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women's reservation bill reserving one-third seats for women in Parliament and state legislatures has got through the Rajya Sabha but it has polarised politics and civil society.
The government, which was taken aback by the unprecedented bedlam over the bill in the Rajya Sabha, has promised to hold an all-party meeting before it takes the legislation to the Lok Sabha. The main political opponents of the bill--Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav--say the bill will help the rich and privileged and not the poor disadvantaged. The bill is an onion that will "bring tears to MPs once they peel it off," says Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad.
Supporters of the bill say the bill--formally called the 108th Constitution Amendment Bill--is necessary to increase the representation of women in Parliament, which stands at just 10 per cent even after 15 elections.
Is the bill good for women or not? Is there a better way to increase the number of women lawmakers? CNN-IBN's Sagarika Ghose asked this to Jayanthi Natarajan, Rajya Sabha MP and Congress spokesperson, Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Manini Chatterjee, editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, and Ragini Nayak, activist and former president of the Delhi University Students Union.
“Unless this quota is given there will never be a chance of enough women in decision-making places, such as Parliament and the state assemblies,” said Natarajan.
Kishwar, who has drafted an alternative to the bill, claimed the success rate of women candidates is almost twice as high compared to men candidates in all elections. “Voters in India don't discriminate against women, if anything they have a preference for female candidates. It is party bosses and the entrenched culture of crime and corruption in all our political parties that is marginalizing not just women but also honest men,” said Kishwar.
“It is parties that need to be democratized and made accountable--rid of crime, corruption and violence. They must give women a level-playing field in the allocation of tickets,” said Kishwar.
She believed that if parties gave a certain number of election tickets to women then perhaps the Lok Sabha and state assemblies would have seventy-five percent women lawmakers elected on merit. “The zanana dabba (women's compartment) of 33 per cent reservation won’t be needed,” said Kishwar.
Nayak agreed that Kishwar’s suggestion of reservation in parties was more progressive but it had never happened.
Reservation of seats is a better alternative because parties cannot be forced to allot tickets, said Giri. The bill will enable women to have “easier access” to elections because they will not have to fight criminals and muscle power, she said.
Aid to women or crutches?
Nayak disagreed. She believed quota is a facilitating process--“a bit of leg up”--that women need.
Parties will not give women tickets even if they are threatened with deregistration, said Natarajan. “In all political parties when the time comes for candidates to be chosen, the people who decide say this (women) is not a winning candidate. For 62 years that is what we have faced. If you force parties they will give women losing seats. This (bill) is by no means patronizing or disrespectful (to women),” she said.
Giri argued that the 33 reservation is needed because every where in the country “wife beating, female foeticide and everything that is against women” is going on.
Chatterjee refused to buy the man against woman argument. “That all women face the same kind of oppression is a pernicious argument,” she said. “It is a very elitist argument through which you can appear to be progressive, because you are for gender justice but it is a way of suppressing other forms of injustice.
“All the women who were at the forefront during the Rajya Sabha debate--it is just common sense that they are far better off every which way than millions of men in this country, so I don’t buy this woman-man argument totally.”
There was a “moral halo”
around women’s rights before Independence, said Kishwar. “Why have we have
lost it in a manner that we have these ugly scenes and stalemate in Parliament?
It has something to do with the fact women who are entering politics are
not living up to the expectations that the freedom movement had of them.
Natarajan agreed that the women MPs who led the debate in the Rajya Sabha were privileged. “I initiated the debate in the Rajya Sabha for the Congress but this reservation is not for people like me. I am happy to announce that I will not take the advantage of a reserved seat but it is for women who will not have the same kind of advantages.
“Women are deeply divided but in every caste, community and class they are the most suppressed and the least able to fight elections and join the electoral process,” said Natarajan.
But Chatterjee saw “no justification” for gender-based quota in Parliament. “I think this will open up a Pandora's box, because all kinds of interest groups will ask for quota in Parliament. If Sonia Gandhi and others believe women vote as women as a constituency then there is going to be demand for quota in every field of endeavour. I shudder to think then what India is going to be 10 years from now,” she said.
Giri believed doubts and
fears about the bill were groundless. It's a historical moment--we should
not let it lose. Give a chance to women," she said.