Women’s Reservation Bill long due
The Women’s Reservation Bill is in news once again. The chorus is now led by none other than the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who raised the matter in the Parliament on Tuesday. Six years ago, it was Sonia Gandhi, who was instrumental in getting the Bill passed in Rajya Sabha. But she could not get it through the Lok Sabha. The Bill has been stuck in the Parliament for the past 19 years, even though it has a broad support base of all political parties. To the uninitiated, the bill seeks to reserve 33 percent of seats in the Parliament and the state legislatures for women.
Although the male-dominated political class pays lip service to women empowerment, they all shy away from supporting this legislation. This was evident even this year at the women’s conference organised by Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. While President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari had stressed the need for the quota, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to respond.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had initiated progressive legislation like SITA and banning of Sati. One of them was the 1989 Constitutional Amendment Bill seeking 33.3 percent quota in the Panchayat and municipalities but it was defeated by five votes in Rajya Sabha. Three years later the PV Narasimha Rao government got the Bill passed in the Parliament, which enabled the emergence of about a million women Sarpanches in India today.
The demand for one-third quota in legislatures is about two decades old. The Parliamentary committee led by Gita Mukherjee also recommended the quota. Successive governments since 1996 had made efforts but had been prevented from being introduced on three different occasions: in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The Vajpayee government and the UPA government too tried to evolve a consensus on the issue but in vain.
The demand has risen once again with the Modi government having a majority of its own in 2014. “Our government is working towards evolving a consensus. Hope we succeed at the earliest,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu told the Lok Sabha on Tuesday. But the consensus continues to elude although women as a block is a sizeable vote bank. While there is a divided opinion in almost all the parties except the Left, the main opponents are the Janata Dal United (JD(U)), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party. The Shiv Sena, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Party (AIMIM), and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) also oppose it in its present form. The blame should also go to the women’s organisations who refused to accept 20 percent reservation proposed at one point of time instead of being pragmatic.
Do we need a quota for women? Much has been argued for and against it. The vociferous argument was that it will give women a voice in decision making and raise participation levels. The argument against is that the Minorities will not have much benefit out of this measure and seat rotation will see less dedicated Members of Parliament. Above all the sisters, wives, and daughters of political families will only benefit from such a measure.
It is true that true talent cannot be suppressed and those women who have made it to the top will vouch for this. Women like Sarojini Naidu participated in the freedom struggle. There are at least two women Chief Ministers and five party presidents today. We have a woman speaker and had a woman President (2007 to 2012).We have women judges in Supreme Court and High Courts. Women are doing well in armed forces, administrative services and there are other areas where women have broken the glass ceiling. But the point of concern is that the gender bias continues.
Will the quota bill solve all the gender problems? It is a big NO. Fighting for substantive empowerment and change also entails a struggle for basic change in mindset against rape, khap panchayats, honour killings, and Sati which are retrograde in values. No doubt that stringent laws against these could help as it is the implementation which is lacking.
What is required is for the women to fight for their due share instead of waiting for political empowerment and show their power at the time of voting. Political parties too could give more tickets to women candidates instead of arguing against their capacity to win. Women leaders should promote the cause of women. There should be no gender bias in the case of jobs or education. The whole thing begins at home with women taking care of the education of their children. After all Indian women got their franchise much before many other countries and India had a woman Prime Minister too before many other countries.
India has a long way to go in women empowerment. It has become a ritual to celebrate Women’s Day on March 8 when noises are made about the need to empower women. The current Lok Sabha has just 12 percent women while the Rajya Sabah has 12.8 percent. This is well below the global average of 22 percent. In February 2016, India’s rank globally has also fallen from 117 in 2014 to 144. Even some African and Latin American countries have overtaken India.
(The author is a senior commentator on political affairs. Views expressed are strictly personal.)