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Women’s Reservation Bill : Can India break the jinx of Political Tokenism in South Asia?

Bobby Luthra Sinha and Pankaj Kumar Jha

Introduction: Historic Endorsement of Women’s Representational Quotas at the National and State levels

Women Reservattion Bill: With a view to reserving one-third of the seats in lower houses of the Union and State Legislatures, the One Hundred Twenty Eighth Constitution Amendment Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Indian Minister of Law and Justice, Arjun Ram Meghwal. This was the first act presented in the newly inaugurated Parliament of India and brought an end to the much-awaited cause of reservation of seats for women.

With the historic passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the very first of its kind in the South Asian region, a hope abounds that Indian democracy is firmly moving towards an inclusive representational space for women. Even though the legislation is not to be implemented immediately,  India  is all set to offer women not just an expanding participation but a full-fledged scope of democratic leadership. 

Patriarchy, lack of socio-economic and personal security, discrimination and violence have formed some of biggest obstacles preventing women from active participation in politics across South Asian Countries. Though not bereft of challenges, the one-third representation intended to be implemented in the near future in India under the women’s reservation bill holds  significant social, political and regional promises. 

Fate of  Women’s  Reservation Bill in India: Trajectory at a  Glance

Reservation of seats for women had been in the pipeline for a long time. While, reservation was provided for elections to local bodies (Art. 243D and 243T for rural and urban bodies respectively), there was no such provision for Union or State legislatures. For the first time, an amendment Bill to this effect was introduced in 1996 by the Narsimha Rao government failed in the Lok Sabha, following which it was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee. The Bill could not be passed because the Lok Sabha was dissolved. 

Later on, Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to get such a Bill passed in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2003, but failed every time because of lack of support. The role of political will in carrying out reforms is abundantly evident from this. Another step towards this cause was made by Manmohan Singh led UPA government which introduced a Women’s Reservation Bill in 2009 in the Rajya Sabha, so that it may not lapse because of dissolution of the Lok Sabha. While this Bill was passed by the upper House, it was never presented before the Lok Sabha. 

Finally  when the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyamas the bill formally called, was tabled and  received the support from members of both the houses,  assented to by President Draupadi Murmu on 28th September 2023, the Bill became a constitutional reality. It is interesting to note that while the ruling party itself had a majority to have passed the legislation, it received support from opposition parties as well. In the Lok Sabha only two members voted against, while in the Rajya Sabha no member voted against it. It is symbolic of the change in attitude of the legislators of India. As a result, the One Hundred Twenty Eighth Constitution Amendment Bill became the One Hundred Sixth Constitution Amendment Act, providing for a thirty-three per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislatures.

2029: Year of Political hope for Reservation of Women at the Centre and State Level

The Bill noted that though women’s participation in  Panchayati Raj institutions and municipal bodies was substantial, their representation in the State legislatures and in Parliament still remains limited. Undoubtedly, the reservation ensured for women in local bodies in India has borne fruits. For instance, there are 45.61 percent women representatives in Panchayati Raj institutions, that makes over 15 lakh women a part of local government countrywide. Although during the debate on this Bill, Home Minister Amit Shah made it clear before the House that the reservation would not come in effect in 2024 General Elections,  yet it is hoped that at the Parliamentary and legislative Assembly level too, women will claim their much due space just as they have done at the local level.  It is probable that the seats will be reserved on a rotational basis. 

Only when a delimitation exercise would be carried out after 2026, will this Act  be eligible to be operationalised  in the succeeding elections. According to the  42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India a delimitation exercise could not take place until the publication of the results of the first Census after the year 2000. In 2001 however, this period stood further extended for another 25 years. Therefore the women’s reservation Bill is slated to come into full force at the time of the  general elections of 2029. Once the Bill stands implemented, over 180 seats in the Lok Sabha will be reserved for women. One-third of the seats reserved for SCs and STs will go to women belonging to these communities, while ensuring the same quota at the overall level.  

Tasks Ahead for Indian Women:  Sunset Clause and the South Asian Democracies

While the Indian Parliament may have taken such a step a little late, it is a step in the right direction and worthy of the support it received and the stir it has caused.  Of noteworthy importance is the fact that South Asian Democracies are said to be given in to tokenism in the process of selection with respect to selecting women candidates. Quotas for women at national and local levels of government in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reveal that very often women candidates fielded may be handpicked. Women may come from either exclusively an elite class as in Bangladesh; from a rural and illiterate background as evident in Pakistan or belong to agrarian and poor families as well as upper castes (especially Sarpanches/ Panchayats Heads) in the case of  India

Studies show that women representatives have definitely exerted a positive influence on decisionmaking and education as well as selfhelp movements and micro-financing schemes in South Asia. Nonetheless, not to their full scope potential. Hence, one of the gravest challenges for national representative quotas to be effective would be to eliminate tokenism in selection and functioning  of women candidate. . Political parties must learn to democratise their structure to accommodate deserving women representatives and enhance their political learnings. At the same time women party members must seek to raise their stature and move beyond a presence as ‘namesakes’.

Given that women’s reservation Bill that was passed in India has a Sunset Clause to itwherein its validity shall be limited to a fifteen year period post its commencement, women in India must pick the cudgels up now. The lag in the Bill’s adoption and  implementation can be an advantage for women party workers for they can utilise the time gained to prepare themselves for the tasks ahead.  Negotiating political space from their male colleagues in their respective political parties and demanding  a fair candidature beyond parochial and patriarchal considerations would be a good beginning.   If such a feat is achieved by women in India, no doubt,  a vibrant political message will resonate across  the rest of South Asia.

Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha is the deputy director at the Centre for Asian African and Latin American Studies (CAALAS), Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) Delhi. Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha teaches Political Science at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi

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