Reservation for women

By Davendra Sharma


            The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments which came into force in the year 1993, were aimed at strengthening of local bodies i.e. panchayats in villages and municipalities in towns and cities. An important step taken through these amendments was reservation of one third of seats in these institutions for the women. Taking cue from the successful implementation of these provisions, a number of governments made several attempts to enact legislations relating to reservation of women in other legislative institutions but unfortunately, these could not see the light of the day. The present pending bill is one more attempt by the present government in this direction. The bill was moved as the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill (Women Reservation Bill) in May, 2008.

Historical context and need of reservation for women

            In ancient India, the position of women, though not exactly equal to the men, was fairly respectable. However, changes started occurring from the early centuries of the first millennium and situation worsened with time. A woman in the medieval India was a completely dependent subservient personality, with no kind of independence and no access to resources and education. Inhuman practices like ‘sati’ and ‘female infanticide’ were widely practiced with the sanction of religion and law and the lot of women was truly deplorable.  

Things started changing with colonial occupation. Although the British rule was harmful to India, its positive aspect was that the traditional Indian society was brought into contact with the modern world. This introduced into the Indian society, the concepts of liberty and equality. The issue was also taken up by a number of social reformers of the period. As a result, some of the upper class families opened up to new ideas. Women from these families took advantage of the situation and started acquiring education. Some of these liberated women even actively participated in the freedom struggle. However, this phenomenon was restricted to only a few urban high class families and the ordinary woman was still as hapless as her medieval age counterpart.

Earlier Legal Provisions

           The leaders of the freedom struggle and founding forefathers of the constitution had an idea of the problems being faced by Indian women and hence a number of provisions were provided in the Constitution of India to improve their position. Right to equality was incorporated as a fundamental right with Articles 14-16 providing for equality before law, prohibition of discrimination including that based on gender and equality in the matters of public employment. Article 39 under the Directive Principles of State Policy provides that both men and women have equal rights to adequate means of livelihood and that there should be equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Apart from these, a number of laws on crime against women, prohibition of social evils and inheritance laws have been framed by the legislature to ameliorate the condition of women.

            However, all these Acts were intended to provide relief to the women from the discrimination she faces in her every day life. These did nothing to provide her the share in authority and power which had for long been kept out of her domain for reasons other than the merit. Such an act came in the form of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments which provided that in panchayats and local bodies  one third of elected seats as well as one third of the seats of chairpersons shall be reserved for women.

Reservation for women in Lok Sahba and State Legislative Assemblies

            The successful implementation of reservation in panchayati raj institutions and the corresponding results as well as demand from a number of quarters led the Government to bring in the present bill for reserving seats for women in Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. The bill was introduced in May, 2008 in the shape of Constitutional (108th Amendment) Bill. The salient features of the bill are as under:

  1. One-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies are to be reserved for women.  The allocation of reserved seats is to be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament.
  2. One third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are to be reserved for women from these groups.
  3. Reserved seats are to be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the state or union territory. In case the number of seats in a state or union territory is less three, the seats are to be reserved in a cycle of three elections.
  4. Reservation of seats for women is to cease after 15 years from the commencement of the Amendment Act.

Opposition to the bill

            The bill has been opposed by some people. These include non-political as well as political ones. Primary argument from non-political people relates to the efficacy of reservation as a tool for achieving the objective of social equality. They argue that reservation stigmatizes a group and participation of women can be achieved otherwise if the political parties follow a norm for fielding appropriate number of women candidates. Exponents of these ideas point out that a number of countries, irrespective of their economic status, have a much larger representation of women in their legislatures. However, this needs to be seen in different social setups. The countries which have higher representation of women are either those countries where their traditional societies have not laid as much restrictions on women or are those countries where the societies have benefited from the renaissance movement centuries ago. In these countries the women are comparatively free, a situation which is lacking in the Indian context.

            The opposition from the political parties is more explicit and has mainly come from the regional political parties based in UP and Bihar.  The primary argument is that this will only benefit women from elite backgrounds who do not truly represent the womenfolk of India. To understand this opposition we need to understand the nature of Indian polity, particularly that of the Hindi heartland. Politics in this area has always been a male bastion with the females playing second fiddle to their male counterparts. Electoral politics is also heavily influenced by caste and religions. Women reservation, being gender based has a potential to transcend these boundaries which may adversely affect the present political alignments. Further, some of the political parties are more set up in the traditional mould and have a traditional electoral base.  These parties have not groomed enough women leaders who could contest elections in constituencies reserved for women and hence such parties would be at a loss if this bill is implemented. However, this approach can hardly be said to be rational.

            There has been one more ground for opposition which relates to rotation of reserved seats. It has been said that the rotation of seats would imply that the reserved seat would change in each election and there would be no incentive for anyone to nurture a constituency as he or she may not be able to seek re-election from that constituency. This argument seems to be valid and needs to be looked into by the legislature.

Present status & Future

            The bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on May 6, 2008 and referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. The standing committee submitted its report on December 17, 2009. The bill was moved in Rajya Sabha on March, 8, 2010 and was passed on March 9, 2010.  Lok Sabha has not as yet voted on the bill. The present stalemate is apparently due to political compulsions which are also like to continue and unfortunately, there are no signs of the bill being passed in the near future.

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