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Quota for women a reality as historic bill clears Parliament

Sep 22, 2023 12:43 AM IST

The bill will now require President Droupadi Murmu’s signature and at least 50% of the states to approve the amendment to the Constitution

Parliament on Thursday approved the 106th amendment to the Constitution to reserve a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures for women, a landmark endorsement of a decades-long crusade that was unsuccessful on at least six occasions over nearly three decades.

MPs in the Rajya Sabha following the voting on Women's Reservation Bill during the Special Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Thursday.(ANI Photo/SansadTV)
MPs in the Rajya Sabha following the voting on Women's Reservation Bill during the Special Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Thursday.(ANI Photo/SansadTV)

A day after the 128th Constitutional (Amendment) Bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha with a 454-2 voting tally, all of the Rajya Sabha’s 214 voting members supported the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, with no one opposing or abstaining after the House spent 11 hours debating the matter.

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However, just like in Lok Sabha on Wednesday, members voiced support but added caveats and raised questions about the timing and the manner in which the measure will be implemented.

“All members and political parties have played a significant role in empowering women and enhancing nari shakti. Let us give the country a strong message,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the moments before voting, making an unexpected appearance in the House.

The bill will now require President Droupadi Murmu’s signature and at least 50% of the states to approve the amendment to the Constitution. Both appear to be just a formality. Following the vote, both Houses were adjourned sine die, or until a next parliament sitting is called, ending the special session a day early.

It was also a historic occasion as the women’s reservation bill became the first piece of legislation to be cleared in the new Parliament building, which was opened for legislative business for the first time during the ongoing special session.

The bill, which will apply to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies, and the Delhi legislative assembly, inserted quotas for women within the existing quantum of seats set aside for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

It will come into effect after delimitation — an exercise comprising revision of seat numbers and redrawing of constituency boundaries — which can only happen after 2026 (according to a 2001 Constitution amendment), and after the relevant census figures are published. The decennial census was scheduled to be conducted in 2021 but was delayed by the government due to the pandemic. There is no clarity on when the exercise is likely to be held.

After the vote, Modi said in a post on X that the Rajya Sabha vote reflected a “defining moment in our nation’s democratic journey“.

“I thank all the Rajya Sabha MPs who voted for the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam. Such unanimous support is indeed gladdening. With the passage of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam in Parliament, we usher in an era of stronger representation and empowerment for the women of India. This is not merely a legislation; it is a tribute to the countless women who have made our nation,” he said.

Union home minister Amit Shah said: “Where there is a will there is a way.”

“A historic milestone was achieved today on the path of equitable governance as the Rajya Sabha has passed the women’s reservation bill. By fulfilling a long-pending demand, PM @narendramodi Ji has sent a powerful message of gender equality and inclusive governance across the world,” he said in a post on X.

During the debate, a number of women members from the opposition parties — Congress’s Ranjeet Ranjan, Trinamool Congress’s Mausam Noor and Dola Sen, and DMK’s Kanimozhi Somu — sought to corner the government citing instances such as when President Murmu was not invited for the opening of the new Parliament building and how the timeline on the implementation was likely to be long-winded.

“We are giving our unconditional support to the bill and it will be passed (in Rajya Sabha) but make sure this doesn’t turn into an election ‘jumla’,” said Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge.

“There are reservations in urban bodies and panchayats. Why don’t you roll out reservation on the basis of current strength? When the delimitation leads to increase seats, you can increase the quota accordingly,” the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha said.

Among the responses from the government was from Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who said the bill was brought after consensus and could not be likened to “jumla” (gimmick) since the census had still to be conducted.

She also said the credit for the move goes to the past governments, included the one headed by PV Narasimha Rao. “I want to credit former PM PV Narasimha Rao’s government for bringing 33% reservation at the panchayat level. As a result, we have seen a groundswell at panchayat level where reservation has been increased to 50% at several panchayats showing the contribution of women,” she said.

“In women-related matters...we do not play any politics. It is an article of faith for the Prime Minister and therefore we do everything that we have done whether it is Article 370, triple talaq, or now the Women’s Reservation Bill,” Sitharaman added.

The exchange capturing the fractious relationship between the two sides in Parliament was overshadowed by rare unity on an issue. The first legislative attempt to reserve seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies came in 1996. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made at least five attempts in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 but didn’t succeed. Manmohan Singh’s government introduced a constitutional amendment bill in 2008 which cleared the Rajya Sabha in 2010 amid raucous scenes, but facing fierce resistance from heartland parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal (United), the bill never made it to the lower House. All three backed the bill this week.

The only party whose two members opposed the bill in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), does not have any Rajya Sabha MPs.

Previous attempts to institute grassroots reservations in Panchayati Raj institutions have yielded mixed results — while some women found themselves empowered, others found their power usurped by male relatives who installed their wives, sisters and mothers as political proxies. Hence, while quotas might be a welcome sign to signal political intent, women’s empowerment should encompass structural improvements in education, health and economic indices.

RJD’s Manoj Jha said it would be injustice to not include the OBCs. “I would urge all my friends here to not bother about the party whips. The question here is not of supporting or opposing the Bill. We still have an opportunity to send the Bill to a select committee to incorporate the OBC quota. And if we don’t do it, we would be committing a historic blunder,” Jha said.

Speaking from the government benches, Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda lashed out at the Congress, saying: “They (Congress) talk about the OBCs. We should remember that it was the BJP-NDA that gave India its first OBC Prime Minister (Narendra Modi)”.

This was an apparent reference to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s remarks regarding inadequate representation of other backward classes (OBCs).

Nadda added that the BJP has more MPs from the OBC category than the overall strength of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha.

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