Women’s Reservation Bill and its naysayers

Examining the arguments against the Women’s Reservation Bill. Are they propaganda or practical advice?

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me”, these words of the illustrious novelist Ayn Rand has perhaps best described the fate of the Women’s Reservation Bill in all its avatars. The battle between the supporters and detractors of women’s reservation has been an unequal one, certainly in terms of passion, if not on other parameters. It is a battle between the normative and the pragmatic. It is also, according to some, a battle between two different conceptions, one of equality of opportunities and the other of equality of outcomes. Such a positioning, however, misses the umbilical cord that joins the two conceptions. The former is necessary but not sufficient to achieve the latter. It also assumes that one side is surreptitiously demanding inequality in terms of opportunity.

When rhetoric on both sides impairs the ability to think clearly, a dose of statistics helps gain some perspective. Given the current strength of women members in Indian Parliament, we stand at a dismal 117th position in terms of global statistics of women’s representation. With 62 out of 543 elected members of Lok Sabha, the proportion of women is 11.4%. The overall representation of women in legislative bodies worldwide (we are talking only of lower houses as many nations do not have an upper house) stands at 22.3%. The corresponding figure for Asia is 19%. Closer home, we lag behind Nepal (29.9%), Afghanistan (27.7%), Pakistan (20.7%) and Bangladesh (19.8%) by significant margins. If you think the story could not be grimmer, you should see the slide we have suffered. From 11th Lok Sabha to 16th Lok Sabha, the proportion of women in Lok Sabha has increased from 7.2% to 11.4% but our international rank has worsened from 65 (as of Jan 1, 1997) to 117 (as of June 1, 2014). It proves that many other nations that have suppressed women historically are facilitating their rise much better than India is.

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This is the real picture, even as we pride ourselves in giving women suffrage ab initio – since forming a multi-party democracy after independence. Consider United States of America which got independence in 1776 but gave all its women the right to vote only in 1920.

The numbers articulate unequivocally the need for correction. It is the means and not the end that should have our attention. Affirmative action is one amongst a number of means. The opposition to women’s reservation in national legislature has been based mainly on two arguments: 1) reservation in Parliament will not ameliorate the problems of women in India and 2) such a step will distort our polity and invite many unwanted trends.

When the Committee on the Status of Women (CSWI 1974) rejected the proposal of reservations for women, it put forward the following reasons1:

1. It may precipitate similar demands from various other interests groups.

2. The privilege once granted will be difficult to withdraw.

3. Women are not a community and a category and hence there is no rational basis for reservation.

Let us address the above points one by one. We have seen that demands of reservation from various interest groups have not been arrested by thwarting women’s reservation. In K.C. Vasanth Kumar vs State of Karnataka (decided on May 8, 1985), Justice Chinnappa Reddy said, “The paradox of the system of reservation is that it has engendered a spirit of self-denigration among the people. Nowhere else in the world do castes, classes or communities queue up for the sake of gaining the backward status. Nowhere else in the world is there competition to assert backwardness and to claim ‘we are more backward than you’. This is an unhappy and disquieting situation, but it is stark reality”. The most recent example of perversion of this tool is the reservation provided to Marathas and Muslims in the state of Maharashtra by the Congress-NCP government. Even without granting reservations to women, such manipulation of the system has continued unabated.

The CSWI was correct that the privilege granted by means of reservation is difficult to withdraw. The result is an intractable perversion of the tool of reservations. The numerical strength of reserved seats or reservation for communities moves in a solo direction. However, the safeguard against this perversion, in case of women’s reservation, is the same as the impediment to the reservation itself. Women are not considered to vote en masse for a political party and hence, the withdrawal would certainly not be more difficult than the bestowing of these “privileges”. However all such doubts will be put to rest if we implement the suggestion made by Justice Yeshwant V. Chandrachud in the same case. He suggested that the policy of reservations in public employment, in education, and in legislative bodies should be reviewed once every five years, since it would help the state to rectify the distortions arising out of the implementation of the reservations policy. All reservations including women’s reservations can be brought under the ambit of such review. One stone to kill multiple birds if only our political class was interested.

The last reason for rejecting women’s reservation by CSWI was that since women do not form a community or a category, there is no rationale for granting them reservation. Over the years, gender as an identity has always been subsumed by other more politically consequential identities. A stark reminder of this reality was the Shah Bano case, where a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in favour of a divorced old Muslim woman Shah Bano was reversed by the massive majority-wielding government of Rajiv Gandhi under pressure from orthodox elements of the Muslim community. Anupama Roy (2012) records2 women’s groups retracting their demands for Uniform Civil Code to “reconcile gender justice with the right to equality of religious communities” post the “communalisation of the demand for a Uniform Civil Code”. The parties which have opposed the bill have done it on the ground of bill being allegedly anti-OBCs. Thus caste and religion have always trumped gender to achieve their political machinations.

Most of the opposition to the bill on account of its perceived inability to ameliorate the situation of women in India has much to do with the design of the bill itself. There is a widespread apprehension that the bill will just bring in the biwi-beti” brigade of the current politicians. However, there are many suggestions in the public domain by which, it is claimed that, these eventualities can be taken care of. The nuts and bolts of the bill and its various alternatives in the public domain are out of the purview of current exercise.

The next time this bill is introduced in Parliament, more than the specific provisions, it will be the attitude of male members of Parliament that will decide the outcome. It is not the debate on provisions but the histrionics (or absence of it) of resistance that will decide the substantive outcome. Remember Ayn Rand’s words? It is about who stops it from passing rather than who lets it pass.


1. Power vs. Representation: Feminist Dilemmas, Ambivalent State and the Debate on Reservation for Women in India (Sharma, Kumud)
2. The Women’s Movement (Roy, Anupama), The Oxford Companion to Politics in India


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