Women's  Quota  Bill

For Half the Earth and Half the Sky...
- The Struggle has Just Begun

Kumudini Pati

The section titled as National Policy Framework in the National Policy on Gender and Development declares that the state shall work towards ensuring 'progressively the full and equal participation of women in all fora and processes of decision-making both at the level of policy-making and that of implementation in all sectors including legislative, executive and judicial institutions. The ultimate target should be to achieve complete parity between women and men in all decision-making bodies.' Says the National Alliance for Women, a joint forum of women's organisations, "We will work towards 33%-50% reservation for women in every policy-making body - right from village panchayat up to the parliament and cabinet of ministries, in which priority will be accorded to SCs, STs, OBCs, urban poor and women of the minority communities - as well as for 33%-50% reservation for women in political parties." The Women's Political Watch, another forum for raising women's demands, goes a step further not only demanding 33% reservation for women in executive bodies at the state and central levels - and also the same in political parties - but also in various positions of the judiciary as well, out of which 50% of the appointments are to be at the district and sessions level.

It is not all of a sudden that the government has come up with a progressive reform and women's fora and organisations as well as political parties and women's commissions have begun to raise the issue of political participation of women and women's intervention in all processes of decision-making and policy implementation. Rather it is the years of struggle of women for political recognition that has yielded this. Is the government really serious about implementing this policy or is it just a game to woo the women? Is advocacy of political participation for women by various political parties born out of their concern for gender equality or is it aimed at mobilising nearly 50% of the population in their favour and using women as easy vote-catching devices? These are some of the questions that are to be thought over to avoid getting taken in by this reform and its advocates.

It is true that with the agenda of women's emancipation taking centrestage of political arena and with women asserting as an independent social force, no political party can dare to directly oppose the bill providing for 1/3 representation of women in the elected houses of the people. Women's assertion has also manifested itself in the all-out opposition of women MPs on the question of referring the bill to a joint select committee - in the name of quota for women in Rajya Sabha, legislative councils and for oppressed castes etc. - postponing the actual constitutional amendment for discussion in the winter session of parliament. This opposition, cutting across party lines, has however been mostly an instant reaction and not according to a well-thought-out strategy of the respective parties as is clear from the contradictions that have emerged.

Contradictory Reactions

While Uma Bharati has defied the BJP's official party position, put forward by none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee, saying OBCs should be granted reservation too and that it would be better to have 33% reservation for women, 33% for men (SC, ST & OBC) and the rest in the general category, Meera Kumar and Shailja have also voiced their concern over SC and ST quota, opposing the bill in its present form. Although stalwarts like Pramilla Dandavate and Margaret Alva have gone on record saying that 33% reservation will go a long way in paving the way for women's emancipation, Dandavate does not seem very much in favour of achieving 50% reservation. Margaret Alva has targeted the male representatives in the 11th Lok Sabha, saying that they have a political vested interest in not allowing 180 seats to slip out of their hands. Yet both leaders have backtracked on the issue of proper political representation of women within their respective parties.

The entire exercise of supporting or opposing the bill has brought into sharp contradiction the women's position with official party positions. It has also exposed the fact that though the bill cannot be opposed, the remnants of feudal mindset within parties as well as their apprehensions about the danger of such reforms having strategic implications - which may drastically affect party policies, especially those relating to women, in a situation where women have hardly been accorded equal status and position within these parties - remain quite real. For example, much before the bill had been tabled Phoolan Devi of the Samajwadi Party had gone on record saying "only by guaranteeing 50% reservation for women right from the Panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha can the lot of women be improved". Yet the political mentor of Phoolan, Mulayam Singh Yadav faces the charge of engineering an attack on the life of the erstwhile woman chief minister of UP Ms. Mayawati in the June 2 guest house incident, which Phoolan would find hard to defend. Not only this, neither Phoolan nor Mayawati would be able to defend their parties' role in the Muzaffarnagar rape case. Or, for that matter, however much Margaret Alva may accord credit to the Rajiv Gandhi regime for initiating the process of empowering women at the panchayat level or regard Indira Gandhi as the ultimate example of woman power, it is the Congress ideology that speaks when Congress(I) MP Ajit Jogi vehemently opposes the move for introducing the 81st Amendment by saying "this is not the kind of affirmative action which will help women. My apprehension is that it will destroy the strongest link in Indian society - that is, the family. The housewife or the mother is the pivot around which the entire family revolves and if they go after these offices, the family will be neglected."

On the other hand, the CPI-CPI(M) have always supported progressive reforms in favour of women and their leaders will certainly support the 81st Amendment Bill in their own way. So, the leader of the CPI(M) women's wing Ms.Vrinda Karat says 'reservation should not only be quantity based but also quality based' and talks of poor women having more in common with poor men than the rich women. Yet it is a well known fact that the police officer responsible for inflicting inhuman torture to the pro-Naxal Ms.Archana Guha was rewarded and promoted by the CPI(M) government and only after years of struggle that he has now been awarded a token punishment of one year imprisonment and a fine. Archana was not a lone fighter but stands as the representative of hundreds of women activists and supporters of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the struggle of the poorest of poor.

