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Empowerment Demand History:INDIAN WOMEN IN POLITICAL ARENA, T.D. Jagadesan, 28 December 2006 Print E-mail
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New Delhi, 28 December 2006

Empowerment Demand History


By T.D. Jagadesan

Even as the Women’s Reservation Bill repeatedly flounders in Parliament, it should be recognized that the demand for women’s empowerment has a 90-year-old history. In 1917, a delegation of Indian women put up before the Secretary of State, Ewin Montague, its demand for franchise. In the 1920s, the right to vote was granted to propertied women.  They were, however, not allowed to participate in legislatures.

Owing to constant lobbying by the Indian Women’s Association this right was granted in 1930. Muthulakshmi Reddi became the first woman legislator. At the Round Table Conference held in 1930, two women activist, Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz and Radhabai Subbarayan, pleaded for five per cent reservation for women in the legislatures.

Other woman activists, however, did not appreciate this sort of favour-seeking. They were in favour of universal adult franchise through which women, they argued, would automatically carve out their political niche.

The Government of India Act, 1935, which broadened the franchise base, provided for formal induction of women in the political process, both in reserved and general seats. Provincial elections held under the Act returned 56 women against, 1,500 seats---41 from reserved constituencies, 10 from general constituencies and five nominated.

Besides, 30 women were elected to the Central Assembly, including Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz. In the 1940s, when the Pakistan movement picked up momentum, there was large-scale political participation of women, albeit along communal lines.

In the Constituent Assembly the idea of reserved seats for women found no favour with the members. As late as in 1975, the Committee on the Status of Women in India rejected the idea.  In 1980, the women’s lobby was able to force the Planning Commission to allocate 30 per cent funds in poverty alleviation schemes with women as specific target group beneficiaries, a departure from the earlier family-centred approach. 

It, however, took many more years before reserved seats for women were granted, though only at village and district level local bodies. Through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments in 1993, it was provided that local bodies at those levels should have at least 33 per cent seats reserved for female members, of which one-third must belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

More than one million women function in these bodies as members, which certainly is a great experiment, notwithstanding the fact that many of them function by proxies of their husbands, fathers or brothers.  Often women belonging to lower castes are not allowed to wield power.

Although participation in local bodies promotes women’s role in politics, it does not make them contribute to the legislative process. That would be possible only when women’s representation becomes sizeable in Parliament.  While, it is relatively easy to reserve 33 per cent seats in local bodies, it is very difficult to do so for Parliament and State Assemblies.

The controversy hinges on the envisaged sub-quota in order to include OBCs and Muslims, since there is no Constitutional provision for these categories to get quotas in the legislatures, the political debate is combustible. It is worth considering whether the problem can be tackled by raising the membership of Parliament by double from its present strength of 543.

As no delimitation of the Parliamentary constituencies is possible till 2021, let each constituency have two contestants belong to every  aspiring party, one male, one female. Such a system would reform Indian politics in two ways.

It would improve the representative structure of Parliament. The present man-member ratio in India is lopsided. In Britain, the average Parliamentary constituency has 50,000 voters. But in India a Parliamentary constituency has one million voters on an average. At one stroke the ratio would fall to 1:5,00,000. A 1,086-member Parliament is not too awkward a proposition in a billion-plus country.

Since each political party would be required to field two candidates for each constituency, the nomination system would work, as in the case of the American Presidential candidate and his running mate.  Candidates with criminal records would find it more difficult to find female running mates.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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