The Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced amid much controversy in the Rajya Sabha a few weeks ago. The manner in which the proceedings unfolded, convey the sorry tale of democracy in our country and the practice thereof, wherein MPs get physical over disagreements over policy. But more importantly, it clearly highlighted, yet again, the degradation of what was once a noble and just cause of women empowerment, which has been reduced to a shameless greed for power in the name of one’s gender.
Firstly, the policy of reservation as an elixir to uplift sections of society is flawed. Reservation systems sacrifice merit for mediocrity. Right from the birth of India as a republic, leaders have spoken out against the reservation system. In a letter to all chief ministers on June 27, 1961, Nehru said the following about reservations – “…I have referred above to efficiency and to our getting out of our traditional ruts. This necessitates our getting out of the old habit of reservations and particular privileges being given to this caste or that group…I dislike any kind of reservation, more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards….If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost. I am grieved to learn how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations….This way lies not only folly but disaster.”
Proponents of the Bill generally give the following arguments
- This Bill will ensure proper representation of women – In the elections of 2004, about 53.57 % of women exercised their franchise and sent their representatives to the legislature. The basic assumption behind this bill that women vote only for other women, is deeply flawed and against the fundamental principles of democracy. The members elected in the parliament have been chosen by both male and female voters and represent the people of their constituencies – both men and women. Ironically, reserving 33% seats for women would limit the choices of other women for electing their chosen representative.
- More women in legislature will empower women – Women have made great strides in all spheres of life and today, they are empowered like never before. A case in point is the employment data available from the Labor Bureau. Since 1971, the rate of employment of women has risen by more than 100%, while the rate of employment of men has decreased by a few percentage points. In case, anyone wonders about rural India, the rate of employment of women in rural areas has increased by an even greater margin (132%) since 1970. Today, numerous laws have been enacted in favor of women and equal opportunities abound. Women lead major political parties today and hold key positions in others. This all was achieved with the representatives in the legislature that were democratically elected and not by reservation. Since the purpose of legislation is to enact laws, one wonders what new laws can be enacted by artificially increasing the number of women law makers in an undemocratic fashion. The elected members of the legislature have been sincere and efficient about enacting laws for women empowerment.
The primary reason why the Women reservation Bill is a myopic piece of legislation, that furthers vested interests and ideologies, besides imposing arbitrary criteria, is because it is discriminatory, undemocratic and might even be unconstitutional.
- It is unconstitutional because Indian constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion or gender. The proposed Bill perpetuates gender discrimination. While it does allow for special provisions for the welfare of women, these provisions should not be permitted to infringe on the basic democratic rights of the rest of the population.
- It is undemocratic because of two reasons – it disenfranchises about 33% of the electorate – or about 22 crore people, as per the figures available from the Election Commission, and takes away the democratic right of about 11 crore males to contest in elections.The basic tenet of democracy is that people should be able to choose their representatives. The state should not be allowed to limit the pool of representatives available to the public to choose from. Should this be permitted, democracy loses its meaning because the state could potentially declare its own agents to be the only available representatives. Limiting the available representatives based on religion, gender or caste is completely antagonistic to the fundamental principles of our democracy and constitution.This Bill also violates the right of about about 11 crore people by preventing them from contesting in elections. It discriminates against emerging male leaders who would not be able to contest in elections from their constituency and hence the nation loses out on the contributions of these people.
- Lastly, the concept of reserving 33% seats is totally arbitrary and no reason or justification has been provided for this number. Even in advanced western democracies like the US and UK, the number of women in legislature is less than 20%.
Celebrated women leaders like Sarojini Naidu have been against preferential treatment to women. In particular, they have vehemently opposed reservation for women in the legislature and very vocal about it. When asked about this issue, this is what Sarojini Naidu had to say – “Why do you want to make women realize that they are not at par with men? Why reservation for them when they can do equally well or even better than men in many spheres of life? Why this discrimination of reservation against women, yes discrimination. Let them gain confidence and allow them to be proud of their achievements. Let them feel that what they are today is only because they deserved it and not because they were given any special treatment or they enjoyed any special privileges.”
On 16th Nov, 1931 a memorandum on the “Status of Women in the proposed new Constitution” jointly written by Sarojini Naidu and Begum Shah Nawaz was presented to the British Prime Minister. The draft memorendum was circulated in May to various constituencies inviting their views on the “reservation” issue. As noted in the 1931 annual report of All India Women’s Conference, there was, at the time, only one constituency that favored reservation of seats in the Legislature – “But even this constiuency has since completely changed its mind”
In their letter to the Premier and Chairman Minorities committee on the status of women in the proposed new Constitution (Government of India Act, 1935), the three organizations (All India Women’s Conference, Women’s Indian Association and the Central Comittee for the National Council of Women in India) demanded complete and immediate recognition of women’s equal political status. However, they insisted that no reservations be made for women in Legislature.
“We are … enjoined to resist any plea that may be advanced by small Individual groups of people of any kind of temporary concessions Of adventitious methods of securing the adequate representation of Women in the legislatures in the shape of reservation of seats, nomination or co-option whether by status, convention Or at the discretion of the provincial and central governments. To seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the Integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status.“
What the great women leaders of yesteryears saw as a threat to the integrity to the cause of women, is something that the new brand of feminist leaders vehemently espouse. This fact alone speaks volumes about what women empowerment has been reduced to – a naked greed for power in the name of one’s gender !
Unfortunately, very few political parties in India have the will power and determination to serve the best interests of the nation. The political parties have consistently sacrificed the nation’s interest for their own political agendas. Reservation on caste and religion and caste politics to divide the nation was bad enough. Now, gender politics seems to be the new frontier.
The proposed Women’s Reservation Bill is discriminatory, arbitrary , undemocratic and unconstitutional. This is yet another attempt by radical feminists to use their gender for furthering their own political interests, at the cost of the nation and ironically, other women.