And finally, we cannot mince words in decrying the role of either the Laloo Yadav government or the UF government at the centre for tacit support to the private armed gang of the BJP, the Ranvir Sena in Bhojpur, where 21 innocent women and children were done to death in the most brutal massacre since independence. Their only crime was that they dared to challenge the feudal authority of the landed class. Yes, we may say these are just some blatant examples of the doulbespeak of political leaders of the 'established' political parties. These are the political parties which have perpetrated or abetted the most heinous of crimes against women and repressed even the most feeble voice of assertion for women - some have even used rape and public humiliation of women as a weapon against the dalits, the lower backward castes, the minorities and tribals!

But, surprisingly, these are the so-called votaries of a new political system where 'women will have their say'! So, there is a lot of tall talk on women's empowerment but not even a simple statement was forthcoming from either Pramila Dandavate or VP Singh who are the so-called ideologues of the movement for 'social justice', on the brutal killing of dalit women in Bhojpur. Again coming to BJP, the most ardent supporter of this bill was Atal Behari Vajpayee, the PM of 13 days, who made haste to declare reservation for women, and sought to push a private bill on the issue and, till the end, stuck to passing the bill in its present form. Though the party claims the maximum number of women MPs and appointment of a woman as its national spokesperson, what does the party stand for as regards women? The anti-women antecedents of BJP need not be emphasised. It was none other than MM Joshi of the BJP who had labeled the Beijing Conference for women as an open invitation to sexual promiscuity and a platform for legitimising abortion rights, childbirth out of wedlock or single motherhood. He had gone on to glorify the feudal basis of the 'ideal Indian family' and the subjugation of woman in the name of a glorious tradition of the 'ideal Indian woman' - tolerance, compassion and harmony - which was worth emulating the world over!

Freezing it under Select Committee

It was only after the bill was referred to the joint select committee that the real debate over the bill emerged. While several leaders are still very much in favour of the bill, others say they cannot support it in its present form as it would lead to several complications. Even Uma Bharati says the benefit should not go to the affluent section of women - those with 'lipstick and powder'. All in all, the halfheartedness behind the entire move has surfaced in the actual process of formulating the act. It is no wonder that the dilemma remains, because it is hardly in the interest of the powers-that-be to have a door open for struggling women to enter and challenge the status-quo. On the other hand, it would be the greatest boon for them if women are to be coopted into the present system and toe the laid out line; the very same ideology and politics albeit with a new, clean face!

Analysing the positives and negatives of the provisions of the bill, we can say in an overall sense, despite all the hidden motives of the ruling classes, that it is one of the important and legitimate reforms in favour of women. It is for the first time that the challenge has been thrown open before the political parties, as well as the apolitical feminist trend within the women's movement too, to mobilise a huge social force in a positive and independent direction. Whatever bearing the feudal-patriarchal structure may have in the actual process of implementation and on the independent assertion of women, say, after one decade of its implementation, there will certainly emerge a positive trend favouring women's participation in the process of policy-making. And given a conducive democratic environment, women's independent assertion is certainly going to affect the socio-political system. Abusing political parties and calling women representatives part of the 'biwi brigade' - by, for instance, Madhu Kishwar - goes only to expose the limitations of the autonomous women's movement in India. After all, what else can they say to stop their women from joining politics?

The obvious positive side of the picture notwithstanding, the many vagaries of the system are sure to tell on the new set-up. Women being used as easy vote-catching devices or being used by male members of their family to secure tickets which have been denied to them by the party, women being used against women or women's political inexperience and naivety being used as an excuse for male political intervention, women being used to beguile and woo women voters and women being co-opted into a male-dominated society are only some of the facets which are bound to emerge in the new framework. There are going to be more women 'leaders' of the likes of Sudha Rai, Ketaki Devi, Subhawati Devi, Ratna Singh, Meera Kumar, Laxmi Parvathi, Jayalalitha and Kanti Singh who will fight elections in the name of their husbands, fathers, male idols or personal companions. There will be independent women like Mamata Banerjee, Phoolan Devi and Maneka Gandhi, whose assertion will, at each critical juncture, have to bow before the ire of their respective parties; and there will be leaders like Mayawati, Jayalalitha and Uma Bharati who can hardly be called representatives of women but who will use every controversy surrounding them in the name of 'gender discrimination and ostracism' to gain the sympathy of common women. And of course there will be women like Sushma Swaraj, the most popularly liked 'golden tongue' of the BJP, exuding confidence and alacrity but who are the most ardent supporters of a patriarchal system. In her own words, "I am what I am today because of my husband .... an ordinary housewife at home and a politician outside."

