India takes a giant leap for womankind (?)

K.V. Prasad

Rajya Sabha votes 191-1 to reserve one-third of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies for women

Photo: R.V.Moorthy

A dream come true: (From left): The former Rajya Sabha Chairman, Najma Heptulla, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj

NEW DELHI: In a giant leap for womankind of the sort few countries have attempted before, the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday voted to amend the Constitution to reserve one-third of seats in Parliament and the State Assemblies for women.

The House recorded its vote of 191 for and 1 against at 7.25 p.m. Sharad Joshi of the Swatanatra Bharat Paksh was the lone naysayer when Chairman Hamid Ansari took the final count on the passage of the historic Women’s Reservation Bill after three hours of debate. The Bill, formally known as the 108th constitutional amendment, must now be passed by the Lok Sabha and ratified by at least half the States for becoming effective.

While its final passage was breezy, the process itself started on a stormy note. After Monday’s scenes of chaos in the House, nothing was left to chance. Marshals ringed the Chair and the official table, the target of attacks by dissenting members , seven of whom were physically evicted. These included four from Samajwadi Party (SP) and one each from the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP). Earlier, the House voted to suspend them for the remainder of the session for their behaviour on Monday.

The Bahujan Samaj Party walked out before voting, disagreeing with the current Bill, while the SP and RJD members went out after discussions, demanding revocation of their party colleagues’ suspension.

Conveying deep sorrow for the tumultuous scenes, including attacks toward the Chair, on Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised to Mr. Ansari.

The Opposition blamed the government’s floor management for the frequent disruptions and asked the Congress not to take sole credit for a measure that was supported by political parties across the spectrum.

Initiating the debate, Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley firmly supported reservation as the best option, citing the experience of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Rwanda where the percentage of women in legislatures was greater than well-established democracies that either had the list system or fixed quotas for parties to allocate seats to women.

Mr. Jaitley said the criticism of rotation of constituencies was unfounded, since at the end of the 15-year cycle, all constituencies would have been represented by a woman at least once. On the SP and RJD demand for a sub-quota for the OBCs and Muslims, he said the Constitution only provided reservation in legislatures for the SCs/ STs.

Dr. Singh intervened twice, once when a vote was called without debate amid pandemonium — a move protested by the BJP — and later in the discussion, saying the “landmark legislation was a living proof that the heart of India is democratically sound and in the right place.”

— PHOTO: PTI

“HISTORIC STEP”: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during the discussion on the Women’s Bill

Recalling the contribution of the late CPI leader, Geeta Mukherjee, who headed the parliamentary committee that studied the first version of the Bill in 1996, he described the current development as “momentous in the long journey in the empowerment of women that would allow the country realise the full potential of social and economic development.” “It is a historic step, a giant step” in the process.

Praising the role of women’s organisations behind the Bill, Brinda Karat (CPI-M) said the experience of panchayats and local bodies showed that women had worked for the uplift of the village and community. The tendency of “proxy politics” was a reflection of male-domination in society. The latest measure was just the beginning as women continue to toil and fight for their rights every day, she said.

While urging the dissenting members to respect the majority view, Mr. Jaitley said that those barred from taking part in the proceedings should be allowed to record their dissent during the vote.

Jayanti Natarajan, who heads the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Bill, said no other party had either the courage or political will to push this legislation, which was a step forward to reservation for women in panchayats and local bodies introduced by Rajiv Gandhi.

Corrections and Clarifications

The caption of the photograph that went with a report “India takes a giant leap for womankind” (March 10, 2010, page 1) incorrectly described Najma Heptulla to be the former Rajya Sabha Chairman. A number of readers point out that Ms. Heptulla is the former Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha.

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5 thoughts on “India takes a giant leap for womankind (?)

  1. i disagree–the rich elites are going to take advantage as always, by having wives and daughters serve them by proxy–this is no leap forward by any means. the poor will suffer as always in India. Few countries have ‘attempted’ this as they do not suffer from the inequity inherent in their societies, as India does.

  2. Sanjay Chauhan:
    a negative view if i may say so…things are slow in democracy but India has come a long way…its another step. any daughter any wife will keep on feeling the power under her skin after this bill. and in some time will turn back on her own men if they cross their limits. one day corruption will also go. could not help commenting. hope you don’t mind.
    about a minute ago ·

  3. inequality of wealth is a greater problem for india than the one for gender, in my opinion. a negative view, or critique is necessary for indians to not look upon their society with rose coloured glasses. democracy requires education, and the changing of previously held beliefs.
    trust me, i am a feminist, and initially thought this bill a step forward, but in a society like india, nothing is what it seems. if the same families control the same levers of power, what is improved? and if the males of a powerful clan can force their will upon the females of that clan, this quota will mean nothing.
    in a true democracy the levers themselves are peacefully transferred according to the will of an educated electorate. it is not a ‘tranference’ of power if the darker skin toned under priviledged masses are always left out parliament while the richer, light skinned, priviledged minority simply shift their position behind the levers and call it progress–and wave the flag of ‘democracy’. a critical perception is often viewed as negative, as it is a judgement upon the status quo.

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