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Women’s reservation bill clears Lok Sabha

By, New Delhi
Sep 21, 2023 12:03 AM IST

Only All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) members Asaduddin Owaisi and Imtiaz Jaleel voted against the bill

The Lok Sabha scripted history on Wednesday as it passed a bill reserving a third of seats for women in national and state legislatures with an overwhelming majority, marking the first time such a legislation has cleared the Lower House since one was first introduced nearly three decades ago.

Members of Parliament while voting on clauses of the women's reservation bill on demand of an Opposition MP in Lok Sabha during the Special Session of Parliament in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI)
Members of Parliament while voting on clauses of the women's reservation bill on demand of an Opposition MP in Lok Sabha during the Special Session of Parliament in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI)

With 454 members in support and only two against, the women’s reservation bill easily crossed the benchmark of two-thirds support required for constitutional amendments. The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam or the 128th Constitution (Amendment) Bill is all set to be approved by the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.

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“I thank MPs across party lines who voted in support of this bill. The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam is a historic legislation which will further boost women empowerment and will enable even greater participation of women in our political process,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on X (formerly Twitter).

During the nine-hour debate, the Opposition, led by Congress parliamentary party chief Sonia Gandhi, demanded quota for women from backward groups and alleged that the timeline for the implementation of the bill was too long, but almost all of them ended up backing the legislation. Only All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) members Asaduddin Owaisi and Imtiaz Jaleel voted against the bill.

Union home minister Amit Shah dismissed the Opposition’s allegation that the government was delaying the bill’s implementation, pointing to constitutional hurdles. “Right after the 2024 elections, the process of delimitation will begin and very soon one-third seats of this house will be filled by women,” he said.

Reserving seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is a decades-long demand to bolster the number of female lawmakers, but previous attempts have stumbled due to deep political divisions. This is the first time in India’s legislative history that the women’s quota legislation garnered the approval of the Lower House.

The first attempt to pass the fractious bill came in 1996. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made at least five attempts in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 but didn’t succeed. Manmohan Singh’s government introduced a constitutional amendment bill in 2008 which cleared the Rajya Sabha in 2010 amid raucous scenes. But facing fierce resistance from heartland parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal (United), the bill never made it to the lower House. All three backed the bill on Wednesday.

The bill, which will apply to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies, and the Delhi legislative assembly, inserted quotas for women within the existing quantum of seats set aside for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It will come into effect after delimitation — an exercise comprising revision of seat numbers and redrawing of constituency boundaries — which can only happen after 2026 (according to a 2001 Constitution amendment), and after the relevant census figures are published. The decennial census was scheduled to be conducted in 2021 but was delayed by the government due to the pandemic. There is no clarity on when the exercise is likely to be held.

In the 545 seats of the Lok Sabha, six seats are vacant. Eighty-three members were absent during the voting on Wednesday. A constitution amendment bill requires at least two-thirds majority in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and at least 50% of the states to approve it. The voting took place with physical slips as information on division numbers in the new House is awaited from some parties, said officials aware of the matter.

The third day of the ongoing special session began with Sonia Gandhi announcing her party’s support but questioning the delay in its implementation. “We will be happy with the passage of this bill, but we also have a concern. I want to ask a question. For the last 13 years, Indian women have been waiting for their political responsibilities, and now they are being asked to wait for a few more years — two years, four years, six years, eight years,” she said.

She also led the Opposition’s demand for a caste census and other backward classes (OBC) reservation. “The Congress wants this bill to be implemented immediately. But, along with this, women belonging to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes should get reservation. Besides, the caste census should also be conducted. Any further delay to implement this bill will be injustice to women,” she added.

Home minister Shah announced that the decennial census will be conducted after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and defended the provision in the bill that pegs its implementation to delimitation, which is conducted by a non-partisan commission. “How can we decide the 33% reserved seats without it? If we decide to reserve Wayanad for women, then you’d say we are doing politics. Similarly, if we reserve Hyderabad, they will say we are doing politics. Therefore, it is good that a quasi-judicial body does it through open hearings and transparency,” he said.

He also hit out at Opposition leaders who dubbed the introduction of the bill as a “political tool” for winning elections. “For some parties, women empowerment can be a political agenda but for the BJP and Narendra Modi it is not a political issue,” Shah said, listing a number of achievements of the National Democratic Alliance government in empowering women.

“Four times, women have been let down by Parliament,” Shah said. “I request that this time, the bill be passed unanimously.” He added that any issues with the legislation could be corrected later.

Union law minister Arjun Meghwal, who piloted the bill, argued that any attempt to implement women’s reservation immediately will violate the Constitution, and get stuck in courts. “You will then move PILs against it in the Supreme Court. We will not allow the bill to get stuck in technical issues,” he said.

After a number of Opposition leaders claimed credit for the bill, Meghwal also alleged that some lawmakers were trying to give the move a political colour. Hitting out at the Congress, he said the Modi government has the policy, intent and leadership to push for the bill, which the opposition party lacked when it was in power.

During the debate, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made a pitch for a caste census and reservation for OBCs in the bill, alleging that only three of the 90 secretaries of the government of India were OBCs. He demanded the bill be enacted immediately and said there was no need to wait for a census and delimitation.

“There are also two strange things: that you require census and delimitation. In my view, the bill can be implemented today,” he said, alleging the provisions are a part of the design to push the ball by seven to nine years.

Minutes later, Shah hit back, saying his party gave the country its first OBC Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and that 29% of the BJP’s MPs were OBCs. The cabinet has 29 ministers who are OBCs, he added, challenging Gandhi to do a comparison.

“We would be grateful if the opposition does not become a roadblock in the way of empowerment of women,” Union minister Smriti Irani said.

India trails a clutch of democratic countries when it comes to the share of women in politics, and while the number of female lawmakers in Parliament has risen significantly since the first elections in 1951-52 — at 78, the 2019 polls saw the highest number of women parliamentarians getting elected — a lot more needs to be done. Data shows that state assemblies are even farther behind.

Previous attempts to institute grassroots reservations in panchayati raj institutions have yielded mixed results — while some women found themselves empowered, others found their power usurped by male relatives who installed their wives, sisters and mothers as political proxies. Hence, while quotas might be a welcome sign to signal political intent, women’s empowerment should encompass structural improvements in education, health and economic indices.

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