Reservation in Panchayats

Let us take a close look at the change that has come about after the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution providing 33% reservation for women in panchayats and municipalities. The Panchayati Raj Act has brought to the fore almost 10 lakh women and there has been a vocal section of women at grassroots level who have begun to understand the system of governance at the local level and its flaws and limitations. There are many elected members who will openly confess that they are not able to do much or that the economy is still concentrated in male hands whose political hegemony even when out of power cannot be challenged. Yet the very fact that there are women who have realised these limitations and are trying to do their little bit in their own way and are even preparing themselves for greater social and political mobility is welcome. Also, these women are challenging the feudal basis of the family. Then there are local leaders who enjoy mass following and who have been part and parcel of the mass struggles going on in their areas, who have never been granted the opportunity and power to challenge the system from within. Election of such women has given impetus to the movement and even broadened the scope of their struggle. Women sarpanches and panchayat members who have been able to wield authority and have changed the decisions of panchayats in favour of women have been seen in the CPI(ML) movement.

Yet there have been instances of public humiliation and oppression of women sarpanches and members (especially of dalit and backward origin). For example, in MP, a woman sarpanch (Khandwa village) was subjected to mass rape and one Draupadi Bai of Salhiwana Panchayat was also paraded naked in public. Similarly, in parts of Eastern UP, there have been cases of woman sarpanches being made to take the backseat while their husbands adorned garlands and tilaks on their wives' victory, women panchayat members not being allowed to sit without their husbands in meetings or husbands and sons accompanying the woman members for security has also been seen. Then there was a woman sarpanch who would go on addressing her husband as 'panchji' while the husband gleefully accepted it, making it quite clear that it was he who had actually captured the position through his wife. Often women panchayat members complained about their illiteracy and their lack of training saying that it was the men who were working from behind. Besides all these, which is only to be expected in the backdrop of long years of political alienation and feudal authority, women continue to suffer a basic negation of their political identity after more than four decades since independence.

However, whatever signs of political assertion and enthusiasm can be seen are an indication that given a more congenial atmosphere, which can only be achieved through a politically oriented and vigorous women's movement, women are bound to assert as an organised political force. Hence, social domination and lack of political motivation have allowed rightist forces to rally women and divert their energies into protecting and strengthening the status quo. Women leaders taking on the role of champions of the women's cause, raising issues like oppression of dalit women e.g. the recent spate of violence on dalit women in UP or that of Bhanwari are few and far in between. Rather, the BJP mobilised a large section of upper caste women in an organised platform called Grameen Mahila Vikas Sangharsh Samiti against Bhanwari Bai of Bhateri, Rajasthan, and four women sarpanches and a council member spoke against her.

It is important to note in this context that in the given situation if the autonomous women's movement has, to some extent, been able to mobilise public opinion in favour of women and pressurise the National Women's Commission to make a positive intervention in Bhanwari's case, it is because of their alliance with democratic forces and women leaders and women wings of political parties. It is because of such alliance the whole movement could be given an openly anti-BJP thrust. Maybe this had become necessary because of the rallying of the rightist forces against the victim. But the challenge remains - if the autonomous women's movement does not find out ways and means of using the policy for reservation of women in a progressive direction, it is the BJP and Shiv Sena or even the no less reactionary Congress which are going to use the Act in their favour.
Also, it is important that the left movement, which has mobilised women in grassroots struggles, takes up the task of politically educating women and giving them their due share in the party structure. The CPI(ML) has for example made a provision for 20% women members in party committees at all levels. One of the liberal opinions against reservations for women is that there are hardly any women who merit being considered as candidates and that they must not just remain as dummies. True enough! But reservation must be accepted as a reform for a phase of transition from no participation of women to best participation of women, and this cannot be achieved without conscious efforts on the part of political parties.

As the next step to reservation in assemblies and the parliament, the PM has declared reservation for women in government jobs. Unlike the 81st Amendment, this provision is certainly going to create some furore in society because it will address a larger cross-section of the woman population. At the same time it will be more difficult to realise in practice considering feudal pressures existing in the family, lack of childcare and maternity health facilities, responsibility for the aged and education of children etc. Besides this, employment for women raises the question of the nature of work and working conditions too. Tedious and mundane jobs, stereotyping 'women's vocations' and negligence of the state on the question of women's health are big deterrents to the enthusiasm and urge of women themselves and also serve as excuses for families to keep women out of work. And further, there has evolved no means to ensure equal say in the economic decision-making within the family, not to speak of families being run on the women's income while the man's income remains solely under his personal control. The other facet is reservation creating social tensions in a situation where jobs are already shrinking and crores of men still remaining unemployed.

Coming to reservations in other spheres like education, private institutions and political parties, all this entails long years of struggle in a male-dominated society. Yet, fight till the last we must, not only for equal participation in all spheres of life but also for guaranteeing the necessary infrastructure as well as a social environment in which it will really unleash the best potential of half the population. Hence, reforms are just the beginning for a long struggle for social change where women will have genuine empowerment and will be able to play their role in society - a struggle for half the earth and half the sky!