Equality gets a number: Half the sky, one-third ground
The women’s reservation bill is a hard-fought bargain wrangled over generations. What remains to be seen is when, how and for how long.
It seems to be a time for the general architecture of things to change. Or not. Three weeks ago, China gave its routine haircut to India’s map. But nobody reads Mandarin anyway, so we shrugged and said the shape of the country was non-negotiable, of course. But the name of the country, well, that was destined to go through some hectic negotiations with history—strictly internally—before apparently making peace with itself. Then the G20 stopped over in downtown Delhi and became G21. This time, we hugged. If anyone found the global bonhomie too diabetic, medicine came via instant delivery—India and Canada are cutting out the sugar as these words get put on paper.
Then parliament moved from a circle to a hexagon. The older one has been museumised, so to say, with a new name that recalls its role as the sacred site that birthed the Constitution. And the new one started life by making an architectural modification on that document itself. The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023—which mandates that one-third of the total seats in Parliament and all of India’s state assemblies will be reserved for women—may prove the most tectonic shift of the whole lot. If you’re cynical, you could add: “Or not… not yet, at least.”
There are caveats, and important ones, but none that can rob it of its historic scale. As soon as the ruling BJP announced a special parliament session, without disclosing the agenda beyond saying it would also involve the shift to the new building, everyone anticipated that a spot of history would accompany the change of geography. Speculation was intense: some voted for the ‘One Nation, One Election’ option. Others thought it could be about India/Bharat. As it turned out, at least as far as it seems like mid-session, it was an idea that had much less potential for controversy and far more universal carry. Women’s reservation in legislatures, a political experiment long in the making, was finally fructifying. The only debates are about who should get credit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has finally brought the idea to material reality? Or all those who came before him, fighting the good fight since 1996, when the Deve Gowda regime tabled the original bill in parliament? So far, so good.
This writer has had occasion to witness this nearly three-decade gestation period in its entirety—that too originally with a personal ambivalence, and a preference for the thought that woman power should rise ground up, organically, and not be handed down by the State. Some of the snapshots from this long passage are hard to erase from memory. Once we saw ‘woman power’ get a new meaning when the imposing Renuka Chowdhury bodily lifted a hapless male RJD MP from his noisy protest in the well of the House. Another was from the earliest days of the bill. Standing on a stairway of the old Parliament building, expressing that personal ambivalence had earned this writer a stern rebuff from none other than Geeta Mukherjee, the redoubtable MP from the Communist Party of India, one of the first champions of the idea. She had chaired the joint select committee that examined the bill, and had her reasons down pat.
When the Status of Women Commission invited opinions on the question back in 1975, most women’s activists had “spoken against reservations”. But they all changed their mind—due to the sheer persistence of the political behaviour that saw men dominating positions of formal power. The 1977-80 Lok Sabha saw the ratio of women MPs plummet to its lowest: 3.4 percent. Till the mid-1990s, it had never even touched 10 percent. By now it has crept up, but only to 14.94 percent in the Lok Sabha. Among the 31 state assemblies, only Chhattisgarh—at 14.4 percent—comes close. Only 10 of them even reach double figures. Getting 33 percent of India’s 4,132 assembly seats, besides of course the Lok Sabha, is not exactly half the sky. But it’s a good part of hard political ground.
What, then, are the caveats? Relatively minor ones, perhaps, in comparison to what has been accomplished. But the wording of the bill details them efficiently up front. One, the seats will be reserved on a rotational basis. Two, the reservation will have a cap of 15 years from the time it starts. Three, the timeline for when exactly it will start isn’t exactly crystal-clear. For sure, 2024 is out of the frame. Perhaps even 2029.
Let’s take them one after the other. Rotation, simply put, makes for clumsy politics at the grassroots—no leader will get the time to really cultivate a constituency. This bill will not create a female version of, say, Sharad Pawar with his Baramati. That may increase the chances of women becoming the instruments for retaining family property, so to speak, rather than political agents in their own right. And the 15-year cap already relegates to the theoretical level another issue that has not been sufficiently thought through. It looks suspiciously like a questionable idea imported from another field: caste reservations. Savarna sections have always thought there should be a temporal limit there—“so much and no further because that should suffice to pull them out of misery”. The persistence of reservations causes them more discomfort than the persistence of the disempowering effects of caste. Patriarchy, like caste, is no shrinking violet either.
The question of time has to do with political space. Even well-meaning male politicians do not particularly intend to hand over their little fiefdoms to women in a grand sacrificial ceremony and walk off into the sunset. Therefore, women’s reservation in this bill has a precondition. It will happen only after the delimitation increases the size of the pie, and Lok Sabha seats go up from 542 to something around 800. And that exercise, set for anytime after 2026, itself has a precondition: a new Census. That brings in two rather mammoth exercises that have to necessarily happen before we see even partially feminised legislatures. Take no bets. But as the wise woman told the fugitive king, it’s best to have the steaming khichdi from its cooler edges… the kingdom will come. Or maybe, it’s time to change that word in the dictionary.