High gender justice rhetoric followed by anti-climactic bathos. That seems to be the story of the Women’s Reservation Bill that was passed in the Rajya Sabha yesterday. It’s the longest running saas-bahu soap opera in Indian politics. Thrice introduced, thrice aborted for the last 14 years, governments have tried to move the Bill. Every time the Bill has been moved, it has been vociferously opposed by the ‘social justice’ lobby of Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and, with monotonous regularity sent back to cold storage.
The Bill, reserving one-third seats in Lok Sabha and assemblies, strikes at the heart of gender relations in India. Patriarchal societies cosset and oppress their women in equal measure. In the violent high stakes game of Indian politics, women are tolerable as supportive wives and daughters who step out shyly to become a substitute for dead husbands or brothers, but intolerable when they stake a claim to robustly represent their own constituency. In fact, all over South Asia, there exists the syndrome that social scientist Ali Mazrui calls, ‘female accession to male martyrdom’, or the ‘Indira, Benazir, Sheikh Hasina’ syndrome by which females hold office not as female individuals, but as proxies of the powerful departed male. If, on the other hand, women rise on their own, or creditably claw their way up from the grassroots like Mamata, Uma and Maya, they must cultivate a certain strategic and spectacular insanity that strikes terror and fear in their supporters, a terror that silences all prejudice against femininity. The devi/demoness stereotype, sadly, bedevils most women in Indian public life.
Thus there is every reason to support a legislation that promises special measures to bring women into public life. The odds are so high and the political culture so hostile that if women are to participate meaningfully — and in large numbers — in politics, then certainly some legislative shock treatment is needed. The question is if this Bill — Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008 — is the right legislation to secure meaningful participation of women in large numbers in our present day politics. The jury is still out on that one.
The cacophony in Parliament, the shrill polarised exchange of charges of ‘elite women’ and ‘par kati women’ on the one side and ‘anti-women Yadavs’ and ‘regressive Hindi belt netas’ on the other throughout the life of this Bill have meant that the opportunity for real debate on the Bill has been lost and the public has not had the opportunity to understand and engage with the Bill. No government since the inception of the Bill has made any serious attempt to create a wide-ranging debate or to assess public responses to a legislation that has the potential to transform Indian politics and create tectonic shifts in society.
While we may ridicule Lalu and Mulayam’s objections to the Bill, yet their demand for ‘quota within quota’ may simply be a demand to force the government to spell out exactly what it will achieve through this Bill and what kind of arguments the government is able to bring in favour of the Bill.
As analysts have pointed out, the Bill contains many structural flaws. First, there will be compulsory unseating of two-third of the members every election. Second, there will be no incentive for MPs to nurse constituencies. Third, there is the undeniable fact that family politics will be further enhanced as a male who suddenly loses his seat to a reserved constituency will be tempted to simply put up a female relative as a proxy. Thus the floodgates of bahu-betis may open.
Women who contest from reserved seats will also not be able to nurture their constituencies as they will lose them in the next election and be forever seen as non-serious and ornamental figures who have been foisted on the people. Fifth, women will be consigned to the ‘ladies compartment’ of politics, busily fighting each other in their own female ghetto without getting the opportunity to test their skills against mainstream politicians. Women, the world over, hanker for equality of opportunity, not certainty of success. If the opportunity to fight is equal then let the best woman or man win. But if the reward is a given, then is the battle worth it?
Gender is the focus of elaborate hypocrisy in our country. On the one hand, we worship at the politically correct altar of gender justice. On the other hand, equality of women and acceptance of female individuality is frowned on and subverted at every stage. Gender is the subject of endless elite seminars, yet the fact is among the competing inequalities of India, the infirmities of caste and class bear down much more brutally on women than their gender.
Upper class privileged women seeking victimhood on the basis of gender is perhaps an injustice to the millions of men who suffer far worse privations because they are lower caste and poor. Thus the idea that women are a monolithic victimised caste that need special protection through quotas is totally immature and misguided. Reading through this version of the women’s quota Bill, it doesn’t seem as if it will succeed in its mission of empowering women.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal