INDIA’S RAJYA SABHA AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT

When an issue such as advancing the political and other rights of women becomes bogged down in India’s popularly elected Chamber, governments turn to the upper House, ironically the Chamber that was designed to slow down not speed up legislation.

Shri S.N. Sahu in New Delhi

Shri Sahu was a senior official and Press Secretary to the late President of India, Shri K.R. Narayanan, and served as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.  The views expressed by the author are his personal views.

In 1946 Mahatma Gandhi expressed regret that political parties were not doing enough to send adequate numbers of women to legislative bodies. In response to a question whether it was necessary to have large numbers of women in such bodies, he forcefully said:  “I am not enamoured of equality or any other proportion in such matters….Seeing, however, that it has been the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women…to men, even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women.…Women, and for that matter any group, should disdain patronage.  They should seek justice, never favours….For men to take a lead in this much-needed reform would be not a matter of favour but a simple act of belated justice due to women.”

The Constitution Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha
The passage of the above Bill in the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) on 9 March 2010 to reserve for women 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha (House of People) and state Assemblies represented the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi to work for justice and equality for women. As the 108th amendment to the constitution, it is a mighty step for the emancipation of Indian women and their political empowerment.
The motion moved in the Council of States to pass the Bill after so many failed attempts in the Lok Sabha to make it a law bears significance in the context of the historic role played by the Rajya Sabha in becoming a legislative forum where some of the most far-reaching socio-economic legislation originated.  The day it would be enacted it would be hailed as the second most significant development after women got the right to vote.
Several Members of the Rajya Sabha, cutting across party lines, while participating in the debate on the Bill, referred to Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of our constitution. Shri D. Raja remarked that gender equality must be the objective of the entire Parliament and nation. He fortified his argument by quoting Dr Ambedkar who in his address to thousands of women belonging to the depressed classes had said:  “I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
Dr Ambedkar, as the then Law Minister of India, drafted the Hindu Code Bill which was supposed to ensure women their legitimate rights which were denied to them for centuries. Its enactment would have brought about an unprecedented social revolution in our country spearheaded by women.
Many organizations and conservative sections of society came to the streets and shouted “Down with the Hindu Code Bill”.   They were against equality and equal opportunities for women. Our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was saddened by those developments.  In a letter to Chief Ministers he wrote that even “as a considerable majority in Parliament at that time wanted to pass the Bill with minor modifications, they were helpless before a determined minority and therefore had to concede defeat for the moment”. Those words of Prime Minister Nehru sound so contemporary for our own time when the Constitution (One Hundred Eighth Amendment) Bill 2008 is facing stiff opposition only from a small group.
The Nehru government’s intention to make the Hindu Code Bill the law of the land was best reflected when it was incorporated in the address of the then President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, to both Houses of Parliament assembled together in 1952.
However, the arduous exercise of DrAmbedkar to frame the Hindu Code Bill did not go in vain. Its progressive content and reformative features commanded attention of all right-thinking people from across the nation. Country-wide debate on those aspects moulded public opinion in its favour.

Hindu Law Reform Bills and Nehru’s observations
Eventually many Bills incorporating the basic ingredients of the Hindu Code were introduced in the Rajya Sabha. The Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill 1952, The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Bill 1953, The Hindu Succession Bill 1954, and The Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Bill 1956 became law after originating in the Council of States.
It is of extraordinary education to know that then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was making profound remarks after the passage of each and every Bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha for protecting the rights of women.  When those Bills were passed he observed in a letter to the Chief Ministers on 15 June 1956 “there is something revolutionary about them” and “they have broken the barrier of ages and cleared the way somewhat for our womenfolk to progress”. Then he remarked: “I have long been convinced that a nation’s progress is intimately connected with the status of its women.”
The observations of Pandit Nehru articulated in the mid-1950s brought out the significance of this legislation which the Rajya Sabha had the distinction of taking up first. In preferring the Council of States to initiate those historic Bills, the government of the day was underlining the image of the Council of States as a legislative nursery for progressive ideas and forces and for taking steps to advance women and heighten the prestige of our country at the global level.

The preferred Chamber for women’s legislation
Five and half decades after the Rajya Sabha was chosen to introduce the Hindu reform Bills, it fell to it again to provide leadership for passing the Constitution (Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill 2008 for providing adequate space to women in the political field. While the House took courageous and bold initiatives in securing the social and economic rights of women in the middle of the twentieth century, it took the giant leap for political empowerment of women in the first  decade of the twenty-first century.
With the introduction and passage of the constitutional amendment in the Rajya Sabha to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state Legislatures, the nation realized that the Council of States as a permanent Chamber of our Parliament is of monumental significance in successfully taking up legislation which revolutionizes polity and society and which often is not accepted by some social and political groups.
When a legislative proposal is introduced in the Rajya Sabha it does not lapse as, unlike the Lok Sabha, the upper House is not subject to dissolution. Its continuation as a permanent Chamber of our Parliament is its unique and enduring feature and any legislation originating there remains alive. While piloting the Report of the Union Constitution Committee in the Constituent Assembly, Shri N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar had stated that the role of the second Chamber was not to be a clog to either legislation or administration.
The idea of a second Chamber is rooted in the fundamental notion that it would prevent hasty legislation. The Rajya Sabha has certainly prevented numerous hasty laws. However there are vested interests inside and outside Parliament which often prevent introduction of legislation envisaging bold social, economic and political reforms. In the particular instance of the legislation concerning the reservation of seats for women, the Lower House of our Parliament witnessed violent resistance when it was introduced in the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas.  It is in such situations that the Rajya Sabha, created to prevent hasty legislation, is preferred by the government to introduce Bills of far-reaching social and economic significance to hasten the process of making these into laws for the benefit of society and nation. The role of Rajya Sabha assumes critical significance for expanding the scope of democracy and making it more inclusive and broad-based.
The Speaker of the lower House, Hon. Somnath Chatterjee, in his valedictory remarks at the end of the last session of the 14th Lok Sabha on 26 February 2009 stated:

“Personally it is a matter of great regret to me that we have not been able, during my tenure, to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill which to my mind would have gone a long way towards genuine and effective empowerment of 50 per cent of our population.  The Women’s Reservation Bill has now been introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the 2008 Budget Session to ensure that the Bill does not lapse with the dissolution of the 14th Lok Sabha.”

