Is the Women’s Reservation Bill Really as Progressive as it Seems?
From implementation delays to the exclusion of marginalized communities, the women’s reservation bill has several flaws.
On Tuesday, the government introduced the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha, during the ongoing special session of the Parliament. The 128th Constitutional Amendment Bill, 2023, seeks to provide 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies.
This announcement has generated significant controversy and a tussle over who receives credit for the bill; while Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated he is “the chosen one for empowering and strengthening women,” the Congress party pointed out how the seeds for women’s reservation were first sown by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. A bill was first introduced by the Deve Gowda government in 1996, following which it was reintroduced several times by subsequent governments with the last attempt to pass the bill being in 2010, when it failed to pass the Lok Sabha.
Reports say the bill, which has been pending for nearly three decades, is likely to be passed this time, especially considering that the parties who were earlier in opposition to women’s reservation are likely to offer their support now. Some have hailed the bill as a historic step aimed at ensuring greater participation of women in policy-making. Union Minister of Law and Justice Arjun Ram Meghwal said that the passing of the bill will raise the number of women MPs in Lok Sabha to 181 of the total 543 members. Others, however, have pointed out major flaws with the implementation of the bill.
Foremost among these is the clause that links the implementation of this bill to delimitation – one of the major factors that sets this bill apart from its predecessors. The bill will reportedly come into effect only after a delimitation exercise – where boundaries of constituencies are fixed based on changes in population – which will be conducted after the next Census data is published. The last Census took place in 2011, and the 2021 Census was indefinitely delayed. The next Census is now expected to be conducted only after the 2024 general elections, a delay that places the actual implementation of this bill at around 2029.
Some point out the implementation date could be even later. Economist and political activist Prasenjit Bose told Outlook that the delimitation exercise could take a few more years after the census. “It is also bound to be controversial, because of the apprehension among several states that they would lose in the proportional share of total parliamentary seats due to their comparative success in controlling population growth. The national debate on delimitation therefore is expected to be lengthy and time-consuming,” Bose said. Meanwhile, an unnamed BJP Lok Sabha MP told Outlook that the aim for linking the bill’s implementation with the delimitation exercise “is to give women a greater number of seats.”
Opposition leaders have questioned this delay. The Congress has termed the bill an “election jumla” – a strategic move that is playing out now for the benefit of the 2024 elections. Delhi Minister Atishi Marlena alleged, “This Bill is nothing but a political manoeuvre and should be renamed as the ‘Mahila Bewakoof Banao’ Bill.”
Related on The Swaddle:
Others have also pointed out that the bill is far from being intersectional in its approach to women’s reservation. The bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women. It also aims to reserve one-third of the seats earmarked for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) for women belonging to SC/ST communities. Many have pointed out that the bill excludes women from OBC and Muslim communities. Former Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi wrote on X: “The Women’s Reservation Bill” which excludes women belonging to the OBC/EBC category will be passed after delimitation. Delimitation will happen after census. Under pressure to conduct a caste census, the Modi government has delayed the decadal census. This Bill is just noise and no substance.”
All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) President Asaduddin Owaisi has also opposed the bill, stating it lacks a sub-quota for OBC and Muslim women. “You are making this law for representation of people who do not have representation. All 17 Lok Sabha elections in India, have elected 8992 MPs, out of which Muslims are only 520. Within that 520, there are barely a handful of Muslim women,” said Owaisi.
Some parties had earlier voiced their opposition to previous versions of the bill for failing to account for their demand of a “quota within quotas.” As Surbhi Karwa pointed out, “If it [the bill] does not include Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim and Bahujan women, it will be limited to upper caste women.” It is a concern that remains unaddressed in the current draft of the bill. Manoj Jha of the RJD told the Hindustan Times, “The party has raised concerns regarding the Bill in the past. If the Bill is meant to empower women and deepen democracy, you need to have a quota within a quota in this representation. There is still a lack of clarity on the Bill. Our concern in 2010 was that women from all sections, a rainbow of women, should be empowered, and our concern today is the same. We should not be bracketed between ‘ayes’ and ‘nos’. This bill echoes Mahatma Gandhi’s sentiments; it is a post-dated commitment from a government that has lost its credibility.”
The underrepresentation of women in electoral office has been noted by several researchers over the years. The Inter-Parliamentary Union League ranked India 140 out of 196 countries on women’s representation. Only around 14.94% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and 13.8% seats in the Rajya Sabha are held by women, which is far below the world average of 26.5%, Karwa notes. Meanwhile, women’s representation in most state legislatures is less than 15%. Dalit and Muslim women form a small minority within this. Karwa adds that, between 1952 and 2004, only eight Muslim women have held a Lok Sabha seat. These abysm numbers reflect the urgent need to factor in how caste dynamics intersect with gender in order to ensure that any progressive measures enacted to increase women’s representation do not leave out women from the most marginalized communities.
According to the Deccan Herald, opposition members from the INDIA camp have submitted amendments to the bill in the ongoing session, to extend the reservations to women belonging to OBC communities, as well as to bring seats in the Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils under the ambit of the bill as well.
“[T]he immediate implementation of 33% women’s reservation without the intersectional inclusion will change the class and caste formation of the house, replacing lower caste men with upper caste women. In this understanding, the demand for quotas within quotas has been seen as an attempt to divide women rather than recognize the fact that women do not form a monolithic group,” Karwa adds.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.