|HOME | NEWS | COLUMNISTS | ASHWIN MAHESH|
|August 17, 2001||
Representation, not reservation
The arguments over reserving seats for women in Parliament and the state legislatures have run many years now. Vir Sanghvi, writing at different times on these pages summarized the opposition to the proposal bluntly. As far back as 1996, he pointed out that other "groups" -- specifically the Muslims -- seeking such reservation on more or less similar grounds to the ones proffered for women have routinely been denied. If Indian-ness does not recognize religion to be a substantial divide amongst the populace, why must it accept differences of gender, he asked. And again in 1998, he excoriated the empowered sections of the fairer sex, asking why a numerically powerful bloc of voters could not use the ballot to advance its interests.
Sanghvi's compelling arguments notwithstanding, there is still a case to be made that women should constitute a much larger proportion of our legislatures, and more importantly, that mandating this without waiting for political parties to voluntarily nominate more women is warranted. The main points of discussion have to do with disadvantages faced by women, and finding adequate representation for their concerns; let's examine each in turn.
The apparent illogic of that position is only superficial. True, it isn't immediately clear that a constituency of no common interest should nonetheless obtain better representation for "itself". And admittedly when Vir Sanghvi's opinions first appeared on rediff.com I found myself in near-total agreement with them. Nonetheless, while I haven't lost my aversion for reservations, over the years I have repeatedly been forced to acknowledge one simple fact which bears heavily against his conclusions. When weighed against the continuing litany of relative deprivation that constantly marks the lives of women in India, the intellectual honesty of his examination seems feeble.
Our response to the enormous disadvantage at which women are placed cannot be an inability to agree on the means to end it, even as we profess an earnest desire to bring parity with men. Differences of opinion relating to methods of empowerment cannot defeat the intent of doing so. Reservation is only the means; the end ultimately sought is representation. At the same time, the obviously divisive nature of reservations speaks against policies that promote set-asides for select groups. The challenge before us, then, is to square thwarting the notion of reservation even while encouraging appropriate representation. This is an important distinction, and a clear separation between the two will allow us to place greater value on the ends themselves than in obtaining perfect means.
Experimenting with representation is only advisable where the constituencies sought to be served contain the entire spectrum of political opinion. Women are the ideal non-group on whose behalf we may initiate such reform; their interests undeniably span every facet of Indian aspiration. Crucially, there is no identifiable "female" concern that weighs against that of others. In effect, therefore, quotas in favour of the fairer sex are not reservations at all but merely more inclusive processes of achieving broad representation. The value of such inclusion lies in the diversity of experiences women will bring to government, and not in the uniform subjugation they experience outside it. The Women's Reservation Bill unnecessarily presumes the latter, whereas what is needed is an Increased Representation by Women Bill.
The fullest expression of all our aspirations must remain the yardstick for progress in India. The legislator's role and authority require that s/he be equally mindful of the needs of every constituent and not seek to advance the insular interests of particular groups and individuals alone. That said, however, representatives can only bring to the legislative agenda the cumulative experiences of their own circumstances. The People's Houses in New Delhi and the state capitals, therefore, are vastly enriched by remaining open to the broadest spectrum of the populace. The most significant increase in such comprehensive representation is to be obtained by affirming that women - constituting fully half the population -- find a comparable number of seats in government.
|Tell us what you think of this column|
ASTROLOGY | NEWSLINKS | BOOK SHOP | MUSIC SHOP | GIFT SHOP | HOTEL BOOKINGS
AIR/RAIL | WEDDING | ROMANCE | WEATHER | WOMEN | E-CARDS | SEARCH
HOMEPAGES | FREE MESSENGER | FREE EMAIL | CONTESTS | FEEDBACK