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History of the Women's Reservation Bill at the She Runs Government Dialogues

Femme First Foundation held its second edition of the She Runs Government dialogues, as a series of webinars in partnership with The Quint. Focused on the historic Women’s Reservation Bill, it consisted of 3 separate panel discussions delving deep into gender quotas. In the first panel discussion titled “The Journey so far”, the panelists shared their lived experiences of advocating for women’s reservation in the Indian parliament. 

The discussion shed light on the history of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the events in its much-anticipated passage in Rajya Sabha, and the inertia to pass the bill in Lok Sabha. The esteemed panelists shared their lived experiences of unrest, heated arguments and even violence in the house.  The Bill was first introduced in 1996 and in March 2010, it was passed in the Rajya Sabha with 186-1 votes; and history was created. However, due to immense opposition and violence from various regional parties, the Bill was not tabled in the Lok Sabha. It has been 10 long years since then. 

(You can also listen to the discussion here)

Lack of political will?

For a long time, the focus for various committees and commissions on women’s issues has been on aspects of health, employment & the social sector. There was no emphasis laid on getting women into the mainstream political processes. Recalling from her experience in the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Ms Margaret Alva spoke about the pioneering recommendation which put forth 33% reservation from panchayats to parliament to ensure that women are given a place in decision making. This was met with tremendous opposition and jokes when Ms Alva took it to the cabinet on the directive of the then Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi. She recalls people commenting ‘Women don’t come out of their houses, how will they stand for elections?’.

The panchayat reservations were seen as the first step for the political participation of women in India. This landmark step has shown the capabilities of women in the panchayats.  Consequently, the development agenda at the grassroots level has changed, with women asking for practical necessities like drinking water, anganwadis, nurses to come regularly, amongst other things.

“The human side of development has come to emerge at the grassroots levels”- Ms Margaret Alva

This is believed to be something which has frightened men -“They [men] feel that when women are given more room they will probably get totally eliminated.” Ms. Chowdhury too, resonated with this aspect of misogyny & sexism within the members of the House. Citing the example of gender budgeting, she brought the importance of consideration of women’s perspectives and subsequently, women's political participation, to the fore. “When you give authority, opportunity to women, you see that a lot of good comes from it,” said Ms. Chowdhury. 

When the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill in 2010, the general consensus was that the days of struggle had now ended. However, it is far from the truth.

Entrenched patriarchal structures

“The question is not of one legislation or law, but of what it represents. This is a fight to challenge powerful, entrenched interests in our polity” - Ms Brinda Karat

Tracing back to the freedom struggle, we can see that the involvement of women was very integral to pushing out of colonial forces from our country. Ironically, in the very first parliament of a free country, we only saw 24 women MPs. Ms. Alva talked about the representation of women within parties which has not been considerable despite 5 national parties having had women in their key decision-making positions. Despite this, not many women have been able to break the stronghold men have in political decision-making. Often, as Ms. Alva and Ms. Chowdhury chimed in, women who are very vocal and assertive are first to be eased out of the system. 

 “The entire system, particularly the party-based system, has the internal dynamics of male-entrenched power”, Ms Karat pointed out. 

While on many levels, it is not a woman vs men issue, it is most definitely a struggle of Indian women to expand the framework of Indian democracy. Even in 73 years of independence, the representation of women, who comprise ~50% of the population is not even 20% in the parliament, Ms Karat exclaimed. She went on to explain the fight that has been waged. And yes, fight to be the instrumental word here, owing to the kind of violence several women MPs witnessed.

Ms. Karat recalled a male MP of a regional party breaking a glass in the parliament and with blood in his hands saying,“ये खून की कसम है, हम कभी इस बिल को पारित नहीं होने देंगे.” (I swear on this blood that we will never allow this bill to pass)

Adding on to this, Ms. Renuka Chowdhury humorously mentioned how the male bonding was witnessed to be cutting across all party lines. She also shared tales of how the women MPs had to shield the Law Minister from violent male MPs who were against the tabling of the bill. The drama witnessed in the Rajya Sabha was unprecedented, with the House being adjourned 3 times, many members being physically removed from the house. The then chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr Hamid Ansari, the members of the UPA coalition showed consistent political will and that is what distinguished them from their predecessors, eventually leading to the Bill successfully passing in the Rajya Sabha. 

