India Will Never Be the Same Again

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Don’t underestimate its impact. The Women’s Reservation Bill could prove as significant as the Mandal reservations in altering India’s political landscape.

On Friday, 18 July 1947, Renuka Ray, who was to go on to become India’s first Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation, got up to speak in the Constituent Assembly:

Mr President, Sir, I rise to support Clause 19 and in particular section (2) of this clause which provides for territorial representation without reservation of seats. We are particularly opposed to the reservation of seats for women…

I think that the psychological factor comes into play when there is reservation of seats for women. When there is reservation of seats for women, the question of their consideration for general seats, however competent they may be, does not usually arise… From the very start of our national awakening in this country, enlightened men have encouraged women to come forward as equal partners in the struggle for freedom and to do service for national regeneration in the different walks of life… So, it is not only the inherent qualities of women, but more particularly I should say the qualities of our men that is responsible for the fact that in our country, there has never been any strife between men and women.

…I should like to support this clause which has done away once and for all with reservation of seats for women, which we consider to be an impediment to our growth and an insult to our very intelligence and capacity.

‘Once and for all’ are strong words. By the end of her life, Ray had changed her mind. The men she had placed so much faith in had ensured that election after election, the proportion of women in Parliament barely made it past 10 per cent. And it was the men she had so much faith in who stood in the way of the Women’s Reservation Bill that made its way through the Rajya Sabha on 9 March 2010.

They had their reasons; some, such as those in the senior Congress leadership, were afraid of floor coordination problems looming ahead in the Budget session with the Finance Bill coming up for vote; others across parties were worried about the fate that awaited them if their seats were reserved; and then there were those such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav who saw a chance for political revival in opposing the Bill. They believed, and continue to do so after its Rajya Sabha passage, that the electoral return of Muslims to the Congress fold could now be halted.

The opposition of those Muslim MPs who opposed the Bill was based on a fear with some basis to it, that a marginalised community would get further marginalised as an outcome. That the Bill was passed in the face of such opposition owes much to the will of one woman: Sonia Gandhi. This, even as many argue that the direct fallout will affect precisely those states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which are crucial to the political future of her son Rahul Gandhi.

As a result, in the course of a few days, Indian politics has undergone one of those sea changes that occur but once in a decade or two, and more often than not seem to involve the question of reservations. To find a comparable shift, one would have to go back almost 20 years to the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report.

On the face of it, the comparison may seem absurd. The Indian middle class, which reacted so strongly to Mandal, is overwhelmingly behind the women’s initiative. The very men whose careers were born of Mandal, Lalu and Mulayam, vehemently oppose this Bill. But look beyond the obvious. Neither Bill would have been implemented without the will of one person, VP Singh in one case and Sonia Gandhi in the other, and the result now is likely to be the same as then: the birth of a new political class.


It is exactly the constituency of this new political class that has engendered apprehensions. The diversity and disparity of Indians has given rise to various compensatory and redressal measures. Reservations for Dalits are based on redressing the injustices of caste. For OBCs, they are based on a variety of criteria including caste but were meant to address economic backwardness. The Women’s Reservation Bill, of course, deals with gender imbalances.

The politics of reservations is no isolated story. It is the story of Indian democratic politics through the 20th century. As various conceptions of identity have sought representation, they have clashed with the democratic ideal of equal treatment for all citizens. The ability of the Indian state to mediate between these conflicting ideals has been tested time and again, and in almost every case a compromise has been arrived at. Dalit politics and reservations emerged from the idealism of the Independence Movement and the vision of Ambedkar, the OBC movement from the continuing inequities that lie beyond the scope of Dalit politics. But there is one category of reservations that the Indian state, given the violent history leading up to Partition and its aftermath, has stepped clear of—that based on religion.

On Thursday, 26 May 1949, speaking in the Constituent Assembly, said Sardar Patel while endorsing the argument against reservation based on religion:

Why do you think that you are a minority? If you are a strong, well-knit and well-organised minority, why do you want to claim safeguards, why do you want to claim privileges? It was all right when there was a third party: but that is all over. That dream is a mad dream and it should be forgotten altogether. Never think about that, do not imagine that anybody will come here to hold the scales and manipulate them continuously. All that is gone. So the future of a minority, any minority, is to trust the majority. If the majority misbehaves, it will suffer. It will be a misfortune to this country if the majority does not realise its own responsibility. If I were a member of a minority community, I would forget that I belong to a minority community.

Muslims today, as the Sachar Committee has so painstakingly detailed, have reason to question that assertion. Much as Renuka Ray’s belief in the ‘qualities of our men’ did not live up to the reality of the ensuing years, Sardar Patel’s call for ‘trust in the majority’ has hardly held up.

The backwardness of Muslims today, by and large, engenders fears that their already low representation in Parliament will suffer further as a result of the Bill. It is such apprehensions, fears of a sudden and dramatic loss of voice under already somewhat voiceless circumstances, that are driving the first political change likely to come from its passage, the return of Mulayam and Lalu to North India’s political stage.


Muslim votes constitute a crucial component of the ‘M-Y’ (Muslim-Yadav) combination that for two decades have kept Yadav leaders and their Mandal politics alive. A crack in the ‘M-Y’ combination, the bedrock of Mandal politics, in last few months because of the drift of Muslim voters towards the Congress has threatened Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar with political annihilation. Never have these parties, therefore, been so desperate for an issue that would reverse the trend. The Women’s Reservation Bill, in that sense, has come as a windfall for them. Both the SP and RJD are expecting huge political gains from an outburst of Muslim anger against the Bill at the political level.

