CPM’s Brinda Karat underscores significance of women’s reservation bill in conversation with HT

Updated on Sep 11, 2021 02:43 PM IST

HT spoke to CPM’s politburo member and former MP Brinda Karat about whether this proposed law is still relevant.

File photo: CPI (M) leader Brinda Karat. (PTI)
File photo: CPI (M) leader Brinda Karat. (PTI)

This Sunday, it will be 25 years since the first time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced in Parliament. The bill which proposed to amend the Constitution of India to reserve 1/3rd of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women was introduced by the Deve Gowda government in 1996. There were four attempts to do so but it was only passed in Rajya Sabha during the UPA government in 2010, with both Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties pushing it through. However, since then, it has lapsed as regional parties, and even critics within the Congress and the BJP, have stalled its passage.

HT’s Sunetra Choudhury spoke to CPM’s politburo member and former MP Brinda Karat about whether this proposed law is still relevant and why women need quotas in politics. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Q: Has anything changed since then?

Karat: Well, I remember that day 25 years ago. We were all so happy and we really felt that it was going to usher in a mechanism to fill the gap between men and women, and just the following day, this issue came on the reservation raised by the BJP MPs at the time, and from then to 2021, there have been so many excuses - from obviously a parliament or government or governments who have not thought it to be top on the agenda and that is the reality.

Q: We remember those images very clearly of you and Sushma Swaraj, all holding hands outside Rajya Sabha because the bill had been passed. How is it that you had the Congress and the BJP, two major parties, supporting this and yet it seems impossible?

Karat: I don’t think it’s impossible at all, it just requires political will. Now, for example, both the Congress and the BJP had many sections within their parties, as you rightly say, which oppose the bill. The TMC at that time abstained from the bill, that was also a very unexpected gesture because if you remember, there were a lot of histrionics by TMC MPs in the Lok Sabha but when it came to the actual passage of the bill, they abstained from it. But the political will was also shown by the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. If you recall, there were very ugly physical attacks which were sought to be made on the minister, and women of all parties stood as sort of a wall around him. The person just behind me stood on the table and smashed the glass and was bleeding on the table next to me. But at the end of the day, there was a political will that ensured that the bill was discussed, debated and then adopted. So, the first issue here is why is the present government, with such a strong majority and having promised the bill in 2014, not pushing for it? Change the constitution, destroy a state like Kashmir, everything they can do with that majority but why have they not used that majority to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed? So, the first question is, if the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Modi government have the political will to get this bill through? I think no. And there are many reasons for that. One of the reasons is also a kind of a cultural framework in which they operate. One of the objections before the OBC reservation within the reservation was if you bring more women into politics you’re going to destroy the ideal family. Because every woman will then have the ambition to be in the public life, and what’s going to happen to the ideal family? Which represents our Sanskriti, which represents our civilisation, our women whose main job is to bring up children, preferably sons. What is going to happen to all of that? So, there are cultural reasons also within the BJP’s ideology which baulks at bringing legislation as a right for women to be at least one-third. So, I say today, it’s good you have 78 women, it’s the highest Indian Lok Sabha has ever had, but it’s still just 14.4 per cent. If you would have the bill, there would be 180 women in the Lok Sabha. So where are the missing women? And why are they missing? That’s the issue.

Q: Would you like to remind people exactly what kind of role each party played?

Karat: Firstly, I think it’s positive that regional parties, such as the TMC, the Biju Janata Dal, the YSR Congress, have been successful in giving a better representation to women compared to the national parties. If you look at the Lok Sabha now, actually it is the regional parties who have given a much representation to women. And as far as the Left is concerned, although we did have much improved numbers of candidates in the last Lok Sabha election, as you can see, we didn’t win the seats, so we have only one member in the Lok Sabha right now which is the worst we have ever had. So, certainly, as far as regional parties including TMC is concerned, it is better, but you have to look at the national perspective. And these parties within their own states, for their own reasons, are within their own parties. Allegiance to the leader, for example, is a very important part of regional parties but if you look at the national perspective, that is why these parties play a completely different role when it comes to parliament. So the point is, there are differences within parties, but unfortunately because of those differences it’s not just women who suffer, I would say, it’s democracy that suffers.

Q: The other thing you talked about, the bleeding arm of the MP who was trying to protest, it’s interesting to see that Parliament has always had strident protests like we witnessed recently.

