RAJYA SABHA(COUNCIL OF STATES of INDIAN PARLIAMENT ) AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT

S.N.Sahu[1]

Introduction: Indian  freedom struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi the first ever struggle for Gender Equality

Twentieth Century has been described as the century of struggle for women’s suffrage and gender justice. Unlike other major revolutions launched for freedom and liberty our struggle for independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was also a struggle for gender equality.   The first ever non-violent movement in history conceived and executed under his leadership for our freedom and social transformation it enlisted participation of hundreds and thousands of ordinary women. As the ideals of inclusion, justice and equality are central to the idea of non-violence common people specially women devoid of any educational qualification and access to property got enough opportunities to stand side by side men to fight for our independence.  While attending the Round Table Conference in London, Mahatma Gandhi had said on 17 September 1931, that he would boycott the legislature of India if it did not have a proper share of women.  On another occasion he defined non-violent mass action in terms of all round progress of women.  He wrote in 1930s that in order to build India of his dreams he would strive for a Constitution for our country which would release it from all thralldom and patronage and added that he would work for an India where women shall enjoy the same rights as men.  In the early 1940s, he prepared one of the revolutionary texts called constructive programme as part of his non-violent struggle for liberating India from foreign rule and reconstructing our society for giving every opportunity to all sections of society, particularly the suppressed people to realize their full potential.  It contained 18 points, one of which dealt with women to make them equal partners in every activity of life.  He lamented that “Woman has been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in shaping of which she had no hand.”  He even went to the extent of saying that “Women are in the position somewhat of the slave of old, who did not know that he could or ever had to be free.”  He described the legal and customary status of women across the country as bad and which he said demanded radical alteration to enable them realize their full status and play their part as equal of men.  As early as 1946 he expressed regret that political parties were not doing enough to send adequate number 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 enamored 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 passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha(Council of States of Indian Parliament) on 9th March, 2010 for reserving 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha(House of People) and State Assemblies for women represented the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi to build India of his dreams and work for justice and equality for women. It constitutes a mighty step for the emancipation of women and their political empowerment.  

 

The headlines in almost all daily newspapers across the country on the following day triumphantly hailed the momentous task done on the floor of the House in taking a revolutionary stride for the cause of women. The motion moved in the Council of States to consider and pass the Bill after so many failed attempts to make it a law by first taking it up in the Lok Sabha bears significance in the context of the historic role played by the Rajya Sabha, since its inception, in becoming a legislative forum where some of the most far reaching socio-economic legislations originated and subsequently became law of the land.  The day it would be enacted it would be hailed as the second most significant development after women got the right to vote.

 

In fact in 1999 a survey was conducted in the United States of America to find out the top hundred events of the twentieth century. Its result was startling. The American women getting the right to vote was considered as more important than the theory of relativity of the renowned scientist Professor Albert Einstein and discovery of Penicillin. If women getting the right to vote is so important then it can be visualized that  their large scale presence in the  highest legislative bodies of our country would be of extraordinary  importance for the nation and indeed the whole world.  In passing the Bill which provides that 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies be reserved for our women, the Rajya Sabha has passed a legislative measure which is more important than many far reaching scientific discoveries and inventions. 

 

If Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the fundamental nature of our understanding of the universe, then 33 percent reservation of seats for women will change the very texture of our politics and public life and invest these with the much needed gender perspective at once sensitive to women and enormously constructive and liberating for society and nation. I think the overwhelming approval given by the Rajya Sabha to this revolutionary Constitution Amendment Bill for the cause of women represents the enlightening legacy of the House in becoming a legislative forum in the 1950s where most of the progressive Bills for protecting the social and economic rights of women were introduced and eventually enacted.