“The distance between Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha is a 5 minute walk, but from 2010 to 2020, I must say, it [non-passage of the bill] is a shame” - Ms Brinda Karat

In an appeal to her sisters in the Lok Sabha, Ms Karat urged them to come out and fight for the Bill and ensure its enactment. Additionally, she appreciated the effort of Femme First Foundation to bring out the history of struggle which has not been a fruitless or futile one. There are surely milestones to be celebrated along the way.

Policy concerns: Quota within quota

At its very core, Indian politics is driven by caste. Thus, the primary policy concern that had emerged from the Bill was the demand for a quota within a quota for certain sections. The RJD demanded 20% of seats within the quota to be reserved for minorities and backward classes. As explained by Ms. Alva, the constitution of India does not currently provide for reservation for these groups. Therefore, it would have been constitutionally impossible to provide reservation to communities under the Women’s Reservation Bill which did not have any reserved seats in the Parliament. Ms Karat went on to explain that the Bill has reservation of SC/STs within the seats reserved for women. Therefore, on constitutional grounds, there was no compromise that was found. 

Most OBC leaders have successfully battled this caste politics by gaining representation in both houses of parliament. However, as Ms. Karat stated, there is a falsity in the claim that Dalit or Adivasi women have been left out from the purview of the Bill. No OBC leaders stood for demanding OBC reservations in the parliament but in doing so for the women’s reservation quota, they proved their intent to sabotage the Bill. As Ms Chowdhury remarked, the demand for OBC reservations was “merely a dilutionary and diversionary tactic to stall the bill.”

“It was lip-service, we could see from their reactions. They were against women in parliament and were least concerned about OBC women" - Ms Brinda Karat 

Party political structures

“It is a question of accepting the fact that women can fight and win elections”- Ms  Margaret Alva

Ms. Alva also raised a very practical concern, as fighting elections is a costly affair and most women find it difficult to finance their campaign. Here, party funding and supporting women becomes very important. In party-based democracies, it is very important to rally support for notions to break down patriarchal structures and practices. “We found in this fight, our strongest allies were many enlightened men in our party”, Ms Karat said, iterating how within parties, the support of men is extremely important. 

Big Money & Religion

Electoral reforms must consider how money is brought in for campaigning by strengthening the election commission. We must have a budget to support women and their political campaigns. The panellists elicited the importance of state funding, in a bid to end the opacity of funding by corporates & vested interests. 

“Our political system is in grave danger of being overtaken and taken over by big money and I think it is a danger to democracy and an insult to the people of India" - Ms Brinda Karat

Another dangerous new trend, as remarked by Ms Alva is the incorporation of religion in politics, which is completely against electoral law. 

“Thousands of postcards went around to the voters, ‘A vote for Alva is a vote for Rome [because I happen to be a Roman catholic], A vote for Hegde is a vote for Ram’" - Ms  Margaret Alva

On solidarity

“The first person who was standing outside the parliament, at 10 in the night to greet us coming out of the Rajya Sabha, was Sushma (Swaraj) ji and I can remember this occasion because we have such deep political and fundamental differences, but on this issue, the affection & regard and happiness was felt” - Ms Brinda Karat

This statement by Ms Karat speaks volumes about the kind of solidarity shown by women parliamentarians and their efforts in getting this Bill to pass. Despite incidents of a violent and explosive nature, threats to not let the Bill pass, the women stood firm all across political parties.

“It is not just biology, but also ideology. If you have the largest number of women in the parliament [14%], as we do today, but if they adhere to an ideology which divides people and divides women, which targets women on the basis of their community and religion, you are doing a disservice to women.” Women who pull down other women, do not support them, do not speak very well for what is expected of women to do, for the women’s movement. We all must collectively fight discrimination and reflect Dr. Ambedkar’s constitutional values, Ms Karat asserts. 

What we need now, is a House that will collectively work for the good of the country. Appreciating the space created by Femme First Foundation, Ms Chowdhury reflected on the importance of increasing awareness and reminding the people of democratic tenets of politics. 


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