The sabotage of the women’s reservation bill

The Women’s Reservation Bill, its past and present, the opposition to it and how it’s positioned.

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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Françoise Giroud, a noted French journalist, writer and politician, was once asked how long she would fight for equality between the sexes. “Until incompetent women can hold important jobs, like men do”, she replied. The issue of women’s reservation came back to opinion pages of newspapers few days ago. Such a topic would occasion a short visit to the history of demands for women representation in Indian politics.

The previous version of what is colloquially known as Women’s Reservation Bill, was passed in Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010. The day witnessed a good debate but only after seven of the mischief makers had to be thrown out using marshals. However, the mischief makers made sure that a proper debate on this bill could not happen in Lok Sabha. Both the major national parties – the Congress and the BJP – were supporting the bill. The real obstacles were the two parties from Uttar Pradesh – the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party and one from Bihar – Rashtriya Janata Dal. The stance of Janata Dal (United) was an ambiguous one with one faction under Nitish Kumar supporting the bill and the other faction under Sharad Yadav opposing the bill. No surprises there.

The overwhelming support for women’s reservation despite the opposition of few vocal, hostile and belligerent Hindi heartland parties was itself a large change from the debates in the Constituent Assembly where women’s reservation was considered and rejected by prominent women leaders of the time.  The line up of women in the Constituent Assembly was an exemplary one – Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, and Durgabai Deshmukh among others.

The debate, however, is even older than those conducted in the Constituent Assembly. Three women’s organisations came up one after the other in the early part of the 20th century – Women’s India Association (WIA) in 1917, National Council of Women in India (NCWI) in 1925 and All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1927. The Government of India Act, 1919, denied women the right to vote despite the All India Women’s Deputation led by Sarojini Naidu to Edwin Samuel Montague, the then Secretary of State, India. Some women leaders made a representation to the Simon Commission in 1928, notwithstanding the Indian National Congress boycotting it, to demand “extension of female suffrage and reservation of four seats for women in the legislatures in order to encourage women to take part in political affairs and to better represent women’s interest in education and social welfare”. Without recommending reservations, the Commission left it upon provincial governments to nominate women if none were elected.

WIA, NCWI and AIWC jointly drafted a memorandum supporting adult suffrage including  women. They, however, rejected any idea of reservation for women in legislatures. The three organisations presented the memorandum to British Parliament in 1931, which was then deliberating over what later resulted in the Government of India Act, 1935.

Rejecting reservation for women, Sarojini Naidu in her presidential address to All India Women’s Conference said, “We are not week, timid, meek women. We hold the courageous Savitri as our ideals, we know how Sita defied those who entertained suspicion of her ability to keep her chastity….I will, however, confess to you one thing. I will whisper it into this loud-speaker. I am not a feminist. To be a feminist is to acknowledge that one’s life has been repressed. The demand for granting preferential treatment to women is an admission on her part of her inferiority and there has been no need for such a thing in India as the women have always been by the side of men in council and in the fields of battle”.

The Indian Franchise Committee – headed by Lord Lothian – in its report of 1932 did recommend 2 per cent to 5 per cent of the seats in provincial legislatures to be reserved for women for the first ten years. The report stated that “unless special provision is made for women, it seems improbable that more than a few, if any, women will secure election to the first legislatures even with a larger women’s electorate  than we are able to propose, considering the prejudice which still exists in India against women taking part in public life”.

The Government of India Act, 1935, as finally adopted, made twenty nine million men and six million women eligible to vote. Seats were reserved for women on a communal basis while women could contest from any general seat as well. The three women’s organisations issued a joint statement opposing the wifehood qualifications (marriage was a criteria for women’s enfranchisement) and communal electorates.

The first Lok Sabha elections were held in 1952. Only 43 women contested and out of these only 14 were elected which was a miniscule portion of  489 seats. In a letter to the Chief Ministers dated May 8, 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru said,

“I have noticed with great regret how few women have been selected [sic]. I think we are very much to be blamed…. Our laws are man-made, our society dominated by men and so most of us take a very lop-sided view of this matter. We cannot be objective because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action. But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men”.

