The Women Reservation Bill: Through the Lens of Gender and Development Approach

The women reservation bill, a step towards democratising the parliament and the state legislative assemblies, was introduced after quite a bit of push and pull only to be put in cold storage again, owing to a likely fall out of the government itself. Its fate remains more or less the same today. Recently though there has been renewed interest on the subject considering that the new government seems to be in a position to be able to galvanise enough votes to pass the bill. Many key persons from the government in the recent times have also expressed interest and their commitment to this issue. Riders have already been imposed though. It has been said that “the government would move “forward cautiously” on the issue and that no time frame can be given in regard to when the said bill may become reality”[1].

Clearly there are many social and political interests which are at stake. This is apparent by the chief minister of Telangana‟s letter to the prime minister drawing out a „solution to this problem‟. It was suggested that extra seats be created to accommodate the women reservation bill which proposes a circular reservation of 33% of the present available seats[2]. Creation of new seats essentially would mean an extensive and laborious process of delineating the present constituencies. The chief minister has while proposing this idea clearly missed out on the fact that reservation is contemplated to be circular and based on draw of lots so creation of more seats serves no purpose.

Keeping the present tussle for power aside, I think it would be important to trace the origin of the bill under question, conceptually and socially. In India political response to cumulative gender inequalities historically embedded in a stratified pluralistic society, was a policy of correction by breaking down formal barrier to women’s access to legal, political, educational and economic institutions assuming that this would bring about significant changes in women’s participatory roles. Gandhi has viewed the political and legal equality only as a starting point:

“Women must have votes and an equal legal status. But the problem does not end there. It only commences at the point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation”.       


During the constituent assembly debates on the issue of reservation Ambedkar said,

“On the social plane, we have in India a society based on privilege of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who are living in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter a public life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man (sic), one vote and one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? …We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which the Constituent Assembly so laboriously built up”[3]

Movement for political inclusion of women in India dates back to almost a century. The women’s movement in this regard has said to have been started on the emergence of three national organizations, namely All India Women‟s Conference, Women‟s India Association and the National Council of Women in India.

The battle for the right to vote was initiated when Sarojini Naidu led an All India Women‟s deputation to Montague, the then Secretary of State of India. The Government of India Act 1919 which was rolled in thereafter enfranchised a mere three per cent of Indian adults for the provincial assemblies and women were completely excluded. This was a major set back for the movement. Some provincial states thereafter did recognise this issue and tied to address the same.

Jana Everett in her book[4] has argued that the campaign of the Indian women’s movement for political representation had two phases: in the first phase (1917-1928) the issue was female enfranchisement and eligibility for the legislature; in the second phase (1928-1937) it was  liberalisation of the terms of enfranchisement and increasing female representation in the legislatures. In both phases the extent to which the interests of the women’s movement and those of political authorities coincided was the main factor determining the outcome of the women’s movement demands.

Further in the first round table conference which congress boycotted, the British government appointed two women, Radhabai Subbarayan and Begum Shah Nawaz, who supported the idea of wifehood qualification and reservation of women. However for the second round table conference a memorandum was submitted where the main demands did not include reservation, and instead focussed on universal adult suffrage, mixed general electorates and nomination or co-option of women.

This was a time when there was strong opposition for was generally see to be decisive and tool of the divide and rule policy of the British. Reservation was therefore rejected by women leaders as a retrograde step. In the All India Women‟s Conference which declared that it would strive rather for total political equality in her presidential address Sarojini Naidu stated as follows:

“We are not week, timid, meek women. We hold the courageous Savitri as our ideals. We know how Sita defied those who entertained suspicion of her ability to keep her chastity. We possess the spirit of creative energy to legislate for the moral of the world. ‘I think this conference is writing the history of women of the world. I will, however, confess to you one thing. I will whisper it into this loud-speaker. I am not a feminist. To be a feminist is to acknowledge that one’s life has been repressed. The demand for granting preferential treatment to women is an admission on her part of her inferiority and there has been no need for such a thing in India as the women have always been by the side of men in council and in the fields of battle…. We must have no mutual conflict in our homes or abroad. We must transcend differences. We have rise above nationalism, above religion, above sex”.[5]    

This rosy picture of women‟s position in the society was accepted by many in those times. The three organizations (AIWC, WIA and the Central Committee of the NCWI) jointly issued a memorandum on the status of India women in the proposed new Constitution (Government of India Act, 1935) and demand immediate and complete recognition of women’s equal political status in theory and practice. They further stated that

We are further enjoined to resist any plea that may be advanced by small individual groups of people for any kind of temporary concessions or adventitious methods of securing the adequate representation of women in the legislatures in the shape of reservation of seats, nomination or co-option whether by status, convention or at the discretion of the provincial and central governments. To seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status”.

Even though the popular sentiment of the civil society around this time was for no reservation, a joint select committee was set up to dwell deeper into this issue. The Report of the Joint Select Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform (1934) made proposals for women’s representation and subsequently the Government of India Act 1935 incorporated them with minor changes. Wifehood qualification was the main instrument, for women’s enfranchisement and 41 seats allocated among the communities were reserved for women. Under the 1935 Act as finally adopted, six million women and 29 million men became eligible to vote. Seats were reserved for women on a communal basis though women could contest any of the general seats.

