Women Reservation Bill Bane Or Boon?
The status of women in India is a saga of many great changes over the past few millennia. From equal status with men in ancient times through the low points of the medieval period, to the promotion of equal rights by many reformers, the history of women in India has been eventful. In modern India, women have held high offices including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Leader of the Opposition. But still the battle for the reservation of women in the Parliament is a story for the struggle of equal opportunity. The battle between the supporters and detractors of women’s reservation has been an unequal one. It is a battle between the normative and the pragmatic. It is also, according to some, a battle between two different conceptions, one of equality of opportunities and the other of equality of outcomes.
Given the current strength of women members in the Parliament, India stands at a depressing 117th position in terms of global statistics of women’s representation. According to Inter-Parliamentary Union report, the proportion of women elected members of Lok Sabha in 2014 is just 11.4 per cent. Whereas in Rajya Sabha, the percentage of women elected is 11.9 per cent. The overall representation of women in legislative bodies worldwide stands at 22.3 per cent. The corresponding figure for Asia is 19 per cent. Closer home, we lag behind Nepal (29.9 per cent), Afghanistan (27.7 per cent), Pakistan (20.7 per cent) and Bangladesh (19.8 per cent) by significant margins. It proves that many other nations that have suppressed women historically are facilitating their rise much better than India is.
The issue of women’s reservation surfaced many times in the history. However, the organisation formed in the early 20th century for the women like Women’s India Association (WIA) in 1917, National Council of Women in India (NCWI) in 1925 and All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1927 rejected the idea of reservation for women in legislatures. The three organisations presented the memorandum to British Parliament in 1931, which was then deliberating over what later resulted in the Government of India Act, 1935.
Rejecting reservation for women, Sarojini Naidu in her presidential address to All India Women’s Conference said, “We are not week, timid, meek women. We hold the courageous Savitri as our ideals, we know how Sita defied those who entertained suspicion of her ability to keep her chastity….I will, however, confess to you one thing. I will whisper it into this loud-speaker. I am not a feminist. To be a feminist is to acknowledge that one’s life has been repressed. The demand for granting preferential treatment to women is an admission on her part of her inferiority and there has been no need for such a thing in India as the women have always been by the side of men in council and in the fields of battle”.
When the first Lok Sabha elections were held in 1952, only 43 women contested and out of these only 14 were elected, which was a miniscule portion of 489 seats. In a letter to the Chief Ministers dated May 8, 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “I have noticed with great regret how few women have been selected. I think we are very much to be blamed…. Our laws are man-made, our society dominated by men and so most of us take a very lop-sided view of this matter. We cannot be objective because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action. But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men. ”
The H.D. Deve Gowda-led United Front government became the first government to include women’s reservation in their Common Minimum Programme. The Constitution (81st) Amendment Bill, 1996, proposing 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament was introduced. The bill could not be passed and was referred to the Joint Select Committee. The bill lapsed on dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha in 1998. Later in 1998, the government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee introduced the bill as the Constitution (84th) Amendment Bill, 1998. The bill faced stiff resistance and got derailed by the combined effort of a vociferous opposition constituting mainly regional parties. This bill also lapsed with the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha in 1999. BJP-led NDA was voted back into power. The bill was reintroduced as the Constitution (84th) Amendment Bill, 1999, and it suffered the same fate as that of its predecessor. The Constitution (108th) Amendment Bill, 2008, similarly lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
But why there is so ruckus in the reservation of women? When Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) rejected the proposal of reservation for women, it put forward three main reasons. Firstly, according to them, the demand of reservation would precipitate similar demands from various other interests groups. Secondly, the privilege granted by the means of reservation is difficult to withdraw. The last reason for rejecting women’s reservation by CSWI was that since women do not form a community or a category, there is no rationale for granting them reservation. Over the years, gender as an identity has always been subsumed by other more politically consequential identities.
In India, laws created for the protection of the rights of women have only alienated them from active participation in the society. Many laws like anti-dowry law, the anti-sati law, banning of sex determination tests, law to prevent domestic violence are some examples of legislation producing many harmful results. The basic problem which these laws encounter was the style of reviewing pattern. There are minimal or no attempt to review why these law failed to accomplish their objective but rather added more problems for women.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, in its present form, has many drawbacks. The bill notes that the one-third of the total parliamentary seats to be reserved for women is to be selected through lottery system. This simply implies that in every election at least 180 male legislators will be uprooted from their constituencies. Moreover, under the bill’s rotation system women will not be able to contest from the seats they would be holding at that point of time because the bill doesn’t allow the reservation of same constituency twice in succession. Thus two-thirds of our legislators will be uprooted at every election while the remaining one-third will be left hanging until the last moment, not knowing if their constituency will form part of the one-third randomly chosen women’s reservation lottery and thus require them to scramble at short notice to find another seat to contest.
