'This is not about revering women; this is about women entering politics.'
'This is about women having a say in how State policies have to be shaped.'
On the 20th of September 2023, at the special session of parliament, both Houses passed the Women's Reservation Bill, which the government calls Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam.
As per the bill, one third of the seats in Parliament and state legislatives will be reserved for women.
The Women's Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament in 1996. It was re-introduced in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2003.
In 2008, Dr Manmohan Singh's government tabled the bill again and passed it in the Rajya Sabha in 2010. But it couldn't do so in Lok Sabha.
Will the passing of the bill, though nobody knows when it will be implemented, change the political scenario in India?
"without a sub-quota in the Women's Bill for the OBCs, more upper caste women would get in, and the caste composition of Parliament would become more upper caste," Mary E John, former professor and Director, Centre for Women's Development Studies, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier in the first of a two-part interview.
After the passing of the Women's Reservation Bill, Prime Minister Modi said India scripted history.
When we are not sure about its implementation, do you think India has really scripted history?
Well, it has been passed by both Houses of Parliament. Once a requisite number of states also pass it (which is very likely), it is the law of the land.
Let's not get away from the fact that something major has happened. At the same time, it is not going to have any immediate effect as so many have pointed out.
Due to the conditionalities of delimitation of constituencies, its implementation is uncertain.
So, there is no straight forward yes or no answer to your question.
Since 1996, there were efforts to bring about one third reservations in state assemblies and Parliament, which is a change from the past, and as time passed, it has found increasing acceptance.
I would say, it was a historic moment.
But what's more worrisome than its uncertain future is about how this government goes about passing these kinds of bills and the perspective with which it does.
They call the bill Nari Shakti Vandan. Why do you have to worship women? Is it not the right of women?
Yes, why this reverence? Yes, it is a right of women. Women as political participants in the sharing of power is a matter of mutual respect.
It is our right to be different, and do it differently.
These questions have to be raised. Firstly, this Bill has a longer history with no connection to the BJP.
This is not about one man (Modi) providing welfare to women, for which he should be worshipped.
This is not about revering women; this is about women entering politics. This is about women having a say in how state policies have to be shaped.
This ought to make men uncomfortable. But it is as though patriarchy has disappeared, and women would not pose any challenge to men who have dominated the political spectrum.
It is as though none of that is an issue here.
They have domesticated the whole issue as if it was not a problem to anyone. This is worrisome.
When women constitute close to 50% of the population, why do we have 33% reservation?
There is a reason behind 33% reservation. It is the critical mass theory, that the numbers you need to make a difference need not necessarily have to correspond precisely to the proportion of the population.
One third in a group can make a difference or influence in decision making.
It is an old idea. It was there in the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the local panchayats and municipalities.
It needs to be tested whether the critical mass theory holds. Later on, in several state panchayats increased the reservations to 50%.
About taking credit for the Bill. It was last introduced in 2008 by the Manmohan Singh government. So, Sonia Gandhi said, it was their idea.
Who do you think can take credit for the Bill?
Yes, it was their (UPA) Bill, and also that of all the women's organisations that pushed for it.
History shows that it was brought in by the UPA and the NDA opposed it. Of course, it was a complex moment.
We should not forget that the SP (Samajwadi Party) and the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) raised the issue of sub-quotas and that caused the stalling of the Bill at that time.
Now, the Congress is also demanding quota for the OBCs...
I am quite surprised. Perhaps they have realised now that this is a good strategy under the current regime.
At that time, the Congress had no interest in having quotas within the bill. Now, they have joined the other Opposition groups in demanding a sub quota.
Should there for quotas within the bill?
Yes, there should be. I had argued in its favour in 1996 itself. A small number of us said a sub quota was needed.
The reason is simple; the chances of women as winnable candidates are not equal.
The SP and RJD asking for a sub quota may not be because they were dying to see women in politics.
Their argument then was caste based. OBCs who had earlier been absent from public politics were able to make their presence felt in Parliament from the 1980s which till then was overwhelmingly upper caste.
So, they argued that without a sub-quota in the Women's Bill for the OBCs, more upper caste women would get in, and the caste composition of Parliament would become more upper caste. Therefore, they wanted a sub quota for OBC women.
It was a fair argument. But at that time, nobody showed any interest other than these parties for the fortunes of OBC women, or other women, such as Muslim women who were relatively disadvantaged.
The fact is, OBC women as a group are far less privileged and less educated compared to upper caste women. They may be at a disadvantage when pitted against each other.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com