The Indian government recently called for a special session of the Parliament, starting September 18. As it drew closer, its agenda grew clearer. The first and most essential piece of business to be considered in the new and sprawling Parliament Building was to be about the right to representation for women. Women would be given reservations in the topmost legislative body in the country: they would be empowered to fight for their interests. However, this was not the first time such a bill was introduced in the House – in fact, the concern of women’s reservation for political office has a long and contentious history in India.
The idea behind reservation for women is based on the massive imbalance between the share of women in the Indian population and the share of women in Parliament. While 48.4 percent of India’s population is female, only 14 percent of Members of Parliament (MPs) are female. This is despite the fact that the 17th and current Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha has seen the largest proportion of women, jointly, in history.
There are no ‘biological’ or ‘natural’ differences between men and women that can explain why so few women are in places of political power. The answer, then, lies in the structure of the society-the system, which is socially unjust to women. Reservation is thus seen as a way to ensure proportionate and fair representation for women.
The Women’s Reservation Bill proposes to researve 33 percent of seats for women in the state legislative assemblies and in the Parliament. Also, the bill suggests setting aside a portion of seats, within the 33 percent quota, for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Anglo-Indians. These reserved seats would be allocated to different areas on a rotational basis within the state or union territory.
Additionally, the bill mentions that the reservation of seats for women would no longer be in effect 15 years after the new law comes into force. Also, the reservation would be in force after the delimitation and census exercise of the Government of India.
The bill was first introduced back in 1989, in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership. This came after a 14-member committee was appointed by the central government under Union Minister Margaret Alva to recommend steps to improve the social condition of women in the country. Although Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress had an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament (in fact, it had 415 seats in Lok Sabha, the largest ever majority seen to date in the house), it failed to pass in the Rajya Sabha. When the Lok Sabha was dissolved, the bill lapsed.
Then, in H.D Deve Gowda’s alliance government in 1996, it was reintroduced as the 81st Amendment Bill. It too failed to pass in the Lok Sabha and was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee under Geeta Mukherjee. However, not much headway was made, and the Bill lapsed yet again when the Lok Sabha was dissolved.
Then, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee introduced it repeatedly in Lok Sabha in 1998, 1999, 2002, and 2003. However, it failed to pass due to opposition to it, even within the ruling coalition itself.
Later, during the first term of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, the Women Reservation Bill again gained attention. In 2004, it was included in the government’s Common Minimum Programme and was finally presented on May 6, 2008, this time in the Rajya Sabha, to ensure it didn’t expire without being discussed. This updated version of the bill incorporated five out of the seven recommendations proposed by the Geeta Mukherjee Committee in 1996. On May 9, 2008, the legislation was sent to the standing committee for examination. The standing committee issued its report on December 17, 2009. In February 2010, it received approval from the Union Cabinet. The Rajya Sabha passed the Bill on March 9, 2010, with 186 votes in favour and just 1 against it.
In 2010, Congress President Sonia Gandhi had opined to the media that she understood Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “compulsions and problems”, when they did not support their alliance partners in supporting the bill, even when the primary opposition, BJP, had supported it.
However, the Bill never came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha and eventually expired in 2014 when the Lok Sabha was dissolved.
The women’s reservation bill thus has been the subject of immense in-fighting in Indian politics-with each party looking out for its own interests, its own manifesto rather than working for the larger needs of the nation. It is truly significant that despite several attempts at passing the bill, even by governments with absolute majorities, it has stayed in limbo to this day.
2023 Developments under the Modi Government
On September 17, 2023, news reports were released stating that the special cabinet meeting that evening, chaired by Prime Minister Modi, had approved and reached a consensus on the Bill. In fact, this was later confirmed via a post on X (formally Twitter), by Minister of State Prahlad Patel Joshi. Although he later deleted the post, it read-
“Only the Modi government had the moral courage to fulfill the demand for women’s reservation. Which was proved by the approval of the cabinet. Congratulations @narendramodi ji and congratulations to the Modi government @PMOIndia @BJP4India@BJP4MP”
Following the post on X, several political leaders began expressing their support for the bill. It was now clear that it would be introduced in the new Parliament building-as a sign of a fresh start and a new India.
The bill was indeed introduced in the Lok Sabha yet again by Prime Minister Modi on September 19, 2023. While most parties openly supported the bill, there was continued in-fighting for who the credit of the law should go to.
At around 1900 hours on September 20, 2023, the Lok Sabha officially passed the bill for reservation of women by a margin of 454-2. The only party which had openly expressed opposition to the bill was Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). The bill will be presented in the Rajya Sabha today.
Nevertheless, this is a great, forward-looking step for India and will surely improve the social structure of Indian society. It is progress towards a more gender-equitable India.
Note: I have taken the photographs/illustrations from internet. They belong to the author/photographer/designer of the original article/s.