PUCL Bulletin, July 2003

Women's reservation bill - A social necessity, national obligation
-- By Rajindar Sachar

History does not repeat itself is a self-evident maxim which most people tend to accept without demur. But now we are witness to seeing history being repeated every year in Parliament in the matter of hypocrisy of all political parties in the context of the Women's Reservation Bill.

Every political party for the last six years has been assuring its support to the Bill which disarms women activists. And then a farce rather than a tragedy is played out by so-called radical politicians, jumping into the well of the House, tearing copies of the Bill and making impossible for proceedings to continue - the House gets adjourned, the Bill is thrown into the dustbin till it is revived in subsequent years with the same result. It is time this mockery stopped, considering that the Congress, the BJP and Left parties proclaim that they are for the Bill in the present form, and really want it to become a law.

Women are not asking for grace and charity. Their contribution to the cause of nation-building exceeds that of men. An International Labour Organisation study shows that "while women represent 50 percent of the world adult population and a third of the official labour force, they perform nearly two-third of all working hours, receive a tenth of world income and own less than one percent of world property." Therefore, reservation for women is not a bounty but only an honest recognition of their contribution to social development.

An alternative to the Bill suggests amending the Representation of People Act, 1951, to compel political parties to mandatorily nominate women candidates for at least one-third of the seats on the pain of losing recognition. This is politically flawed and not even constitutionally permissible.

It may be violative of the fundamental rights to form an association guaranteed under Article 19(1) (c) of the Constitution. The only permissible restrictions are those in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India or public order or morality, and such an amendment would not fall within these.

That apart, this alternative will not achieve the objective behind the Amendment Bill, because even if a third of women candidates are put up by political parties, there is no guarantee that the same number will get elected.

It is freely admitted by all parties that because of the inbuilt prejudice against women, male candidates will have an unfair advantage in elections. This aspect is freely admitted even by Left parties. Thus, parties will tend to allow women candidates to fight elections from their weak constituencies. Though I am all for the Bill in its present forms, it is unwise to underestimate the opposition from the male constituency in Parliament. Given the present instability in political coalitions, and the material that is in Parliament, to expect one-third of the male members to accept political hara-kiri is unrealistic. They are no Gandhians. They will not give up their privileges so easily.

There is also some merit in the objection that the reservation of seats for women would mean rotation of seats at every general election with the result that the members will not be able to nurse their constituencies and also that candidates will be uncertain of anticipating their future constituencies. This will be thus breaking their link with the electorate. Notwithstanding these ticklish problems, I would have continued insisting on the present Bill. But there is another alternative which can give one-third seats to women without in any way asking the male members to make the way.

This alternative gets further strength now that the Delimitation Commission has been asked to adopt the 2001 census for delimiting the constituencies, and therefore the same inevitable consequences must follow.

Article 81 provides for the Lok Sabha to have not more than 530 members. Further amendments were made to freeze the number of Lok Sabha members on the basis of the 1971 census till another census after 2000 had been published.

Article 82 provides for the allocation of seats upon the completion of each census. As per the 1971 census, the population of India was about 54 crores. Now after the 2001 census, it has risen to about 102 crores. So the strength of the Lok Sabha can be easily increased by one-third to 750 well within the requisite formula. This will take away the fear of any male member to vacate the present seat. These extra seats could be dovetailed into double-member constituencies, which win ensure the reservation of one seat for women and, even permitting two to be elected, if the other woman candidate gets the maximum of the votes polled.

This is what happened in former President Giri's case during the 1957 general election when both seats were won by Scheduled Caste members - one reserved and the other a general seat - because SC candidate got more votes than Mr. Giri.

The argument that the women's quota wilt be monopolised by urban women is a red herring. There are about 200 OBC candidates in the Lok Sabha, it is a stark reality dial, it is not their public service, but merely the caste configuration that has preferred them. Similar results will follow even after the 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.
In my view, the provision of a sub-quota for the OBCs runs the risk of being held as unconstitutional. A sub-quota for Muslim women would violate secularism, a basic feature of the Constitution, and even an amendment would be illegal. Article 325 provides for one general electoral roll for every constituency and mandates that no person shall be ineligible for incursion on grounds of religion.

In the matter of the fight against injustice and discrimination, women as a class should not be weakened by seeking to bifurcate them on caste lines. Reservation for women would check the muddy politics that the men folk have brought about. It would bring social consciousness to political life. It will also help in brushing the criminal-politician nexus - the real danger to our democracy.

Bill, I am afraid, the strategy of women's organisations has been faulty from the start. Holding seminars or lobbying political leaders in their offices or on television will not help. All women's organisations, irrespective of political affiliation, should form a common platform with a single agenda. It must become a mass social movement and send out a message to all political parties, warning them that women will withdraw their backing in the next election if they do not support the Bill now.

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