Taking its cue from an earlier generation of lawmakers who gave women the vote, abolished untouchability and reformed personal laws, Parliament must pass the Women’s Reservation Bill
The Hindu ends its moving front-page editorial on the 23-year-old rape victim with this pointed and very pertinent plea: “The Congress and the Opposition should forget about playing to the gallery. If they are serious about the rights of women, they should quickly pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. Let the presence of at least 181 female MPs in the next Lok Sabha — and the political mobilisation of women this will slowly catalyse — be Parliament’s way of honouring the death of the Unknown Citizen.” (“No turning back now,” December 30, 2012)
Although widely used, “tragic” is too tame a word to describe an event that has shaken a nation. “Horrific” and “barbaric” may be more accurate. As the anger and the outrage slowly stirs an apathetic citizenry — and a still more apathetic political class — and as we understand how the barbarism and brutality that manifested itself on that Delhi bus on a single evening is reproduced daily in hundreds of locations across the country, The Hindu has done well to offer a concrete solution. How best might we take it forward?
We might begin with looking backwards, at past political attempts to undo or at least undermine the patriarchal biases of Indian society and civilisation.
The first such attempt was through the Constituent Assembly, a largely male body that met between December 1946 and December 1949 to draft a new Constitution for the nation. One conservative member complained that the document finally adopted gave them the “music of the English band,” when what they had hoped for instead was “the music of [the] Veena or Sitar.”
In fact, in at least two fundamental respects, the Constitution departed most radically from both western and Indian models.
The first was the provision of affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, through the 15 per cent of all legislative seats and government jobs reserved for Dalits, and the 7.5 per cent reserved for tribals. The second was the granting of the right to vote to all women who turned 21.
Both provisions aimed at reversing historic processes of discrimination and disadvantage. The suppression of former ‘Untouchables’ and the marginalisation of adivasis were encoded into the social practice of Hinduism, while the relegation of women to an inferior status was mandated by the social practices of both Hinduism and Islam. However, while the revolutionary nature of affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes has been noted by historians and legal scholars, the fact that the granting of equal rights to women was an equally radical act has perhaps not attracted the same attention.
In the West, the franchise was granted in phases. First, only men of property enjoyed the vote. Then, educated men were added on to the roster. Eventually, after a long struggle by the working class, all men were allowed to vote. It took an even braver struggle by the ‘suffragettes’ to get the males to grant women the vote.
This phased process was followed in every western democracy. In some cantons of Switzerland, women did not have the right to vote as late as 1971. On the other hand, in the first elections held under the Indian Constitution, all adults, regardless of class, education, property, and (most crucially) gender, were given the right freely to elect their political representatives.
The next major legislative challenge to Indian patriarchy involved the abolition of traditional religious laws prohibiting women from choosing their marriage partners, divorcing brutal or neglectful husbands, or inheriting property. This was a more arduous process. A Bill drafted to enact these changes for the majority community (Hindus) failed to pass through the Constitutional Assembly or the Provisional Parliament that succeeded it. Sundry sants and sadhus organised dozens of demonstrations outside Parliament condemning the Bill as an affront to Hindu society. Effigies of the Prime Minister and the Law Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar respectively) were regularly burnt.
Several years later, the reforms were finally passed by the first Parliament based on adult franchise. This was an important first step to the Common Civil Code promised in the Constitution. However, given the sensitive aftermath of Partition, it was deemed prudent not to extend the core of this legislation to the Muslim minority. But both Nehru and Ambedkar had no doubt that this too would have to happen. The moment came in 1986, when the Supreme Court, in the Shah Bano case, asked the husband who had abandoned Shah Bano to continue paying her an allowance, commenting further that it was past time that the Constitutional promise of a common, gender-sensitive, civil code be finally redeemed.
The Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru was bold enough to resist the challenge of reactionary sants. Tragically, the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi failed, 30 years later, to resist the challenge of reactionary mullahs. Despite many Muslim intellectuals and activists being in favour of the Supreme Court judgment, the 400-odd ruling party MPs, who could and should have been used to pass a common civil code, were instead instructed to support a bill overturning the court verdict. This foolish and callous act set back the cause of women’s emancipation by decades, even as it helped stoke years of intense communal polarisation and sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims.
In a speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar famously described democracy as ‘top-dressing’ on Indian soil. Custom, tradition, social practice and religious laws were all heavily loaded against the idea that all citizens should have equal rights. When Ambedkar said this, he had the practice of caste discrimination largely in mind. But his remarks apply equally to discrimination against women.
Three times in the past have Indian parliamentarians been asked to take sides on a major question of gender equality. Twice they have braved public opinion and taken the right side. On a third occasion, with Muslim opinion divided, and non-Muslim opinion largely in favour of a uniform civil code, they caved in to the fundamentalists. Now a fourth major question of gender equality confronts them. Which side will they take?
From Rammohan Roy on through M. K. Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, B.R. Ambedkar, and beyond, social radicals have had to battle against reaction and orthodoxy. The politicians who drafted the Constitution, who prescribed universal adult franchise, the abolition of untouchability, and the reform of patriarchal personal laws, were far in advance of public opinion. Now the situation has somewhat changed. In the third week of December, I was in deepest Kathiawar, tracking the places where the young Mohandas Gandhi lived and studied. In the small town of Morbi, I saw a group of young college and schoolgirls demonstrating against the barbaric events in Delhi. In 1947, there would have been no women in Morbi asking for the right to vote. In 1957, there would have been no women in Morbi demanding the right to choose their marriage partner or inherit their father’s property.
Amplify the signals
As the intense, widespread, ongoing, demonstrations across India show, in 2012 large sections of the urban public at least have shed many of their past prejudices when it comes to women’s emancipation. Now it is for the legislators to pick up and amplify the signals. The Women’s Reservation Bill would be a fine way to start. For, as the experience of Dalits shows, affirmative action in legislatures is an empowering and enabling tool, that can hasten (even if slowly, and haltingly) the creation of a more just and less unequal society.
The Hindu editorial rightly calls for a proactive partnership in this respect between the Congress and the Opposition. Now, before Parliament reconvenes, a series of facilitating conversations between the major leaders of both parties is called for — between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, between the UPA Chairperson and other BJP leaders. The Left parties have long indicated their support for this progressive legislation. The AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party are all led by women, who must surely wish to have greater representation of women in Parliament. The numbers are there — so is a large swathe of public sentiment. And, not least, the example of the visionary reformers of the past, who, in an even more inhospitable climate, took the first, tortuous steps towards gender equality.
(Ramachandra Guha is the author, most recently, of Patriots and Partisans. He can be contacted at email@example.com)