Despite gender equality clauses in the Indian Constitution, only a few women have been able to carve out a role for themselves in the Indian legislature's decision-making process. To address this issue, The Women’s Reservation Bill (‘The Bill’) was introduced in the Parliament by HD Deve Gowda’s United Front Government on 12th September 1996. The Bill asks for an amendment to the Constitution of India, to reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, and in all the state legislative assemblies, for women. The Lok Sabha failed to approve the Bill and instead sent it to a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Thereupon the Bill was reintroduced multiple times in different avatars, only to confront strong and virulent opposition. The Bill was introduced a final time in May 2008, and after 14 intense years, the Bill was approved by Rajya Sabha in 2010. Since assuming office in 2014, the Narendra Modi government is yet to initiate the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha.
It is quite surprising that the Bill continues to receive strong resistance in India, which aspires to be a “socialist” country that secures “justice and equality”. The Indian Supreme Court has started to hold progressive stances that draw from feminist scholarship, and this reflects in current public thought as well. Recently, when Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, shamed women for their clothing choices and mocked the values they hold, opposition and the general public were quick to condemn him. This leads us to wonder why The Bill alone is at an impasse. The debate surrounding the Reservation Bill creates two groups of opposition, and their motives cannot entirely be called “anti-women”. On one hand, we have representatives who are apprehensive about reservations in general, and on the other, representatives who find fault with the Bill’s contents alone. The former group asserts that a perfectly functioning democracy would eventually guarantee equal apportioning for all parts of society. They also maintain that reservations undervalue the ability of women to participate as equals. The latter group, however, argues that although reservations are needed, the Bill in its current form is faulty.
The Bill has been the subject of extensive criticism, from opponents who are otherwise in favour of reservations for women. Primarily, there is a great deal of apprehension about the usage of women as proxies in governance by the senior-most, well-established male party leaders. Through the example of the Panchayati Raj system in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, it is understood as normal practice for male party members to put forward their female relatives to compete for reserved seats. This practice is harmful as it forces the elected women representatives to work within the party’s framework and not in favour of women’s interests. Secondly, the question of intersectionality and caste politics is necessary to address while discussing the Bill. Members of the Other Backward Caste (OBC) community, especially men, argued against the Bill by claiming that it would fortify upper-caste dominance even further. Since sub reservation for OBC women and Muslim women does not come within the ambit of the Bill, they feared that only upper-caste women with large quantities of social capital will benefit from it. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party, is a vociferous opponent of the Bill. Just like many others who oppose the Bill, he is not against reservations but doubts the extent to which the Bill will favour lower caste women and women from other marginalized communities. Despite the Joint Committee Report examining the 1996 Bill having recommended the inclusion of OBC women for sub reservations, it is yet to be incorporated.
Another criticism that is extended towards the Bill, from feminist groups, is the possible ghettoization of women. They oppose the isolation of women by giving them positions of little power in reserved constituencies and inadvertently pitting women against one another. This is a pattern that can be observed with SC and ST representatives who struggle with indefinite ghettoization to their fixed constituencies. The Bill also faces quite a few difficulties from the divisions that exist within the feminist movement itself. Some criticise the Indian feminist movement for being blind to caste and for failing to combine gender equality with caste recognition. Ever since the Bill was introduced in Parliament; BJP party candidate Uma Bharti has repeatedly demanded reservations for OBC women within the Bill. On the other hand, late Sushma Swaraj, also a member of the BJP, had backed the Bill in its current form. Such divisions and conflicts of opinion within parties, combined with a multitude of other complex issues, has stalled the passing of the Bill.
The incumbent government has shown great promise to the cause of women empowerment by way of schemes such as Ujjwala and Aajeevika. Women of our country can only hope now, that the Reservation Bill also gets its due in the near future. The problems associated with the Bill are being tackled by various policy-making institutions, that draw on the experiences other developing countries have had with reservation for women. Political philosopher Will Kymlicka makes an important observation on the matter of reservation, arguing that it must be “seen as a temporary measure on the way to a society where the need for special representation no longer exists”. Therefore, we must realise that while reservations are a useful mechanism for more women to enter politics and diversify the Parliament, a supportive and encouraging environment devoid of misogyny and sexism is also equally important.
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Author - Deepta Ramakrishnan, Tamil Nadu National Law University .