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WOMEN RESERVATION BILL FOR INDIA - UTOPIAN IDEAL OR PRACTICAL REALITY?




ABSTRACT

“The women’s cricket team shall be paid equal to their men counterparts”, is the news headline that has taken the internet by storm and is resonating from every social media platform with all netizens. Such crucial steps towards a more gender-inclusive world in recent times further fuel the discussions in one of the longest debated policy matters which faces our Indian Parliament, the need for a Women’s Reservation Bill. This article explores various aspects of this matter as it dives deep into analyzing the cultural and political realities of India to understand whether such an integral governance framework can be adopted by our policymakers. The aim of this article is to educate its readers about the different notions revolving around this sensitive matter and answer the main research question - Are the arguments for women’s political representation in the present Indian scenario valid enough to take priority over the factor of merit? This article further studies the impact such a policy would create on society, if implemented, such as the role of women in making more gender-neutral policies and their conflict resolution abilities with a comprehensive study of international examples. It also notes certain suggestions which could be taken into account by an individual when thinking about this matter. Hence, it is left up to the reader to formulate their views and conclusions as the author elaborates through the plethora of factors affecting the theme of this article, that is, reserving seats in the Indian Parliament for women.

INTRODUCTION

“The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women”, as said by Swami Vivekananda. Even Jawaharlal Nehru believed that you can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women. From the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2018 to the Triple Talaq Act of 2019, major legal reforms have taken place in India for advancing the rights of women in recent times. With rising recognition of the role of women in nation-building, reforms to encourage their political participation at a Central level still remains a major question.


One should recollect Clause (3) of Article 243D of the Constitution, which ensures the participation of women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) by mandating not less than one-third reservation for women. As per the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, 20 States have made provisions of 50% reservation for women in PRIs since “Local Government” is a State subject as per the State List in the 7th Schedule of our Constitution. (PIB Delhi, 2020)


However, the power to amend this share in the Parliament lies with the Union Government, which, despite passing a Women Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha back in 2010, found the bill lapsed as it was never introduced in the Lok Sabha for discussion. Although, the share of women’s seats in the Indian Parliament has increased by a narrow margin from 12.6% (66 seats) in 2014 to 14.9% (81 seats) in 2019 (IPU Parline, 2022); the number of women ministers has fallen from 23.1% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2021. This among other factors has declined India’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Report by 28 places from 112 in 2020 to 140 in 2021 among 156 nations. (WEF, 2021)


These statistics don’t stand as mere numbers but as alarming signals for Bharat to realize how its society plans to perceive and treat its women as the delay of promises for a Women Reservation Bill has domestic as well as international ramifications.

EVOLUTION OF THE IDENTITY OF A WOMAN

For an arrow to go forward and hit the central aim of the target, first it has to be pulled back with the right precision and power. Similarly for us to make policies for the future that stem from problems which have proven to be historically troublesome, it's important to dive deep and analyze the crux of the matter to make an informed and accurate decision which is in accordance with the needs of the present times. Hence, it's important to analyze the evolution of the identity of a woman in Indian society which has grown through various religious and cultural norms affecting her participation in civil society due to the opinion held by the public at large.

VIEWING THROUGH A CULTURAL LENS

Throughout history across all major religious texts of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, various words have been misinterpreted by the self-appointed male scholars who justified the oppression of women through discriminatory social practices using the name of God.

There have been various citations and texts within the Manusmriti and Arthashastra which have promoted domestic violence on slaves, sons, “wives”, etc. The Ramcharitmanas Sundar Kand Doha 58.3 is also widely criticized for “giving instructions” to a woman while equating her with a drum and a beast. One doesn’t realize that it's a statement made by an idle ocean God and not Lord Rama. (Ramcharitmanas, 2021) The interpretations of the Surah 4, Ayat 24-24 of the Quran by groups like the Taliban and other radical Islamists also try to justify treating women as “sexual slaves” straying away from the actual meaning provided by the Prophet which was to provide the woman with wealth and wedlock when her previous marriage is void. (Maududi, 1972)


These cultural beliefs led to the development of social stereotypes and prejudices that the female gender needs protection; that the woman’s life “revolves around the protection of a man.”

VIEWING THROUGH A SOCIAL LENS

During British rule, historians noticed a huge reluctance of the British for social reforms due to their absolute non-interference in religious matters as interpreted in Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858. (Keith, 1922) However, various social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Eshwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Jyotiba Phule fought throughout their life and convinced the British government put an end to various evil customs of society such as Sati, widow remarriage, forbidding child marriage and reducing illiteracy of women. Men challenging patriarchal attitudes of society, helped evolve the mindsets and identity of a woman as “not just a subordinate but an equal human being.” (Chowdhury, 2020)

Although society has labeled Indian women with various tags and titles, it did not stop a few from achieving feats which go down in history as the most instrumental examples of change by defying and challenging the prevalent norms. Various women leaders like Savitribai Phule, a Dalit woman, and her colleague Fatima Sheikh, the first Muslim woman teacher of India, defied the norms of caste, religion and gender discrimination during the 1850s as they set up nearly 17 schools to impart education to women of all castes. Similarly, Maharashtra’s Ramabai Ranade is credited with training thousands of women in various skills. Tarabai Shinde fearlessly defied the inherent patriarchy of Indian society in various religious texts through her literary works and books. (Sasha R, 2019)

VIEWING THROUGH THE LENS OF MODERN HISTORY

From Rani Lakshmibai in 1857 to Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, India’s first woman Minister of Local Self-Government in 1937, we have had a democratic history which provided strong recognition for the political participation of women before many European nations like Switzerland even conceived the thought of providing them voting rights in 1971. (Krulwich, 2016) We had Hansa Jivraj Mehta who represented India in the Commission of Human Rights and helped frame a gender-neutral Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). (UN Women, n.d.) We had Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, our first Health Minister and founder of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). We had Durgabai Deshmukh who established the Andhra Mahila Sabha (AMS) which is a pioneer for educational institutions today. (India Today, 2020)


After having had a woman Prime Minister like Indira Gandhi and female Presidents like Pratibha Patil and Draupadi Murmu, the identity of a woman in the political field stands as a “strong leader irrespective of her caste, religion, race or family background.”

