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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

SPECIAL REPORT

Women reservation bill: a test of political will

The strategy of women’s organizations has been somewhat faulty from the start. Holding seminars or lobbying political leaders in their offices or on television will not help. All women’s organizations, irrespective of political affiliation, should form a common platform with a single agenda. It must become a mass social movement...

By Rajindar Sachar

The Milli Gazette Online 

For over a decade now all the political parties have played games with sentiments of women by promising to pass Women Reservation Bill providing for 1/3rd of seats in Parliament and legislatures, but to no effect.

It is well known that Reservation Bill has not been passed because of the hopeful though illogical assumption by women activists that the very same male members who they are expecting to pass the legislation are so public spirited that they will not voluntarily and in self abnegation agree to reduce the male bastion. 

I believe there is an alternative harmonious solution to facilitate the passing of the Women’s Bill. The U.K. has over 600 members of Parliament. The present strength of Lok Sabha can legitimately be raised by one third as recently suggested by Shiv Raj Patil, Home Minister and thus one-third seats could be reserved for women. 

The further objection by male M.Ps that reservation of seats for women would mean rotation of seats at every general election with the result that members will not be able to nurse the constituency being uncertain of their constituencies can also be overcome if a third of the total seats in Parliament/Legislatures are made double-member (male – female) constituencies. This would ensure that inevitably one third of members in Parliament/Legislatures will be women without in any manner affecting the present strength of male seats.

The law of double-member constituencies prevailed upto the 1957 general election for general and reserved candidates. An interesting situation arose in the general election of 1957 when the late V.V. Giri who contested a Parliamentary seat from a double member constituency could not be declared elected because one Scheduled Tribe candidate got more votes than him with the result that reserved candidates were declared elected to both the general and reserved seats. The same analogy would ensure that in a double member constituency, one woman will inevitably be declared elected as a matter of right, but it is possible that both the seats may go to woman. 

In case there is a double-members constituency, the question of rotation of the constituency at every general election will not arise because the same double member constituency could legitimately be retained for at least two to three general elections.

The argument that the women’s quota will be monopolized by urban women is a red herring. There are over 200 OBCs in the Lok Sabha. It is a stark reality that it is not their public service, but merely the caste configuration that has preferred them. Similar results will follow even after reservation for women. The only difference will be a big chink in the male bastion. That is the real reason for opposition by male MPs.

The suggestion of a sub-quota for backward classes and minorities in the women quota, is constitutionally improper. Reservation of seats is guaranteed only for SC/STs in Article 330. The framers of the Constitution did not intend further fragmentation of the legislatures on the basis of caste or religion. In the Poudyal case the Supreme Court, while upholding the constitutionality of seat reservation for the Buddhist Sangha in the Sikkim legislature, has at the same time warned: "it is true that the reservation of seats of the kind and the extent brought about by the impugned provisions may not, if applied to the existing states of the Union, pass constitutional muster." It was emphasised that it would amount to discrimination because a person would be denied the right to be included in the rolls because of religious affiliation and would for similar reasons be ineligible to contest from that seat. 

Women’s organizations should not allow themselves to be divided by sub-quotas. A split in the women’s rank will only make it easier for males to retain their dominance and defeat the laudable objective of developing a women-oriented political agenda. Opponents of the Bill refuse to treat women as equals. It is this mindset that is sought to be destroyed by the Bill, which selfish politicians are resisting while pretending to fight for social justice.

In my view, the introduction of the Bill will unleash a powerful agent of social change. But, I am afraid, the strategy of women’s organizations has been somewhat faulty from the start. Holding seminars or lobbying political leaders in their offices or on television will not help. All women’s organizations, irrespective of political affiliation, should form a common platform with a single agenda. It must become a mass social movement and send out a clear message to all political parties that failure to support the Bill will have serious consequences on the political fortunes of the parties.

Women activists have a ready made army in over a million women Panchyat members. Let this instrument be sharpened and made effective to bring in women empowerment.
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