The issue of women’s reservation receded to the background and only re-surfaced with the Sixth National Conference of the All India Panchayat Parishad in 1973. The Parishad recommended starting with reservation for women in at least one third of the seats. This resolution was followed by a report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) in 1974. The Committee rejected the demands for women’s reservation in legislative bodies of the states and the Centre but recommended statutory women’s panchayats at the village level because of the neglect of women in rural development programmes. The report also asked  political parties to adopt a definite policy regarding the percentage of women candidates for contesting elections. Two members of the Committee disagreed with the decision of not recommending reservation for women in legislative bodies and argued that greater representation of women on national and state level legislatures would build up a number of spokespersons for women’s rights and opportunities.

The recommendations of the Sixth National Conference of the All India Panchayat Parishad were largely ignored for a period of more than fifteen years. The National Perspective Plan, 1988, recommended reservation of 30 per cent of seats at Panchayat and Zilla Parishad levels and local municipal bodies through nomination and co-option.

Rajiv Gandhi in his address to the National Conference on Panchayati Raj and Women (1989) announced that 30 per cent of seats in Panchayati Raj Institutions would be reserved for women. He also promised to extend the reservation to 50 per cent in two years time. Vigorous and sometime vociferous arguments were heard in Parliament during debates on the 64th and 65th Constitution Amendment Bills (1989). The bills fell short of securing the required majority to pass it through Rajya Sabha. Quite fittingly, the issue of women’s reservation in Panchayati Raj Institutions became an election issue and when Congress returned to power in 1991, the 73rd and 74th Amendment Bill providing for one-third reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions were passed in December 1992, and were ratified by all states by April 1993.

Many experts do regard the 73rd Amendment as landmark legislation and indeed it was. Anne F Stenhammer, UN Women Regional Programme Director (South Asia), points out, “India has nearly 1.5 million women elected women representatives at the local level – in terms of numbers, this is the highest globally. However, even more important than the numbers is the issue of actual leadership and action on women’s rights”.

Joint demand from women’s organisations made the H.D. Deve Gowda-led United Front Government to include women’s reservation in their Common Minimum Program. The Constitution (81st) Amendment Bill, 1996, proposing 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament was introduced. The bill could not be passed and was referred to the Joint Select Committee. The bill lapsed on dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha in 1998.

Later in 1998, the Government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced the bill as the Constitution (84th) Amendment Bill, 1998. The bill faced stiff resistance and got derailed by the combined effort of a vociferous opposition constituting mainly regional parties. This bill also lapsed with the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha in 1999. BJP led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) was voted back into power. The bill was reintroduced as the Constitution (84th) Amendment Bill, 1999, and it suffered the same fate as that of its predecessor. The Constitution (108th) Amendment Bill, 2008, similarly lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.

A common feature of the all debates in Parliament has been hostile resistance to the bill. Often this resistance is on specific provisions of the bill, but the nature of the resistance which necessitated the use of marshals tells a different tale. The whole concept of affirmative action for women is unpalatable not just to those parties which openly resisted the passage of the bill but also for many male MPs of the parties supporting the bill. The whip of the party ensures that they cannot express their disapproval openly and the Anti Defection Bill disallows them from voting against party lines.

The disagreement to certain provisions of the bill or lack of confidence in the use of affirmative action as a tool for amelioration of poor political representation of women is understandable. The nature of resistance, however, was abominable to say the least. A handful of MPs even tried to attack the Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari. The Law Minister could introduce the bill only when provided cover by the Congress MPs. SP member Abu Azmi tried to snatch the bill copy from the Law Minister. This was not an ideological opposition to affirmative action, nor was it a disagreement over the nuts and bolts of the bill. This sabotage was simply an intent to subjugate.

This game of subjugation is an ugly one. Many ugly games, though, have been played incessantly through the history of mankind and for protracted periods. Let us see when this game ends, if it does at all.


  1. The history of women’s movement is largely drawn from “Power vs. Representation: Feminist Dilemmas, Ambivalent State and the Debate on Reservation for Women in India” (Sharma, Kumud)

  2. The quote of Françoise Giroud is taken from Nariman, Fali; The State of the Nation (Nariman, Fali)


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