RESERVATIONS FOR WOMEN
Adam and Eve were both equal. Both were thrown out of Eden into the garden of politics and power. Expelled, Adam seized the reigns of power and opportunity, marginalizing women. Success stories apart, it needs constitutional change to restore parity. Witness America’s Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 and electoral changes in English electoral law in 1928 and now India’s discontents on this issue.
India’s experiments with providing reservation have been male dominated, half hearted and lacking political will. The first experiment of providing one-third reservation through the 72nd and 73rd amendments in Panchayats has been a success. Elected women have often been harassed, humiliated and undermined, yet the panchayat reservations have mobilized women. The lack of political opposition to the panchayat reservations happened only because the option to bring in OBC reservations was conceded for reservations in panchayats.
Reservations in the State Assemblies and Parliament have suffered a different fate. This story covered the period (1996-2009) through the proposed 81st (1996), 84th (1998), 85th (1999) and now the 108th Amendment of 2008. I know from personal conversations with many in power that front bench support was never out of conviction. One politician (now in the cabinet) said to me: “We will never permit this”. Fearful of being totally constitutionally barred from 33% seats in the legislatures, the men, with notable exceptions, were strongly hostile to these changes. But they could not oppose openly because women still constituted 50% of the electorate. Thus, for most male politicians, support for women’s reservation has come from a fear of electoral backlash – and, perhaps of Durga and Kali!
A core point of resistance has been the creation of a reservation-within-a-reservation – not just for SC/STs in their quota, but also for OBCs. The OBCs had not been given mandatory (but only permissible) reservations in the panchayat amendments of 1992. In the 77th Amendment (1995), OBCs were denied promotional and consequential seniority avenues in their service and civil service careers through reservation. In the case of women’s reservations, the OBC based parties, headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and others, demanded that one-third reservation should also be compulsorily included for OBCs. Now that Nitish Kumar of Bihar has abandoned the case for reservations for OBCs, the OBC cause is lost. SC and ST are a super-classification amongst the disadvantaged; further reservations for OBCs will bring in an undesirable caste factor.
A fundamental objection to the blanket quotas for women has been class usurpation by the well off “creamy layer” women. Never was this more picturesquely illuminated than by Sharad Yadav when he spoke about the middle class baal katiya women (with short hair) hogging the quota. The left parties have been resistant to the creamy layer, even in employment matters. So, the baal katiya argument (true and impressive as it was) disappeared from the parliamentary radar.
Alternatives to quotas
The European and other nations have discarded the quota option and opted for political parties redressing the dis-balance between men and women in their legislatures. To this extent, England and other countries have achieved considerable success through political parties adopting voluntary method quotas. An in-between alternative suggested by the Manushi group (2000) and former CEC, M.S. Gill (also in 2000) was for compulsory political party nominations of one-third women. Manushi added that it should be ensured that the weak constituencies are not allotted to women! This proposal had continued support from two MPs Shri Virendra Bhatia and Shri Shailendra Kumar in the Standing Committee 36th Report (17th December 2009) supporting a 20% target for political parties. This proposal is (to borrow Justice Krishna Iyer’s phrase) “neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring”. What will happen to a political party that does not meet its target? Will it be struck off the register of political parties? This proposal is interesting as a voluntary measure. As a compulsory measure, it is hopelessly misconceived. Nothing prevents a political party from adopting a voluntary target for themselves. At present the maximum representation of women in the last two parliaments has been 14%.
The rationale for women’s electoral quota may well have to be synthesized with the basis of the original Constitution of 1950, reversing the British policy of invidious quota policy along religious, caste and tribal lines. On 16th June 1949, India’s Constituent Assembly opted for universal suffrage for all. This was a historic decision. But quotas for SC/ST and Anglo-Indians in India’s legislatures were permitted on grounds of three D’s (discrimination, disadvantage and disempowerment). There is no dearth of people in India who would fit this bill. Why women? Some women are privileged. The privileged will dominate. But imposing “creamy layer” for electoral purposes is not workable either for SC & ST quotas (where the leadership of the best will be lost) or otherwise. Broadly, the original dispensation based on three D’s applies to women generally.
The provision for reviewing reservations for women after 15 years is consistent with the review provision of 10 years for SC/ST. At that stage, discussion can center on whether (i) the quotas for women should be continued; or (ii) increased to 50%; or (iii) reduced to 25%. After 15 years, in 2025, Parliament will not disturb vested interests. Indian men will seek to try and control and dominate women MPs as they try in the case of panchayats. But Indian women MPs and MLAs have shown their mettle.
There is an argument that there will be 100% reservation in at least one constituency in every state. Ironically, in two member states in the Lok Sabha there will be 0% reservation in the third election. In the 100% case, this is a logical effect of the quota. However in the 0% case, only SC/ST women will be eligible for two elections, with general merit candidates being eligible only 10 years later. In single member states, SC/ST turn will come in the first years; and thereafter after 10 years. Who can nurture a constituency under these circumstances? As between SC and ST inter se, it is not clear how the quota will be adjusted.
Finally there is the lack of what lawyers call a "non-obstante clause". This simply means that each clause of the amendment should read “Notwithstanding anything contained in the Constitution…”. This is necessary to obviate challenges on grounds of violation of the equality provisions of the Constitution (Articles 14 and 15). No doubt Article 15(3) declares that special provisions can be made for women and children. But the electoral quota for women is super-special and precaution is necessary. Already, the Rajasthan High Court has correctly invalidated additional reservation for women. The hands of wayward judges with paternal minds should be tied down.
Despite its faults, this proposal should be supported and also be extended to the upper house. At present, the future of the 108th Amendment hangs on a slender thread, depending on smaller parties for support. With a gestation period of 14 years, the proposed amendment to secure women’s reservation in legislatures is a new experiment in democracy.