13th August 1997: The Women's Reservation Bill is put on the Back Burner Under Prime Minister Gujral's Government


On 13th August 1997 the Women’s Reservation Bill which had been introduced in 1996 was put on the back burner under Prime Minister I.K Gujral’s government.


The Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), also known as The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill is a pending bill which aims at amending the Constitution of India to reserve 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) and in all state assemblies for women, so as to promote gender equality. The Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament) passed the bill on 9th March 2010 and as of March 2013, the Lok Sabha has not yet passed the bill.


The WRB has been hurriedly gone over by male Members of Parliament (MP’s) who are of the opinion that the reservation of seats for women is anti-national and will be against the interest of the country at large, even though most political parties agree that the passing of the bill will lead to gender equity.


The Constitution of India, adopted in 1949, prohibits gender discrimination and all major political parties in India, such as the Congress (which has ruled India for the longest time since Independence), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Janata Dal and the Left parties all support the cause of gender equality and keeping that in mind, a majority vote to pass the bill can easily be obtained in the Lok Sabha.


India has a history of strong women politicians and the year 2001 was declared as the “Women’s Empowerment Year” by the then ruling coalition. The Congress is headed by Sonia Gandhi who is the daughter-in-law of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was in power for sixteen years. Apart from that, India has seen a host of powerful women in political office, such as Jayalalitha (Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu), Mamata Banerjee (head of the Trinamool Congress and Chief Minister of West Bengal) and Mayawati (former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) who have toppled previous governments. The Congress, BJP and United Front Coalition all dedicated themselves to the cause of enacting this law in their election manifesto in 1998, yet the bill was constantly delayed.


The reason behind this constant delay was that certain politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal, Laloo Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (known to be a spokesperson for the backward castes) refused to allow the bill to be introduced in the Parliament unless it provided a 20% sub-quota within the 33% for women belonging to backward castes. Without this, these men argued that all the reserved seats will be taken by women belonging to “elite class” who will not be inclined towards promoting the interest of women from backward castes. This argument tends to raise questions like; would reservation be a truly competent means of promoting gender equality? Does gender divide or unite women? And in a country like India, which claims to be committed to the progress of women, how it is that group of men are able to delay the passing of this bill?


Though India has recorded a significant gain in terms of conventional economic indices, like industrial, agriculture, external trade and foreign exchange reserves, women have not had an equal share in this gain. Women in the unorganized sector, which accounts to 94% of the female work force, have been underestimated and have suffered because of globalization and cuts in state allocation for social sectors like health and education. Reservation to include women in the decision making positions would eventually give women power in policy making.


The 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments which reserved 1/3 seats in panchayats for women, introduced in 1991, led to almost 1 million rural women take on decision-making positions for the first time. One third of these positions were reserved for women from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST). Most of these women come from impoverished families and are not educated and lack familiarity with the running of a government. Some of them are even used as “rubber stamp” candidates on behalf of male relatives, but studies have shown that given a little training, women learn quickly and work better than men. Many states in India, such as Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra have all women panchayats and despite facing challenges like illiteracy and poverty, while living in a male dominated society, these women have risen beyond these trials and have portrayed extreme self confidence and perseverance. The WRB aims at boosting this empowerment to the all India level.


Indian society is layered by the caste system and like gender one is born into a particular caste, which determines a person’s socio-economic status. The Brahmins, who are the highest caste dominate the caste system, which is followed by the trading castes and finally the OBC’s or the Other Backward Castes and the SC’s and ST’s who make up the last rung of the caste system and do menial jobs like scavenging and leather work. Post independence, the Constitution of India forbade discrimination based on caste and gender and many top Indian politicians today, including some Presidents belong to these so called lower castes.


The issue of the “elite” class taking advantage of seats reserved for backward castes is never brought up in the case of men, because men of these classes are as much disadvantaged in terms of power as much as women of these categories are. 27% of women MP’s belong to the SC and ST categories, such as Mayawati, Uma Bharati and Phoolan Devi, clearly their caste did not hinder their getting elected to the parliament. Critics of the bill claim that putting a woman candidate to the front endangers the interest of the party, since the chances of a woman winning an election are slim. However, if statistics were to be looked at, we will see that the percentage of women winners is higher than that of men. After a nation wide debate, it is clear that most women want the bill passed and are not in favour of the sub-quota clause.


Introducing women into the decision-making positions in Parliament through reservation of seats is one way of promoting gender equality, but despite the Constitution providing gender equality, this bill has failed to become a law. Reason being that gender comes across as a stronger divide as opposed to caste. Gender unites male policy makers in blocking legislatures that provide for women’s equality and empowerment. Though women in Parliament are united by gender in their support for the bill, their lesser numbers go against them. Constancy among women voters is low since many of them are illiterate and especially in rural areas, most women vote for candidates chosen by the male members of the family. Women belonging to orthodox families would never attend political campaign meetings to form an opinion about the candidate they would like to vote for.


After the bill was halted by former Prime Minister I.K Gujral’s government, his successor, Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s explanation for the bill being halted was that he was “waiting for a consensus among all parties”, rather than a majority vote; this consensus was far from appearing. The government was keen not to “dilute” the bill by agreeing to the sub-reservation, though critics of the bill are persistent to stop the passing of the bill in its current form.


Also on This Day:


1784: Pitt’s India Bill was introduced in the British Parliament for improvement of administration in India.


1891: The three great defenders of Manipur, Senapati Tikendrajit Singh, his brothers, Agnesh Sena and General Thangal were hanged by the British.


1951: The first aircraft designed and manufactured in India, the Hindustan Trainer 2 took its maiden flight.


1956: The Lok Sabha passed the National Highways Bill. 

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