Karat: That’s absolutely true, and also it requires the commitment of the chair to push through legislation, and I am sure that the present Speaker, if he was given an opportunity by the party in power to steer the reservation bill through, would be strong and committed enough to do it. But the question that I again raise is, why is the BJP government not even listing it in its agenda of business? I mean, we talk about being the vishwa guru but unfortunately but fare badly on a measure of social justice for women. Out of 193 countries, when women’s representation in the lower house is concerned, the elected parliament, we are at the 135th or 136th spot, I mean that’s a pretty shocking statistic, isn’t it?

Q: But why didn’t the UPA push for it between 2010 and 2014?

Karat: No, they didn’t have the numbers. If they worked hard enough to get the numbers, as they did for many other reservations. So, again I think, numbers was an issue at that time for UPA 2 because they were dependent on certain parties which were not in favour of the women’s reservation bill. The kind of political leadership that was required to push it through, they failed at that. And you know their default was to set up a UPA committee, have a select committee, let’s have another select committee. I mean they have had 3 committees on the women’s reservation bill. I don’t think any other bill has gone through that torture process. And if you look at another figure, Sunetra, how long is it going to take? People ask me every often, why do you want legislation? Aren’t you notorious enough to get people representation? A lot of women feel why are we people asking for quotas et cetera? Look at this figure - in the 1st Parliament of India after Independence, where women had come out in such large numbers, we had 24 women. That’s in 1952. In 2019, when the last elections were held, we got 78. So if it takes 73 years to get about 50 more women in parliament, how many years is it going to take to reach one-third reservation without a quota?

Q: The government is very proud of the fact that they have two cabinet ministers, top ministers, including the finance minister, as women and seven new ministers who have now come into the council of ministers. Surely, even if it is tokenism, it counts for something, doesn’t it?

Karat: Certainly. There’s no doubt about it. To increase the number of women and to show that women are more than capable of taking responsibility in higher places, certainly has an important message for the country. The question that I raise is - what are these women doing, as far as women’s reservation bill is concerned? Why are they not raising their voices? I remember in their own party there was a Sushma Swaraj, there was a Najma Heptulla, cause she shifted from the Congress to the BJP, but even in her position in the BJP I remember Sushma Swaraj; how she fought for that bill against many in her own party. So, we can have some really fundamental differences, oppositions and be on opposite sides of the barricade on so many other major issues, but on the women’s reservations bill, why are these women ministers, who have shown that they are more than capable of following their government policies, why are they not expanding the framework of their work to challenge those who are not bringing the bill, why? That will be meaningful. One is that it’s very good, at least I think, to have more women in public life, it certainly pushes the envelope for women in a patriarchal society, there’s no doubt about it, but the second aspect is also the policies that you follow. You need to push a wider agenda.

Q: Do you think in the last 25 years things have become easier for women in politics?

Karat: I certainly do. And I think having around 50% of women in local bodies through the reservation quota, I think that has made a huge difference in rural India. And I don’t go for this proxy politics kind of a thing, cause there is proxy politics where there’s class, where there’s caste, where there’s gender, that blotch on our democracy is there, but why I am so convinced that reservation in parliament and assembly is so important for democracy is because we have seen the way India has really set a record for the whole world in 50% reservation for women at local body level. And women have gained that confidence and I think its a chain reaction, women voters, making their needs and requirements known to political parties, women voters voting independently, women seeing representation growing at the local level in the rural areas of India, in the villages, in the urban local bodies. So in the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous increase of women in public life and the patriarchal conservative orthodox framework that women are best suited in homes, we have seen a huge change in that in the last 20 years. And we have to salute the women of India and that is why it is all the more criminal, I use that word advisedly, it is criminal to have a huge majority and not want to take India’s democratic process forward but block it by blocking the bill.

Q: My final question, why is it that 25 years later, the women’s reservations bill is still relevant?

Karat: I believe that the power of patriarchy is bad for everyone, it is bad for men, women and for Indian society. And the will of patriarchy is being reflected in the blockages, the blockade of the women’s bill. So, the first point is, bring the women’s bill, it does weaken the patriarchal process, patriarchal attitudes and that can only be good for social justice. Secondly, I believe if you bring more women into parliament and have more women in public spaces, it also helps to make that public space less unequal. And I think that is also a good thing for Indian democracy. And the third joint is, within the women’s reservation bill, there are reservations for Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste women, and I believe that reservation for Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste women will strengthen the role of women not only in those communities but will set an example for the rest of India who may be so elitist to think that there is only a particular set of women who can be in parliament and can be a leader. So, this gives the opportunity to a much larger range of women politicians. So all in all, it would be very useful, helpful to strengthen the process of Indian democracy.

(Inputs by Amitoj Singh Kalsi)

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    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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