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India: Women's Bill Stirs Up A Hornet's Nest

Categories: South Asia, India, Citizen Media, Law, Politics, Protest, Women & Gender
India - Faces - Rural women driving their own change. Image by Flickr user mckaysavage and used under a Creative Commons License [1]

India – Faces – Rural women driving their own change. Image by Flickr user mckaysavage and used under a Creative Commons License

There was a pandemonium in the upper house of the Parliament of India (the Rajya Sabha [2]) when a controversial Women's Reservation bill [3] from more than a decade ago, was re-introduced by the ruling UPA [4] government on March 8th – International Women's Day [5].

The nation watched in shock as a handful of MPs, belonging to the parties opposing the bill, went on rampage [6] in the well of the House, forcing the the Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who was chairing the session, to adjourn the House.

You can see all the action in this video on the BBC News [7] website.

Manjunath Singe from The Other Side, explains [8] what the bill is all about:

  1. The Bill seeks to reserve, as nearly as possible, one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha [9] and the state legislative assemblies.
  2. As nearly as possible, one third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) [10] in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies shall be reserved for SC/ST women.
  3. Reservation of seats for women shall cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the Act.
  4. (Actual) Reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the state or union territory.

The government hoped that the bill would pass without event on Women's Day, despite stiff opposition from regional parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal [11] and Samajwati Party [12], thanks to the pledged support from key opposition parties. Proponents of the bill argued that this ‘empowerment gift’ to women on their ‘special day’ would ultimately be a game-changer in Indian politics, enabling the participation of more women in the legislative process of the nation.

Instead, since that first adjournment, the House has been forced to adjourn every time it has met over the course of day and the trend continues into March 9, despite a government effort to scramble together [13] a last minute consensus and a request [14] from the President that the bill be passed “with grace.”

These events have brought the Women's Reservation back in the eye of a storm. Furious debates have re-surfaced, and the heat is reflected in the online citizen media space.

The Ayes:

Rajiv Azad at MeriNews is highly optimistic [15] about the impact of this political step. According to him:

Lets hope this time history would be made in parliament, and on women’s day it would be a fitting gift to women community of the country. Such a move would facilitate in empowering women in society.

Dweep at Desicritics points out: [16]

Such a policy is likely to increase the pool of talent needed at the top of our political class. Few would argue that India's politics suffers from a lack of credible leaders. To the extent that that is the result of limiting our talent pool to men only, this policy is likely to increase the number – if not the probability – of better leaders. [..] This bill may not be the best solution or only solution to empowering women. But let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Suvashanand Mishra at First Person Account feels [17] that:

The most valuable gift to women has been presented to Indian women on International Women's Day by introducing the Women’s Reserval Bill in Rajya Sabha.

The Women’s Reservation Bill has been hanging in balance for the last 15 years only because of the opposition by these narrow, closed and orthox politicians. The passage of Women’s Reservation Bill will be a historic and epoch making in empowering Indian women. Women’s adequate participation in government decision making bodies will result in better management of society and the country alike. [..] As women have proved to be better managers, they will deal administrative, political and social issues in a much better way.

Reading Between the Lines, blogger Sanjeev Nair, comments [18]:

The Women's Reservation Bill had been in the making for 14 years. Tabled thrice prior to this, it was always put back in cold storage. But this time was different. This time the only person that counts in the Congress, Madam Sonia Gandhi had thrown her weight behind the bill. [..]

Considering women in general make the headlines in India as victims of abuse, rape or discrimination this would have signaled a significant attempt at correcting some of the wrongs done to our womenfolk.

Prerna at I love Life, so I Explore feels that women representatives would understand and further the cause of Women's issues. She says [19]:

Women constitute half the population of the  country. They cannot be ignored. People sitting in the parliament are looking for excuses to stop this bill…Women in Parliament should  unite  to ensure that the Women’s Reservation Bill is passed in the Budget Session. Everyone pretends to be  committed to the cause but except for token statements nothing seems to be moving. Mere lip service won’t help.

The Indian Homemaker feels that till date there has been a reservation in most spheres of life that has passed off as custom and tradition. According to her, it was high time to level the playing field and create an environment where equal opportunities are made available’. She says [20]:

I want some women to represent me in the Parliament.

Manjunath sums up [8] the arguments of the supporters of the Bill in the following words:

The proponents of the policy of reservation state that although equality of the sexes is enshrined in the Constitution, it is not the reality. Therefore, vigorous affirmative action is required to improve the condition of women.

The Nays:

Rahul Mudholkar expresses his concerns [21] in his blog Left and Right:

…two points of the bill really show the lack of intent of the political class in actually empowering anybody but themselves…Firstly the fact that anybody who stands under this bill in an election, winner or looser cannot stand again for 15 yrs!!! What then is the point of that??? Secondly, constituencies are rotated every election thus not holding the incumbent responsible for his/her action or lack thereof….These two are the most disturbing…

Sainagakishore’s Blog expresses inability to understand the need for such as reservation policy. He worried about the possible misuse [22] of this law:

Why the heck do women need reservation? I do NOT understand how women can talk about equal rights and reservations at the same time.
…Let's for instance consider that this bill actually scrapes through. Still, it will NOT achieve the purpose it wishes to achieve, which is to give a chance for the women to speak up in the political game.

