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INDIA: No Stopping Reserved Seats for Women in Parliament

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Mar 8 2010 (IPS) - With assured backing from India’s main opposition groups, the ruling Congress party hopes to see voted through in the upper house of Parliament Monday a bill reserving 33 percent of seats in national and provincial legislatures for women.

Ranjana Kumari, convenor of Women Power Connect. Credit:

Ranjana Kumari, convenor of Women Power Connect. Credit:

The passage of the bill would ride over caste, regional and patriarchal interests that have thwarted its passage for 14 years. Monday, Mar. 8, is International Women’s Day.

“The timing is right just now,’’ says Ranjana Kumari, a prominent proponent of the bill and president of Women Power Connect, an influential lobby of some 700 women’s organisations and individuals that trains women with support from the United Nations Development Programme’s Democracy Fund.

Kumari told IPS that for the Congress party, which is under fierce attack in the ongoing budget session of Parliament amid massive hikes in fuel prices, the successful passage of the women’s bill – in the upper house on Monday and later in the lower house – would be a chance to recover popularity.

But what is important, Kumari adds, is that the bill’s passage would be a major step forward in empowering women in a country that has been battling such social evils as dowry, sex ratios that have been declining due to female foeticide and entrenched discrimination in such areas as property inheritance.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the left-of-centre Congress party, has described the bill as a “gift to the women of India if it is introduced and passed on International Women’s Day.”

Opposition to the bill comes mainly from two powerful regional parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) in northern Uttar Pradesh state and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in adjoining Bihar, which promote the interests of the largely pastoral Yadav caste that is numerically significant in the two states.

The leaders of the SP and the RJD, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav respectively, are not opposed to the idea of reserved seats for women but have been demanding quotas for women from the Yadav and other groups, officially classified as other backward classes (OBCs), within the proposed 33 percent reservation.

The ‘Yadav chieftains’ – as the two men who have served as chief ministers in their states and as union Cabinet ministers are often referred to in the media – have described the bill as a conspiracy to corner legislative seats for women from elitist or upper-caste backgrounds at the expense of the OBC groups and minorities. “There is some merit in their charge,’’ says Rahul Verma, a researcher with the prestigious New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. ‘’Women from upper-caste groups have always formed more than 50 percent of women elected to each Parliament, which is far out of proportion with their actual numbers in the electorate of 330 million registered women voters.’’

In contrast, says Verma, OBCs that form more than 50 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population account for less than 20 percent of women sent to Parliament after each election. “Clearly, the silent revolution which has seen the OBC groups emerge on India’s political stage over the last two decades has not touched their women,’’ Verma says.

Additionally, Verma explains, the Congress party and the two main opposition parties, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the communist parties that form the Left Front, have well-developed women’s wings, unlike the SP and RJD. They are thus poised to reap the benefits of the bill.

But after 14 years of tripping over the issue of caste-based quotas, the general mood is that this issue can be addressed after the passage of the bill. ‘’We are not against a quota within the proposed reservation, but this should not be used as an excuse to stop or further delay the passage of the bill,’’ says Kumari.

Amitabh Behar, convenor of the National Social Watch Coalition (NSWC), said it was really up to the SP and RJD to make space within their parties for women and that the reservation bill was “too important to be held up while they got their act together.”

According to Behar, studies by the NSWC – which publishes reports on the institutions of governance and their commitment toward citizens and principles of democracy – have shown that the reservation of a third of seats for women in India’s local body structures, introduced in 1993, has transformed the lives of millions of women, both at home and in the public space.

“There is little doubt that the extension of the principle of reserved seats for women to the state and central legislatures will transform the political and sociological scenario in this country,’’ Behar pointed out.

Opponents of the bill, including the Yadavs, argue that even without reserved seats, women have been remarkably successful in Indian politics.

One of independent India’s most powerful prime ministers was Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, has been rated as the most powerful Indian politician since 2004.

The current list of top Indian women politicians includes the president of the country Pratibha Patil, speaker of the lawmaking lower house of Parliament Meira Kumar, chief minister of Delhi state Sheila Dixit and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Mayawati (one name).

However, the overall status of women in this overwhelmingly patriarchal country remains abysmal. In its 2009 report on gender disparity, the World Economic Forum ranked India 114th in a list of 134 countries.

Behar told IPS that he did not discount the possibility of patriarchal-minded politicians resorting to filibustering or physically disrupting proceedings in Parliament – as they have done before – to prevent the passage of the bill. It needs a two-thirds vote by members of the upper house of Parliament to be passed.

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