No Going Back on 33% Reservation for Women in Assemblies and Parliament

On March 8, 2010 when the whole world observed the centenary of the International Women’s Day, the UPA government tabled the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) in the upper house of Indian Parliament. It was a classic case of killing two birds with one stone. Only a week ago the government had presented the annual budget leaving the whole country fuming with rage over soaring prices. The budget had not only added fuel to the inflationary fire, it had refused to extend any relief to the common man while pampering the rich with all kinds of sops. At one stroke, the women’s bill shifted the spotlight away from the post-budget protests and split the emerging unity in the opposition camp down the middle. At the same time there could be no better way for the Sonia-led Congress to try and project itself as the most vocal champion of the women’s cause on the occasion of the IWD centenary!

Even as the likes of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh and Sharad Yadav raved and ranted against the WRB, Sonia said the Congress was ready to take every risk to change the society! But only a couple of days after the bill had been rushed through the Rajya Sabha, the UPA managers declared that the bill would be presented in the Lok Sabha only on the basis of a consensus. Meanwhile, there are renewed talks of a smaller quota of only 20%. It has taken not even 100 hours for the much-trumpeted Congress readiness for risk-taking to evaporate, and in the name of building consensus, the Congress is now back to its old game of dilly-dallying and putting the bill back into cold storage!

The heated debates over women’s reservation bill have of course helped unmask many political faces. Lalu Prasad has let the cat out of the bag by coming out unabashedly as a desperate defender of male domination in society. Warning the Congress and the BJP that women’s reservation would not secure them the votes of women, he said women would vote only according to the wishes of male members in their families! Hukumdev Narayan Yadav, BJP MP from Bihar, described the WRB as a death warrant he would never sign. Similar views have been attributed, albeit anonymously, to many other BJP and Congress MPs as well. Ironically enough, parties like BSP and TMC which are led by powerful women leaders, also avoided supporting the bill.

While most parties opposing the bill exposed their unmistakably patriarchal political streak, it is no less important to recognize and remember the true face of parties like the BJP and the Congress which would like to be seen as great advocates and promoters of women’s empowerment. The BJP not only has the most conservative and retrograde views on most issues concerning women’s rights and social progress, the Sangh brigade it is part of is infamous for perpetrating and justifying the most brutal kind of communal and feudal violence against women. As the oldest ruling party in the country, the Congress too must be held squarely responsible for the historical marginalization of Indian women, which has been further aggravated under the pro-corporate pro-imperialist policy regime promoted by the Congress.

The opponents of women’s reservation have found it convenient to repeatedly stall the bill by pitting caste and community against gender. The progressive women’s movement can call their bluff by incorporating specific provisions for women of backward castes and minority communities within the overall ambit of 33% reservation. The panchayats have long had 33% reservation for women and Parliament has now rightly raised it to 50%. Let there now be no excuse for thwarting or truncating the idea of one-third reservation for women in Assemblies and Parliament. The UPA government must not be allowed to backtrack from 33% reservation for women on any pretext.

Hundred years ago, the communist and progressive forces within the international women’s movement took the lead to launch the International Women’s Day, and over the last hundred years, it is these forces that have pushed forward the battle for women’s liberation and equality of sexes in the face of every obstacle. In India, it was the progressive women’s movement which had raised the demand for women’s reservation in legislative bodies as a means to promote women’s participation in politics as well as to sensitise the process of legislation to the needs and aspirations of women. It was again the women’s movement which sustained the campaign for women’s reservation over the last two decades in the face of crude patriarchal resistance and clever political ploys of ruling class parties.

Today in the centenary year of the International Women’s Day it is ironically the Congress which seeks to paint itself as the pioneer of women’s reservation even as it colludes with the opponents of the bill to once again put it on the back-burner. The progressive women’s movement must again wrest the initiative, push the bill through to the end, and carry forward the larger battle of women’s liberation towards bigger victories.

Liberation Archive