         

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Hindu Code Bill and Women’s Rights

          It was very heartening to note that several Members of the Rajya Sabha cutting across party lines, while participating in the debate on the Constitution (One hundred and eighth Amendment) Bill 2008 on 9th March 2010 referred to the name of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution. Shri D.Raja while participating in the debate on the Bill remarked that gender equality must be the objective of the entire Parliament  and nation. He fortified his argument by quoting  Dr. Ambedkar who while addressing thousands of women belonging to the depressed classes said, “I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

It was Dr. Ambedkar as the Law Minister of India drafted the Hindu Code Bill which essentially aimed at guaranteeing social and economic rights to women. It was supposed to be a women’s jurisprudence ensuring 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 to oppose it. The worldview represented by them remained compatible with the subordinate status of women in social, political, religious and economic spheres. In shouting slogan “Down with the Hindu Code Bill” they were clamouring for perpetuation of status quo which went against equality and equal opportunities for women. Our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was saddened by those developments and wrote to the Chief Ministers sensitizing them about the assault from reactionary forces on many progressive and forward looking measures of his Government. He stated that even “as 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 due to the opposition from a “determined minority” it could not be enacted. It remained a mere legislative proposal. It proved to be a temporary set back to measures designed to positively impact our womenfolk through a set of progressive laws. The failure to make it a law caused deep anguish to its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and actuated him to resign from the Union Cabinet as the Law Minister of our country.

 

However, all his arduous exercise 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. It represented the yearning of the nation to lawfully guarantee the rights to women and make them co-sharer in every aspect of life and society.

 

Introduction and Passage of Hindu Law Reform Bills in Rajya Sabha and Nehru’s Observations

Eventually many legislations 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 of the land after all those legislations originated in the Council of States.

 

          The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Bill was a landmark event in our quest for gender equality. The progressive values embodied in it affirmed the commitment of our leadership to herald a new era for our women informed with equal rights for women and for their freedom and liberty with men.  The happiness of the whole nation in this regard was best expressed by first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In a letter to the Chief Ministers on 20 May 1955 he drove home the point that legislative measures to improve the condition of women and give them a fair deal reaffirmed his Government’s resolve to take head on with reactionary forces out to impair the abilities of women by keeping them suppressed.  He also made a significant remark that such a law to enhance the status of women within our country necessarily enhanced the image our country at the global level. “The Hindu Marriage Bill” he wrote “brought us full square against the conservative reactionary forces in the country”. He then added “Apart from the merits of the measure itself, this action of ours has raised our prestige in other countries. It has shown that our Government and the forces behind it are progressive on every plane and are not afraid even of coming into conflict with orthodoxy”.

 

It is of extraordinary education to know that the then Prime Minister of our country 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. It is important to reiterate that the Hindu Succession Bill was yet another legislation which was first introduced in the Council of States. After its passage   Prime Minister Nehru made a reference to it in his letter to the Chief Ministers dated 10 May 1956 and outlined its deeper significance when he wrote that “ …this legislation  marks a new epoch in India”. Further expounding its relevance in the larger context of our desire for social revolution he insightfully stated, “It indicates that we have not only striven for and achieved a political revolution, not only are we striving hard for an economic revolution but that we are equally intent on social revolution; only by way of advance on these three separate lines and their integration into one great whole, will the people of India progress.”

 

Slightly more than three weeks later, on 15 June 1956,   in another letter to the Chief Ministers, he reflected on the  Hindu law Reform Bills by stating that “…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 observed “I have long been convinced that a nation’s progress is intimately connected with the status of its women.” 

 

The introduction of the Bills in the Rajya Sabha to guarantee social and economic rights of women and the subsequent enactment of those legislations created a new progressive legal framework for improving the social and economic standing  of our women and contributing to their empowerment. Those also served the larger purpose of defining and defending our identity as a progressive nation at the international level and giving the much needed depth and content to it.

 

The deep and thoughtful observations of Pandit Nehru articulated in the mid 1950s brought out the significance of  those legislations  which   the Rajya Sabha had the distinction of taking up first. In preferring the Council of States to initiate those historic  legislations  the Government of the day was underlining the image of the Council of States    as a legislative nursery  representing progressive ideas and  forces and taking steps for  advancement of women  and heightening  the prestige of our country at the  global level. At a time when the cult of intolerance fostered and spread by reactionary forces put pressure on our secular values and often snatch away rights of women guaranteed by progressive laws we recall with admiration  the phenomenal role played by the Rajya Sabha,  in the formative period of our nation building,  in passing legislations concerning rights of women in face of stiff opposition from conservative sections of society. 

