People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 11

March 14, 2010



On Women�s Reservation Bill


AFTER fourteen long years and three aborted attempts in the parliament, finally, the bill for the reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and elected state assemblies was finally adopted through a constitutional amendment on March 9, 2010. It merits recollection that the bill was first cleared by the union cabinet in 1996 when the United Front government, crucially dependent on the Left�s support, and brought before the parliament for adoption. It was once sent to a parliamentary select committee and later to a parliamentary standing committee for indepth examination. Despite the fact that these committees have representatives of all parties represented in parliament, the adoption of the bill was continuously sabotaged and openly prevented on the floor of the House. Those very political formations attempted to repeat the same this time as well. However, the broadest possible unity of the Left, Right and the Centerist forces in the Rajya Sabha, overcoming the unprecedented disruption, finally adopted the legislation to facilitate reservation for women.


The issue of women�s equality goes back to the heroic struggles for India�s freedom. The galaxy of women stalwarts during the freedom struggle, especially the communists, always championed the question of gender equality and justice. This reflected itself in the Indian constitution when gender equality was seen as an integral part of equality for all. However, the early post-independence years confirmed that, like in many other areas, these promises remained merely on paper and a new surge in the struggles for women�s equality became a necessity. In 1954, the National Federation of Indian Women was formed with a focus on �women�s struggle for equal rights and responsibilities in all spheres of life�.


At the global level, greater awareness on the question of gender equality and gender justice led to the declaration by the United Nations of the International Year of the Women in 1975. In preparation, all member countries were enjoined to prepare a report on the status of women to be released that year. This converged with the growing demands within India for more substantial measures for improving women�s rights and equality. A consequence of this was the constitution of the committee on the status of women in September 1971. Its report made public in 1975 systematically exposed the gross injustices and the blatant discrimination suffered by Indian women. While the issue of improving the women�s socio-economic position, highlighted by the growing women�s movement in the country, remained a priority, the report also suggested women�s representation in political institutions as an important element in improving the status of women. Much later, in 1988, the National Perspective Plan for Women suggested reservation at all levels of elected bodies for women. The political consensus around this demand resulted in reservation for women in the panchayati raj institutions through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian constitution in 1993.


This brief recapitulation of the struggle of the improved status of women is necessary to underline the historic step that was taken by ensuring reservations at the level of parliament and state assemblies. Clearly, reservations in themselves in the political institutions will not automatically translate into improvement of the status of women or ensuring their equality. What it will do however is to facilitate the focus and bringing on to the immediate agenda matters relating to the improvement in the status of women. Reservations, therefore, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for improving the status of women. It is the strength of the women�s movement and the democratic movement in the country that will have to ensure that the prejudices and inbuilt discrimination against women in a patriarchal society do not continue to deny real and genuine equality for women. Equally important is the need to urgently address all issues ranging from the health and education of the girl child to the woeful  nutrition and sanitation conditions that perpetuate the inferior status of Indian women. India ranks currently at 114 in a list of 128 countries on the basis of gender equality.


The opposition to this bill came from those parties and sections who argued that these reservations only favour the upper classes and the elite in the country and will not provide any meaningful improvement in the lives of the backward classes and the religious minorities like the Muslims. Yes, the issue of improving the status of women belonging to the backward classes and the Muslims is not only important but requires urgent attention. These must be addressed through concrete measures but this should not and cannot be allowed to be used as the excuse to prevent reservations for women in political institutions. This has often served as the plea to block women�s reservation during the past two decades.


Such efforts to sabotage the passing of this legislation this time around, found a new ally, the Trinamul Congress. Despite being an important partner of the ruling UPA coalition, the Trinamul Congress has claimed that the government had not consulted them on this issue. This is indeed strange. No piece of legislation can come before the parliament unless cleared by the cabinet. As members of the union cabinet it is ridiculous to advance such an excuse. This party�s reasoning that the bill in the current form is inadequate unless special provisions are made for Muslim women, does not gel given their opposition to the announcement of the West Bengal government regarding the implementation of the Ranganath Mishra Committee�s recommendation of providing reservation to Muslim OBCs in jobs and education. Clearly, the Trinamul Congress has emerged as a Party that opposes reservations for women. This is not the first occasion for this party to come in direct conflict with the Congress led UPA. On the issue of combating the Maoist violence, which the prime minister has repeatedly declared as the gravest challenge to India�s internal security, the Trinamul Congress has openly opposed the operations of the joint security forces, thus objectively patronising the Maoists. This is being done with the objective of seeking to use the atmosphere of terror and violence for its political and electoral advantage in West Bengal. In the process, this party has no concern at putting the country�s internal security at stake.


Notwithstanding such a position, the vote in the Rajya Sabha has clearly shown that the overwhelming majority of India�s political spectrum has supported women�s reservation. This is indeed a new milestone in the progress of the maturation of Indian democracy. In the days to come it is incumbent on all progressive and democratic forces to firstly ensure that this legislation becomes a reality by having it adopted in the Lok Sabha and a majority of state assemblies and secondly to translate into reality substantial and tangible reforms to improve the status of women and granting them the much required equality for the overall and holistic development of our society.


(March 10, 2010)