Sub-text between gentlemen and gender

Women activists must be feeling devastated that the legislation to provide 33 per cent reservations for women in Parliament and state Assemblies has once again been grounded in quicksand. This time, the proposed Bill could not even be tabled in Parliament owing to muscular opposition from recently united Yadav supremos.

The ball is now in the court of more broad-based parties like the Congress and the BJP, and it is for them to spell out a clear stand on this divisive legislation. Both parties must articulate, at least to themselves, what they hope to achieve by supporting the Reservation Bill, and whether there is a particular caste or communal vote bank which they wish to pamper through it, as is the case with the Samajwadi Party and the RJD. If, as is likely, the Congress and the BJP feel that they have appreciable benefits to derive from the Bill, they must honestly ponder whether the fear of negative political fallout is sufficient reason to support the Bill. Finally, if only to atone their failure to stand up to the wholly unjustifiable 27 per cent job reservations for the politically powerful and assertive OBCs, they must now find the courage to scrap this Bill, which can only rend the socio-political fabric, with unforeseeable consequences.

As the leading party in Government, the BJP has a special responsibility in this regard. In its anxiety to notch up a visible success, the party displayed undue haste in moving the Bill after the Congress party president suddenly demanded its passage. There was no understanding between the two parties over the Bill’s massage, leave alone a strategy to contend with controversial demands such as reservations for OBCs and Muslims. As it turns out, the Congress is morally and politically ambivalent on both. Which means it could whimsically support one or both proposals out of narrow calculations about its political prospects. Indeed, the CWC has since expressed “willingness to work for a consensus for OBC and minority reservations,” whatever that means.

The SP and the RJD have also not been con­sistent in their stand on the Bill. Mr Mulayam Singh first demanded that the reservations be reduced to 15 per cent, with a sub-quota for OBC women. But soon after, both parties sup­ported the original 33 per cent, and demanded 27 per cent of this for OBC women, to create a permanent OBC block in Parliament. They also called for an unstated percentage for Muslim women, instantly reviving memories of separate electorates. The latter has natu­rally received backing from Muslim MPs con­cerned over the falling representation of their community in successive Parliaments and state Assemblies. This has triggered off a scram­ble for sub-quota and the SC/ST groups have already jumped onto the bandwagon.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is un­precedented because it seeks to provide political reservations on grounds of sex, a discrimination prohibited in the Constitution, and which is now inextricably linked with the demand for sub-quotas on caste and com­munal basis. This has prompted fears that the demand to extend caste and communal reserva­tions to general seats is only one step away and that the country is all set to relive the tragedy of its colonial past including the trau­ma of Partition. These concerns cannot be brushed aside lightly.

The charge that the opposition to reserva­tions for women, especially the quota for OBCs and Muslims, is an upper caste conspiracy is specious. These proposals involve fundamental changes in the Constitution as well as a dras­tic restructuring of social, economic, and po­litical equations which can shatter the natural dynamics of change and development. Their overall impact would be to ghettoize society, rather than promote unity and fraternity.

Such decisions cannot be taken out of fear or mindlessness, especially by a Parliament as fragmented as this one. Nor should the blackmail of a small, though vocal, group be allowed to hold the rest of society to ransom. The violence that accompanied the move to introduce the Bill in the House is an indica­tor of the intentions of those seeking to wrest quotas to buttress their political might. As the Government has already mooted a compre­hensive review of the Constitution to assess its shortcomings, wisdom demands we await the results of this study before rooting for changes which may cost the nation dearly, and for which no party has a convincing mandate.

Protagonists of women’s reservations will claim that these have taken off without a hitch at the panchayat level, though there are many views on this “success”. It would, however, be pertinent to state that reserva­tions in panchayats have been tolerated mainly be­cause elections at this lev­el are (at least formally) conducted on non-party-lines, a provision that averts much of the bitter­ness and competitiveness that accompanies elections elsewhere. Also, panchay­at polls revolve around lo­cal issues and have little bearing on state or national elections.

It may be worthwhile to examine the log­ic behind the demand for reservations. The activists appear to have confused the fact that women constitute the plurality of voters with the belief that women’s support alone con­tributes to the victory of a winning party or candidate. Behind this belief is a strange mind­set that limits women’s identity to gender. But the reality that emerges in successive elections is that the way women vote and define their identities and interests at election time has, more often than not, little to do with gender justice or even pure economic interests. Caste, religious community, ethnic or regional interests, law and order, prices, corruption, the image of the Government and national uni­ty tend to be the reigning issues in national and state elections, for both sexes.

Does this mean that there is no “women’s constituency?” No. But it means that like men, women have multiple selves and identities, and a holistic view of these in the context of self, family, clan, and society. Women’s activists will claim that the self is largely suppressed in the majority of women, rural and urban. But they are unwilling to accept the corollary that this may be one of the reasons inhibiting women from identifying themselves primarily in terms of gender, and therein lies the catch.

Seen in this perspective, it is no surprise that the issue of women’s reservations has immediately been linked to a demand for caste and communal quotas. It is these that are still the dominant parameters of identity (and power) today. As of now, it would seem that a women’s constituency can come into play only as a sub­text in a political agenda defined in terms of clan, caste, community, language or region, but not in terms of gender alone.

In honesty, it should also be accepted that the Women’s Reservation Bill has failed to strike a chord with the people at large. On three occasions, its demise has met with sus­tained public ennui. It would, therefore, be in the fitness of things for women activists to give the Bill a dignified burial and concentrate on redressing the bitter struggles of women at the grassroots level. Barring the increasing­ly progressive rulings by the courts on issues pertaining to family, law, inheritance, divorce, maintenance, etc., there has been no worth­while pro-woman legislation for years.

Women’s groups, enamoured of political reservations, have virtually abandoned the fight for a uniform civil code. Serious prob­lems such as the growing incidence of caste rapes (this deserves to be recognised as a sep­arate crime), incest, child abuse, caste violence and lynch laws practiced by caste panchay­ats, have also not been given adequate at­tention. There is a lopsided focus on advoca­cy with opinion-makers (a euphemism for PR), rather than public awareness and grassroots development work. It is a poor commentary on the state of the women’s movement.

The Pioneer, 20 July 1998

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.