A long-standing aspiration of half the nation’s population for one-third representation in Parliament and state Assemblies got a stamp of approval from Lok Sabha on Wednesday.
After 77 years of India gaining Independence and 13 years after the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, a new version of the Bill was passed in the lower house, albeit without a fixed timeline for its implementation.
On Wednesday, 20 September, the Lok Sabha passed the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam with an overwhelming majority of 454-2.
Remarkably, all political parties — with the exception of the AIMIM — supported the Bill: Both opposing votes came from AIMIM MPs.
The Bill mandates the allocation of 33 percent of seats to women in both the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.
Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha — in the new Parliament building — on Tuesday. However, due to a House adjournment, the significant Bill underwent further discussions on Wednesday.
Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored the importance of increased female participation in policymaking to enhance their contributions to the nation.
He expressed gratitude for the opportunity to advance women’s empowerment and announced the Union government’s decision to enact the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam.
He later thanked MPs from all parties for the passage of the Bill.
Delighted at the passage of The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023 in the Lok Sabha with such phenomenal support. I thank MPs across Party lines who voted in support of this Bill.
The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam is a historic legislation which…
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 20, 2023
In response to certain aspects of the Bill, the Congress labelled its introduction an “election jumla” and “a significant betrayal of women’s expectations”.
As per the provisions of the Bill, it would only come into effect following the delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies — a process slated to take place after the conclusion of the next population census.
In an emotionally charged moment, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, while addressing the Bill, paid tribute to her “life partner” Rajiv Gandhi. She said the passage of this legislation would be a realisation of his dreams.
Extending her party’s support to the Bill, the Congress Parliamentary Party chief on Wednesday demanded that the quota be implemented immediately and SC, ST, and OBC women also be given reservation following a caste census.
‘Act of removing bias’
The Bill is not about reservation but an “act of removing bias and injustice”, DMK leader Kanimozhi said in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday while asserting that women want to be respected as equals.
Participating in the discussion, she said the clause pertaining to “after delimitation” in the Bill should be removed as this could lead to an inordinate delay in the implementation of the reservation for women.
“How long should we wait to see this Bill implemented? It can be easily implemented in the coming Parliamentary elections. This Bill, you should understand, is not a reservation but an act of removing bias and injustice,” she said.
She stressed that the politics of tokenism must evolve into a politics of ideas.
“This Bill is called the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’. Stop saluting us. We don’t want to be saluted, we don’t want to be put on pedestals, we do not want to be worshipped… we want to be respected as equals,” she said.
‘Escape route bill’
Indian Union Muslim League MP ET Mohammed Basheer on Wednesday said the Bill would take a long time to be implemented, and called it an “escape route bill” for the BJP government at the Centre.
Basheer asked what the mechanism would be to identify constituencies for reservation, and asserted that the views of all political parties should be taken into account.
The MP from the Ponnani constituency in Kerala also said that the exercise should not be left to the Election Commission alone.
“The prime minister yesterday was saying that God had specially chosen him to turn this Bill into law. It’s an exaggeration and contrary to the facts. Endless efforts were made, especially during the UPA period, in this regard,” he said in the Lok Sabha.
“This legislation was very much necessary. In 1977-80, the Lok Sabha saw a ratio of women MPs which — at 3.4 percent — was the lowest in history. Before the mid-90s, it never touched 10 percent. That is a fact,” he said.
The IUML MP, too, questioned the government over the provision that said the exercise would only be undertaken after the next delimitation.
‘Only Savarna women’
AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi on Wednesday opposed the Bill saying it would provide reservation only to “savarna women”, and questioned why OBC and Muslim women — who have even lesser representation in Parliament — were not being given any quota.
“I oppose this legislation…. The justification that is being given for the Bill is that more women will get elected to Parliament. If that is the justification, why that justification is not being extended to the OBC and Muslim women whose representation in this august House is minimal,” Owaisi said.
“We know Muslim women are 7 percent of the population, but in this Lok Sabha their representation stands at only 0.7 percent,” he said.
Speaking on the Bill, Owaisi said, “This Modi government wants to increase representation for Savarna women. They don’t want representation for OBC women and Muslim women. There have been 690 women MPs elected to Lok Sabha and only 25 of them have come from the Muslim community.”
“I hear (that) reservation cannot be given on religious grounds? What is the 1950 presidential order? You are deceiving Muslim women by denying them quota within this reservation,” he said.
‘Add quota for OBC’
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday said in the Lok Sabha that he supported the Bill, but lamented that the measure was “incomplete” as it lacked quota for other backward classes (OBCs).
Participating in the debate in Lok Sabha on the women’s reservation Bill, he also said the President should have been invited when the transfer of proceedings took place from the old to the new Parliament building. He also pushed for a caste census.
The MP from Wayanad said a huge step in the transfer of power to women was Panchayati Raj, and this Bill was another big step towards it.
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‘To implement it soon’
Brushing aside apprehensions of a delay in the Bill’s implementation, Shah said the next government would conduct the census and the delimitation exercise immediately after the elections and set in motion the process to make reservations for women in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.
“Parliamentarians are currently elected in three categories: General, SC, ST. We have reserved one-third of seats for women in each of them,” said Amit Shah after Rahul Gandhi asked for OBC to be included in the reservation.
Intervening in the debate on the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, Shah indicated that women’s reservation would become a reality after 2029.
He said the passage of the Bill would mark the start of a new era, and recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had presented the vision of women-led development at the recent G20 Summit.
The Modi government has been pushing for empowerment of women since the day it assumed office, he said.
Women’s security, respect and equal participation have been the life force of the government, he said.
Shah said this was the fifth attempt to push a Bill for women’s reservation.
“Women have been disappointed by this Parliament on four occasions. This time I request that it be passed with unanimity. Shortcomings, if any, can be set right at a later date,” the home minister said.
DMK president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin dubbed the Bill in its current form a “poll gimmick”, pointing out that it was a “strange trick” to adopt a Bill now for something that would come into force only in 2029, that too following a delimitation exercise on the basis of the yet-to-be held census, for which there was no guaranteed timeframe.
Stalin stressed the importance of ensuring that there was a quota for women of the Backward Classes, and also demanded that the Centre assure the people of Tamil Nadu and the whole of South India that the delimitation exercise would do no harm to the states that have managed to control their population.
“Delimitation is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Tamil Nadu and South India. The political conspiracy to lower the political representation of south India must be outmanoeuvred,” he said.
In a statement later, Stalin — in a reference to the delimitation exercise — said that the effort to betray “politically vigilant Tamil Nadu” should be nipped in the bud.