STORIES FROM ABROAD

Bharat Mata is already the symbol of India as a motherland which fails to see a huge participation of its women in the federal and state bodies. One should observe the ‘Engendering the Peace Process’ initiative by the Netherlands which encourages Israel and Palestine to appoint more women to negotiate teams and political decision-making posts for the on-going Middle East peace process. Even Belgium in its joint project with UNICEF and Georgia’s Plan of Action for Improving Women’s Conditions recognises the importance of the active involvement of women in decision-making in armed conflicts and peace-building. (Kundra, 2020, pp.15)


Basically, women can be trusted with handling situations with higher sensitivity and striking the right balance between IQ and EQ. A presence of 1.3 million women out of 3 million elected representatives in Indian panchayats has helped bring greater transparency and efficiency to the administration. It stands as a staggering fact to understand the requirement of passing the Women’s Reservation Bill for our Parliament. (UNW, 2019)

THE LEGAL VALIDITY

Article 15(3) of the Constitution gives the State the power to make reservations for women and children, if necessary. We can notice this in Padmaraj Samarendra Vs. State of Bihar (1978) case and Government of Andhra Pradesh Vs. Vijayakumar (1995) case where reservations for women in medical college seats and jobs for women in public employment respectively were upheld by the court quashing the argument that it contradicts meritocracy. (Ali, 1978) (Sujata, 1995)


Hence, all the arguments by male members of the society that reservations are discriminatory against men and violate Article 15 (1), often forget the systematic discrimination faced by women and how clause (3) of the same Article validates them. (Constitution of India, 1949)

REALITY WITHIN THE PARLIAMENT

The two major alliances within the Lok Sabha of 543 seats are National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holding nearly 330 seats and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Indian National Congress (INC) with nearly 110 seats. In their 2019 manifesto, BJP’s Point 14 of the Women Empowerment section and INC’s Point 1 in Section 35 talk about 33% reservation of seats for women. However, with every passing Lok Sabha session, the Law Minister makes the same statement of “needs careful consideration on the basis of consensus among all political parties.” (ANI, 2022) (PTI, 2021)


There are a few parties like Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal who are in staunch opposition to the bill as they believe that it favors only elite women. The same view was shared by Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati as she felt a sub-quota for SC/ST and OBC women is needed. (Menon, 2013) Even INC took a U-turn in May this year for the matter of “quota within quota” as their senior leader Salman Khurshid explained that women of all categories should get reservation. (CG, 2022)


When the NDA brought in laws such as CAA, 3 Farm Bills and 4 Labour Laws despite strong opposition; when most of the opposition parties virtually support reservation for women; the delay in passing the bill by stating “lack of political consensus” from the past 26 years (as it was introduced in Lok Sabha in 1996), only shows that it remains as a Utopian ideal if it’s left up to our policy-makers in the Parliament. It can only be made a reality if the citizens raise their voices.


Recently, an NGO named ‘National Federation for Indian Women’ filed a petition in the apex court for issuing a ‘writ of mandamus’ to the government for passing the Women’s Reservation Bill as they have failed in their duties as public officeholders. But the 1997 Vishaka judgment views that the Supreme Court can only lay down guidelines to fill a legislative vacuum and cannot direct the government to enact a particular legislation. (Mahapatra, 2022) Hence, it shall be interesting to note the role of civil society organizations and our judiciary in converting this Utopian dream into a practical reality in the Parliament.

CONCLUSION: IMPACT OF THE BILL GETTING PASSED

Let's assume that the bill passes in both houses and gets enacted. Even then various challenges remain in practically implementing the vision. For instance, the phenomenon of Panchayat Patis is prevalent where women are used as proxies by male relatives of their families in local bodies. In reality, an MP works for a constituency only when they are confident of getting re-elected. Hence, the rotation of reserved constituencies for women in every election may decrease the incentives for an MP to work for their constituency.


At the same time, increasing the participation of women in the Indian Parliament is important as they contribute to making more gender-sensitive national policies such as the age of marriage for females, legislation for marital rape, Uniform Civil Code and stricter workspace rules. From our local self-government bodies, positive reports of the impact have been noticed in examples such as Meena Behen from the Vyara district of Gujarat who leads an all-women Panchayat in a predominantly patriarchal society and Arati Devi of the Ganjam district of Odisha who became one of the youngest sarpanch after leaving a lucrative job of a leading bank in India. Meena Behen brought economic development by starting a Self-Help Group (SHG) and Arati Devi did a massive literacy campaign achieving a nearly 100% literacy rate in her village. (UNW, 2019)


The conclusion lies in the understanding that women bring better reforms than existing various male leaders who have low attendance rates in the Parliamentary sessions. If not a reservation within Parliamentary seats for at least the next 15 years, we can adopt systems like those of Canada, the UK and France where seats are reserved within political parties or the dual-member constituency method, where two members are nominated from each, one being a woman. With the new Central Vista project, the seating capacity of Lok Sabha is nearly 900. The need of the hour demands more representation for women by replacing, reserving and re-thinking.

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