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Fixing women in their place?

From the point of view of a woman in public life,last week’s opening of the fifteenth Lok Sabha was uplifting.

From the point of view of a woman in public life,last week’s opening of the fifteenth Lok Sabha was uplifting. The first-ever woman Lok Sabha speaker was elected. The president,also a woman,promised on behalf of the newly elected government that the bill to reserve one-third of the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies for women would be brought before Parliament within one hundred days. The chairperson of the ruling alliance,also a woman,thumped her desk with both hands at the announcement.

Yet I could not help feeling circumspect,even a little sceptical. As a member of the eleventh,twelfth and thirteenth Lok Sabhas,I grew weary of a tedious ritual enacted year after year. The bill in question would be brought before the House during the last week of a session. Heated exchanges and even the odd physical scuffle would ensue. The proposed legislation would then be put on ice,until the next enactment of the same charade.

The Women’s Reservation Bill made its first appearance in 1996. I remember that my first intervention in the eleventh Lok Sabha was a zero-hour special mention asking when the bill would be debated in Parliament. I was assured it would happen in that very session.

I soon realised that it would be difficult,and perhaps impossible,for the bill to be passed. The gentleman who now wishes to emulate Socrates declared in the Lok Sabha back then that he could not tolerate a flood of women with “bob-cut” hair in Parliament. I understood the argument,although I didn’t quite buy it. The objection was — and continues to be — that elite and high-caste women would disproportionately benefit,and therefore a quota within the quota must be reserved for women from less privileged sections of society.

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I also came to realise that it was a mistake to assume that apparently favourable numbers in Parliament would ensure the passage of the bill. When the NDA was in power,the main Opposition,the Congress,favoured the bill,as did the Left. The same situation prevailed once the UPA came to power. Yet the logjam was not broken.

I realised that there was a deeper problem,with political,social and attitudinal dimensions. Large numbers of my male colleagues in Parliament,cutting across party lines,were fundamentally uncomfortable with the Bill. And I could not dismiss their reservations as simply a case of ingrained chauvinism.

So I began to advocate an alternative formulation. I first argued this alternative formulation in an article published in the Indian Express almost ten years ago,and subsequently introduced it as a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha in February 2000 (Bill No. 62 of 2000). I proposed that a sub-section 5(a) be added to Section 29(a) of the Representation of the People Act to say that every registered party “shall ensure that there shall be no less than 40 percent of candidates belonging to each gender of the total number” of its candidates in Parliamentary and Assembly elections. I proposed the insertion of a Section 29(b) to say that “if any association or body that has been registered as a political party does not comply with sub-section 5(a) of Section 29(a) the registration of such political party shall be cancelled by the Election Commission”.

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Unlike the Women’s Reservation Bill in the form we have known it since 1996,such a straightforward but decisive amendment to the RP Act can take effect on the basis of a simple majority in Parliament,rather than a two-thirds majority. More importantly,parties would have full discretion to decide what kind of women to nominate — if a party wants to field only OBC and/or Dalit and/or Muslim women there is nothing to stop them from doing so. And we would be rid of an undesirable effect of the bill in its current form — the reservation of one-third of parliamentary constituencies as women-only,and the rotation of those 181 constituencies from election to election. The same goes for the Assemblies.

I distinctly remember Mulayam Singh Yadav telling me in the Lok Sabha that he liked my proposal,except that 40 per cent was far too high in his opinion and 15 per cent would be better. He now seems to have revised this upward to 20 per cent.

As a woman who has contested for the Lok Sabha four times from West Bengal and won three times,I do not like the thought of belonging to a sub-species that is assigned a quota of seats in the Lok Sabha or in the Assemblies. I am uncomfortable with the ‘catfight’ scenario of women only and always contesting against each other in reserved seats. It is not that my alternative proposal is perfect. For example,there is a risk of women being assigned unwinnable or less winnable constituencies by their party leaderships.

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But the way I suggest is the way in which the equitable representation of women in legislatures is ensured throughout the world,from Argentina to Bosnia to Norway. This is a much more honourable way for women to gain membership of our nation’s legislative bodies,and a much more problem-free way for our polity to ensure such representation.

It is heartening that for the first time in independent India,the proportion of women members of the Lok Sabha has crossed the 10 per cent mark,even if just barely. If the Women’s Reservation Bill does indeed come to fruition after thirteen long years,well and good. If not,it is certainly high time to find an alternative way forward.

A three-time member of the Lok Sabha,Krishna Bose chaired the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs from 1999 to 2004.

First published on: 13-06-2009 at 01:40:34 am
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