Rajya Sabha votes to amend Constitution to reserve one-third of seats in Parliament and Assemblies for women

In a giant leap for womankind that few countries had attempted, the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday voted to amend the Constitution to reserve one-third of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies for women.

The House recorded its vote of 191 for and 1 against at 7.25 p.m. Sharad Joshi of the Swatanatra Bharat Paksh was the lone naysayer when Chairman Hamid Ansari took the final count on the passage of the historic Women's Reservation Bill after three hours of debate.

The Bill, formally known as the 108th constitutional amendment, must now be passed by the Lok Sabha and ratified by at least half the States before it comes into effect.

While its final passage was breezy, the process itself started on a stormy note. After Monday's scenes of chaos in the House, nothing was left to chance. Marshals ringed the Chair and the official table, the target of attacks by dissenting members , seven of whom were physically evicted. These included four from Samajwadi Party (SP) and one each from the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP). Earlier, the House voted to suspend them for the remainder of the session for their behaviour on Monday.

The Bahujan Samaj Party walked out before voting, disagreeing with the current Bill, while the SP and RJD members went out after discussions, demanding revocation of their party colleagues' suspension.

Manmohan's apology

Conveying deep sorrow for the tumultuous scenes, including attacks toward the Chair, on Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised to Mr. Ansari.

The Opposition blamed the government's floor management in the past two days for the frequent disruptions and asked the Congress not to take sole credit for a measure that was supported by political parties across the spectrum.

Initiating the debate, Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley firmly supported reservation as the best option, citing the experience of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Rwanda where the percentage of women in legislatures was greater than well-established democracies that either had the list system or fixed quotas for parties to allocate seats to women.

Mr. Jaitley said the criticism of rotation of constituencies was unfounded, since at the end of the 15-year cycle, all constituencies would have been represented by a woman at least once. On the SP and RJD demand for a sub-quota for OBCs and Muslims, he said the Constitution only provided reservation in legislatures for SCs and STs.

Present through the debate, Dr. Singh intervened twice, once when a vote was called without debate amidst pandemonium – a move protested by the BJP – and later in the discussion, saying the “landmark legislation was a living proof that the heart of India is democratically sound and in the right place.''

Recalling the contribution of the late CPI leader, Geeta Mukherjee, who headed the parliamentary committee that studied the first version of the Bill in 1996, he described the current development as “momentous in the long journey in the empowerment of women that would allow the country realise the full potential of social and economic development.” “It is a historic step, a giant step'' in the process.

“Proxy politics”

Praising the role of women's organisations behind the Bill, Brinda Karat (CPI-M) said the experience of panchayats and local bodies showed that women had worked for the uplift of the village and community. The tendency of “proxy politics” was a reflection of male-domination in society. The latest measure was just the beginning as women continue to toil and fight for their rights every day, she said.

While urging the dissenting members to respect the majority view, Mr. Jaitley said that those barred from taking part in the proceedings should be allowed to record their dissent during the vote.

Jayanti Natarajan, who heads the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Bill, said no other party had either the courage or political will to push this legislation, which was a step forward to reservation for women in panchayats and local bodies introduced by Rajiv Gandhi.

Readers' Editor clarifies:

The caption of the photograph that went with this report incorrectly described Najma Heptulla to be the former Rajya Sabha Chairman. A number of readers point out that Ms. Heptulla is the former Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha.

More In: National | News