The long journey of the Women's Reservation Bill in India explained

Since 1996 nearly every government has attempted to pass the Bill in Parliament but has failed to find consensus

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

BS Web Team New Delhi
The issue of political reservation for women in India has a deep-rooted history dating back to the days of the Indian national movement. In 1931, prominent leaders Begum Shah Nawaz and Sarojini Naidu wrote a letter to the then British Prime Minister advocating for the absolute equality of political status for Indian women. The letter read, "To seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status."
Fast forward to 1971, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in India highlighted women's dwindling political representation in the country.

National Perspective Plan of 1988

The National Perspective Plan for Women recommended reservations for women at all levels of governance, from Panchayat to Parliament. Consequently, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution were enacted, mandating one-third of seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions and one-third of chairperson offices at various levels, with additional reservation for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) women in these seats.

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What is the Women's Reservation Bill?

In its simplest terms, the Women's Reservation Bill has sought to reserve one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women, addressing the underrepresentation of women in Indian politics.
Supporters of the Bill argue that affirmative action can improve the condition of women and representation in Parliament. Whereas, opponents have argued that it goes against the Constitutions' guarantee of equality, that women are not a homogenous group and it goes against the traditional family structure.

Introduction in Parliament - 1996

The Women's Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament in 1996 by the H D Deve Gowda-led government. Ramakant D Khalap, then Minister of State for Law brought the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment) Bill, 1996 (insertion of new Articles 330A and 332A) to the Lok Sabha on September 12. However, several leaders in the United Front government, a coalition of 13 parties, were not in favour of the Bill. It was then referred to a Joint Committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Also Read: Women's Reservation Bill: Where else have seats been reserved for women?
The Bill's wording faced scrutiny, prompting suggestions for clarification and refinement. Specifically, the committee felt that the phrase "not less than one-third" should be replaced with "as nearly as may be, one-third". Other recommendations included reservation of seats in Rajya Sabha, consideration for Other backward Classes (OBCs), and the period of time women should hold the seat under the reservation. The committee also recommended that one of the Anglo-Indian members should be women, on a rotational basis. A rotation policy was also suggested for states that had existing reservations, in less than three seats, for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs).
However, the Bill faced much opposition. It was during this session that MP Sharad Yadav made the statement that “Kaun mahila hai, kaun nahin hai, keval bal kati mahila bhar nahin rahne denge" (Who is a woman, who is not, only short-haired women won’t be allowed). He stated that women with "short hair" - those who were viewed as modern women at the time - would dominate the legislatures.
Some members, like Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of Bihar, argued for reservations for OBC women, adding another layer of complexity to the debate.
Despite multiple attempts by different governments, the Bill remained unpassed due to a lack of political consensus, stemming from resistance from within the ruling coalitions and concerns about its impact on OBC reservations.

NDA Government (1998-2004)

Between 1998 and 2004, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made several attempts to pass the Women's Reservation Bill.
On July 13, 1998, chaos erupted in the Lok Sabha as Law Minister M Thambi Durai attempted to introduce the Bill. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party (SP) MPs protested, and it was once again postponed due to a lack of consensus.
Similar disruptions occurred in December 1998 when Mamata Banerjee physically tried to stop SP MP Daroga Prasad Saroj from reaching the Speaker's podium. It also faced dissent from SP-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Muslim League members. Differences also emerged within the NDA.

Also Read: 'It is ours', says Congress' Sonia Gandhi on Women's reservation bill
Upon returning to power after a brief lapse, the Vajpayee government reintroduced the Bill on December 23, 1999, leading to more protests from SP, BSP, and RJD members.
Subsequent attempts in 2000, 2002, and 2003 were unsuccessful, despite support from the Congress and the Left. In July 2003, an all-party meeting failed to build consensus, and the Bill lapsed again.

UPA's Push

In May 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by then PM Manmohan Singh, declared its commitment to introduce legislation for one-third reservation for women in Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. However, key UPA constituents, including the RJD under Lalu Prasad Yadav's leadership, were opposed to the Bill.
In 2008, when the UPA reintroduced the Bill, chaos unfolded in the Parliament. It was later referred to a parliamentary committee, which recommended passing the Bill without further delay, but differences persisted, especially regarding OBC reservations within the Bill.

RJD withdraws opposition

In 2010, a breakthrough came when the RJD withdrew its opposition, and the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill with support from the BJP and the Left. However, the Bill couldn't make it through the Lok Sabha.
Subsequent governments, including the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, attempted to pass the Bill multiple times but faced opposition and dissenting voices.
The UPA government led by Manmohan Singh committed to the Bill in its common minimum programme but struggled to gain support from key constituents like the RJD.
In 2010, the Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha but failed in the Lok Sabha.
Efforts continued, with various governments introducing the Bill repeatedly, but the political landscape remained challenging.

Hunger strikes

As of March 10, 2023, K Kavitha initiated hunger strikes to push for the Bill's passage while political divisions and debates surrounding its necessity persist.
Kavitha sat on a six-hour hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to seek the early passage of the pending Women's Reservation Bill.
The protest was inaugurated by Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury. Several political parties participated in the protest, including the SP, the RJD, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

First Published: Sep 19 2023 | 1:02 PM IST

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