 

Rajya Sabha as a preferred Chamber for taking up legislations concerning women

Five and half decades after the Rajya Sabha was chosen to introduce the Hindu reform Bills, it fell to its lot again to provide leadership for passing the Constitution (Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill 2008 for providing adequate space to women in the political field. It is rather notable to learn that while the House took courageous and bold initiatives in securing the social and economic rights of  women of India 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  above mentioned  Constitution amendment  Bill 2008 in the Rajya Sabha, reserving 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State legislatures, the nation has realized that the Council of States  as a permanent Chamber of our Parliament   is of  monumental significance in successfully taking up legislations which are of significance for the revolutionary restructuring of polity and society and which often are not accepted by some  social and political groups. 

 

When a legislative proposal is introduced in the Rajya Sabha it does not lapse as the House, unlike the Lok Sabha, 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 either to legislation or administration. In the lexicon of the parliamentary democracy the Rajya Sabha is known as the Upper House or the second Chamber. 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 legislations. However there are vested interests     inside and outside Parliament which often prevent introduction of legislations envisaging bold social, economic political reforms. In the particular instance of the legislation concerning reservation of 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies the Lower House of our Parliament witnessed violent resistance when it was introduced in the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabha.  It is in such situations that the Rajya Sabha, created to prevent hasty legislations, 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. It is in this context that the role of Rajya Sabha assumes critical significance for expanding the scope of democracy and making it more inclusive and broad based.  None less than the Speaker of the Lower House of Indian Parliament Shri Somnath Chaterjee 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 fifty 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.” 

 

The above statement of the then Speaker of Lok Sabha brings out the importance of Rajya Sabha with added significance.  With the introduction of such legislations in the Rajya Sabha these are kept alive and public opinion is created and moulded around them.  In this sense the Rajya Sabha acts as the mood manager of the nation for many legislative proposals framed by the Government keeping the larger interests of the nation and serving the objective of taking our country forward by extending justice to those who suffered for centuries. That was what exactly 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 and the intention of the Government to make it a law enlisted the   support of well intentioned people from across the country and eventually generated nation wide debate the outcome of which was definitely in favour of establishing a liberal legal regime for women for addressing their concerns in relation to marriage, divorce, right to  property, etc,.

 

In successfully taking up the legislations for guaranteeing social and economic rights of women the Rajya Sabha thus made a head 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 legislations for ensuring 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.

 

In fact the pages of the Rajya Sabha debates of that time bring out the vision of the House for the cause of women’s empowerment. The then Minister of Legal Affairs Shri H.V. Pataskar while moving the motion in the Rajya Sabha on 1st October 1955 for consideration of the Hindu Succession Bill 1954 stated that for many long years  women of India had not been treated on a footing of equality. Then he noted with satisfaction that the speeches delivered by the Members of the Rajya Sabha, at the time of the discussion of the original motion almost expressed unanimity to grant equality to women so that all hindrances in regard to succession for women would be removed. While participating in the discussion on the aforementioned  Bill,  Shrimati Lakshmi Menon, a Member of the Rajya Sabha, and  then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for External Affairs, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, said that those opposing the Bill, aimed at securing the rights for women, 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 twenty five years of its functioning a volume entitled “The Second Chamber: Its Role in Modern Legislatures” and edited by Shri S.S. Bhalerao, the then Secretary General, Rajya Sabha was brought out.  Many of its lady Members contributed articles to it.  Shrimati Leela Damodar Menon, a Member of the Council of States, in a thought provoking article catalogued its significant achievements and wrote, “What the Rajya Sabha needed the most was more women Members in its fold”. In fact her robust vision for the Rajya Sabha in terms of greater representation of women in the Council of States was as true for the House as it was for all legislative bodies of our country including the Lok Sabha.