With the introduction of such legislation in the Rajya Sabha, it is kept alive and public opinion is created and moulded around it.  The Rajya Sabha acts as the mood manager of the nation for many legislative proposals framed by governments in the larger interests of the nation to take our country forward by extending justice to those who have suffered for centuries. That happened to the Hindu Code Bill. The Code itself could not be made a law. But the laborious process of its drafting and the final shape in which it was presented to the nation reflected the intention of the then government to establish a liberal legal regime for women for addressing their concerns in relation to marriage, divorce, right to property, et cetera.
In successfully taking up the Hindu Code legislation for guaranteeing social and economic rights of women, the Rajya Sabha thus made a start in creating conditions for making women equal partners in the political sphere. It has been well said that “women’s empowerment is not only a political issue but also a socio-economic issue”. In successfully clearing legislation for the social and economic rights of women, the Rajya Sabha was thus fulfilling the key aspects of women’s empowerment in the middle of the twentieth century.
The then Minister of Legal Affairs, Shri H.V. Pataskar, while moving the motion in the Rajya Sabha on 1 October 1955 for the Hindu Succession Bill, stated that for many years Indian women had not been treated on an equal footing. Then he noted with satisfaction that the speeches of Members of the Rajya Sabha almost expressed unanimity to grant equality to women so that all hindrances in regard to succession for women would be removed. For example, Shrimati Lakshmi Menon, a Member of the Rajya Sabha and then Parliamentary Secretary to External Affairs Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, said that those opposing the Bill would realize that they could not hold back the change that was inevitably coming in favour of women.
 In 1977 when the Rajya Sabha completed 25 years, a volume was published entitled “The Second Chamber: Its Role in Modern Legislatures” edited by Shri S.S. Bhalerao, the Chamber’s then Secretary-General.  Many of its women Members contributed articles to it, including Shrimati Leela Damodar Menon who catalogued its significant achievements and wrote:  “What the Rajya Sabha needed the most was more women Members in its fold”. Her robust vision for the Rajya Sabha in terms of greater representation of women was as true for the House as it was for all legislative bodies of our country including the Lok Sabha.

Representation of women on parliamentary committees and in local government
Members of the Rajya Sabha have always remained vigilant in taking up the cause of women’s representation on the committees of Parliament.  It was best exemplified in their actions on 29 August 1985 when the constitution of the Joint Committee of both Houses on the Bill to provide for the appointment of the Lokpal to enquire into allegations of corruption against Ministers was being discussed in the Rajya Sabha.  Several Members wanted representation of a woman Member of the House on that committee. The Law Minister admitted that when the matter was discussed no one thought of appointing a woman Member. The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs was very candid in acknowledging that it was his mistake that he did not propose the name of a woman Member when he prepared the list.  The Deputy Chairman, Hon. Najma Heptullah, noted that the whole House was conscious of the fact that a woman should have been included.  She ruled that the particular rule permitted for the resignation of the Member from the proposed committee and the vacancy caused thereby could be filled by a woman.
To end the controversy, the Deputy Chairman ruled: “According to rule 72, a person will resign and the vacancy so created will be filled by a lady Member.”  Eventually a woman Member occupied the seat vacated by a male Member after he resigned from the membership of that committee.
That instance of 1985 proved beyond doubt that Members of the House including its Presiding Officers did underline the issue of representation of women Members in a wide variety of activities of the House which includes the work done by committees.
The Rajya Sabha passed the Constitution (73rd and 74th Amendment) Bill 1991 which eventually became an act of Parliament constitutionally guaranteeing 33 per cent of seats for women in representative bodies across the nation at the local level.  As a result, one million women are now elected to such bodies every five years.
Besides, the Rajya Sabha has passed many resolutions which asked for adequate representation of women in legislative bodies.  The passage of the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill to reserve 33 per cent of seats in the lower House of the Indian Parliament and the state Assemblies is a step in that direction.

Correcting the “lopsided” male view
In India, seats are reserved for territorial constituencies.  The Rajya Sabha as the federal Chamber represents not territorial constituencies but the states and union territories of our country so it is not possible to reserve Rajya Sabha seats for women.   In spite of such limitations, it is important to analyze the role of the Rajya Sabha to further the cause of women’s empowerment.  While doing so, it is pertinent to bear in mind that more women Members in both the Houses of Parliament would go a long way in achieving gender equality and justice in our country.
Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote in early 1950s:

“I have been meeting our new Members of Parliament.  There are over 700 of them as between the two Houses.  I have noticed with great regret how few women have been elected.  I suppose this is so in the state Assemblies and Councils also.  I think we are very much to be blamed.  It is not a matter of showing favour to any one or even of injustice, but rather of doing something which is not conducive to the future growth of our country.  I am quite sure that our real and basic growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life.  Wherever they have had this chance, they have, as a whole, done well – better, if I may say so, than the average man.  Our laws are man-made, our society dominated by man, and so most of us naturally take a very lopsided view of the matter.  We cannot be objective, because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action.  But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men.”
     
The passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women is thus a step towards fulfilling the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.  It is certainly a great and bold beginning for women’s empowerment which will contribute to build a better India firmly based on the values of inclusion, justice and equality.