People's Democracy

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


No. 12

March 21, 2010



Transforming Rhetoric into Guarantee


Below we reproduce an edited version of the intervention made by CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat in the Rajya Sabha debate that took place on March 9, on the women�s reservation bill. The Hindi portions of the speech have been translated by our editorial department. 

IT is with a sense of deep satisfaction that I stand in this house to offer the unstinting and unambiguous support of my party, the CPI(M), and also of the women�s organisations with whom I have been working for the last several decades, for this constitutional amendment which is a historic legislation that is certainly going to change the face of Indian politics. And, I believe, it is a change for the better. It is a change which will not only address the long-standing discrimination that women in India have faced in the political sphere, but also, I believe, it is path-breaking because it is going to deepen democratic processes. This is a legislation which ensures that the slogan of inclusion is transformed from rhetoric to guarantee --- to legislative and constitutional guarantees --- and that is where the significance of this legislation lies. For 13 years or more, women of this country have been fighting for such a legislation, and we have heard the most outrageous arguments against it. We understand that when there are path-breaking measures of social reform, there is opposition from the status-quoists. In the 1950s when there was a long and heated debate on the Hindu Reform Bill, there was such strong opposition to that also. I recall today with pride the words of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar in the Lok Sabha at that time. He had said no county could go forward if it left its women behind.

As far as issues of gender justice are concerned, it is a fact of history that in India it has not been male versus female or female versus male. Some of the greatest social reformers in our country have been men, and we believe that this Bill can go forward only with the support of democratic-minded men. Therefore, I believe, it is only fitting today that I congratulate all the men in this house, all the men in the country who have supported the bill.

One of the most historic experiences in Indian politics over the last two decades has been of the role played by grassroots women in panchayats. Today we see how poor women in our rural panchayats work for the development of their villages, blocks and districts when they get a chance to assert their abilities. They do not work for their own uplift but for the uplift of the whole village. They have set a record. Some people see a kind of proxy politics in it. I know people are saying that a new phenomenon of �pradhan pati� has come up in Indian panchayats. They say although the woman is the pradhan, the husband garlands himself and does the work! But this proxy politics too is a reflection of a patriarchal mindset. An elected woman wants to work but her husband comes in the way; he gets her signature at home itself and tells her she need not come out. But women are standing up against it. They are fighting it. Impartial surveys have shown the positive role the majority of elected women play. That is why today I salute the lakhs of women who have done good work in the panchayats; without their work we would not have had the courage to get this bill passed here.

Some members have spoken of who should get the credit. I do not want to indulge in credit politics! But it should be recalled that when a National Perspective Plan for women was framed in 1988, a suggestion had come from the ruling party side --- that they wanted to allot one third of the panchayats seats as nominations. They wanted nominated women. At that time women�s organisations had opposed that suggestion. They had made it clear that women did not want to enter any institution whatsoever through the backdoor. These were the organisations who said: we do not want nomination; we want election. So, when we talk of the contribution today of various individuals and personalities, please do not forget that if the bill is alive today, it is because of the efforts of women�s organisations, women�s movements who looked at it not just from the women�s point of view but from the view of strengthening democracy, who kept reminding the political parties that they cannot forget it. It is they whom we have to salute today. I want to put this on record, and when the prime minister is going to speak today, it will be excellent if he also salutes those women�s organisations and movements who have ensured that the bill is alive.

It is unfortunate that the propaganda against the bill is that it will benefit only one section, the well-off women. In reality, in today�s situation it is not a disadvantage in politics to be a daughter in an OBC family. This is clear, for example, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A myth is being created that the SC, ST and OBC women would not get anything In UP, out of 402 seats only 23 are women. Of these our SC, ST, OBC and minority sisters account for over 65 per cent. In Bihar, there are only 24 women in the 243 member state assembly; 70.8 per cent of them are OBC, SC or Muslim women. Therefore it is totally wrong to say that the bill will benefit only upper caste women. Data show that wherever there is reservation for women, women from all sections have benefited. The truth is that there was a fundamental change in Indian politics after the Mandal commission, when the self-mobilisation of OBCs broke down the upper caste monopoly. That was a positive development for democracy in India. However, OBC women did not benefit from this change. If seats are reserved for women it is clear that those parties which give tickets on the basis of caste configurations will continue to do so. Thus the change which will occur is that a woman will get the ticket when the seat is reserved. The numbers of ObCs will not change, what will change will be the gender --- women instead of men. There will be a constitutional guarantee of equality.