Kanchan Gupta at the Agent Provocateur calls it ‘An assault on Freedom of Choice’. He writes [23]:

The proposed law reserving legislative seats for women is bad in law. It should never have been proposed, leave alone pushed for adoption by Parliament. If the Bill becomes law, it will remove all incentive to nurse constituencies;sitting MPs will insist nomination for their own kith and kin… This is not about political empowerment of women, but legitimising nomination of kith and kin. Democracies which have empowered women politically and liberated them from gender bias, discrimination and misery have achieved it through policy initiatives and not fraudulent legislation or bogus quotas. Most important, it strikes at the very core of democracy: It restricts freedom of choice. The women’s quota Bill is a travesty and a fraud on the Constitution.

Vinod Sharma in India Retold, concurs with this view. He says [24]:

The proponents of the Women's Reservation Bill have got it all wrong, I believe. Reserving seats for 183 women in Parliament is not going to lead to the empowerment of ordinary Indian women in any manner whatsoever, ever, bar the high decibel chatter. All that it is going to do is to make political gharanas (dynasties) even more powerful, with their women playing primarily the stereotyped supporting role of adding the weight of numbers to the family jaagir (estate).

As before, Manjunath sums up [8] the grievances of the critics succinctly:

1. Opponents argue that it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit. They also contend that this policy diverts attention from the larger issues of electoral reform such as criminalisation of politics and inner party democracy.
2. Reservation of seats in Parliament restricts choice of voters to women candidates. Therefore, some experts have suggested alternate methods such as reservation in political parties and dual member constituencies.
3. Rotation of reserved constituencies in every election may reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency.
4. Reservation would not lead to political empowerment of women because (a) larger issues of electoral reforms such as measures to check criminalisation of politics, internal democracy in political parties, influence of black money, etc. have not been addressed.
5. it could lead to election of “proxies” or relatives of male candidates.

The Twittersphere is also abuzz with tweets on the Women's Bill. Some of them have been captured below:

IronicPacifist [25] India going to set a precedent in the Parliament for future to the world, via Women Reservation Bill. Happy Women's Day !!

masarat [26] I'm still mixed about the Women's Bill in #India [27]. Eventually the opportunities will be abused by the corrupt.

KJDevasia [28] Again i say Women's Quota Bill is anti- democratic; not only this all reservations are anti democratic & against fundamental rights…!

jayarajsir [29] Acceptance of Women's reservation bill should be our gift to the women on this day. Its already late lets be better late than never.

karthikatluri [30] By strongly opposing the Women's bill, are the politicians showing signs of fear and competition?

DeepthiBhat [31] I dont understand why there is big fuss abt women's bill, if we are capable enough we should get it without reservation.

DrSankalp [32] Its shame that in country where caste reservation bill is passed in one day women reservation bill could not be passed in one decade!

vinodvhere [33]: Women's reservation bill is nothing but solving the wrong problem. First treat the woman at your home well.

MustafaMir [34] I hope the women's reservation bill does not pass through the parliament…. No more reservations please!!!!!!!!!

kaushikjha [35] Women's bill: it is disgusting that some of the parties should resort to physical means to obstruct it…

sherryrawla [36] International woman's day. Women reservation bill being tabled today. Both occasions do not touch the common woman's life. Cheers to that!

Shubho1987 [37] The womens reservation bill will rightly cement the place for women in Indian politics. Lets wait and watch. hope justice shall be done.

zeqox [38] woman's reservation bill is like saying woman are weak and we want them to remain weak !!!

mynameischirag [39] Why cant Party's who favour reservation for Women, implement the same with in their party without passing the bill. Let us begin somewhere..

Reservations at the top are not enough, we need to begin at the grassroots level says Shefaly in the comments section of Prerna's above-mentioned [19] post:

Unless we sort things at the grassroots, we are not going to get anywhere…A reservation policy at Parliament level is like watering a tree which is uprooted. No point really…

Sandeep Bansal at Desicrtics.org looks at what has happened at the village level [40] after seats were reserved for women in the panchyats (the village councils) and draws a parallel. Seeking a balance between ‘merit and social inclusion’, he says:

Empowering women in a society where they have been treated like doormats for centuries is not an easy task. There is bound to be a internal resistance…Therefore reservation is one way to empower women. Since 1993, 1/3rd of the seats in panchayats have been reserved for women. This has been referred to as “the greatest social experiment ever”. Upon adding the numbers, there are more women elected representatives in India than the rest of the world.

Skeptics might argue that it is still the men who take most of the decisions and women are mere proxies. Most probably it is true. But at least it has brought some amount change in the general attitude of the people towards women. This has got them an entry point, something that would not have been possible without reservation…

Reservations are not a panacea and mere reservation is not going to solve everything… Another risk is that this reservation may extend to perpetuity.

Maybe a time will indeed come when all women will join Dupinder in announcing [41]:

…I do not care whether we have a Women's reservation bill or not….I am capable of finding and securing my place in the society and the Parliament…and I had rather do it on my own than have a Bill to become my crutches

…But until then, where do we go from here?

Update : The Women's Bill crossed its first hurdle today, as the Rajya Sabha passed it with a decisive mandate: 186 in favour and only one against (out of a total of 250votes). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a ”historic step forward” [42] towards emancipation of Indian women.

Rezwan [43] has also contributed to this post.