Womens Bill: No Reservations, Just Bias

Updated: May 11 2003, 05:30am hrs
Two men let us down very badly last week. The first was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He led us to believe, over the past two months, that he was determined to pass the Womens Reservation Bill in the Budget Session of Parliament. Our hearts were lifted when we were told, after the last all-party meeting, that Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party, would be given one month and no more to come up with a new consensus formula, failing which the Bill would be passed. No one had any illusions about Mr Yadavs capacity to forge such a consensus, because one of the biggest obstacles to any consensus was his own party and, perhaps, himself.

The Womens Reservation Bill, in its present form, is a simple and uncomplicated Bill. It reserves 33 per cent of the seats in Parliament and the state legislatures for women. A similar Bill amending the Constitution to reserve seats for women in panchayats and municipal bodies was passed into law almost 12 years ago. The Womens Reservation Bill has the support of over 350 members of the Lok Sabha more than the required two-thirds. The two principal parties, the BJP and the Congress, profess to support the Bill wholeheartedly.

If Mr Vajpayee had shown the will that he claims he has, the Bill should have been passed last week. Remember that the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) was passed into law against fierce opposition. Mr Vajpayee did not hesitate to call an unprecedented joint session of both Houses to ram the Bill through Parliament. This time, although the Bill has the support of two-thirds of the members of the Lok Sabha, the government quickly retreated and buried the Bill.

Mr Vajpayees strongest instinct is survival. His own ranks were divided, and by that I mean not only his allies such as the Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena. It is very likely that the majority of the BJP members are opposed to the Bill. There is nothing that Mr Vajpayee will do that may imperil his smooth run in the last lap of his race. His instinctive support for gender justice gave way to his instinct for survival.

The other person who let us down was Manohar Joshi, the Speaker. He belongs to the Shiv Sena, and like other Speakers before him, does not hide the fact that he still owes allegiance to his party and his leader, Bal Thackeray. In fact, he wears his allegiance as if they were epaulettes. He has run the House with a mixture of firmness, humour and flexibility. He has pushed more government business through than any other Speaker in recent times. Yet, when it came to clearing the way for the Womens Reservation Bill, he did not use any of his wonted skills. He simply adjourned the House, called another fruitless meeting of leaders and announced that there was no consensus!

So, who won The day belonged to the shouting brigade led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav. The two claim to be messiahs of the poor and the weak. Whatever they are or they are not, it is clear that both of them, and Bal Thackeray, articulate the worst qualities of the male of the human species vis-a-vis the female.

There are serious issues of gender justice that have not yet been tackled in this country. First and foremost, is the declining ratio of females to males. In all the states except Kerala there are fewer women than men, and the ratio has worsened in the decades since Independence. If we look at the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), we find that, in some districts of the country, the IMR of female children is six times than that of male children. In rural areas there are more centres for scanning than dental clinics. All these are clear pointers to the widespread prevalence of female infanticide.

As the girl child grows up, she faces insurmountable hurdles compared to boys. She spends fewer years in school. Most girl children have less access to higher education compared to boys. She has also less access to food or medical care. At every step and every turn in life, she faces handicaps unique to her gender. The Womens Reservation Bill is a bid to empower women, to open a fast and exclusive track so that some women can enter Parliament and take their rightful place in the governance of the country. I have no illusions that governance will become better or more just and humane. As many women public servants are booked for corruption as men. And the record of our women chief ministers Rabri Devi, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati is nothing to be proud about. Their craving for power and money seems, at least for the present, unmatched by their male counterparts!

But the point is that men have no business to judge women. As long as political parties are dominated by men, they will find a hundred excuses to keep out women. The demand for a quota within the quota for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes/Tribes and OBCs is puerile and hollow. If 33 per cent of the seats are reserved, an SC woman will take the place of an SC man and an ST woman will take the place of an ST man. In the case of OBCs, their rise in their respective parties has ensured that one half of the seats in Parliament are occupied by OBCs. If there is reservation for women, the party that nominates an OBC male can surely be expected to nominate an OBC female and the constituency that elects an OBC male can be expected to elect an OBC female.

There are, in fact, no arguments against the Womens Reservation Bill. The only unarticulated argument is the fear of the male politician that he would have to yield space to women. Since he cannot voice that argument, he gives full play to his lung power. It is a pity that the Prime Minister and the Speaker meekly submitted to a prejudiced minority. They should have invoked the rule book, ordered the unruly members out of the House and passed the Womens Reservation Bill. To paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln said in another context, sometimes it is necessary to excise a part of the body politic to save the whole.

(The author is a Union finance minister)