The Indian Government has succeeded in introducing in parliament a controversial legislation guaranteeing a third of its seats for women. The long-delayed Women's Reservation Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha or Upper House of parliament amid dramatic scenes and protests by MPs belonging to some parties.
Women in India: waiting for a voice
The Bill ensures one in three MPs will be a woman but there is still a long way to go before this becomes law as the lack of consensus among India’s parliamentarians has ensured that the legislation remains in cold storage.
Agitated members from the Samajwadi Party tried to snatch the bill copy from Law Minister H R Bhardwaj Tuesday but Congress members intervened and formed a human chain thus allowing the controversial Bill to be introduced.
Soon after it was presented in the Rajya Sabha or Upper House of parliament amid high drama, the left parties that prop up the ruling United Progressive Alliance, were happy that the first hurdle for initiating the bill had been taken.
Support from the Left
Brinda Karat, a leftist MP from the Rajya Sabha said that the standing committee should clear it within a specific timeframe and send it back to Parliament. “There were scenes, there was opposition but it should not conceal the reality that there is a vast majority in favour of the Bill. That is what we have been saying. We are very happy that the government has taken the first step to crossing the first hurdle to the Bill. And what we also want now is that the standing committee should finalise the Bill in the shortest possible time.”
The bill was first introduced in 1996, by former Prime Minister Deve Gowda but his government could never muster political support for its passage. The National Democratic Alliance government too tried during its tenure but failed to find enough support among the political parties.
Even among the UPA constituents today, there is no consensus and an attempt by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to arrive at an agreement has proved futile.
Calls for separate reservations
Some of the political groups blocking the Bill have demanded separate reservations for women from Muslim and Dalit or low-caste communities.
Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party who tried to snatch the bill copy says his party will oppose the introduction of the Bill unless weaker sections are included.
“We are opposing the Bill. In what manner they have brought the Bill? We are opposing it. And we will continue to do so till where? Until we get reservation for ladies Dalit, OBCs and Muslims”
So the step towards gender justice, howsoever tentative and lacking any real support in the ruling coalition, might take quite a while.
Political columnist Monobina Gupta explains, “It will take a lot of courage and political will to restore the gender imbalance which is now evident in parliament. At present barring two parties all others – centrist, leftist and rightist are publicly supporting the Bill on the floor of parliament. But in private all of them are scared that the male members and parties dominated by men, they would some time or the other lose their seats to women if 33 per cent reservation comes into effect.”
Women already have a third of the seats reserved for them in India’s village councils, a move which has helped give a voice to India's largely downtrodden rural women.