By Apoorva Sripathi
On Monday, the women’s wing of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) staged a protest march in Delhi, led by MP Kanimozhi demanding the immediate passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill. And on Sunday, known opposer of the same bill, Yogi Adityanath was elected as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
A product of dynasty politics, Kanimozhi talks to me over the phone on her demand for the early passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill and how it has not just been a priority for her but for the DMK as well. “We’ve always strived for social justice and there’s no fair social justice without empowering women,” she says.
It’s not that the Women’s Reservation Bill has reached a culmination point now, but that the crescendo builds up just around every Women’s Day. It all started in 1996 when the Deve Gowda-led United Front government introduced it into the Lok Sabha. The Bill simply calls for greater representation of women in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies — 33 percent. The current version of the Bill, the 108th Amendment, was introduced by the UPA government in May 2008, also provides that one-third of the total number of seats shall be reserved for women belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes groups. The Bill also mandates that reserved seats be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the state or Union Territory and the reservation of seats (for women) will stop after 15 years of the commencement of this Amendment Act.
Out of a total 244 members in the Rajya Sabha, 27 are women, and in the 545-member Lok Sabha, 63 are women, making up 11.60 percent of the total strength. If not for dynasty politics, the numbers would’ve been lower, notes Ajaz Ashraf in this Scroll.in piece.
Earlier on Monday, towards the end of her protest, Kanimozhi said that her next demand would be to seek 50 percent reservation and that she would continue to protest in “several other ways” until the Bill gets sanctioned. At the protest on Monday, Kanimozhi was joined by MPs Renuka Chowdhury (Congress), Supriya Sule (NCP), TK Rangarajan (CPM), D Raja (CPI), along with party members Tiruchi Siva and TKS Elangovan.
But what’s standing between the Bill and its successful passing? For far too long (21 years to be exact), there have been a war of words, an attack on Vice-President Hamid Ansari, sexist statements by MPs, disruptions… In short, there has been palpable drama. It was a day in March 2010 which unfolded with unruly disruptions in the Rajya Sabha when the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced — Opposition members belonging to SP, RJD and an expelled member of the JD(U) tore copies of the measure and even tried to attack a helpless Ansari. It wasn’t any different in the Lok Sabha with Meira Kumar at the helm. Both Houses were adjourned following the commotion.
Funnier incidents have taken place. In 2008, minister Renuka Chowdhury along with fellow ministers Ambika Soni and Kumari Selja, and MPs Sayeeda Anwara Taimur, Kanimozhi and Supriya Sule had to form a ring around law minister HR Bhardwaj in the Rajya Sabha to protect him from Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi who reportedly moved menacingly towards Bhardwaj as he rose to introduce the Bill. Of course, not all incidents are particularly funny. One of the lowest points in trying to pass the Bill took place in 1997 when staunch opposer Sharad Yadav wanted to know if “these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women…”
Reservation, even as it has been vilified by male politicians, has beneficial effect in society that cannot be ignored. It was in 1992 that India enacted two Amendments (73 and 74) to the Constitution, and reserved a third of seats for women (including the representation of excluded groups) in rural and urban local bodies. IndiaSpend reported that women panchayat leaders and members did indeed make a difference: For instance, in Tamil Nadu, they invested 48 percent more money than male counterparts in building roads and improving access; in Haryana, the women leaders built houses for the poor, installed water pumps and campaigned against female foeticide.
Clearly, the Bill has seen tumultuous times and difficult roadblocks, and a majority support of the BJP, the Congress and the Left doesn’t seem to be enough. The Bill, which has been pending in the Lok Sabha since 2010, has only managed to be approved in the Rajya Sabha. “Every time this happens, there are questions we need to ask such as what are the vested interests that are not allowing the Bill to pass. There is opposition for anything. What we have to look at is why should that stop this Bill. The majority in Parliament seem to be supporting the Bill— the BJP, Congress and most of the regional parties support the Bill, why isn’t it being passed?” Kanimozhi asks.
The answer may perhaps lie in patriarchal politics combined with a lack of interest among major political parties which do not look further to right this wrong. One has to look no further than the elevation of Yogi Adityanath as UP chief minister, who believes that “women are not capable of being left free or independent” and is in favour of regulating their energy so that it doesn’t become “worthless”. His website makes for even interesting, if not infuriating, reading, where in an essay titled Matrashakti, he writes that women don’t really need freedom, but just a meaningful role with protection and channelisation.
But besides all this, Adityanath is one of the strongest opposers of the reservation Bill, along with Sharad Yadav and Abu Azmi, and in 2010, was one of the several BJP MPs who defied the party whip on the Women’s Reservation Bill, insisting that women already have reservations in many fields. “First analyse and assess the impact of this in gram sabhas, panchayats and local bodies. Assess and then decide whether women who are in active politics, and public life like men, whether in this process they may not lose their importance and role as mothers, daughter and sisters,” he is known to have said.
At the mention of Adityanath’s appointment as chief minister, and how it could possibly affect the bill’s chances, Kanimozhi laughs — a full, deep-throated, almost lyrical laugh and says, “Okay, at least he is out of Parliament. One less Opposition [in Parliament], good for the BJP.” But she gets serious in an instant, saying that “if he takes a stand against women’s empowerment that will be bad for UP, because [in a state like UP], a decision like this will be detrimental to the progress [of the state] and I really hope that the party will make sure that doesn’t happen.” For now, all she thinks is necessary for the Bill to pass is a “political will for it”.
Co-published with Firstpost.
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