81st Amendment Bill: Reserving Opinion

81st Amendment Bill: Reserving Opinion 

Newsletter Mar 1997

The issue of reservation for women in Parliament, a matter of much public discussion needs to be viewed in the context of the reality of women’s lives in India, and how much real change it can be expected to bring. 

In fact, the reservation debate has once again brought into focus the inequalities between men and women in electoral politics. Even in fifty years, the Indian State has not been able to fulfil the promise of equality for women, despite Constitutional guarantees and legislative interventions. The falling sex ratio, growing crimes against women, sexual harassment faced by women in every sphere of life, lack of access to productive resources and injustice to women in the name of personal laws, are indicative of society’s perspective towards women. Women have traditionally been lauded for their reproductive role alone, and increasing commodification and market economy is forcing women to be consumers alone, while totally negating their contribution as producers. The move to reserve 33% seats in Parliament for women therefore, needs to be analysed in this broader context. 

It was the National Perspective Plan on Women which first spoke of reservations from Panchayats to Parliament. In 1989, the united opposition defeated the 73rd Amendment which guaranteed 33% reservation for women at the Panchayati Raj level. It was finally passed in 1991, and since then about 1 million women have been elected to local bodies. Although the United Front government had touted reservation for women issue in its election manifesto, when it came to putting to vote the 81st Constitution Amendment Bill (providing for 33% reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies), the government got cold feet. This was despite the fact that the Report of the 31 member Parliamentary Panel favoured immediate passage of the Bill, and there was widespread lobbying and support for it. 

Common objections to reservation for women relate mainly to lack of education, the ‘fact’ that men in their families will ultimately wield the power, and that women are not ‘used’ to politics, etc. One of the facts overlooked in such denigration of women’s potential is that women have been isolated within the confines of their home, the entire responsibility of household duties and child rearing is thrust upon them, and ‘en have ensured that the realm of the ‘outside’ world is theirs alone. The issue of reservation for backward castes has served to further cloud the issue, but what has become increasingly apparent is that men in power feel extremely threatened at the mere idea of sharing that power, especially with women. 

There is no doubt that women’s representation in the formal political sphere is abysmally low. The number of women in the Indian Parliament has fallen from 39 (7%) in 1991 to 36 (6%) in 1996. Although this percentage is higher than that of so-called ‘developed’ countries like France (6%) and not very far behind UK (9%) and USA (11%), it is considerably low for a country where women participated in thousands in the freedom movement, and have always been at the forefront in trade unions, peasant movements, ecological movements and other organised struggles. 

While reservation would certainly ensure that a larger number of women get elected to formal decision-making bodies, several issues remain unaddressed as to the nature and limitations of this kind of representation. One of the first questions that come to mind is: Why only 33% reservation? There is no logic behind this arbitrary figure. If we go by the perspective of ‘positive discrimination’ (or ‘affirmative action’ - a more positive way of putting it), for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes according to the percentage of their population, then women too should be granted proportional reservation i.e. nearly 50%. Obviously, the objective of the State is just to pay lip-service to women’s empowerment, and not really to grant equality. 

Another limitation of the Bill is the absence of any recommendations to increase the number of women in the decision-making bodies of political parties. If such a step is not ensured, decisions on issues to be taken up, and the choice of candidates to whom tickets are give, etc., will remain outside the control of the women members of these parties. In the present scenario, women are marginalised within all political parties, with no party willing to field women candidates on their merit. Resistance from within the parties also came to the fore during the current session of the Parliament when male members across party lines walked out of the House. Simultaneously the mere introduction of reservation could lead to a ghettoising of women’s issues where men may completely shrug off the responsibility of raising women’s issues. Further, the existence of reservation would contribute to the idea that women should contest elections from reserved constituencies alone, and the possibilities of women being given tickets from general constituencies seem pretty remote. This attitude is reflected in men’s hostility in the smallest of everyday matters like when women occupy seats in buses other than the 4-5 ‘ladies’ seats. 

The overall benefit of reservation for women needs to be viewed in the context of how much real change it will bring to womens lives in general. While it would certainly ensure that a few women enter the arena of electoral politics, the impact of such participation has to be gauged in how much it will change the day-to day realities for women. The nature of present day politics, dominated by goondas and corrupt power hungry elites, itself needs to be challenged. The steady erosion of the institutions of governance and the mechanisms of democratic functioning has made a mockery of people’s representation. What is needed is a massive overhaul of the entire system, and not piecemeal changes that will make hardly any dent. 

The fear that reservation for women will end up co-opting the transformative potential of the women’s movement, is a very real one. Unless the women in Parliament and Assemblies are responsive to the voices of the movement, very little change is possible. It is only when demands are raised from below is it useful to have women in powerful positions. The belief that women will ensure a ‘clean’ or ‘value-based’ politics seems to lack basis. It is nearly impossible for individual women politicians to resist the dynamics of institutionalised politics -- male-dominated, upper-class and upper-caste. 

Thus, the mere presence of women will not ensure the raising of women’s issues unless there is some backing from a strong movement for social change. Reservation can only be a small part of short-term and long-term strategies of the women’s movement. What is needed is a qualitative and progressive change in the policies and attitudes towards women’s rights and equality. This can come about only with social change brought about by the struggle of women in organised movements. To what extent women in power can play a useful role in social transformation, remains to be seen. 


Party                Committee                         No.                       Total Members                 % of Women 

                                                                of Women 

CPI(M)              Politburo                             0                              15                                  0 

                        Central Comm.                    5                              70                                  7 

CPI                   Secretariat                          0                              9                                   0 

                        National Exec.                     3                              31                                 10 

                        National Council                   6-7*                         125                                5 

JD                     Pol. Affairs Comm.              0                             15                                  0 

                        Parliamentary Board             0**                           15                                 0 

                        National Exec.                     11                            75                                  15 


UF                     Steering Comm.                  0                             15-17***                         0 

BJP                 Parliamentary Board               1                              9                                   11 

                      Election Comm.                      2                             17                                 12 

Cong.             Working Comm.                      2                             19                                 11 

*The seventh member is a candidate member who participates in discussions but does not vote. 

**Normally the state President of the JD’s womens wing is invited to attend and offer suggestions, but she does not have a vote. Even this invitation depends upon the wishes of the party President or of the President of the Parliament Board. 

***Total number of members vary due to visitors.