The story so far: A day before her appearance in front of the Enforcement Directorate in the Delhi liquor policy case, Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader K. Kavitha launched a six-hour hunger strike on March 10 seeking early passage of the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill. The protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi was inaugurated by Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury. More than 10 parties participated in the protest, including the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The Bharatiya Janata Party said the protest was “preposterous” and termed it a ploy to change the narrative on the Delhi excise case.
What has been the history of political reservation for women?
The issue of reservation for women in politics can be traced back to the Indian national movement. In 1931, in their letter to the British Prime Minister, submitting the official memorandum jointly issued on the status of women in the new Constitution by three women’s bodies, leaders Begum Shah Nawaz and Sarojini Naidu wrote, “To seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status.”
The issue of women’s reservation came up in Constituent Assembly debates as well, but it was rejected as being unnecessary. It was assumed that a democracy would accord representation to all groups. For instance, in 1947, noted freedom fighter Renuka Ray said, “We always held that when the men who have fought and struggled for their country’s freedom came to power, the rights and liberties of women too would be guaranteed...”. However, in the following decades, it became clear that this was not to be the case. As a consequence, women’s reservation became a recurrent theme in policy debates. For instance, the Committee of the Status of Women in India, set up in 1971, commented on the declining political representation of women in India. Though a majority within the Committee continued to be against reservation for women in legislative bodies, all of them supported reservation for women in local bodies. Slowly, many State governments began announcing reservations for women in local bodies.
The National Perspective Plan for Women recommended in 1988 that reservation be provided to women right from the level of the panchayat to that of Parliament. These recommendations paved the way for the historic enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution which mandate all State governments to reserve one-third of the seats for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions and one-third of the offices of the chairperson at all levels of the Panchayati Raj Institutions, and in urban local bodies, respectively. Within these seats, one-third are reserved for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe women. Many States such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Kerala have made legal provisions to ensure 50% reservation for women in local bodies.
What is the Women’s Reservation Bill?
After local bodies, the next step was to ensure reservation in Parliament, but this has been a difficult fight. The Women’s Reservation Bill proposes to reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women. It was first introduced in the Lok Sabha as the 81st Amendment Bill in September 1996 by the Deve Gowda-led United Front government. The Bill failed to get the approval of the House and was referred to a joint parliamentary committee which submitted its report to the Lok Sabha in December 1996. But the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
In 1998, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government reintroduced the Bill in the 12th Lok Sabha. After the Law Minister M. Thambidurai introduced it, an RJD MP went to the well of the House, grabbed the Bill and tore it to bits. The Bill failed to get support and lapsed again. The Bill was reintroduced in 1999, 2002 and 2003. Even though there was support for it within the Congress, the BJP and the Left parties, the Bill failed to receive majority votes.
In 2008, the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government tabled the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and it was passed with 186-1 votes on March 9, 2010. However, the Bill was never taken up for consideration in the Lok Sabha and lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. At the time, the RJD, the JD(U) and the SP were its most vocal opponents. They demanded 33% reservation for backward groups within the 33% quota for women. JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav infamously demanded to know how short-haired women could represent “our women” (women from rural areas). In 2014, the BJP promised 33% reservation for women in its manifesto and repeated the promise in its 2019 agenda. But there has been no movement from the government in this regard.
What are the arguments for the Bill?
Proponents of the Bill argue that affirmative action is imperative to better the condition of women since political parties are inherently patriarchal.
Second, despite the hopes of the leaders of the national movement, women are still under-represented in Parliament. Reservations, proponents believe, will ensure that women form a strong lobby in Parliament to fight for issues that are often ignored. There is now evidence that women as panchayat leaders have shattered social myths, been more accessible than men, controlled the stranglehold of liquor, invested substantially in public goods such as drinking water, helped other women express themselves better, reduced corruption, prioritised nutrition outcomes, and changed the development agenda at the grassroots level. Esther Duflo, Raghav Chattopadhyay et al found that in States such as West Bengal and Rajasthan, while women leaders were often rubber stamps of their husbands or fathers, they were more likely to invest in goods that were important to the interests of women. Today, India has a high percentage of crimes against women, low participation of women in the workforce, low nutrition levels and a skewed sex ratio. To address all these challenges, it is argued, we need more women in decision-making.
Third, proponents such as Brinda Karat argue that the discussion is not about a Bill alone, but about changing powerful, entrenched interests in India’s polity.
What are arguments against the Bill?
Professor Nivedita Menon writes that opponents of reservation for women argue that the idea runs counter to the principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution. They say that women will not be competing on merit if there is reservation, which could lower their status in society.
Second, women are unlike, say, a caste group, which means that they are not a homogenous community. Therefore, the same arguments made for caste-based reservation cannot be made for women.
Third, women’s interests cannot be isolated from other social, economic and political strata. Fourth, some argue that reservation of seats in Parliament would restrict the choice of voters to women candidates. This has led to suggestions of alternate methods including reservation for women in political parties and dual member constituencies (where constituencies will have two MPs, one of them being a woman). But some parties have pointed out that even these may not work as parties may field women candidates in unwinnable seats, or women may contest the elections but not get voted to power, or they may get relegated to a secondary role. Fifth, as men hold primary power as well as key positions in politics, some have even argued that bringing women into politics could destroy the “ideal family”.
How many women are in Parliament?
Only about 14% of the members in Indian Parliament are women, the highest so far. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, India has a fewer percentage of women in the lower House than its neighbours such as Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — a dismal record.