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A wrongly premised Bill

After a long hibernation, the Women's Reservation Bill is about to be reintroduced in the winter session of the present Lok Sabha. The ear...

After a long hibernation, the Women’s Reservation Bill is about to be reintroduced in the winter session of the present Lok Sabha. The earlier attempts to introduce the Bill led to unfortunate incidents inside the House. Three successive prime ministers namely, H.D. Deve Gowda, In-der Kumar Gujral and Atal Behari Vajp-ayee, failed in their attempts to introduce it. And on the last occasion, when the Law Minister tried to introduce the Bill, there was physical scuffle between some women members and their male counterparts.

The fate of the Bill in the coming session is also uncertain. The three most vocal opponents of the Bill were Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Of the three, Sharad Ya-dav and Mulayam Singh Yadav are back in the present Lok Sabha. Many of us remember the scene in the 11th Lok Sabha when the then Prime Minister, Gujral, stood helplessly for 20 minutes with the Bill in his hand when his own party colleague Sharad Yadav carried on a tirade against it. There was even ageneral threat from the opponents of the Bill that there would be bloodshed if any attempt was made to introduce the Bill.

In the light of all this, instead of making further uncertain attempts, why not think of some alternatives? Many of us women have felt all along that what we want is a fair representation in the highest policy making body of the nation and not just reservation as a disadvantaged category. In the present 13th Lok Sabha, of the 542 members, there are only 46 women. Everyone agrees that this is quite low. The question is how to increase the number of women in Parliament and the state assemblies.

The best way to have a fair representation of women in Parliament and the state assemblies is to begin at the first stage. That is, when political parties select candidates, they must give proper representation to women, be it 33 per cent or 40 per cent or whatever. From our experience of the long opposition to the Bill, we know that we cannot expect political parties to do this voluntarily. Weshould, therefore, bring an amendment to the Peoples Representation Act and ensure that political parties which do not abide by the rule of adequate representation of women candidates will be disqualified. To avoid any discrimination against men, let us put it in the gender neutral way ma-ny European countries have done. That is selection of candidates will be guided by the norm that there will not be less than 40 per cent of either sex.

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There are some serious flaws in the present Bill. One very important objection from us wo-men is that it envisages women fighting against women all the time. Why should it be so? This is not commensurate with the idea of equality of men and women. A woman wishes to participate in national politics because she feels she is talented and capable and not just because she is a woman. What we want is a level-playing ground for men and women. We do not wish to come in through the backdoor of reservation.

The other major flaw of the Bill is the rotation of constituencies. On theone hand, nobody must look upon the constituency as his or her personal fiefdom. On the other hand, there is something called nurturing of the constituency. A bond grows between the elected member and the people of the area. Even the defeated candidate usually keeps in touch with the constituency in the hope that some day the choice may fall on him. Change of constituency disrupts the bond and erodes the sense of responsibility on the part of the elected representative since next time he or she will not be there.

Thirdly, the Bill encourages dangerous divisive tendencies. Wh-en it first came up, it was looked upon as a gender victory. But soon voices were heard demanding reservation within reservation. There was a dem-and that women belonging to other backward cl- asses and Muslim communities must have a sub-quota within the reserved quota for women. The gender victory was overshadowed by caste considerations. Selecti-on of women candidates at the party level will help to resolve this difficulty. Partiescan decide what should be the criterion for selection of their own candidates.

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And will reservation really led to woman empowerment? Our experience of reservation on caste basis had failed to achieve the desired improvement even after 50 years. It did not percolate to all the disadvantaged groups. Many remained outside its reach. The experiment with 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats and municipal corporations have met with partial success. Women have got a chance to serve the people with sincerity and efficiency. At the same time, there is the allegation not always unfounded that many women function in these bodies as nominees of their husbands or brothers. The menfolk keep their seats warm and wait for the next term.

We must remember that Parliament and the state assemblies will discuss and decide national policy. It is indeed different from local bodies. In view of this, the be-st course will be to ascertain that political parties are compelled to select candidates on the basis of therule that either sex will not be less than 40 per cent. The Norwegian Labour Party rule is that in all elections and nominations, both sexes must be represen-ted by at least 40 per cent. The Swedish So-cial Democratic Party introduced the rule that every second on the list will be wom-en. In most countries which have high re- presentation of women in politics, it has been achieved because political parties have increased their number of women candidates.

Reservation of women’s seats undoubtedly undermines the self-respect of women. Even so in the last three Lok Sabhas we the women members have consistently dem-anded that the Reservation Bill be passed. We did so because reservation is a sure way to bring in a large number of women quickly in the representative bodies where they are grossly under-represented. This certainly is not the ideal method but could be a first st-ep. In future we can think of gradual phasing out of reservation.

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But since the wo-men’s Bill repeatedly ran into adverse water weshould think of the more permanent and more honourable way of accommodating women in national politics. For us women the watchword should be fair and equitab-le representation in decision making and not merely reservation of certain number of seats.

The writer is a member of the Lok Sabha

First published on: 14-12-1999 at 12:00:00 am
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