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Women’s reservation: The road and the blocks

In 1993, after the passage of the 73rd Constitution Amendment Bill granting 33 per cent reservation to women in local bodies, almost all the major parties promised 33 per cent reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatures in their manifestoes for the 1996 General Election

Indian women have been more fortunate than their foreign counterparts in at least one respect. They got the right to vote and to contest elections along with the men immediately after Independence. In fact, they got limited franchise, on a par with men, in 1935 itself. And unlike in other countries, they did not have to wage a long struggle to secure this right. In contrast, it was after a prolonged and bitter battle – which began in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft raising the demand for the first time and ended in the 20th century – that the women in the West could secure the right to vote. And in many countries, they are still deprived of it.

fp-thinking-1-292x300-1But it was not as if Indian women were offered franchise on a platter. In 1917, when the British secretary for India, E.S. Montagu came visiting in the run-up to the promulgation of a new Act to govern India, on 1 December, a delegation of five women met him in Madras demanding voting rights for women. Although the Montagu-Chelmsford reform proposals sought widening of franchise, there was nothing about women in them. In 1918, the Congress and the Muslim League also supported the demand for voting rights for women. In 1918, when the Government of India Act was tabled, Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu and Hirabai argued in favour of granting political rights to women. However, it was left to the elected governments to take a decision on this issue. Travancore and Madras were the first and the second provinces respectively to grant limited franchise to women – only to the educated – in 1920 and 1921. Other provinces followed suit. In 1931-32, the Lord Lothian committee proposed two conditions for granting franchise to women, both of which were patently discriminatory. These were: one, that they should be able to read and write in any one language and two, that they must have a living spouse. Thus widows and the women, who, for some reason, had chosen to remain unmarried, were kept out of the pale of the right to vote.

Bumpy road to representation

But getting the right to vote was not the be-all and end-all of the women’s struggle. The second stage was political representation. From nominating them as candidates to getting them elected, the disinterest of patriarchal society and the powers that be in anything that gives women representation in the power structure is palpable. That is why, since Independence, the representation of women in the Lok Sabha has grown at an excruciatingly slow pace. Thus, women formed only 4.5 per cent of the First Lok Sabha constituted in 1952, which rose to 12.15 per cent in 2014 – decidedly not something to write home about. However, in the meantime, owing to a variety of factors, there has been a huge increase in the presence of women in the public sphere. Hence, a proposal to use legislation to ensure that at least a third of the members of the Lok Sabha are women was mooted. The talk of Women’s Reservation Bill conjures up the image of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj and CPM’s Brinda Karat, hand in hand, waving happily.

Now Sushma Swaraj’s party is in power. Many sessions of the present Lok Sabha have come and gone but the Women’s Reservation Bill has not wriggled into the government’s list of priorities. The ruling BJP had voiced its commitment to getting the Bill passed, both in its election manifesto and after forming government; Sushma Swaraj had claimed that the Bill was a priority for the government. But all that seems to have been forgotten. It is heartening that the 16th Lok Sabha has witnessed a rise – howsoever modest – in the representation of women, which has grown to 12.15 per cent from 10.86 per cent in the 15th Lok Sabha. And for the first time, six women are holding key portfolios in the government. Then, why is it that, in the two years of this government, no one has cared to dust the Bill? This, when the government enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha and the oppositionparties have already pledged their support to the Bill.

Brinda Karat, Najma Heptullah and Sushma Swaraj celebrate the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2010

Is Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad Yadav coming in the way? Unlikely. After Mamata Banerjee’s party, it was Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party that fielded the highest percentage of women candidates in the Lok Sabha election. In absolute terms, the Aam Aadmi Party, by nominating 39 women as its candidates, left both the major parties behind. In contrast, the ruling BJP fielded only 20 women candidates. These figures are testimony to the “commitment” of the male-dominated BJP to women’s reservation. The CPM, while analyzing its poor electoral performance, listed fielding less number of women candidates as one of the reasons. In this respect, it admitted that “bourgeois parties” fared far better.

Tale of procrastination

In 1993, after the passage of the 73rd Constitution Amendment Bill granting 33 per cent reservation to women in local bodies, almost all the major parties promised 33 per cent reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatures in their manifestoes for the 1996 General Election. The Women’s Reservation Bill was tabled for the first time on 4 September 1996 by the then United Front government (led by prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda). It was referred to the joint parliamentary committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee, which presented its report on 9 December 1996.

However, given the political instability at the time, the Bill could not be presented again in the 11th Lok Sabha. It was tabled for the second time by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the 12th Lok Sabha. The BJP government moved the Bill four times but every time a discussion on it was deferred following mayhem in the House and every time it was solemnly announced that the Bill would be tabled once a consensus was reached. The Congress-led UPA government also displayed its commitment to women’s reservation by tabling the Bill twice in Parliament. In March 2010, the Rajya Sabha gave its nod to the Bill but it could not be tabled in the 15th Lok Sabha in the four years before its dissolution.

