Women’s Reservation Bill – A critique

The real test of democracy is the creation of equality of opportunity for the hitherto deprived sections of society. It requires both a favourable social atmosphere and an individual attitude. Individual attitude and social atmosphere is a sort of reversible equation: one influences the other, in both directions. In practical terms it means that efforts have to be made at various levels of society simultaneously. Every attempt, in every direction, is bound to affect adversely some vested interests. So, one has to be prepared for a long drawn out struggle on all the fronts. Democracy in kitchen and bedroom goes hand in hand with democracy in Parliament and Panchayat. It has to become a way of life; it has to be adopted in literary vocabulary and in political discourse alike.

In the context of the present discussion it amounts to shedding of all mental reservations against reservation of seats for women in the Parliament and in Assemblies.

The idea of making a legal provision for reserving seats for women in the Parliament and State Assemblies came into being during Rajeev Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister of India when the Panchayati Raj Act, 1992 (73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment) came into effect granting not less then 33% reservation to women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions or local bodies. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda made the actual promise for reservation of seats for women in Parliament and State Assemblies in 1996. I.K. Gujral proposed the present form and shape of the Bill during his term as the Prime Minister of India.

The Bill in its Current form envisages reserving 181 seats in the Parliament for women. In practical terms its efforts would be that 181 male members of Parliament would not be able to contest elections if the Bill is passed. Also, there is to be a rotation of seats, i.e., a male member of Parliament can not represent the same constituency for more then two consecutive terms. Here lies the rub.

These two very provisions are seemingly the cause of the consensus arrived at by various political parties to dump the Bill. 181 seats in Parliament is too great a number to be sacrificed for the mere ideal of women’s empowerment or adequate political representation, the very idea makes the male politicians panicky. The clause of ‘rotation of seats’ is seen by the opponents of Bill to ‘strike at the very heart of democracy and democratic values’ as, according to their logic, the representative will not get a chance to nurture his constituency nor the electorate will get a chance to reward or punish their representative, as a corollary to it hardly any ties would be established between the two.

This argument may hold water when it is discussed in classroom sessions but it cannot be taken as the sole basis to discard Women’s Reservation Bill altogether. Securing 33% reservation for women in opening the doors of opportunity for political empowerment to almost 50% of our population. It will not only serve the cause of democracy as the Panchayati Raj Institutions are doing at the grassroots level but will also go a long way in ensuring political equality through active participation of woman from both urban and rural areas. Also, if social equality through political empowerment is to be achieved the, Bill should include clauses which guarantee quota within quota to women belonging to scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, other backward castes, and minority communities so that a level playing field is provided for them as well.

It is also argued that the Bill in its present form would end up ensuring seats in Parliament for the female relatives of those who are already in power. To counter this situation, provisions can be added in the Bill, which provides for no reservation to women who have close relatives in active politics (An acceptable definition of ‘close relatives’ can easily be arrived at.) These women can contest from general seats. There had been suggestions in the past in the form of alternatives to the Bill. One is to amend the Representation of People’s Act 1951, to compel political parties to nominate women for one-third of their seats or lose recognition. This, according to Rajindar Sachar, former Chief Justice of Delhi, is flawed, as it would violate the Constitution of India, which guarantees its citizens the right to form association under Article 19(1)(c) as a fundamental right. Another alternative is to increase the number of seats in the Lok Sabha, which is currently based on the figures of the census of India, 1971, when the population of India was 54 crores. The numbers of seats were limited to 530 till further amendments. Now the Delimitation Commission has been asked to take the 2001 census as the basis for delimiting constituencies. According to 2001 census, the population of India has risen to 102 crores, therefore the number of seats are bound to increase before the next general elections. This should be reason enough to pave the way for the safe passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Moreover, when the so called backward and fundamentalist society like Pakistan can grant 33% reservation to women in its Senate then why should India, the largest democracy in the world, lag behind