Some flaws in the Women Reservation Bill
- One-third seats are reserved, and such reserved seats are rotated in every general election. This rotation will automatically result in two-thirds of incumbent members being forcibly unseated in every general election. The remaining one-third will be left in limbo until the last moment, not knowing if their constituency will form part of the one-third randomly reserved seats. This will require them to scramble at short notice to find another seat from which to contest.
- There is already resentment about reserved seats for SCs and STs being frozen in the same constituencies over a long period of time. Inevitably, there will be vociferous and justified demands for rotation of seats reserved for scheduled castes, and in some cases scheduled tribes, where their population may not be very large. This will trigger off further instability in our polity.
- Such compulsory unseating violates the very basic principles of democratic representation. It jeopardizes the possibility of sensible planning to contest and nurture a political constituency for both male and female candidates.
- As legislators do not have the incentive to seek re-election from the same constituency, politics will be even more predatory and unaccountable. This will make it difficult for women to build their long-term credibility as effective representatives, since they will not be able to contest twice from the same constituency.
- If seats are reserved exclusively for women in every election through territorial constituencies, voters in such reserved constituencies would have no choice but to elect women only, violating the basic principles of democratic representation.
- Women legislators, when elected, will not be able to nurse their constituencies on a long-term basis, and thus will be deprived of a strong political base and will forever be regarded as lightweight politicians. This in effect will make their presence in legislatures ornamental, and will not lead to a more effective participation in politics.
- This Bill does not address the more fundamental issue of inadequate participation of women in politics and their much greater marginalisation within the political parties.
- This Bill is completely silent about women’s representation in the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils.
Since most of the women politicians do not have a strong electoral base, this bill will make them more dependent on male bosses of their party to win elections. The bill will also make women politicians venerable as the male leader would sabotage them as a revenge of getting pushed out due to the rotation system. Or they will simply spend all their political capital helping their women relatives to get the reserved seats. One major strategy would be to bring in their wives and daughters as proxies to keep the seat safe for them until the next election when they would be likely to be able to reclaim their seats.
It is a well-known fact in India that women are brought in politics to serve as the proxy for their male head of the family. Their only task is to safeguard the political interests of the men of their families. So packing the Parliament and state legislatures with a larger deputation of such women will give a negative message to those women’ that are keen to join politics. This will also project the ideology women slavery to public forum which was, one time, prominent in the domestic realm. The agenda of the women relatives of the politicians are not to the cause of women or empower other women but to do all that they can to save their husbands’ seat or protect them from public scrutiny. The biwi-beti brigade, in fact, acts as a definite block against the emergence of independent-minded women who wish to make a space for themselves on their own strength in the public domain.
It is been often argued that a large presence of women will clean the political system. However, it is unfortunate that women are thought to be bestowed with any divine powers or magic wands whereby their very presence would improve things. This naive thinking comes in mind because it is considered that women are intrinsically more honest and compassionate than men. Women have succeeded in playing a creative role in politics only in those societies where political parties already function more or less according to established norms and traditions, where there is a substantial measure of accountability in public life. But where the overall politics is criminalised, women tend to join the men in corruption and crime with ease rather than attempt to establish new norms.
One of the major drawbacks of the bill is that it fails to emphasise the issue of empowerment of women. Many people argue that women entering legislature by defeating women serves no purpose; mechanisms must be thought of women entering legislature by defeating men. A related criticism is that the bill reduces the choice of the electorate in reserved constituencies. The reduction in choice might not augur well for our democracy.
If the Narendra Modi government wants to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, it has to carefully consider the nuts and bolts of the bill. At the same time, one has to say that no bill, however carefully thought and delineated, can be perfect. The benefits have to be weighed against the drawbacks. Since there will always be some flaw in such a bill, the opposition to the bill will always use that to camouflage their inherent opposition to the principle of women’s reservation. The government should, therefore, not aim to create a uniformity of opinion across the political class.
By Rohan Pal