Reservation within reservation

On 12 December 2015 a round table conference on women’s reservations was organized by Nationl Federation of Indian Women and Streekaal in new Delhi

Despite consenting in principle to the measure, men dominating the political parties are not ready to yield their place to women. There could be no other reason for this Bill to have been pending for the past 20 years in search of that elusive consensus. While parties like the CPM find “bourgeois parties” better than itself in this respect, the BJP has ensured 33 per cent representation for women in its organizational structure. The blame for not allowing this Bill to be passed is being laid at the door of the identity-based political parties and leaders. It cannot be denied that whenever the Bill was presented in either house of Parliament, the identity-based parties and their leaders have taken varying stands. Notwithstanding Sharad Yadav’s male-chauvinistic comment about “bob-cut women”, it needs to be examined whether the opposition of these leaders to the Women’s Reservation Bill in its present form – because it does not provide for “due representation” of women of backward classes – betrays their anti-women mindset. These parties and their leaders have been demanding reservation within reservation for socio-culturally backward women. On 12 December 2015, at a round table on women’s reservations organized by National Federation of Indian Women and Streekaal in New Delhi, Dalit feminist thinker and convener of Rashtriya Dalit Andolan Rajni Tilak and others said that, “Our delegation had met Lalu Prasad and other leaders seeking a provision for reservations for backward women in the Women’s Reservation Bill. And that is how, the voice of these leaders is the voice of Dalitbahujan women.” They claimed that the Bahujan leaders’ demand for quota within quota was only an extension of the demand made by Dalitbahujan women.

Different formulae

Over the last 20 years, a wide range of formulae vis-à-vis women’s reservation has emerged. One formula is that it should be made mandatory for the political parties to have 33 per cent women in its list of candidates. This formula, though, comes with a loophole, allowing male-dominated parties to deliberately field women from impossible-to-win constituencies. Others want reservation for women in the organizational structure of political parties, which can be done by amending the constitutions of the respective parties. The BJP has taken an initiative in this regard. But the efficacy of this measure will largely depend on the goodwill of the parties, which are dominated by men.
Interestingly, the talk of women’s reservation is limited to the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies. No initiative is being taken for securing reservation for women in the Rajya Sabha and the state legislative councils, which play an important role in the passage of bills. Medha Nandivadekar had suggested a formula to ensure adequate presence of women in the upper houses. Every state biennially elects one-third of the total strength of its Rajya Sabha contingent and since this number is more than three in case of big states, one seat can be reserved for women in every round of the biennial elections. In states where this number is less than three, one seat each can be reserved for women in the first two elections and all seats can be unreserved in the third one. The same formula can be adopted in elections to legislative councils, and parliamentary and legislative committees.

Impact of reservations

A question that is often asked is how reservations will benefit the women. To begin with, higher representation in itself is a major benefit. When 33 per cent reservation for women was introduced in village panchayats for the first time, 43 per cent women got elected.

cs3-1-300x160-1The fact is that men have always been suspicious of the ability and competence of women. But whenever women have got an opportunity (never due to the generosity of men but as a result of their struggle or due to the weaknesses of the patriarchal society), they have proved themselves. In 2005, Bihar society was not ready for the 50 per cent reservation for women introduced for the first time in local bodies. As a result, male relatives of the elected women representatives started ruling by proxy. Words like “mukhiyapati” came to be coined and vulgar songs about women mukhiyas were in vogue. As a freelance journalist in Bihar, I came across dozens of such “mukhiyapatis”. But the situation started changing soon. Following Bihar, 50 per cent reservation for women was introduced in Maharashtra. On the basis of my personal experience and feedback received from these states, I can say that after the initial hesitation, the elected women representatives have started freeing themselves from the stranglehold of their male patrons. A research study based on survey of three dozen panchayats in a district of Maharashtra found that the women residents of villages with a woman sarpanch (mukhiya) were more politically aware than the women of other villages.
Bihar was one state that had dug in its heels in the face of one state after another granting voting rights to women in the 1920s. It was only in 1929, after most of the states had granted franchise to women, that the Bihar legislature fell in line and passed a bill allowing women to vote. Today, Bihar has taken the lead in empowerment of women. In 2005, it became the first state in the country to grant 50 per cent reservations to women in local bodies. Until recently, 35-50 per cent jobs in education, health and police departments in the state were reserved for women. Now, the Bihar Cabinet has approved 35 per cent reservation for women in all jobs.