 

Another lady Member of the House Shrimati Savita Behen stated in an article that the Rajya Sabha by first taking up many progressive social and economic legislations and passing them proved itself to be “a House of constructive responsiveness to the public voice”. It is this “constructive responsiveness to the public voice” which has been the defining theme of the House whenever it debated the forward looking legislations envisaging enlargement of space for women both in social and economic fields and in the expansive arena of our public life.  

 

Watchfulness of the House for Representation of Women Members in the Parliamentary  Committees

 

Members of the Rajya Sabha have always remained vigilant in taking up the cause of women’s representation in the Committees of Parliament.  It was best exemplified in their actions when on 29 August 1985, the Constitution of the joint Committee of both the Houses of Parliament on the Bill to provide for the appointment of the Lokpal to enquire into allegations of corruption against Ministers of Union was being discussed in the Rajya Sabha.  Several Members wanted representation of a lady Member of the House in that Committee. The Law Minister admitted that when the matter was discussed none thought of taking a lady 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 lady Member when he prepared the list.  The Deputy Chairman did say in so many words that the whole House was conscious of the fact that a Lady Member should have been included in the Committee.  She gave a ruling to the effect that the particular rule permitted for the resignation of the Member from the proposed Committee and vacancy caused thereby would be filled by a lady Member.  The background to the entire text of ruling  is reproduced below to drive home the point.

“On 29 August 1985, the House adopted a motion for reference of the Lokpal Bill, 1985 to a Joint Committee of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Fifteen members were named from Rajya Sabha for the Joint Committee. As some members objected to not having any lady member in the Committee, the Minister of Law and Justice, Shri Asoke Kumar Sen, suggested that a separate motion be moved with the name of a lady member after removing the name of one member from the approved list of members. But members objected to this as it was against parliamentary procedures to remove any name from an adopted motion. Shri Hukmdeo Narayan Yadav referred to rule 72 which suggests that a member resigns first and then the vacancy be filled.

 

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 lady Member occupied the seat vacated by a male Member after he put in his papers for resigning 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 Lady Members in wide variety of activities of the House which includes the work done by Committees. 

 

 

Debate in the Rajya Sabha on Constitution (Sixty Fourth and Sixty Fifth Amendment) Bills, 1989

It is not that every legislation proposing to guarantee the rights of women originated in the Rajya Sabha.  In fact, several such legislations were first piloted in the Lok Sahba and the Members of the Rajya Sabha were forthcoming in extending their support to them for furthering the cause of women’s empowerment.  On occasions, they have disapproved of the Bills as a whole but they were firm in standing by the specific proposal contained in them for upholding the rights of women.  It happened in case of the Constitution (Sixty Fourth and Sixty Fifth Amendment) Bills, 1989 reserving seats for women in the grassroots democratic bodies. 

 

We all know that one third of seats have been reserved for women in the elected bodies at the grass roots level through the Constitution (73rd and 74th Amendment) Acts. It heralded a new dawn for the women of our country. The late Prime Minister of our country Shri Rajiv Gandhi took the bold step in initiating that legislation in 1989. In fact, women’s empowerment was a crucial component of his challenging and innovative mission to take India to twenty first century.  In combination with his practical action to embrace computer and information technology it involved women’s empowerment by reserving seats for them in the elected bodies at the grass roots level. It was exceptional in every sense of the term. Towards the end of tenure of his Government he came up with the Constitution (64th and 65th Amendment) Bills, 1989 which among others aimed at devolving power to the Panchayats, Nagar Palikas and block level representative bodies and conducting regular elections for them. The most redeeming feature of those two historic Bills was the 33 per cent reservation for women in those bodies. While the Lok Sabha passed both those Bills, the Rajya Sabha could not do so in the absence of required majority on the floor of the House. The Members belonging to opposition parties in the House argued that the Bills would disturb the basic structure of the Constitution which declares India to be a Union of States and not a Union of States and Panchayats and other local self Government bodies. They feared that the Union Government would have ample powers to interfere with the State Governments and even dismiss them in the event of non compliance with the provisions of the Constitution amendment Bills. They further argued that the Government could pass those Bills in the Lok Sabha as the entire opposition had resigned from the House following the nation wide uproar on the allegations of payment of kickbacks for purchasing Bofors guns.

