It’s been 20 years since the Bill to grant women 33% reservation in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies was introduced. Despite promises, parties have failed to build consensus for a stronger women’s voice at the top, leading to policies and laws to help fight abuse, discrimination and inequality
In the corridors of the Danish Parliament, a wall painting depicts a historic moment when women in that country were granted the right to vote in 1915. The artist has well captured the gloom on the faces of male politicians who had been resisting women’s suffrage, but mechanically thumped the desks at the passing of the legislation. Women in India did not toil for their enfranchisement. But in their arduous journey for a share in the country’s political system, they have been failed by a similar male resistance.
Most of the main political parties (BJP, Congress and Left) with the exception of the socialists and caste-based parties (SP, BSP and RJD) are principally committed to the idea of providing 33 per cent reservation to women in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies. But the opposition within means that the Women’s Reservation Bill, first introduced in 1996, is yet to see the light of the day. There is a palpable sense of insecurity. Many male politicians believe that the reservation would mean their bastion is gone, since being part of an elected office now involves money, muscle and political power.
Since 1996, when the then HD Deve Gowda government tried to introduce the Bill, there has been high drama — marked by frayed tempers and war of words, and, sometimes, scuffles and snatching of papers from presiding officers and ministers, in Parliament — whenever governments tried to give women a voice in the highest seats of power. Outside, there have been protests, rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes by several women’s groups.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has backed India’s most empowering legislation for women, but his BJP colleague, and now Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath argued, as an MP in 2014, against it. It must first be analysed that how much the quotas in gram sabhas and local bodies were impacting women’s primary role as mothers and wives, he had said. “Reservation is not the need of the hour, it is not required now, as there are other issues of national interests to discuss. It is a conspiracy on the part of Congress to divert attention from such issues and if BJP falls in this trap, it would be unfortunate,” he had said.
The Congress takes credit for getting the Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010. Though its MPs refuse to come on record, fearing they could invite party president Sonia Gandhi’s wrath, they sing the same tune as the SP and the RJD, demanding quota within quota for minorities and other backward communities (OBCs). The Bill says the proposed two-thirds reservation will also apply to seats already reserved for scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) candidates. But BSP chief Mayawati wants a separate and additional quota for SC and ST women, not disturbing the existing quota reserved for these categories.
The JD(U) has changed its position, with its spokesperson KC Tyagi saying that his party will support once the government decides to bring the legislation in the Lok Sabha. But rebel party leader Sharad Yadav faults the Bill. He says he is not against women’s empowerment, but he did not and would not support the Bill in its present form. “The Bill must empower the poor and backward women,” he says. In June 1997 Yadav had asked, “Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women?”
Being a Constitution Amendment Bill, it requires a special majority for its passage in each House i.e., a majority of the total membership of a House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of that House present and voting. Since 1996, the Bill has lapsed each time the House was dissolved and was later reintroduced by the government of the day. In 2010, the then UPA government adopted it in the Rajya Sabha to keep it alive on the legislative agenda as Bills introduced and passed by the Upper House do not lapse.
Expecting trouble, Hansraj Bhardwaj, flanked by two women ministers, Kumari Selja and Ambika Soni, was seated in the middle row of the Treasury Benches. Two other women MPs, Jayanthi Natarajan and Alka Balram Kshatriya, stood guard, not allowing opposing MPs to get close. The BJP, the Left and some other parties came together with the ruling Congress to help pass the Bill.
The media captured a rare moment of Congress’ Sonia Gandhi, BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and CPM’s Brinda Karat walking hand in hand, celebrating the “historic occasion”. It’s been six years, the Bill is yet to be introduced in the Lok Sabha.