Women’s Reservation Bill—II



Nearly a hundred years ago, the  truly path-breaking Russian social and linguistic theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, had  underscored how during moments of compelling historical transformation  monological  received wisdoms give way to the prose of multi-tongued contestation  (see “The Politics of Language and Genre,” www.killingtrain.com/badriraina).


At such moments when the deja donnees of old  come to be unraveled for what they often are—ideological legitimations of sectarian power-grab—pathetic, comical, and so-obviously disingenuous defences of the status quo  find themselves obliged to come forth rather nakedly.


Something of this  now occurs in India with frenetic concern and energy with respect to the  determination of the  Congress-led  coalition government to reserve 33% seats for women in parliament and the legislatures, a measure that saw historic adoption by the  upper house (Rajya Sabha) of parliament just the other day (see my “A Parliament of Women as much as of Men,” Znet, March 10, 2010).


Sensing that the measure, were it to become law, may spell more than merely reformist changes in the way in which Indian democracy and its institutions may come to be reconceived and  redirected,  a cacophony of rather frightened voices seek to embroil this deepening of representative democracy  in  doubts and  distractions  rather than in any worthwhile critique.  A regressive enterprise that spans  responses from downright honesty to  insincere subterfuge.




First, the most honest.  Put simply, a large enough number of  male parliamentarians  fear the loss of livelihood, indeed of existence.  This because most do not come to politics from any flaming  passion  to set the realm right, but from a recognition that during the current phase of India’s democracy, success at the hustings translates often into power, pelf, and patronage (PPP).  And when it is remembered that most lack any autonomy of skill  or  competence, the loss of  a seat in parliament tantamounts to a return to a boorishly undistinguished non-existence.  Where  politics  is the only calling a man has, what else is there to go back to?  Having tasted of sectarian adulation among captive constituencies, the loss of a seat denotes the extinction of what prestige they command.


Then there is the insistence on behalf of those who belong to Other Backward Classes (OBCs).  They argue that unless a sub-quota within the stipulated 33% is fixed for OBC women, the measure will  only lead to an influx of  up-country, English-using women, relegating the socially and educationally deprived women further into oblivion.


Remarkably, these gentle males have never once thus far pressed for any overall reservation for OBCs within parliament and the legislatures where only Schedule Castes and Tribes have seats reserved for them in proportion to their population.  Ergo, in the absence of any such provision, there is no way in which seats may be reserved for OBC women alone unless a Constitutional amendment is first separately adopted to introduce OBC reservations—something for which male OBC stalwarts have never yet striven.  Nor do they tell us why it is that they may not put up OBC women candidates for the seats now proposed to be set apart for women if they so wish to do.  Thus far, whenever they have put up any women in general category seats, they have invariably been close relatives of the  presiding  OBC patriarchs.


Most interestingly, endorsement of the 33% measure has come from a Hindu organization whose constitution stipulates that women cannot acquire its membership, namely the  male and military  RSS.  Work that out for a switch.


The  fear within the RSS as always is that breaking the 33% into sub-quotas will not but fracture the monolithic consolidation of India’s Hindus—something  the RSS holds fatally necessary for the preservation of  Indian “nationhood.”  Thus, if you cannot enforce within the Indian Constitutional system the same blanket refusal to admit women into the fold as you practice within your own organization, then the next best must be to prevent sub-quotas based on casteist (read divisive) considerations.



What of the Muslim minority?  A shout has gone up that the 33% measure will surely spell doom for minority representation.  We don’t know why.  Especially since thus far  Muslim patriarchs have practiced a studied  refusal to foreground Muslim women  in electoral politics.  However sanctimonious this shout may seem,  the reality appears to be best captured in the statement made to an electronic channel the other day by a Muslim cleric to the effect that  “god intended women primarily to produce a race of good and proper men, and that it was not god’s  wish that Muslim women should be seen shoulder to shoulder with men in public/political life making speeches” (Nietzsche/Nazis close ideological mentors there?).  Indeed, the experience thus far has been that Muslim women—and there are any number—who  have made a mark in public/political life in post-colonial India  have more often than not been seen as threats to  Muslim culture and identity. 



En Passant here, do note that a bill has been introduced yet again in the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly that proposes to take away the rights of Permanent Residency (which include the right to acquire property within the state and the right to vote)  from Kashmiri women who marry outside the state.  Kashmiri men ofcourse may do so without fear of such loss.  Did you say Patriarchy rules the roast?  Well, it does.  On this rather brazenly discriminatory measure we still have to hear from spokespersons of the Muslim leaderships who live outside Jammu & Kashmir.  Especially those who seem so concerned that the 33% Bill will relegate Muslim women!


