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Monday, May 12, 2008

Why India must make haste to welcome Stree Shakti

At a time when politics has become increasingly divisive, with few bridges of dialogue and cooperation to link rival political parties, it was heartening to see Sushma Swaraj of the BJP, Brinda Karat of the CPM, and other women MPs joining hands in front of Parliament building on the day that the UPA government introduced the much-awaited bill on women’s reservation in the Rajya Sabha last week.

Expectedly, the tabling of the bill, which seeks to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in Parliament and state legislatures, was accompanied by low drama. Some political parties opposed to it resorted to a show of muscle power inside the House, but to no avail. Thus, twelve years after it was first drafted, the bill has finally crossed a major hurdle. Its eventual enactment may still be a long way off, but India has taken a big step forward on the path of women’s political empowerment.

The UPA government should get the credit where it is due, although it would be disingenuous on the part of the Congress to try to gain electoral capital out of it. As a matter of fact, overcoming their political differences, two major non-Congress formations — BJP and the Left parties — have consistently backed the bill. Its eventual passage will also critically hinge on their support. Thus, all three, along with other smaller parties backing the proposed legislation, deserve the credit. It is said that a lot can be achieved in public life if people are willing not to take credit for themselves. Such a constructive approach, combined with a commitment to expand areas of bipartisan consensus on nationally important issues, is what India expects from its political parties.

In the specific context of the women’s reservation bill, its main champions have a continued responsibility to prevent its distortion at the time of enactment. The sub-quotas for SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities within the 33 per cent reserved seats for women, as demanded by some political parties, are both undemocratic and injurious to national integration. At present, the Constitution already provides for reserved seats for SCs and STs. As far as OBCs are concerned, by no stretch of imagination can it be said that they have been kept out of the power structure in today’s India.

Coming to the issue of religion-based quotas in elected bodies, it should not be touched even with a barge pole. Any legitimacy given to it would open the floodgates for the pernicious demand for proportional representation, on the basis of the populations of various so-called minority communities. The demand for communal reservations was raised even after India’s Partition in 1947. It was rejected emphatically by the Constituent Assembly. The reasons for which the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Dr B.R. Ambedkar opposed it are as relevant now as they were then.

In recent decades, India has witnessed a silent social revolution after the introduction of 33 per cent reservations for women in panchayats and municipal bodies. Thus, out of nearly 30 lakh elected representatives in these bodies, one-third are women, which fact gives India the proud distinction of having the largest number of women in democratic institutions anywhere in the world. Actually, as stated in Parliament recently by Union Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the actual representation of women in panchayati raj institutions has risen to 42 per cent. In other words, women are being elected in large numbers even from general seats. If you add to this figure the tens of lakhs of women who are either members or in leadership positions in Self-Help Groups or cooperative bodies in rural and urban areas, you get an inspiring picture of the march of women’s empowerment in India. Reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures is a logical extension of this process. It is also a necessary legislative measure for providing women more opportunities in running the affairs of the nation at higher levels.

However, on a cautionary note, it must be stated that increase in quantitative representation does not necessarily result in qualitative empowerment. Most political parties, including those supporting the bill, have still not adopted a new mindset of encouraging women to take up crucial assignments. As anyone who is familiar with the inner functioning of our political parties would attest, women activists (who, let’s not forget, also have to discharge their responsibilities at home) have to work twice as hard in the organisation to get half the recognition that their male counterparts get. The need for training, capacity building and leadership development among women activists is also an area that has received scant attention. It seems that our political establishment is still not ready to reform itself to both accept and promote women’s empowerment.

Nevertheless, the process itself is now unstoppable. The beneficial aspects of more and more women playing an active role in the social, economic and political life of the nation are so numerous, and their combined transformational effect is so revolutionary, that India must make haste to welcome Stree Shakti — Women’s Power. Perhaps the most compelling reason for doing so was articulated by Mahatma Gandhi who said, “If by power is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. . . if nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”

By Sudheendra Kulkarni


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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