 

 The noteworthy aspect was that the Members of the Rajya Sabha cutting across party lines extended support to the provision for reservation of seats for women enshrined in those Bills. Shrimati Jayanthi Natrajan of the Indian National Congress argued that Constitutional safeguards for reservation for women and other weaker sections of society would promote social justice and make our democracy meaningful. Shri Chaturanan Mishra representing the Communist Party of India opposed the Bills and said “the three clauses in the Bills concerning reservation for women, regular elections and provision for funds should be passed; there is no disagreement on those provisions”. He repeated this point while elaborating his arguments and carrying them forward. Shri Chitta Basu of the Forward Block while supporting the measures for regular elections and pleading for the involvement of women from grass roots level to the highest decision making bodies, alleged that through the Constitution (Amendment) Bills the Union Government had the sinister design to convert the Panchayati Raj institutions and local bodies into what he called “numerous Union Territories in the States” and rob the States’ authority over them. Shri Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare of the Indian National Congress said that the merit of those Bills were reservation for women and reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

 

The then Prime Minister of our country Shri Rajiv Gandhi who replied to the debate defended the proposal of his Government to prescribe a uniform structure of local Government in the Bills on the ground that it would help secure a uniform system of reservations for the whole country. He underlined that the provision for reservations would ensure that the Panchayats and Nagarpalikas undertaking the planning exercise would adequately reflect the concerns of the weaker sections of society. “These   two Bills,” he added, “would make democracy a solemn and ineluctable constitutional obligation on all concerned”. Describing the Constitutional Amendment as a solemn and long term pledge he was of the opinion that the consequences of the Constitution Amendments would far outlast its immediate relevance. 

 

          In spite of the support of the Members for the clauses providing for reservation for women the Bills could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha. However while the Bills as a whole failed in becoming a law it succeeded in getting approval of the almost all the parties for the cause of greater representation of women in Panchayats and Nagarpalikas. Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s articulation that a Constitutional Amendment is a solemn and long term pledge came true when again the Government under the leadership of Shri Narasimha Rao took steps to introduce the Bills anew   in 1992.

 

Debate in the Rajya Sabha on Constitution (Seventy Third and Seventy Fourth Amendment) Bills, 1991  

The new  Constitution (Seventy Second and Seventy Third Amendment) Bills, 1991 to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in democratically elected institutions at the level of village and Nagarpalika got the support of the  Members of Rajya Sabha cutting across the party lines. Much of the opposition to the Bills had been softened due to thread bare discussion of its several provisions by the Joint Committee of both the Houses constituted to examine the Bill which was introduced in the Lok Sabha.  After the passage and enactment of these Bills, these were known as Constitution (Seventy Third and Seventy Fourth Amendment) Act. 

         

          When it was moved in the Rajya Sabha for consideration and passage on 23rd December 1992 Members representing almost all political parties extended support to the whole Bill and, especially to the provision concerning reservation for one third of seats for women in the Panchayats and Nagarpalikas. Shrimati Sushma Swaraj of Bharatiya Janata Party extended her party’s support to the Bill and described provisions for one third reservation for women as an opportunity for women to get training for occupying leadership positions in our public life. Shimati Kamala Sinha hoped that one third reservation for women would ameliorate in some way the injustice done to women for centuries. She wished that the Government would frame a Constitution Bill for extending the reservation of seats for women to our Parliament and State Assemblies.  She referred to the growth and expansion of communal forces in our country and felt strongly that by strengthening Panchayati Raj institutions and Nagarpalikas people would get opportunities to fulfill their aspirations and thereby fight communalism which raised its ugly head taking advantage of the backwardness of people and absence of their empowerment. Her understanding that the bolstered Panchayats would eliminate communal virus underscores the democratic approach to tackle the menace of communal forces which put pressure on our secular values.  Her vision closely corresponded to the much acclaimed statement that struggle for secularism is a struggle for women’s rights. 

