When a government makes a mystery thriller of the parliamentary agenda, you can be pretty sure that event managers have been put to work to generate an added dhamaka. For many of us who have been part of the struggle for the women’s reservation Bill, it is indeed unfortunate that what we have fought for almost three decades should be reduced to being an instrument to divert attention from a government’s failures. The reason I say this is because the passage of the Bill at this late stage will make not a jot of difference to the composition of the 18th Lok Sabha. The draft of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill being circulated makes this clear enough. It has been linked to the Census, which is yet to begin, the delimitation process and also requires ratification by at least half the state assemblies, so the one-third reservations for women in Parliament and state assemblies will come into effect maybe by 2027.
So, should the women of India be grateful? The answer is an emphatic no. The BJP made an electoral promise in 2014 to the women of this country that a vote for the BJP would ensure at least one-third women’s representation. It did not implement the promise in its first term because of which there was no reservation of seats for the 17th Lok Sabha which has just 14 per cent women. In its second term, after having repeated its promise in its 2019 election manifesto, it did not list the Bill even once in the last four years and brings it only at the fag end of its term, ensuring that the 18th Lok Sabha will also reflect inequality in representation. The Modi government is responsible for this.
The adoption of the constitutional amendment and the Bill are a given since most of the Opposition parties have been demanding the passage of the Bill. It isn’t rocket science to figure out that the passage of the Bill at this late stage has more to do with the forthcoming elections and the desire to escape the charge of non-implementation of its electoral promise. But what is objectionable and should be challenged on the floor of the House is the highly partisan Statement of Objects and Reasons. Such a statement should be precisely that — the intent, aim and perhaps a mention of the history of a legislation. But this version reads like an election manifesto of the BJP. It lists all the supposed steps taken by the government for women’s advancement from gas cylinders to toilets. An ideology which sees women mainly as homemakers is still hesitant to link women’s reservations and participation in decision-making bodies to the essential process of strengthening democracy. The Preamble should be rewritten to document the fight of women to strengthen democracy. The legislation is historic and should not be cheapened in its stated objects and reasons with electoral considerations.
The media has been full of reports on the history of the Bill. The fact that it does have a history and was not buried deep underground after its first presentation in 1996, is because of the steadfast and sustained mobilisation of women’s organisations and movements throughout the country, strengthened by the remarkable work of women in panchayats and local bodies, the first practitioners of women’s reservation. They overcame the contempt, dismissive attitudes, barriers of entrenched patriarchal power in decision-making bodies and proved, in state after state, that women are no proxies. When the Bill is brought and adopted, the country needs to remember and salute these women fighters and women’s movements which have kept the Bill alive.
When the Bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 under the UPA government, I was an active participant in the discussions and a witness to the shenanigans of various players. One of the issues raised in the discussions in the Chairman’s chamber by a BJP leader was that a condition for passage must be “order in the House”. It seemed to me that this was a green signal to those who had already planned for “disorder” in the House to ensure that the Bill was not adopted and that the credit should not go to the UPA government. There were those in the Congress party too who were not keen, including a top leader who was in discussions with other constituents of the UPA on the issue. But the unequivocal support for the Bill of the then UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi ensured that the various plans being hatched to once again sabotage the Bill were blocked. The firm position taken by the Rajya Sabha Chairperson Hamid Ansari was a critical factor in the passage of the Bill. An SP member sitting just behind me smashed a glass, cut his hand and, dripping blood, leapt onto the table protesting against the Bill. Many others opposing the Bill were loud and noisy. The unfazed Chairperson had all these gentlemen removed without further ado, the House was brought to order and the Bill adopted. A historic moment. When we walked out into the cool night air, there stood a beaming Sushma Swaraj, then leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, waiting for us. She hugged me and women MPs across party lines celebrated together. It was a wonderful example of joining hands for a bigger cause, so lacking today among the women leaders and ministers of the ruling party.
More strength to women’s struggles which have ensured that the Bill is back and thereby helped to strengthen Indian democracy.
The writer is a member of the CPM Politburo