Saturday, March 13, 2010

Row Over Women's Quota in Indian Parliament

An interesting development in Indian politics coincided with the international women’s day; in fact contrasted with the spirit of holding the day celebrated worldwide for emancipation of women and empowering them. The Upper House of the Indian parliament, the Rajyashaba, passed a bill that could lead to a change in the Indian constitution to give the women 1/3 reserved seats in the national parliament as well as the state legislatures.

Although India enjoys the credential of being the largest democracy in the world, historically and traditionally its women have been most disadvantaged. Caste, religion, poverty and a host of related factors have combined to make a girl child not such a happy addition to a family across the length and breadth of India. In political circles, the civil society and academia, the unfortunate predicament of women in India has always been very seriously acknowledged. In politics, since the 1990s, there has been move to increase the representation of women in legislatures across the country so that they could have a major role in legislation to help improve their status and standing in the society.

The move in the Upper House where the bill was passed last Tuesday was immediately received with serious objection from the upper caste based political parties , some coalition partners of the ruling Congress. These parties have threatened to withdraw their support from the Congress that could reduce its parliamentary majority in the crucial Lower House or Lok Shaba to single digit at a time when a comfortable majority is extremely important with the national budget to be tabled in parliament soon.

Muslims are also apprehensive with the Bill and for good reasons. They are also seriously disadvantaged. They feel that increasing the quota of women legislators will affect their already fragile position in legislatures across the country and in the centre. On behalf of the Muslims, former member of the national parliament and a former diplomat Shahabuddin has written a letter to the President expressing the concerns of the Muslims. Trinamool Congress, a Congress ally, with strong base in West Bengal was also not happy with the passage of the bill.. They backed the apprehension of the Muslims on simple political expediency. There are significant Muslim voters in West Bengal.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose party opposed the bill, used rhetoric based on popular appeal. He said that instead of increasing women’s quota on the ground they are disadvantaged, the government should think of the poor of India. He said “90% of the population of India is deprived”. In addition to these arguments, those who oppose the bill also argue that the move would only benefit the upper caste women of India, women who are wives, daughters or sisters of powerful men. Together these groups have vowed to fight what they said was “government dictatorship” to establish a law that would be “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Dalit”.

The opposition views bring to surface the difficulty in India to balance between the demands of caste, religion, poverty and gender and achieve consensus that does not run contrary to its deep rooted democratic beliefs. Even having one of the most powerful women politicians the world has ever seen in Indira Gandhi, it has not been possible for India to overcome these obstacles to help improve the lot of women who are under privileged in every way in the Indian society. International moves such as holding world conferences for improving the lot of women have not helped much either in the context of women in India that now has in Sonia Gandhi the 3rd most powerful women in Asia as the head of the ruling Congress.

As far as representation of women in legislatures all over the world goes, the fate of women is depressing. Only one parliament in the world has a women majority in Rwanda where 45 of its 80 members are women. Rwanda is just the only honoruable exception. An Inter Parliamentary Union survey has reported that only 19% of lower house of national parliaments worldwide are women. In India that figure is half. Bangladesh figures ahead of India at 18%. In South Asia, Nepal figures ahead of all its regional neighbours at 33.2%.

The bill passed in the Rajyashaba has some way to go before being enacted into a law that would also need amendment to the Indian Constitution. It must now be considered in the Lok Shaba and be passed there. Given the opposition from the caste based parties and the Muslims, and its likely adverse impact on the coalition that the Congress leads, the latter would now be cautious to proceed with the Bill in the Lower House. The fact that these small parties have threatened to leave the coalition would make the Congress resolve on the Bill weaker for reasons of politics. Then the next hurdle would be for the Bill to be passed in half of the state legislatures. The final hurdle would be for the President to put his signature to the Bill that may be the least difficult given the fact that the Indian President is more titular in the exercise of his powers.

The opposition to the Bill from the Muslims and the caste based parties and the dubbing of the bill by these groups as “anti-Muslim” and anti-Dalit” is not rhetoric; there is a great deal of substance in their opposition. If the Bill is enacted and the Indian Constitution is amended, it will directly affect adversely the Muslim and Dalit representation in the Indian Parliament and state legislatures where they are already, like the women of India, disadvantaged. The majority Hindus of India and upper class Hindus at that would only be marginally affected; in fact very little at all because the benefit that would go to the women of India through the amendment of the constitution would in fact go to upper caste Hindu women of India. Unfortunately, they would get this benefit at the expense of lower caste Hindu and Muslim men!

A look at the Inter parliamentary Union’s report on “women in national parliaments” (that the reader may see by visiting the IPU’s website at reveals certain interesting facts that countries like India where the ethnic/religious/rich-poor divide are important issues should be better advised to consider before proceeding on increasing quota of women in the legislature. Rwanda’s majority of women in parliament do not reflect that women enjoy the same status in society. Likewise, the US figures at number 74 in the list of 187 countries t with only 17% women representation in the House of Representatives. This in no way reflects that the women in USA are in anyway disadvantaged and in no way to that proportion. In fact, the list is so messed up that any conclusion on the status of women in a country based on the percentage of women representation in parliament would be incorrect, except one. Developed countries that are based on rule of law where discrimination against any group is non-existent, have high percentage of women in their respective parliaments as a normal phenomenon leading one to conclude that the objective of any country that wants to enhance the status of its disadvantaged groups, including women, should be to establish the rule of law because artificial means such as quotas may improve the status of one disadvantaged group at the expense of another disadvantaged group/s as is the case in India in the context of the issue we are discussing.

One would be watching with considerable interest to the Bill on women representation in India. There are many in Bangladesh, particularly its women groups, who would like to be encouraged by the move in India. For these groups, it would be better to inquire how women in the parliament who have enjoyed a better percentage at 18% than women in the US House of Representatives have preformed over the time they have been given the special quota. In Bangladesh, it is more important that we should do so because over the last 2 decades we have had as Prime Ministers, two women who have while in office, exercised almost unrestrained power; in fact the present Prime Minister is still doing so. There is no question that both in India and in Bangladesh, in India more so, the women are disadvantaged, very seriously in fact. But quotas often work in ways that run contrary to the reasons for which it is introduced. Our experience with quotas has hardly been encouraging. The way to women empowerment in the true sense of the term is to educate women by giving them equal opportunities as available to men and establishing the rule of law where discrimination in any form and against any group would be totally unacceptable.

Published in The Independent, March 13th., 2010

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