August 17, 2001


 Search the Internet

E-Mail this column to a friend

Print this page
Recent Columns
Mutually Advantageous
Foul weather over
A marketable nation
Amar Chitra

Ashwin Mahesh

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.

  • Are women a disadvantaged group?

    In a word, yes and no. Certainly, substantial numbers of women in India are impeded by antiquated social attitudes and individual behavior. The perversion of authority within the home for the abuse of girls and women is a continuing malady of our times. In public life as well, there can be little doubt that women must endure and overcome significant obstacles in nearly every sphere of activity, and those who find their way to prominence are clearly the exceptions. However, whereas the disadvantages they face are real enough, it is by no means obvious that women constitute a group, in the politically accepted sense of the term.

    Uniformity of outcomes is not conclusive evidence of common cause, and the mere fact of being similarly deprived is insufficient reason to gather the victims under one umbrella. Disadvantages among women are rarely comparable across the divides of class, caste, religion, etc. Moreover, any openings created by way of quotas for women will accrue, at least initially, to already empowered members of the female sex. The incongruity of a few unfettered women claiming to represent a large disadvantaged class in which they hold no membership is inescapable! This brings us to the second question.

  • Are women more likely to address issues confronting the gentler sex?

    Here again, our answer must be ambivalent. South Asia remains among the most backward regions of the planet in its treatment of female populations, despite several strong women having held power at various times. The current stalwarts of this cadre -- Rabri, Sonia, Jaya and Mamata on our side of the borders, and the likes of Bhutto, Hasina and Kumaratunga elsewhere -- haven't exactly lit fires in women's hearts. In part, this is because few, if any, of the noted politicians have obtained their standing independently; their success is often directly related to their kinship to prominent men. Also, their positions of authority included no specific mandate to address issues important to women; in this sense they are no different from their male peers.

    If we concede that women will, on balance, pay greater attention to the concerns of their sisters than male politicians have, in fact, we encounter new dangers. It has been repeatedly postulated that reservation based on group identities runs the enormous risk of affirming that only people similar to us in narrowly defined ways can adequately represent our interests. As Sanghvi observed, one cannot embrace this principle with the limited purpose of empowering women; instead an assertion that women alone can champion the upliftment of the female population must additionally explain why Muslims or Sikhs should not also find virtue in such fractured thinking.

    Indeed, the Constitution provides generous latitude against this principle, allowing politicians to contest elections from places they have little relation to. On what basis are we to presume that Sonia Gandhi could have properly represented her "constituents" in Bellary? Democracy demands that elected officials shall have due regard for the interests not only of those whose support they have obtained but of all whose aspirations they represent. As observed earlier on these pages, separation will create inequalities even where none now exists, the necessary counter to this threat is that all legislators be required to uphold the broadest definition of their roles as representatives.

The two chief arguments, thus, have little merit, and moreover are fraught with significant collateral danger. Which brings me to the specific position advocated here, namely that it is precisely because women do not constitute an identifiable group of disadvantaged persons best served by electing their own kind that increased representation for them in Parliament makes sense.

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 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.

Ashwin Mahesh

Tell us what you think of this column