Remarkably, all that in  the full knowledge that exclusively Islamic states like Pakistan and Afghanistan already have mandated provisions for women’s reservation in their legislative bodies!  How effective those  are  in the matter of defeating gruesomely misogynist laws in those countries is ofcourse another matter, although  the prospects of  achieving those victories in the years to come can be envisaged, if at all, only because   women do have an assured voice there in the first place—a fact that must be considered historically preferable to not having any women at all positioned to strive so.


Then there is the argument that given the rotationary provision in the Reservation Bill, only those women will be put up by Party supremos who they can rely upon to keep the seat warm for their return.  Thus, we may  see only daughters and daughters-in-law being accorded tickets for the women constituencies.


The argument is adduced to caution the polity about a prospect, namely, cronyism, that has characterized Indian democracy for years on end . That such cronyism disfigures the Indian representative system regardless of gender is an argument readily admitted.  Yet we are not told why this prospect may be especially lethal now when women of any sort are  slated to enter parliament?


Perhaps the most disingenuous argument is the one that is proferred by sundry “successful” women.  They seem mortified at the thought that women should at all require a leg-up from the system, and thereby be demeaned as a sub-species that cannot stand on their own.


The presumption here is that any  “successful” men or women within the scheme of things have made it or can make it all on their own.  Alas, if only this were the case.


The fact is leg-ups come in various modalities.  The fact that most are adroitly managed out of sight and in back rooms is too well-known a feature of career advancement in India across genders to need iteration.


Thus the further argument that India adopt a system where political parties allot a percentage of seats for women remains a pseudo-rationalist argument.  Had this been as self-evidently possible and painless a recourse, it might have been adopted freely by parties thus far.  That this has not happened testifies to the fact that patriarchy rules the  party system, to a lesser or greater degree.  And, were the measure to be adopted, we are not told why this measure would not lead to one or both of those prospects which are otherwise decried—tickets given either to daughters, daughters-in-law, or to dispensable women in losing constituencies.  The consequence then might be that either crony winners enter parliament and the legislatures or most women lose out in hopeless constituencies, defeating the very purpose  of enhancing women’s representation.


An overarching skepticism is also to the fore (and, interestingly, voiced by many “successful” women in various areas of public life).  To wit, that there is never any guarantee that women in power necessarily either espouse or push concerns that afflict women as citizens.


To this there is an obvious truth.  Yet, the obverse of that argument is to say that men alone may thereby be trusted to do so.  And when we remember that male legislators often enough do not pursue the interests of the voting communities which endorse them as strong support bases, why this infirmity again seems lethal only in the case of women begs more than a question.




The fact is that be it men or women, the genders are everywhere riven by intersecting loyalties—of class, caste, ethnic identity, linguistic affinity and so on.


Given that macro-sociological reality,  it remains unforgiveably discriminatory that a half of the population should remain outside the ambit of  decision-making at the highest levels of national life.


Even as it is agreed that there is no guarantee that gender justice necessarily issues from  gendered leaderships,  it is a probability of the highest order that when men and women are pitted together in law-making, preposterous blatancies of policy must receive their due rectification and come-uppance.  It is a monstrous argument to say that a good number of women in legislative bodies will not in due course have the effect of  critiquing  social and economic decisions inimical to women as a whole, and to offer correctives, more than a wholly male-dominated dispensation might.


The simple point is that if at some point the world did acknowledge that democracy without women’s franchise was a sham after all, the time to acknowledge further that democracy without women’s assured representation as well is equally a sham has arrived.



It is in the fitness of  modernity that entrenched Neanderthals who often masquerade as exemplars of equality  persuade themselves to push the species forward. 



After all,  if  political moralities and  democratic convictions do not evolve to keep pace with strides made in  other spheres of human attainment,  the world can relapse into crude authoritarianisms  of a lethal kind, given the extent now of access to frightening  instruments of control and repression.



We firmly believe that democratic victories scored on behalf of or by women do not redound to the benefit merely of women.  These victories promise a better life for all mankind. 



Let India’s  parliamentarians then not be caught on the wrong side of history.  As the Bill comes up in the Lok Sabha (the house of the people) for adoption, it is our hope that the frightened and the disingenuous will yield to the enlightened and the  selfless.


The  future of India’s democracy is a much larger issue than the future of male constituencies.

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