 

          Shri Gurudas Das Gupta described the Bill as a move in the right direction which would bring about certain changes in the realignment of forces in the countryside. All other Members both from the treasury and opposition benches stood by the clauses providing for reservation of seats for women.

 

By giving the Constitutional mandate for reservation of seats for women the Rajiv Gandhi Government had the vision to make it mandatory for all the States to ensure greater representation of women in our public life. In fact for the first time in our history the issue of reservation for women was sought to be enshrined in the Constitution, the fundamental law of our land. History would always pay rich tribute to late Rajiv Gandhi for conjuring the idea of reservation for women for filling seats in our democratically elected bodies at the grass roots level and taking the revolutionary measure of making it part of the Constitution which has been aptly described by the noted American scholar Professor Graneville Austin as “the first and foremost a social and economic document.”  

 

It is due to the reservation of one third seats for women in the Panchayats that we have today almost one million women elected to such bodies. If more than a million women have occupied the seats of representative bodies, then greater that number are contesting the elections. Such large scale participation of women in the electoral exercise is unprecedented in any democracy. It is indicative of the maturing of our democratic process which is ever expanding to become more inclusive. The late Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Shri K.R.Narayanan referring to the 33 per cent reservation for women at the local level had said, “What is encouraging is the eagerness with which our womenfolk have grasped this opportunity. Local Governments in India have become a vast school for democracy, a training ground for grass roots political leadership.”

 

Passage of Resolutions in the Rajya Sabha on several occasions for greater representation of women both in Parliament and State Assemblies

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March 1996, the Rajya Sabha unanimously adopted a Resolution which expressed the resolve of the House for constitutionally guaranteeing adequate reservation of seats for women in State Legislatures and Parliament and demanded constitution of a Standing Committee of both Houses of Parliament on Empowerment of Women to monitor policies concerning the issue of gender equality and justice.  Subsequently, the Committee was established and it was inaugurated on 6 May 1997.  On the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of our independence the House adopted a unanimous Resolution on 1 September 1997 which stressed on the establishment of gender justice.  Again on International Women’s Day on 8 March 1999, the House adopted a Resolution which asked for adequate reservation for women in both the Houses of Parliament for their better representation in the highest legislative body of our country.    

 

Consideration and Passage of the Constitution (Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008 in Rajya Sabha

The “vast school for democracy” mentioned above gradually created favourable opinion for thirty three per cent reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies. The success achieved by women candidates elected to Panchayats and other local bodies and their independent functioning set an example for the whole nation to replicate the reservation of seats   for women at the State and national level. When the Constitution (One hundred eighth Amendment) Bill 2008 for reserving one third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies was introduced in the Rajya Sabha for consideration and passage many Members referred to the exemplary role played by women in the Panchayats and paid tribute to them for inspiring the whole nation for taking the cause of women’s empowerment.

 

Shri Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the Opposition in The Rajya Sabha said that after the Constitution ( 73rd and 74th Amendment) Bill was enacted and women got the opportunity of occupying one third of seats in those bodies, they have gone beyond the limit of thirty three percent and reached forty eight per cent level. According to him, women could do so after 15 years of implementation of the reservation scheme for them. He therefore hoped that in next fifteen years with the implementation of the reservation of seats for women in the Lok sabha and State Assemblies and rotation of their seats after every general election, there would be horizontal spread of women activism across various constituencies and each constituency would have been represented by women candidates at some point or other.  He then added that coupled with reservation for local self Governments and the Panchayats it will throw up millions of women activists who would be available to various political parties to enroll them in the larger political and public life.   

 

Shrimati Jayanthi Natarajan said that it was the logical conclusion of Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s dream by which thirty three per cent of seats were reserved in local bodies for women.

