By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service
It was raining signatures in the monsoon season, as support for the Women’s Reservation Bill poured in from every corner of India. A campaign that had slowly built up over weeks of hectic organising, reached a crescendo on July 29 when over 500 women and men, representing 350 women’s groups and civil society organisations, marched to the Indian Parliament, which had just convened for its Monsoon Session.
The demonstrators had only one demand: Pass the 33 per cent Women’s Reservation Bill Now! The slogan was painted on colourful banners, stage backdrops, flags and, appropriately enough given the season, on umbrellas of every hue. It also rent the air, as the marchers shouted in one voice, “Pass karo, pass karo, Women’s Bill pass karo (pass the Women’s Bill).”
The march indicated that support for the Bill had gained a greater vibrancy and a broader support base than it has ever had in the course of its turbulent history. The voices had got louder, more insistent and more representative. There is a new realisation: That women’s reservation in the Parliament and state assemblies is not a favour but an entitlement. That it is not just about bringing a few women to power it is about helping to change political discourse and practice. It is about replacing old entrenched and corrupt interests, ushering in fresh ideas for social transformation and creating a more gender just polity and society. The message for the country’s parliamentarians was unequivocal: Stop the antics over the Bill, your political careers could be at stake if you continue to stymie it.
This titanic battle has gone through various phases and given rise to innumerable and tireless campaigners, right from the sepia-tinted days when doughty parliamentarians such as Geeta Mukherjee and Premila Dandavate first marched for the Bill. As Jyotsna Chatterji of the Joint Women’s Programme (JWP), who has also long been associated with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) movement in India, recalled to the media, “We have been struggling from 1995 for this Bill. Today, we are determined to see it translated into law.”
But nobody underestimates the challenge in achieving such an outcome. While the Bill has been passed in the Rajya Sabha, or Upper House, its fate in the adjoining chamber – the all-important Lok Sabha, or House of the People – is rather less certain. Brinda Karat, Member of Parliament (MP) and General Secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), remarked wryly on the occasion, “It is just ten steps from Rajya Sabha to Lok Sabha. But although the Women’s Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, it has still not made it to the Lok Sabha. This gap indicates a real political failure.”
An array of parliamentarians and public personalities joined the march to Parliament because, as senior politician and parliamentarian, D. Raja, explained, “This struggle for the Bill is not just for women alone, it is for society as a whole”. Among other speakers were film personalities such as Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar – now an MP in the Rajya Sabha – as well as Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan. Sharmila Tagore, a well-known film actress, expressed her outrage over the fact that there are in the present Lok Sabha only 59 women out of 543 members. “We won the struggle for India’s freedom against the British, but the women’s struggle for their freedom is still going on,” she remarked.
In 1996, when the Bill was presented in the Lok Sabha by then prime minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, women’s representation in Parliament and state assemblies was regarded as an esoteric demand that would benefit only elite women. But such attitudes now clearly belong to the scrap yard of history, going by the views expressed by the ordinary women who were part of the July 29 demonstration. If you ask 20-year-old Amrita Swechha what the Bill is about, she will unerringly argue that it is about women’s equal right to participate in the public space. This is why she took the trouble to mobilise 45 young girls from the migrant labour camp where she works as a social activist, to join in the march to Parliament. Said Swechha, “We went door-to-door explaining the Bill to conservative families from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds in the camp. The young girls in these families understood its significance immediately. They saw it in terms of their own desire to be in greater control of their lives and be able to make choices for themselves.”
Suneeta Dhar, Director of Jagori, recounts a similar experience. “When Jagori mobilised on the Women’s Bill in the slum pockets of Bawana, Dakshin Puri and Madanpur Khadar, where we work, we held discussions on citizenship rights. It was interesting to see how the women instinctively saw their own emergence and development in terms of the political empowerment of all women.”
Then there were those like Leena and Kajal, both independent lawyers working on public interest issues, who were among the demonstrators. Explained Leena, “It’s really quite simple. If women don’t constitute a critical mass in politics and as policy makers, they will not be the focus of policies and programmes.” Kajal added, “The time has come to talk with women – not down to them.”
Change is in the air. But will those who have steadfastly opposed the Bill all these years be prepared to discard old positions? Will those parties that had sworn to translate the Women’s Bill into law be resolute in their promise? Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad – which had organised a unique caravan in support of the Bill called the ‘Reservation Express’ that travelled around the country – cannot of course provide answers to these questions, but she promises to fight the good fight if the present situation does not change. “If this Bill is not passed, women will come out on to the streets. We hope to see at least 180 women in the Lok Sabha after the next general election.”
Going by the general mood, this need not be the fantasy that it has been all these years. And one slogan on the day of the march to the Parliament captured the new confidence: “Panchayat mein aayi hain/Parliament mein ayegi (We have come into Panchayats/We shall come into Parliament).”