Will the Sun Ever See that Morrow? (March 11, 2010)

News Analysis

Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam on the implication of the Women’s Bill hurriedly passed in the Rajya Sabha.

The Women’s Reservation Bill raises issues that defy simplistic formulations as they stand at the croso-section of issues of representation, gender, class, economic empowerment, political manipulation, parliamentary norms and myriad other issues and considerations.

On the surface, it looks like an issue of representation, i.e., women’s right to represent other women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies (Vidhan Sabhas). The simplistic logic is that “like represents like”, and women would represent women better than men do, as men are “unlike” women.

Needless to say that all women are not the same, as men too are not the same. Distinctions of birth, class, caste, income and station in life differentiate them. A middle-class working Indian woman has nothing in common with Naina Lal Kidwai, Shobhna Bharatiya or Indira Nyoi. The bill suggests that all of them are the same, while the fact is that they are not.

By now our stand is clear on the issue: we are opposed to it not on the ground of gender, but class. This Bill will help the same classes whose males are already there in the legislatures, by bringing in women from the same classes to bolster their numbers. This will further skew the representation of the BCs, OBCs, Dalits and Muslims.

The affected classes had made several representations to the government and UPA leadership to amend the Bill suitably to make it more equitable before passing it. However, our plea went unheeded.

Our fears are not unsubstantiated. The mixing of gender, class and ethnicity can have terrible consequences. There are academics who point out that empowerment of American women indirectly led to further dispossession and marginalisation of African Americans, men and women.

India’s Backwards, other Backwards, Dalits and Muslims have repeatedly expressed these fears. That the whole exercise would end up further empowering upper-class Hindu males is clear from the Bivi-Beti-Bahu raj of some well-entrenched families. Women with politician father, father-in-law or husband enter politics either as a replacement of their dead relatives or as heirs to their political empire during their lifetime. In none of the cases women stand on their own, but as a proxie of their powerful male relatives. This is certainly not women’s empowerment as they are mere rubber stamps for the males in the family.

What I want to suggest is clear from the most high-profile cases in South Asia: President Srimavo Bandranaike (wife of a slain president) and her daughter, President Chandrika Kumartunga of Sri Lanka, prime minister Khaleda Zia (wife of a slain president) and prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed (daughter of slain Bangladesh founder), Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi (daughter of the first PM of India), Ms Benazir Bhutto (daughter of a slain prime minister of Pakistan).

There are quite a few others in countries near and far like prime minister Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of President Sukarno) of Indonesia. Then there are a number of others in India’s states like Jaylalitha (MGR’s associate), and Mayawati (Kanshi Ram’s associate), besides some well-known girl friends of powerful politicians in states given ministerial positions for no other reason than closeness to powerful people. The present Bill will, in many cases allow ambitious politicians to put their women in front and enjoy the benefits of power by proxy.

Yet another is virtual misuse of the institution of whip to create parliamentary advantage at the cost of the underprivileged. We have been given the lollipop that the skewed Bill will empower all classes at some point in future. But will the sun ever see that morrow?

My final point (for this piece, at least) is that the Bill will de-stabilise political continuity in several areas as a third of the seats will have to be vacated for women every five years. As it will be done on a rotation basis, MPs and MLAs will never have the time to nurture their constituencies, because everytime that he will begin to consolidate he will have to make way for a lady. That will take away the incentive for MPs/MLAs to really work hard.


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