Women Demand Quota, Police Arrest Them
Published June 22nd 2003 in People's Democracy Vol. XXVII No. 25

DELHI - ON June 16, Delhi Police arrested a number of women in different places near Parliament House as they attempted the meet the Lok Sabha speaker and present him a memorandum regarding the passage of the bill for reservation of seats for women in parliament and state assemblies. The protest coincided with the all-party meeting on the issue, attended by floor leaders of all parties represented in parliament.

It will be noted that the bill is hanging fire for several years for want of political will on part of the government. The bill has been introduced at the fag end of a parliament session several times and, following some noises made by interested quarters, postponed for the next session.

In fact, the government has been so far playing a cunning game of letting or making some particular parties fight against the bill, so that the main ruling party --- the BJP --- is not blamed for the non-passage of the bill. And now the government has come out with the announcement that it would re-introduce the bill only if there is a consensus on it among various parties.

Despite the obstacles put up by the police on June 16, however, the women managed to reach their memorandum to the speaker, reiterating their stand in support of the women reservation bill asking for 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies.

The memorandum said the onus is on the NDA government to utilise the two-thirds support of several parties, both from the opposition and from the ruling alliance, to put the bill to vote in the forthcoming session of parliament.

Extracts from the memorandum follow:

“The women’s reservation bill has been pending since 1996. This is in spite of the fact that there is an existing consensus in support of the bill that, in terms of numbers of votes, is sufficient for the adoption of a constitutional amendment. We would like to emphasise this point since an impression has gained ground that the bill will not be put to vote unless there is unanimity on it. In the past, unanimity has never been a consideration for the adoption of a constitutional amendment; so why should this be made a condition in the case of the women’s reservation bill?

“We have studied some of the alternative proposals that have been made. According to presss reports, the proposal of the former chief election commissioner has been approved by some parties, namely, that instead of reservation of one third of seats, all political parties should reserve one third in their party lists of candidates for women. The basic flaw in this proposal is that the aim is not the guarantee of a minimum number of women in the elected decision making bodies. The number of women in party lists will go up but not the required numbers in parliament or state assemblies. Elsewhere in the world, in the 25 or so countries where there are quotas for women in party lists, the system is one of proportional representation. In a proportional representation system, there is a reasonable possibility that one-third of all seats won by any party will be reserved for women through placing women in every third position in the party lists. In any other system, as in India, it is more than likely that unwanted, unwinnable seats would be farmed out to women. This will be so even if the unit for calculation is the state as far as parliament elections are concerned and the district for the assembly elections. After all, India does not have a two-party system and the strength of political parties is uneven across states and districts; thus women can still be given unwinnable seats just to meet the quota requirement. The compulsions of coalition politics and seat adjustments also make the proposal of state and district as the unit completely impractical.

“We would also like to stress that if a seat is reserved for women, the party concerned will decide the caste/community of the woman candidate. Thus it is most unlikely that the present caste composition of parliament with other backward castes (OBCs) as the single largest group will undergo any change. The only difference will be that of gender, not of caste. Parties will surely field women from the backward castes if seats presently represented by them are reserved for women. We assert that the present bill will help women of all castes and communities and more particularly women from the backward castes.

“You are aware that the state assembly elections are to be held shortly. Thus there is an immediate urgency for the passage of the bill to ensure an increase in the present low numbers of women in these assemblies.

“Women all over India eagerly await the decision of your meeting today. We therefore appeal to you to take a decision to put the bill to vote in the first week of the forthcoming session of parliament. This we believe is the only democratic way.”