reservation may help only the elitist group of women (apparently the relatives of powerful politicians, representatives from vested interests etc.) which may lead to further discrimination and under-representation to the poor and backward classes. If the reservation is made in phased manner, there will some ground for overcoming drawbacks if any and this would also silence the opponents of the bill.

In any case, If this bill is passed by parliament (in whatever form and spirit it is), it will be one of most remarkable milestone in the history of democracy. Pakistan has already taken the bold initiative by reserving 1/3rd seats in Senate to women[source] and its time for India to realize the vision enshrined in our constitution.


Sushant Naik said...

You are talking about reservation or 33%?
I would say I am not with this bill!! Not because I am against women!
Let me tell you my thought, i would say give 100% equality to man and women to compete and let the outcome to rule.. By saying you're making 33% reservation for Women, you say that it has to go for them no matter whether they are capable or not! You also said that 180 male members will not be able to contest elections, are they out because they are not capable? If really might loose talent.
Let me go back few months, we all heard about reservation for SC/ST and OBC! How many of you were against it? Why? Because you say when you give reservation to minorities and backward communities you felt that real talented students will loose seats!
Just give it a thought..
So if you're with this bill, say YES to reservations in colleges and universities too.. Let them compete with talented! Fittest will anyway survive!

Manjunath Singe said...

1. Sounds like you definitely want equality for men and women, but you do not want reservation. Women have been in the receiving end so far and in a democratic society protective discrimination is necessary for bringing the equality. Otherwise the earlier social stigmas will continue to discriminate women for long time to come. This is true in rural areas if not in metropolitans.
2. Reservation to SC/ST and OBC is also essential but not for everyone in SC/ST, OBC. People who are better off should be excluded from the reservation and economic condition should be the deciding factor. Thats what was referred as "creamy layer" in earlier supreme court judgments.

Sushant Naik said...

Very true! I agree to both of your statements!! :)

Anonymous said...

How much of reservation was needed by Western democracies to bring their women to a respectable position vis-a-vis men ? Suffragate and those movements were there, but reservation ? Government should seriously think of reservation in trains, hospitals and morgues to go under the progressive title of protective discrimination.

Anonymous said...

some of the peculiar things that i have noted among we general critics is that they are inclined in comparing any situation we have with western nations.what i don't understand is how they can compare without taking in consideration the huge difference that exist in both ends.talking about women reservation bill ,though it may sound as discriminatory to "real" talent of our democracy we cannot deceive ourselves of the harsh reality of how our so called public representation system works with guns, money and all "tam zham". hence if you say of equality of opportunity first of all bring such evil practices down. how you can assert of competition between who have weapon and one who is bare handed.

Unknown said...

passing women bill would mean women empowerment. this would include not only the female representatives but also all the women citizens of India. it would a step to empower her and improve her status in the family too which is smallest unit that builds the nation.

Anonymous said...

The women's reservation bill goes completely against "equality" and is completely unconstitutional. It is inherently anti-man. The argument that you need affirmative action or protective discrimination is complete bullcrap. We don't "need" equal numbers of women in parliament. We don't even "need" a sizable number. Having a good number of women is not necessarily a "good thing". What we need is the presence of accountable individuals(male or female) who make good decisions.If you want to "empower" women and have them participate more, bring down corruption in party politics and educate women in politics. Let them then compete with other men and women on equal footing. Reservations are an insult to both men and women. To women it stamps their inferiority status(need help rather than merit). To men it takes away their right of contesting elections and nurturing constituencies. Since only women will be able to nurture constituencies, parties will promote women more and more. People will elect women more and more. One day will come when male parliamentarians will be rare. That is the ultimate(but secretive) goal of feminism. Men who support reservations are fools.

Charles said...

You start your U turn with an assumption. You say some scholars "believe". That statement carries with it the meaning that some scholars don't. Also belief is not proof. That is inconclusive evidence or possibly plain speculation that women enjoyed "equal satus" in ancient India. Even if their "status" was different from the time of the Manusmriti, there is no evidence that it was what our modern society labels "equal satus".

K.M.Sivaram said...

If more than half of population remain mute witness and passive spectators in the adminisration and decission making forums ,what is the meaning of democracy?I strongly support the bill and those who oppose this ammendmend should brand as anti women.They are actually dispretive groups who can contribute division in our society.Sivaram K.M.

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