 

Shrimati Brinda Karat described the role played by women in Panchayatas over the last fifteen years as historic. She was firm in stating that poorest of the poor women of the villages representing people in elected bodies dedicated themselves to uplift the whole society. Describing it as a record of sorts she forcefully argued that poor women have successfully fought against proxy politics which she said is the reflection of male centered mind set. Asserting that they are the chiefs irrespective of whether husband is the chief in the family she maintained that they are engaging themselves in using their energy for carrying out their duties on their own strength. Shrimati Karat saluted those lakhs of women for their good work in the Panchayats without which Members of Parliament would not have mastered the courage to pass the Constitution Amendment legislation in the Rajya Sabha. She declared that the great role of women Members of Panchayats in this regard need to be acknowledged.

 

Another Member of the House Shrimati Najma Heptullah participating in the debate also referred to the election of almost one million women to Panchayats and hailed it as a silent revolution resulting in the sharing of power with women of our villages.

 

The shining example of role of women in our Panchayats and other elected local bodies has thus become a major reference point in pursuing the goal of gender justice and women’s empowerment.  The fact that the inspiration has come from the basic units of our democracy testifies to the fact that ordinary people given a chance can provide remarkable leadership in taking the country forward. Therefore the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha rightly said that the reservation quotas for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies would become an essential instrument in giving a jump start to our objective of achieving gender equality which our country is pursuing. He said that during the last six decades the representation of women in Parliament had not changed for better and there would not be any improvement in this regard even if we wait for six more decades. He, therefore, argued that without reservation for women their representation in highest representative bodies would not come to a satisfactory level. In fact an Inter Parliamentarian Union study on women’s representation in politics stated that at the present rate women would take five centuries to enjoy equality with men.  The extremely slow pace at which women are getting represented in the British Parliament invited sharp comment from Miss Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green Party, when she said “We supposedly have ‘The Mother of all Parliament’, and yet we are 69th in the world for the percentage of women we have as part of that Parliament.”  More or less in tune with the study of the Inter Parliamentary Union she stated “If we keep accruing women to Parliament at the same rate we are doing now, it would take 200 years to have equal representation.”  Almost boardering on sarcasm she then observed, “That’s the same amount of time it would take a snail to walk the Great Wall of China.”  The pace can be accelerated only by a legally and constitutionally mandated provision to have a critical mass of women in legislatures. The United Nations after a careful study and research has arrived at the figure of  33 per cent which constitutes the  critical mass and which will certainly open new frontiers for the adequate presence of women in representative bodies.   The passage of the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008 is therefore a giant leap for taking forward the cause of gender justice in the domain of politics.

 

As early as 1925 Mahatma Gandhi had said that large scale participation of women in public life would purify it. The late Chairman of Rajya Sabha Shri K.R.Narayanan while addressing the Specialized Inter-Parliamentary  Conference on ‘Towards Partnership between Men and Women in Politics’ in the Central Hall of Parliament on 14 February 1997 had said, “Indeed women in politics might change the whole character of politics from what Dr. Johnson rather unfairly described as “the last refuse of rascals” and Parliaments may become little more orderly and constructive in their functioning the world over. They might help in providing good governance and in creating a good society in partnership with men of good will.” Shrimati Brinda Karat in her speech delivered during discussion on the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008 said that entry of women into the electoral politics is most definitely going to make our politics and legislature more sensitive to issues such as violence against women, female foeticide etc., which are part of the core political agenda.

 

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in his article on women written during 1933 stated that human civilization has been essentially masculine in character. He wanted to restore its feminine   character to give it the much needed balance. It is interesting to note that Dr. V. Maitreyan, a Member of the Rajya Sabha while participating in the debate in the House said that the provision for 33 per cent reservation for women of India in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies is recognition of the fact that India is feminine, her economy is feminine and her soul is feminine.  He then said that it is a small tribute of the people of this country to the better half of India. One may go the extent of saying that the passage of the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill 2008 is a step for restoring the feminine dimension of the Indian civilization.

