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For the people, by the men?

May 30, 2003 12:33 IST


The tryst with destiny. It is an appropriate time to remember Pandit Nehru's exhortation, famous from the dawn of the nation. To govern ourselves by right, and from it to find fulfillment of a greater purpose. At the hour of Independence, the expression marked both the sadness of times lost to colonial plunder, and optimism that the pain of those years would fade as the nation rose to her justifiable stature. It was a promise that demanded patience, resilience, courage, and adaptability -- virtues not easily forged into a national character. But by the millions of little endeavors the people have sought this destiny nevertheless.

It is an appropriate time to remember the great promise of this journey, for today we find ourselves stalled once more along its storied path. The Government of India, with plenty of support from its 'Opposition' benches, has decided that the setting aside of seats in the legislatures for women is not a workable proposition. Although every major political party swears affinity to the goal of gender-equality, none can muster the statesmanship to reach toward it. For now, the dreamers must await the monsoon session, where the prime minister promises a better turn.

Let there be no mistake over the state of affairs that Parliament has chosen to defer tackling. The savagery of our culture towards the weaker sex has reduced the numbers of females to the lowest in the free world by a large measure -- 927 women per 1,000 men, and even more egregiously skewed among the youngest citizens. Advertisers brazenly promote their foeticidal tools without fear of prosecution by the state. The girl child must confront the possibility of murder at death, relative malnourishment in early childhood, illiteracy in the age of information, sexual and economic slavery in unbalanced marriage, fear of physical harm in public spaces, unequal pay for equal work with men, ostracism upon widowhood, and countless other ills.

Occasionally, she suffers the gross indignity of public stripping and parade for such 'transgressions' as falling in love with the wrong person, or daring to make personal sexual choices that outrage the 'morality' of others. Political leaders shorn of personal integrity lecture the nation about a great historical tradition of righteousness, even as they tolerate -- and in some cases urge -- rape as a weapon of ambition. The few women of any political standing have typically derived their positions from the fact of being appendages to men -- their husbands, fathers, and lovers - and remain silent as this quiet holocaust exacts its horrifying toll.

The parliamentary blindness flies in the face of this picture of overwhelming oppression that women endure in our society. This willful neglect is abetted by our gentle cultural defendants, who are more likely to remonstrate with the west for turning Indian religious and cultural images into marketing tools, or take issue with the suggestion that Vijay Singh's chauvinistic opposition to female competitors at his elite sporting events is founded in Indian culture. How very important! Singh's opinion, its stupidity notwithstanding, appears to fall far from the brutality of 'his brethren' -- he really should have asked for Annika Sorenstam to be slashed with a seven-iron. Now that would be par for an Indian course!

The tragedy of the current parliamentary inertia is that it continues in the face of overwhelming evidence that increased representation for women is the way forward. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization of Parliaments of Sovereign States, has ranked nations by the degree of women's participation in legislatures, both appointed and elected. Our houses of parliament rate a lowly 119th on this chart. Think of any nation whose form of representative government you admire, and it is nearly certain that women play a larger role in the leadership of that nation than in India. We fare better than most basket-cases and religious crackpots, but there is little solace in that comparison. There is a fairly simple lesson to be drawn -- a better India must include more representation for its women.

Women in government will make other choices than the ones made by men 'on their behalf.' Professors Raghabendra Chattopadhyay of IIM-Calcutta, and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied changes in local government in Rajasthan and West Bengal since the passage of the 73rd Amendment in 1992. They found that women in positions of leadership invested public resources in issues that were of greater concern to them -- drinking water, for instance -- than in traditionally male-interest matters such as roads. The 'identity of the policy maker can have important effects on policy,' the researches concluded from their analysis. Perhaps it is the certainty of such revised priorities that the powers-that-be today fear and resist the most.

The arguments for increased representation have been made repeatedly over the years, and for the most part these have adequately addressed the points of opposition. The fullness of life experiences women face is simply not adequately captured by legislatures that exclude them. Women's representation is also not readily comparable to the reservations in place for other groups. While there are legitimate concerns raised whenever moves to select representatives in a deliberate manner are debated, there have also been numerous suggestions as to how these worries can be addressed.

Parliament's stone-walling isn't intellectually defensible, and in time the political forces needed to defeat this stance will be mustered. The deferment of empowerment is a setback, certainly, but cannot repulse reform entirely. History records the statesmanship of those who have dared to imagine a brighter future, and pushed towards it even in the face of opposition. We didn't get to Independence or Mandal or Panchayati Raj by accident; these were milestones along the great passage as well. Mr Vajpayee's choice lies only in deciding whether that record of statesmanship shall bear his name too; the reforms themselves will arrive one day, despite him if necessary.

Democracy is the irrepressible idea that to be human is more than an endless seesaw of ideological tussles. And progressive society recognizes this. Its resilience lies in the everyday aspirations of people, and the expectation that the passage of time is dotted by positive change. It is not easily defeated; one day a third of the seats in Parliament will be occupied by women. And from there, we will dare to imagine some more.

Ashwin Mahesh