Women's reservation bill stumbles on Women's Day
The 13-year rocky passage of a bill to politically empower Indian women got blocked yet again when a "handful" of stubborn MPs, terming the legislation elitist, exercised both muscle and vocal chords to ensure that it did not get passed on International Women's Day.delhi Updated: Mar 08, 2010 21:03 IST
The 13-year rocky passage of a bill to politically empower Indian women got blocked yet again when a "handful" of stubborn MPs, terming the legislation elitist, exercised both muscle and vocal chords to ensure that it did not get passed on International Women's Day.
The deadlock put the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the defensive as the two regional parties - the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal with their support base in the Hindi heartland - threatened to withdraw support from the government accusing it of trampling on the interests of "women belonging to minorities, Dalits and backward class".
The support withdrawal will not result in the fall of the government but will make its majority slim in the 543-member Lok Sabha, the house of the people.
The historic bill, first introduced in 1996 that promises to reserve 33 per cent of legislative seats for women in the country was moved in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, amid unruly scenes as a dozen members opposing it tore up the document and hurled the pieces at chairman Hamid Ansari before forcing a fifth adjournment of the day.
This happened on a day when both houses assembled to the call to "celebrate and honour women" and include them in the decision making process to mark Women's Day being observed worldwide.
The controversial bill - for which the ruling United Progress Alliance (UPA) has support of numbers from the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communists but opposition from the northern regional parties - faced repeated opposition in the two houses, though it was taken up for consideration only in the Rajya Sabha on Monday.
The bill is now expected to be taken up for voting on Tuesday amid reports that Manmohan Singh has called an all-party meeting to arrive at a possible consensus.
The government seems to have been caught completely unprepared by Monday's turn of events as a huge buzz had been created in the media and outside over the imminent passage of the bill that was trumpeted as one of the signal acts of the government. The bill, if it became a law, promised to politically empower women in a way that few countries could boast of and one that would have radically transformed the way politics was practised.
But the anti-bill lobby, headed by the Yadav chieftains, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP and Lalu Prasad (Yadav) of the RJD, both former chief ministers, had come well prepared as they mounted not just vocal but physical opposition to the bill while threatening not just withdrawal of support to the government but "political war" if the government went ahead with it.
"We will use our democratic rights fully whatever the consequences. This is a political dacoity. It won't be tolerated," Lalu Prasad thundered to reporters.
The Janata Dal-United (JD-U) is split over the support to the bill with a section loyal to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar signalling its intention to back the legislation.
With the fate of the bill appearing to hang in the balance and questions being asked if the government had got cold feet over it, Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily assured in the evening: "We have a majority of 200 and we could have passed the bill. But a bill of this nature, which will have a historical importance and have important implications and seeks constitution ammendment cannot be bulldozed.
"We need a healthy debate. It is listed for consideration tomorrow (Tuesday). There was a lot of 'hungama' (ruckus) today which was totally uncalled for," he told reporters after the Rajya Sabha was adjourned.
The Congress slammed a "handful" of opposition members for their "churlish" attempts to derail the bill but said the government was determined to pass it.
"The present reservation bill is a subject where the only question is when and not if. It's an idea whose time has come and the inevitable cannot be postponed," he added.
"Despite all the churlish attempts to the contrary, something which would and will make India, the Indian womanhood and Indian democracy proud, is being turned by a bare handful of persons into the shame of democracy," spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said.
Both the BJP and Communists have promised support but criticised the government on floor management and for not anticipating the nature of the opposition. Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, said the government should have ensured the house chairman's dignity and said "there were enough women MPs who could have circled and protected the chairman if the government had only planned in time."
The bill has otherwise found wide support from India's diverse social and intellectual spectrum. The Centre for Social Research (CSR), an activist group, has even begun the process of selecting 1,000 women from across India and grooming them to contest elections in anticipation of the legislation.
"Women have less than 10 per cent representation in India's parliament even though they make up 44 per cent of the voting population. We need more women in politics. And it is essential to train potential leaders as well as encourage the ones who are successful at the local governance level to enter the state assemblies and parliament," Ranjana Kumari, director, CSR, said.