New Delhi: Congress MP Rahul Gandhi has said that there is “100% regret” in the party about not including Other Backward Castes (OBC) in the women’s reservation bill passed in the Rajya Sabha by the Manmohan Singh government in 2010.
The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, which seeks to provide 33% reservation to women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies was passed by the Rajya Sabha unanimously on Thursday, September 21, though no specific date has yet been set for its implementation.
A day before the legislation, which has been in the works for 27 years, was passed by the Lok Sabha.
“We have 100% regret that we didn’t include OBCs in the Women’s Reservation Bill that was passed when we were in government,” said Gandhi while addressing a press conference at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters on Friday, September 22, in New Delhi.
While opposition parties pledged their support to the Bill in parliament, they raised the demand for sub-quotas on the basis of caste during the debate in both Houses.
The new legislation states that one-third of seats will be reserved in the legislative assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi by amending Article 239AA, one-third of seats will be reserved for women in the Lok Sabha by amending Article 330 of the constitution, and one-third seats reserved in state legislative assemblies by amending Article 332.
One-third of the seats currently reserved for Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes will also be reserved for women from these communities.
While opening the debate in the Lok Sabha, former Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, raised the pitch for sub-quotas on the basis of caste as well as the inclusion of OBC women.
Later, other Congress MPs including Rahul Gandhi, K.C. Venugopal, Mallikarjun Kharge, among others also made similar pitches during their speeches in the debate.
While the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had in 2010 passed a legislation for women’s reservation in the Rajya Sabha, it failed to make it into a law. The Bill was not taken up in the Lower House and later lapsed with the end of the 15th Lok Sabha.
That Bill also did not include OBC women, or sub-quotas on the basis of caste, as the Congress is demanding now.
Gandhi on Friday, however, said that the party has not shifted its stance on caste-based reservations since the 2010 Bill.
“We have not shifted our stance; we are the party that conducted the caste census. We didn’t release the data of the caste census; we did an internal discussion. There is no change in our stance,” he said to reporters.
Referring to the Bill that was passed in parliament on Thursday, Gandhi questioned the Modi government’s intentions.
“This Bill is great, a critical step for empowerment of women. But when we read the fine print, we found two footnotes stating that Census and delimitation will have to be done before implementation of the bill. It will take 10 years, or maybe even more, to get this done,” he said.
The new legislation, while providing 33% reservation for women, however, adds that this will be implemented only after the conduct of the next population census and the subsequent delimitation exercise.
“Government should remove the two clauses on census and delimitation and should give women their due participation,” said Gandhi.
“It should also release the data from the last caste census done by the UPA government, and should now conduct a new Caste census. Why is the Modi government delaying the process of conducting the census? It should get the caste census done now. Without it, we can’t give power to the deprived sections of our country. If we aim to distribute power more equitably in India, we need data on caste.”
No change of heart on caste census, says Congress
In recent months, the Congress has renewed its pitch for the need for a caste census in the country.
Last week at the first meeting of the new Congress Working Committee (CWC) under party president Mallikarjun Kharge, the party pledged to increase the upper limit on reservations for SC, ST, and OBC.
The party has also promised to conduct a caste census in Madhya Pradesh if voted to power. It has also urged the Modi government to implement a caste census in the country.
At the press conference on Friday, Gandhi also promised to conduct the caste census if voted to power in 2024.
“We will get the caste census done as soon as we form the government. The country will get to know what is the percentage of OBCs, Dalits, and tribals. They will get participation in running the country. This is not a small process; it will take time but it will be done,” he said.
It was the Congress-led UPA government which first conducted a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011-12, but never released its data because of varied opinions about it within the government.
According to a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named, the party during the UPA government in 2011 had surveyed around 25 crore households as part of a caste census exercise.
“There were discrepancies in that data and it needed cleaning up. From 2013 this cleanup of data started which included going back to the states to verify the data among other things. The cleanup of the data was done by 2014. And this data is with the current government. If they wanted to release the data they could. But they said they are not in a position to release the data. Now that data has also become over a decade old so can’t depend on that data so there has to be a new caste census,” the leader said on condition of anonymity.
According to another party leader who did not wish to be named, the renewed pitch for the caste census from the party does not reflect a “change of heart”.
The leader said that the Congress at a party level has focused on different issues over the decades since independence depending on the need of the country – whether it was agriculture, food, science and technology or globalisation. In the last decade or so, the leader said that the party has decided that the need now is to “strengthen social justice”.
“Our policies are examined every decade, and in the past ten-odd years, we have found that the time has come to focus on strengthening social justice and bringing in social reforms. It’s a dynamic process and the need now is to strengthen social justice,” the leader told The Wire.
With its renewed pitch, the Congress has moved closer to the Mandal-based political parties with which it has joined hands under the INDIA alliance of 26 opposition parties, which have been clamouring for the caste census’s implementation for over a year now. Political parties in the South have also supported the need for a caste census.
In its first coordination meeting earlier this month, the INDIA bloc said the alliance will take up the issue of caste census in the country, in what is a likely hint at the possibility of a consensus between all the INDIA constituents on the issue.