Conceived in 1996, bill comes to life

By, New Delhi
Sep 20, 2023 08:09 AM IST

The 128th Constitution amendment bill to reserve seats for women in Indian legislatures is likely to succeed after several major parties voiced their support.

In the annals of India’s legislative history, the move to reserve seats in legislatures for women must count among the most fractious and long-pending issues. Originally planned in 1996, at least four attempts to pass the bill by both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have fallen by the wayside.

BJP Mahila Morcha activists celebrate after the introduction of the Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament, in Patna.(PTI)
BJP Mahila Morcha activists celebrate after the introduction of the Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament, in Patna.(PTI)

This time, however, the 128th Constitution amendment bill — which was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday — is likely to succeed as several large parties including the BJP, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal and others, have publicly voiced their support of the bill.

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The seed of the idea to give legislative quotas for women came during the Rajiv Gandhi government, which moved bills to reserve one-third seats for women in urban local bodies and panchayats. While the two bills were approved by the Lok Sabha, they failed to clear the Rajya Sabha test.

His successor, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, rolled out the first gender-based reservation after his government cleared two constitutional amendments — the 73rd and the 74th — that established pan-India grassroots governance systems and created quotas for women in panchayats and municipal bodies in 1992 and 1993.

“The Constitution also provides for reservation of seats in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in proportion to their number in the population. But the Constitution makes no provision for reserving seats for women in Parliament and the state legislatures,” said a note from PRS Legislative Research.

The first attempt at instituting quotas for women in national and state legislatures came during the United Front government.

In September 1996, then PM HD Deve Gowda brought a Constitution amendment bill to bring a law for women’s quota in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

Deve Gowda’s government lasted for about a year, but the 1996 bill was examined by a joint committee of Parliament led by communist leader Gita Mukherjee, who made a total of seven recommendations. Five of those suggestions were later incorporated in the Manmohan Singh government’s bill that was brought in 2008. She recommended that reservation be for only 15 years and included a quotation for Anglo-Indians. She also suggested that states with less than three seats also be included for reservation. Mukherjee also recommended the inclusion of the Delhi assembly in the bill and to change “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”.

The bill, however lapsed the with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1998.

The first PM from the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made attempts to pass the bill. In 1998, two attempts were made, once in July and later in December, but chaos reigned in the House and no substantial discussion could take place. Then when he returned to power for the third term in 1999, Vajpayee reintroduced the bill in the same year and multiple attempts were made to pass it. Both times, he was unsuccessful, and the bills lapsed at the end of the respective Lok Sabha’s terms.

On March 9, 2010, the Manmohan Singh government became the first government to pass the women’s reservation bill in any House. Amid ruckus and vehement protests from a number of regional parties — including allies such as the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, the 108th Constitution amendment bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha with support from the BJP.

BJP leaders such as Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani played a crucial role in convincing other leaders to support the bill. But the bill never made it to the Lok Sabha as the United Progressive Alliance buckled under pressure and feared that it would further agitate its allies and other parties.

In the 1996 debate, then ruling side MP Sharad Yadav observed that “women with short hair”— an apparent reference to urban women — would dominate reserved seats and women from backward areas would not be rewarded.

In 2010, an RJD MP broke a piece of glass and threatened to slash himself if the bill was passed. Marshals were called and they swifty took away shards of glass and removed him from the House.

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