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Women Reservation Bill – A Buried Thought?

Women Reservation

The Constitution of India is the lengthiest one of its kind in the world. Due to its status as a written constitution et one written down in a single document, it has 448 articles that lay down certain fundamental principles of the law and jurisprudence. Having been described as a living and breathing document, it is susceptible to amendments phased in by the Government of India to evolve as time passes. So far there have been 104 amendments to the Constitution with the latest one extending the deadline for cessation of reservation seats for members of the Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes in the Lower House of Parliament and the State Legislative Assemblies for 10 years.

While this is an impressive number of amendments, certain amendment bills proposed by various members of Parliament have been in cold storage for a long time. There have been times when a particular event that shocks the entire nation precipitates the discourse on some of these amendments for a brief time before it dies down. One such amendment that has popped up time and time again is the proposed 108th amendment, also known as the Women Reservation Bill

To uncover the minute details about why this Bill has never seen the light of day, its history must be considered first. The idea behind making women reservations in parliament and state legislatures as the salient focus of the 108th amendment bill was supposed to be a natural progression of the 74th constitutional amendment in 1993 which introduced reservation for women in municipal councils and corporations in tows and urban areas by limiting 1/3rd of the total panchayat seats to them. The amendment spurred numerous legislative and judicial decrees to help empower women against oppression by patriarchal society. A good example of this would be the Vishaka guidelines, which foster women’s protection against sexual harassment at workplaces in light of the Vishaka Case.

A 2008 study reveals that a sizeable portion of women representatives perceives an enhancement in their self-confidence and decision-making ability due to their positions in the gram panchayat. The 1993 amendment led to the drafting of this Bill by the H.D. Deve Gowda-led United Front government. It was introduced on September 12, 1996, to reserve 33.3% or 1/3rd of Lok Sabha and legislative assembly seats for women. Since then, it has been brought up numerous times by various governments to be passed in both houses of Parliament with it successfully passed in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) on 9th of March, 2010. However, due to it being stymied in the Lok Sabha, it never saw the light of the day. 

The cause behind its enshrouding

Perhaps the primary cause for divergent views on this topic is rooted in the word ‘reservation’. Reservation is a concept which deals in mixed reactions from various sections of the societal pyramid of the Indian community. Some sections have fought tooth and nail to ensure reservation remains a part of various sectors such as education and employment. In contrast, other sections greet it with various shades of ire.

As such, it serves to be a trigger word for Indians on a social scale. When some people hear the term, they immediately shirk for their connotation of it means the destruction of a merit-based system which has been a criticism of various enactments to empower the marginalized sections of society. Then some celebrate it as a landmark step in the progression of a civilization from a discriminatory one where equality is practiced. And finally, there are those whose lenses are perennially at the bottom of the barrel. These are the ones who despise reservation simply because it erodes their hegemony from Indian society and empowers the oppressed. There are disparate terms used for such people, but the most commonly used ones regarding an anti-women sentiment are either ‘misogynist’ or ‘sexist’. 

Women

All arguments related to the Women Reservation Bill are entrenched in the above three opinionated factions of the people. Important to the discussion is the first ecclesiology. The proponents of the first idea in the form of common men say that in the name of equality, the reservation laws enacted by the State are skewed in favor of the lower classes and create problems for the general category. The right to education is a fundamental right under Article 21 as per the ‘Capitation fee case.In light of this, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the 1993 ‘Mandal Case’ capped the reservation limit to the ‘creamy layer’ i.e., 50% of total seats for the backward classes. Moving further, the Parliament in 2005 via the 93rd amendment inserted clause (5) in Article 15 enabling it to make any special provision by law for the socially and educationally backward classes.