As far as the issue of minorities is concerned, one of the greatest weaknesses in India�s democratic system today is the low representation of minorities, particularly Muslims. This is a shame for all of us. Why are our minorities so poorly represented? Why are their numbers in parliament, in state assemblies not commensurate with their population? There is indeed some weakness in our democratic system. How can we remove this weakness? This issue must be addressed. There should be a discussion and debate on it. But the women�s bill is not a magic wand which will remove all the weaknesses of India�s democratic system, nor can it be. But it is a fact that where there is women�s reservation at the local level more Muslim women have an opportunity to contest and win. A recent example is from Hyderabad: 50 out of 150 corporation seats are reserved for women. Out of those 50 seats, Muslim women have won 10 seats. How did they win there? Because those seats were reserved for women. Thus, taking advantage of seat reservations, our sisters can definitely contest and win elections. Therefore I hope that poor women, backward and minority women, SC and ST women will definitely benefit after there is reservation of seats for women, and I also appeal to all political parties that they must make special provisions to ensure that women from these sections are given tickets.

Some people have asked: why a rotation of seats? Some say rotation is a totally wrong principle. But we want to ask: why should one person indefinitely be the representative of a constituency where there are lakhs of voters? Is there no other person capable of doing so among so many lakhs of people? This is a totally wrong understanding. Our party has taken the step to give a member only two terms in the Rajya Sabha; as for elected Lok Sabha representatives, our endeavour is to bring up a new comrade after one completes two or three terms. If someone says that, once elected, he or she will never leave that position because there will be instability, it is like promoting an indirect form of monarchy... yes, it is indirect monarchy! We cannot accept this idea.                                                     

In our country we have a party based system. This is what ensures continuity. There is stability in a democracy if you have more and more people who can take up the responsibility. We are in favour of a horizontal spread of reservation. We don�t want monopolies to develop --- that there is reservation in one constituency only, that there is only one constituency where women may develop. We want a horizontal spread so that women leaders can develop in all constituencies, just as it has happened in panchayats where because of merit --- those of us who talk of merit must please remember this --- we are over 33 per cent. In many panchayats, we are 40 per cent and more. I don�t want to scare you too much. But I do hope that very soon women, through their own work, capacity and sacrifice, will cross 33 per cent and reach 40 per cent or 50 per cent in the assemblies and parliament too. This is my promise.

Some people ask: What will happen after the bill? What is the guarantee that women will improve the present political scene? Will corruption end? Will all things good take place? We say a woman is not a supernatural being that she would enter parliament and change the country and the world, though she does have the power to change many things. Please don�t expect women to treat themselves as superwomen in order to fight against the discrimination which is there in politics. I don�t think it is required of us to prove it to get 33 per cent for women. However, I do believe that women�s entry into electoral politics is most definitely going to lead to more sensitive politics; I believe it is going to be our effort to change the core political agenda.

The question is: What are the core political issues? Is not violence against women a core political issue? Is not female foeticide a core political issue? Yet, when these are discussed, these are not considered to be the core political agenda. There is a false understanding and categories of what are �hard� issues and issues concerning gender are relegated as �soft� issues to be kept on the margins. Increased women�s representation must change the concept of the core political agenda.

Many people ask: Why only one-third? It is the threshold. It is the critical mass which is going to affect policy and, therefore, I believe it will help bring change to policy and perception. I believe this is also going to change our culture because, whether we accept it or not, women even in so-called modern India are still caught in a cultural prison. We have to fight every day for our rights as independent citizens. In our country, stereotypes are imposed in the name of tradition, in the name of culture and, I believe, when so many women are there in public life, these stereotypes and cultures, the bars which imprison our women, will also be broken.

I once again congratulate the house and I do express my disappointment that yesterday the floor management was very poor. You didn�t take everyone into confidence. I also hope there will be no delay in the Lok Sabha passing it. We want this bill to be passed in Lok Sabha in this session itself.