 

An architecture of inclusive politics is essential to propel India’s emergence as a global power. Apart from high rate of growth we require better representation of women in politics, economy, administration and all other spheres of life. Mahatma Gandhi one of the greatest feminists of the world had written in 1936 that without securing justice to women India would loose the capacity to compete with rest of the world. The political empowerment of women thus assumes significance in the context of attempts to accelerate India’s progress and make it a global power. Shri Tariq Anwar, a Member of the House, said that a strong and prosperous India cannot be built without adequate representation of women in the mainstream of politics and public life.

 

Shrimati Kanimozhi referred to the framing of the laws and passage of the budget in the Parliament without taking into account the perspective of women due to their insufficient representation in politics. She is the only Member who mentioned about climate change and asked “Does not the climate change affect us”?  She gave the answer by saying “Had there been an opportunity given to women of this country to say what they want, the situation would have been quite different.”

 

Shri Naresh Gujral gave a new dimension to the Bill when he said that it was rebellious legislation to address the injustice heaped on women. He insightfully observed that “The implication of the women’s reservation Bill which recognizes the perpetuating inequalities of the sexes and seeks to empower the fairer sex by reserving one third of the seats in the State legislatures and Parliament, is indeed a rebellion in some sense against the age-old institutions that have continued to alienate women from politics since the very foundations of democratic institutions were set”.   

 

          The wider meaning of the women’s empowerment was brought out by Shri Abani Roy when he interpreted women’s empowerment from the point of view of respect women deserve. He emphatically said that this Bill is not just about reservation nor is it about the coming of women to the Lok sabha or the Vidhan Sabhas of our country; it is about the necessity of showing respect to women. Then only, he said, there would be real empowerment for them.

 

          The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, Leader of the House, wanted end of all discrimination and violence against women to realize the full potential of India’s social and economic development. He described it as the celebration of our womanhood and described the Bill as a small token of our homage to the sacrifices that our women have made to the process of nation building and freedom struggle.

 

          In 1947 Mahatma Gandhi drew   parallel between the women’s marvelous power lying dormant and the ancestral treasure lying buried in a corner of the house  and stated that what a celebration it would occasion with the discovery of that treasure. Reservation of 33 percent of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies is step to use their marvelous power.   Shri Sitaram Yechury captured the spirit of Gandhiji when he said, “ It is not only acceding to demands of the women, but we are doing our social duty to the country by giving this responsibility and that we are going to unleash a lot of hidden potential that is there, so far suppressed, in our country to build a better India”.

Conclusion

It may be argued that when the Rajya Sabha itself does not have enough women Members in its fold it would be unfair to discuss its role in empowering women.  The percentage of women in the House at any point of time has not exceeded the average of ten to twelve percent of women in Parliament as a whole.  In spite of low representation of women in Rajya Sabha it is important to throw light on the legislative measures introduced in the House to improve the lot of women of our country and empower them.  It is not possible to reserve seats of Rajya Sabha for women as the House only represents the States and Union Territories of our Union and not territorial constituencies as in case of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies.  Because the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies represent the territorial constituencies, the seats in these legislative bodies are reserved for some sections of society.  This is not the case with Rajya Sabha where States and Union Territories are represented.  There is no provision in the Constitution to reserves seats in the Rajya Sabha for representatives of our States.  In spite of such limitations, it is important to analyse the role of 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 was unhappy to see insufficient number of women in Parliament after the successful conclusion of the first General Elections.  He wrote a letter to the Chief Ministers expressing his pain and sorrow on the matter.  It is revealing to know the full content which is reproduced below. 

 

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 for reserving 33 per cent of seats for women is thus a step towards fulfillment of 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. 

         

 

           

              

 


REFERENCES

  1. Human Development Report 1995 on Women
  2. Collected works  of Mahatma Gandhi
  3. Letters to Chief Ministers, 1958-64, Jawaharlal Nehru
  4. Rajya Sabha Debates
  5. Shri S.S. Bhalerao (Edited) “The Second Chamber: Its Role in Modern Legislatures.”
  6. Press Clippings


[1] The author was OSD 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.