Twenty Seven Years in the Making, a Guide to the Women's Reservation Bill's Tortuous History

The Bill was introduced by the Deve Gowda government in 1996 and was passed by the upper house in 2010 after being tossed around for various reasons.

This article was first published on September 16, 2016 and has been updated and republished in the wake of reports the Union cabinet has cleared its introduction in the Lok Sabha.

New Delhi: At any given point of time, several draft legislations listed under the category of ‘pending bills’ in the Lok Sabha exist. One of them, however, has been pending since 2010 given the patriarchal tendencies of most political parties that share power in the country and the indifference of successive governments towards the political empowerment of women.

In fact, on September 12, the 108th Constitution Amendment Bill, or what is popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, completed 27 years of being in existence – while managing to get only the assent of the Rajya Sabha, thus far.

In the last two decades the Bill has seen much drama in both houses of parliament, clearly aimed at scuttling the measure, with some members even attempting to physically attack the then Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari, to disrupt its tabling.

The bill’s journey began on September 12, 1996, when it was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the United Front government of H.D. Deve Gowda. The bill called for reserving 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and all state legislative assemblies for women. As per the draft, the seats were to be reserved for women on a rotation basis and would be determined by draw of lots, in such a way that a seat would be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections. It said reservation of seats for women would cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the amendment Act.

The bill, however, failed to get the approval of the house then and was instead referred to a joint parliamentary committee. The committee submitted its report to the Lok Sabha two months later.

In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who headed the the first National Democratic Alliance government, reintroduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha. After Vajpayee’s law minister, M. Thambidurai introduced it in the house, a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP snatched it from the speaker and tore it into bits.

Thereafter, the Bill lapsed and was reintroduced – in 1999, in 2002 and 2003.

The parliamentary impasse

Even though the Congress, the Left and the BJP were heard openly pledging support for the Bill, it just couldn’t be passed in the Lok Sabha. In 1998, the Vajpayee government was certainly dependent on other parties for survival which many political observers often suggest was a reason for not being able to “assert” itself. After the 1999 mid-term polls, even though Vajpayee returned to the saddle, the mandate was for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which won 303 of the 544 Lok Sabha seats – yet again a situation where he “had to keep” all the parties together. However, given the support pledged by the Congress and Left, the Bill would have sailed through the house had it been formally put to vote.

In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Two years later on March 9, 2010, a huge political barrier was overcome when it was passed by the house in spite of high drama and scuffles between members. The BJP, the Left and some other parties came together with the ruling Congress to help pass it in the upper house.

Six years have passed since that moment when top women leaders from three major parties – Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat – gave a rare moment to media photographers by walking hand in hand in impromptu celebration of that ‘historic occasion’.

And yet, in 2016, it has still not seen the light of the day, simply because the political will to help make it a law has been lacking in the lower house. The UPA II government, in spite of having 262 seats in the Lok Sabha, too couldn’t make it happen, citing the same excuse of being in a coalition.

Grounds for opposition

One of its coalition partners – the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – has been one of the three most vocal opponents of the bill. The other two have been the Janata Dal (United) and Samajwadi Party (SP).

It was JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav who infamously used the term “par-kati mahilaen (short-haired women) in Parliament in June 1997, to ask how would short-haired or urban women would be able to represent “our women”, meaning women from rural areas.

Some of the common points of concern for the parties opposing it, as per PRS Legislative Research, has been that “it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit.” Furthermore it said, “They also contend that this policy diverts attention from the larger issues of electoral reform such as criminalisation of politics and inner party democracy.”

Another concern was, “Reservation of seats in parliament restricts choice of voters to women candidates. Therefore, some experts have suggested alternate methods such as reservation in political parties and dual member constituencies.” Also, rotation of reserved constituencies in every election may reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency.

It was also pointed out that “the report (of the joint committee) that examined the Bill recommended that reservation be provided for women of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) once the constitution was amended to allow for reservation for OBCs. It also recommended that reservation be extended to the Rajya Sabha and the legislative councils. Neither of these recommendations has been incorporated in the Bill.”

However, many women activists backing the bill have gone on record saying patriarchal thinking has actually been behind the opposition to it. Well-known activist, Aruna Roy, in an article in The Hindu Business Line in March this year, also argued that “India ranks well below the global average in terms of women’s representation in parliament, as well as amongst countries which have mandated the minimum representation of women in parliament through law.

Poor participation of women in parliament has a direct impact on the priorities and assumptions of policies and legislations.”

She wrote, “Political parties will have to, or will soon be forced to, recognise that if parliament does not reflect contemporary trends in women’s education and excellence in varied fields, they will face a crisis of credibility.”

Shifting allegiances

Interestingly, the earlier stance of JD (U) on the bill seems to have changed now. Attending an event to mark 20 years of the bill by the National Federation of Indian Women (NPIW) in New Delhi on September 12, JD(U) general secretary K. C. Tyagi pledged his party’s support to the Bill.

“I have come to say that from today onwards you can remove the name of JD(U) as one of the parties opposed to the women’s reservation bill,” Tyagi said at an event. He, however, also said a quota for women from backward classes should be given within the bill.

When he was asked whether a ‘quota within a quota’ would be a pre-condition for the JD(U)’s support to the Bill, Tyagi reportedly said, “It should be passed without ifs and buts. If there are any conditions, then people will get an excuse to delay it. This (sub-quota) is our wish, not our condition.”

Certainly, this is a ray of hope for a bill that could help change the gender composition of parliament and the state assemblies. Even though the 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw the highest ever presence of women in parliament, it still stands at 61 (11.23%) among 543 seats. After the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, there were only 59 women members.

Support from staunch opponents aside, finally, what will lead to the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha is not their political will, but the attitude of the ruling dispensation, which has an overwhelming majority in the house anyway – a unique position none of the earlier dispensations enjoyed.

“We are happy that the JD (U) has changed its stance on the bill, but what would matter the most is if the ruling party (BJP) expresses its willingness on the issue. The writing on the wall is clear, the present government doesn’t need any political party to pass the bill if it wishes,” said Kiran Moghe, national general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Alliance (AIDWA), one of the core forces behind the bill.

Referring to BJP women leaders like Sushma Swaraj’s continued support to the bill, Moghe said, “But top women leaders of the party will also have to push to pass it in the Lok Sabha. Mere support for it is not enough. After all, it was one of the BJP’s women members (Uma Bharati) who stalled it in the house along with some other party members.”

Speaking about the bill in 2010 as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, BJP’s Arun Jaitley said he had a feeling of “being a party to history in the making” when he came to the house that day. Jaitley is now one of the most important players in the Narendra Modi government but has not been heard talking about making that “history” complete in real terms.

While Prime Minister Modi has maintained a studied silence on the matter for the past nine years despite repeated calls by Opposition parties like the Congress and the Left for its immediate passage, there is finally the possibility that his government has decided to push the long-pending measure through.