This ‘anger’ is drawn from the argument that it has been difficult enough for parties to find suitable Muslim candidates for Parliament, and now under the women’s quota, a community where the backwardness of women is no secret will see further erosion in their numbers in power. Muslim agitators point to the fact that out of the 121 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes/Tribes, as many as 74 have a large Muslim population, but none of them can contest these seats because the Constitution does not recognise ‘caste’ within their community.

“This Bill will harm Muslims the most. Our understanding is that it will create yet another obstacle for our entry into Parliament and assemblies,” says Abdul Hameed Noumani, secretary, Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind. “We will fight a political battle if the Government does not stop it, and will add weight to those parties which have opposed it,” he adds. Echoing his words, Mujtaba Farooq, secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami, says, “This is a joke being played out on Muslims. We are pledged to favour those who favour us.”

Such words are exactly what both the Yadav leaders want to hear. “Already, Muslims are grossly neglected. With the passage of the Bill, their chances of getting into the Lok Sabha and state assemblies would become bleaker still,” says SP general secretary Mohan Singh. “The Bill has exposed the Congress’ real anti-Muslim face,” he alleges, “Minorities have no reason to be with the Congress. We will now go to the masses and take to the streets.”

And in Bihar, the first state likely to go to the polls after the Bill, his words are already finding an echo. “This bill will once again take Muslims away from the Congress,” says Maulana Anees-ur-Rehman Qasami, secretary of Imarat-e-Sharayya Hind, which has some degree of influence over Muslims in Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. “The first sign of loss it will see in the forthcoming Assembly polls in Bihar,” he adds, “The Congress must remember that it stays out of power whenever Muslims go away from it. The Bill is nothing but an upper caste conspiracy.”

While the Bill will further heighten the clear differences between the Congress and SP-RJD brand of politics that Rahul Gandhi has been keen to project, the key to this strategy has been the switch of Muslim votes to the Congress. It is perhaps in keeping with this strategy that Rahul’s key political advisor Digvijay Singh went out of his way to make overtures to Muslims by visiting Azamgarh and questioning the Government version of the encounter in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar (which, by the way, also led to the death of a police officer). If this switchover is now reversed, the birth of a new political class could also see the revival of the political coalition created by the last reservation upheaval in the country.


But even the Bihar polls seem a long way away. In the short term, the Congress has been stripped of its aura of Parliamentary invincibility. For the first time after returning to power in May last year, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has awakened to the reality that it is not as formidable as the Congress had been trying to project in the face of the growing invisibility of the Opposition—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties. By cold statistics, the UPA on its own had the support of only 268 Lok Sabha members—four short of a simple majority. The Government’s aura of invincibility was provided by the external support of parties like the SP, RJD and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Much like the Nuclear Deal in the UPA’s first term, the opposition generated by the Women’s Reservation Bill will tie down a government that was freely able to shape its own agenda so far. The Opposition is bound to use every little opportunity to thwart the Government, and nothing could be worse during a Budget session with the Finance Bill yet to be passed (even a ‘cut motion’ can cause a UPA collapse). As it is, the Government has only a wafer thin majority in the Lok Sabha. Even this is at the mercy of BSP supremo and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, who is known for hard bargaining. From within the UPA, too, the Congress is expecting enough trouble in the days to come. Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee has expressed her unhappiness with the way the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha. Be prepared for the return of little fish looking for big rewards, principles be damned.


But whatever the short-term impacts on politics and governance, there was something new and refreshing about Sonia Gandhi’s candour on the day the Bill was passed. She told NDTV 24/7, “Well, it is a huge risk, but we have taken risks before. Whenever there is something revolutionary and new, there is opposition. There are difficulties in all parties, perhaps in my party too. But as I said the larger picture of women’s empowerment is more important.” What she has brought to the issue of empowerment is a vision that has been lacking in our politics of pragmatism, a vision that goes beyond the calculus of losses and gains.

A week before the Bill was tabled, she had told the Congress Parliamentary Party, “It is a matter of great pride that even though it has taken so long, it is our government that has cleared the legislation in the Cabinet… This year on 8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. What a gift to the women of India, if on this important day this historic legislation is introduced and passed!”

It took a day longer, but the deed was done. For those who had argued the Bill could well wait till the end of the session, it must now be clear that the symbolism of the occasion was central to its passage. In fact, symbolism has been the key to its very conception. The idea of the Bill was born in 1994 as various women’s organisations, including National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), started gearing up for Fourth World Conference on Women due then at Beijing in 1995. This was later reflected in the election manifestos of various parties, including the Left parties, before the Lok Sabha election of 1996. The Deve Gowda Government took the first step, and after the idea of reserving seats was tabled in the Lok Sabha that very year, the Bill was referred to a joint parliamentary committee headed by the Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Geeta Mukherjee. It was this committee that recommended the 33 per cent reservation for women.

Born of symbolism, the impact though will be very real. The time for looking at whether the Bill should have been framed differently is now past. And it remains the case that our contradictory approach to reservations, justice and equity will bring new pitfalls as we continue to evolve our polity. But for the time being, what counts is the impact of the Bill.

One easy way to measure its impact is to look at Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) where the 33 per cent rule has been in force. All the criticisms levelled at the initiative remain valid, the ironic term ‘Sarpanch Pati’ is no aberration—a nationwide survey have shown more women than men have relatives who had contested elections earlier. But it has also shown that 37.3 per cent of all women candidates stand for elections because of this reservation. And that is probably the strongest argument for the Bill. Not that major legislative or normative changes in our politics are likely because of the Bill, but that it will create the perception of participation.

And this perception is what shapes the reality of a more equitable society.