The bottlenecks

The ball is now squarely in the BJP’s court. No longer can the ruling party make the excuse that the Mulayam Singhs and Lalu Yadavs will block the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Their presence in the Lok Sabha is negligible. A related question is whether Mulayam Singh is using the “reservation within reservation” demand only as a ruse for postponing the enactment. Even after taking into account the anti-women statements and actions of Mulayam Singh and his party, I see no reason to believe this. It is true that in India today nominations for elections are decided keeping community and caste equations in mind. Parties try to pick candidates from among the castes that have a sizeable presence in the constituency concerned. This trend has ensured that despite there being no reservations for them in national and state elections, OBC candidates are being returned to the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas in large numbers. This was not so until, say, 20 years ago. But the relevant question is: which section of society fears reservations within reservation and what is the harm in making such a provision? While unequivocally condemning the use of phrases like “parkati” (wings-clipped) and “balkati” (bob-cut), we cannot ignore the fact that the Savarna domination of feminist movements is as much responsible as male domination for this state of affairs.

cs4-1-300x168-300x168It is also ironical that women leaders who are at the forefront of demanding representation for women fall silent on the issue of caste representation. On the other hand, the flag-bearers of caste representation are not comfortable with the idea of women’s representation. The fact is that all such measures are aimed at ensuring representation to the sections that are languishing socio-culturally. When the recommendations of B.P. Mandal were implemented, the Savarna girl students of Delhi University’s elite Gargi College took to the streets to oppose the decision. They carried placards that said “Don’t snatch the jobs of our husbands”. These placards were not only anti-reservation but also anti-women. The students, perhaps, could not comprehend the inter-relationship of gender discrimination and caste discrimination. Incidentally, according to a study, when, in students’ union elections – that immediately followed this agitation – girl students were discriminated against, it was their Dalit college-mates and not Savarnas who joined forces with them.

It is also ironical that women’s organizations have neither respect nor a feeling of gratitude towards Mahatma Phule, Shahuji Maharaj, Periyar and Ambedkar – the biggest theoreticians of reservation and representation. They all had taken unprecedented initiatives for the rights of women. Dr Ambedkar had resigned from independent India’s first Council of Ministers on the issue of opposition to the Hindu Code Bill. If the women leaders and agitators have not succeeded in getting women’s reservation implemented even after struggling for 20 long years, it may be because of their ambivalence on commitment to the basic principle of equality in a democratic set-up. These ifs and buts provide the proponents of male domination an escape route. That is why representation for women does not figure in the bills tabled in the Rajya Sabha and that is why the male-dominated establishment keeps putting off its enactment by demonizing the supporters of “reservation within reservation”.


Sept 1996Women’s Reservation Bill introduced and referred to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament
 Nov 1996Women’s organizations submit joint memo to the Joint Select Committee
May 1997Women’s organizations submit joint memo to national political parties
July 1998Joint women’s protest at Parliament to press for passage of the Bill
July 1998National Commission of Women condemns manhandling of women protesters and demands that there be no dilution of the Bill
Aug 1998Joint delegation of women’s organizations meets Prime Minister Vajpayee
Aug 1998Joint march to Parliament and a sit-in held to demand that the Bill be listed for discussion and passage
Nov 1998Women’s charter for 12th Lok Sabha Election demands passage of the Bill by political parties
Dec 1998Joint Convention in Delhi – “Voices of all communities for 33% reservation for women”
March 1999International Women’s Day jointly observed with the main demand for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill
April 2000Joint memo to the Chief Election Commissioner to withdraw proposal for reservation for women in party lists as an alternative to the Bill
Dec 2000Joint delegation meets Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi to protest against his calling a meeting of political parties to discuss the diversionary proposal to amend the People’s Representation Act to ensure one-third representation of women in lists of candidates of political parties
March 2003Joint memorandum presented to union minister for parliamentary affairs Sushma Swaraj to demand that the Bill be put to vote rather than discussing alternative proposals in all-party meeting
April 2003Joint appeal to the leaders of political parties to support the passage of Bill on the 10th anniversary of the 73rd and 74th Amendments that granted 33% reservation to women in local self-government bodies.
April 2004Joint election statement issued to vote NDA government out of Parliament. One of the reasons cited was betrayal of women on the reservation bill
May 2004Joint appeal made to Congress President Sonia Gandhi to demand inclusion of the assurance to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Common Minimum Programme
May 2005Joint delegation meets PM Manmohan Singh to ask for the placing of the Bill for discussion
May 2006Joint delegation meets PM Manmohan Singh once again and reiterates its demand
May 2006Joint delegation meets railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav requesting him to intervene positively in favour of the Bill
May 2008The UPA government tables the Bill in Rajya Sabha to prevent the legislation from lapsing
 Dec 2009The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and Personnel recommends passage of the Bill
Feb 2010The Union Cabinet approves the Bill
March 2010The Bill was passed in Rajysabha

Published in the February 2016 issue of the Forward Press magazine

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of the Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) community’s literature, culture, society and culture. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

About The Author

Sanjeev Chandan

Sanjeev Chandan, editor of leading feminist magazine Streekaal, is known for his feminist-Ambedkarite writings. He has been writing on current affairs for BBC and several Hindi newspapers and magazines. His collection of stories 546veen Seat ke Stri and poetry collection Stree Drishti are under publication.

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