Finally, the 103rd amendment enacted by the Narendra Modi-led government in 2019, empowers them to reserve 10% of the seats for the economically backward sections of society taking the total number of reservations to nearly 60%. To bolster their political ambitions, several state governments have bumped up the reservations in their states to numbers more than what the creamy layer provides. This trend is on the rise in many other sectors of society such as the industrial one. If the government follows this pattern and introduces a separate bill to reserve seats for women would deepen the troughs in the Indian landscape of opportunity. Certain practical criticisms of the Bill are:

  • One-third of seats are reserved, and such reserved seats are rotated in every general election. This rotation will automatically result in two-thirds of incumbent members being forcibly unseated in every general election; the remaining one-third will be left in limbo until the last moment, not knowing whether or not their constituency will form part of the one-third randomly reserved seats and thus require them to scramble at short notice to find another seat to contest.
  • While the Women Reservation Bill provides for the election of SC and ST women as legislators, it does not adequately address the issue of participation of backward castes (BCs) and minorities. As parties have no choice about the seats reserved for women, they will be unable to nominate women candidates from these underrepresented sections in constituencies where they stand a reasonable chance of success.
  • As legislators do not have the incentive to seek re-election from the same constituency, plunder will increase, and politics will be even more predatory and unaccountable. This will contribute to a more unstable political process and make it difficult for women to build their long-term credibility as effective representatives since they will not be able to contest twice from the same constituency.
  • Even though there will be no legal bar on women standing from general constituencies, it is highly unlikely that any women will obtain party tickets to run for office outside the reserved constituencies. This same pattern is evident with SCs and STs who have been permanently ghettoized to fixed reserved constituencies.

Parliamentarians have argued that not only will reservations narrow the outlook on women but lead to the perpetuation of unequal status because they would not be seen as competing on merit. Further arguments say that reservation would not lead to the political emancipation of women as larger issues of electoral reforms such as measures to check criminalization of politics, internal democracy in political parties, the influence of black money, etc. have not been addressed. This could lead to elections of “proxies” or relatives of male candidates. and A final line of argument which is towed by this lot is regarding the second draft of the Bill calls for increasing the capacity of both houses by 33.3%. This would increase the total number of seats in Parliament to 900 which would turn Indian politics upside down and create tumult in our legislature.

Due to the asymmetrical nature of reservations in India, hesitancy for women having special privileges meted out to them due to some of the reasons stated above is not favored by many people in the country. This is the view of the principal opposition to the 108th amendment for Women Reservation of this country. Now, while there exist those who support the third orthodoxy while putting on a farce and citing what the first kind of people say, they are ultimately treated with chagrin and dissociation by most of the educated society, so their views are ultimately discarded. Yes, it has wreaked havoc in rural society however the burden of responsibility for protecting women is upon the lawmaking fraternity. This summarizes the anti-view on the opposition to this Bill. 

Final Thoughts on Women Reservation

The widest gender disparity is indeed in the field of political empowerment as women legislators account for no more than 24% around the whole world as of the Global Gender Gap Report, 2018. Society has often undergone several upheavals that bring about massive changes in the status of certain parties who are members of them. Postmodern India’s upward movement towards the path of feminism and empowering women to be themselves as they break away from the shackles of domination is truly commendable. The 108th amendment does aim to achieve a holistic objective: empower women in the political field which is mostly male-dominated.

However, one cannot ignore the inherent flaws of this Bill. If implemented in its current state, it will violate certain constitutional doctrines such as the limit of reservation and tilt the balance of power in a way that would harm the backward communities. It needs reimagining and possibly a merger of itself into other reservation acts in a way that will license all oppressed communities without leaving anyone behind. Due to centuries of warped interpretations of religious culture, India has implemented dogmatic attitudes with respect to women, which permeate society from top to bottom. India’s path to regaining her dharmic values and embracing the unadulterated equality includes bringing change to her citizens and her laws.

The 108th amendment in a perfect form would ensure that women inject some much-needed balance and grace in a coarse field such as politics and help reach the zeal of a utopian nation. India must reaffirm the ancient hymn of Yajur Veda.

O woman, you are firm and possess tremendous willpower. You support us all. The Supreme Lord has filled you with virtues of valor and knowledge. May even the entire army of enemies that comes like sea be unable to harm you. Even the vultures may not be able to harm you. May you strengthen the world.

Yajur Veda 13.16

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