The experiences that were shared in the coming elections are instructive. It was observed Everest in this regard as follows:

 “AIWC leaders appeared to hold a naive view of electoral politics and the influence of their Organisation on mass politics before the 1937 elections ….. When the parties selected their candidates, women leaders discovered that very few women were nominated from general seats and once entered the legislatures, party affiliation to be more important then sex in voting on legislation”[6].

It was therefore clear that though reservation and political participation did equip women and acted as tools of upliftment there was a bigger battle that needed fighting, without which all the affirmative action provisions would become meaningless. It was clear by now that in general a liberal mindset in regard to equal rights in education, right to vote, women’s welfare prevailed same was not the situation when equal rights in the sphere of family rights and property rights was sought. Male chauvinism came to the fore on the issue of family laws. Whenever patriarchal controls in the family were questioned during the debate over the Hindu Code Bill the demands met with opposition. It is not surprising that patriotic and cultural nationalistic arguments were used to reject or oppose such proposals for changing family laws and equal property rights for women, as being the influence of western education.

However, maybe taking from this experience or for other reasons, the Indian Constitution, 1950 did not contemplate reservation for women. In the first Lok Sabha (1952-57) of free India, only 43 women contested and 14 were elected (out of a total number of 489). Then followed for 20 years or so what is called the “silent period” in the history of women‟s strife for political equality.

The question of reservation came up again when the Committee on the Status of Women in India (“CSWI”) was set up in the 1974. The Report of the CSWI pointed out that ‘the rights guaranteed by the Constitution have helped to build an illusion of equality and power which is frequently used as an argument to resist protective and accelerating measures to enable women to achieve their just and equal position in society’. The demand for a system of reservation came from several groups of women during the Committee’s tour to different parts of the country. While the Committee rejected by a majority the proposal for statutory reservation of seats for women in legislative bodies, it recommended statutory women’s panchayats at the village level because of the neglect of women in rural development programmes. It also called upon political parties to “adopt a definite policy regarding the percentage of women candidates for contesting elections”

In these arguments women’s representation is seen as an instrument for change and women are seen as an interest group who will take up the cause of other disadvantaged women. It is also anticipated that once they became part of the decision-making process, they would demand participation in development decisions and a reorientation of public policies. Several of these arguments have since been thrown back and forth in the current debate on the reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies. It was also argued that[7]

 “30% reservation of seats in the legislative bodies for women cannot lead to their becoming “isolated pockets in the nation” because women are not marginal to society as a minority group might be. Such a transitional measure to break through the existing structure of inequalities will not be retrogression “from the doctrine of equality and the principle of democratic representation”.

In the post-CSWI period, women have definitely emerged as a distinct category in development planning (WID initiatives), But women’s experiences of collective action and mobilisation did not result in the greater representation of women in elected bodies. The under representation of women in elected bodies is a manifestation of their subordinate position in the family, community and the society and as such undermines the democratic process. They reiterated the demand for one-third reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions and municipal bodies. A National Conference on Panchayati Raj and Women (1989) was addressed by the late Rajiv Gandhi who announced that 30 per cent seats in PRIs would be reserved for women. He claimed that this was only the beginning and that his government would extend it to fifty per cent in two years‟ time.

The Bills could not be carried through in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) for want of a requisite majority. Panchayati Raj became an election issue and when Congress took over the government, the Constitution (72nd Amendment) Bill 1991 was again introduced in The Lok  Sabha with some modifications suggesting the insertion of new part IX (definition, constitution of Panchayat etc) and Eleventh Schedule (Article 243 G regarding functions of Panchayts) in the Constitution. The 73rd and 74th Amendment Bill Providing for one-third reservation for women in PRIs were finally passed in December 1992 and were ratified by all the states by April 1993.

Its’ been 21 years now and the number of women Parliamentarians has not exceeded more than seven per cent. On the other hand in in most Nordic countries a higher amount political representation of women. Political parties in Nordic countries introduced gender quotas for the selection of parliamentary candidates from mid-70s. The proportion of women in legislative assemblies has reached 38 per cent in Denmark, 21.3 per cent in Netherlands and 15 per cent in Germany.

One of the major barriers faced by women today is their absence in the internal party hierarchy, lack of necessary arrangements to facilitate women’s participation in party activities, a great deal of reluctance about accepting the idea of parity and partnership between men and women in politics, are reflected in women’s small numbers in parliament and state assemblies. Women’s units within the parties established in the 70s are regarded as subsidiary or peripheral to the party structures and their activities are largely confined to social events, campaign work and mobilising women to support and defend the agenda of the party in power. Without logistic, financial and strategic support from the parties women cannot succeed as candidates in the multi-party democratic system.

Democratic politics has increasingly focused attention on the composition and behaviour of existing elites and the limits of representative or participatory democracy. The nature of party politics in a multi-party democratic system and the nature of political institutions have fostered new political divides not always on conventional ideological grounds. Coalition politics has further demonstrated its own contradictions which cannot always accommodate legitimate concerns in their political agenda because of their own survival concerns. In a multi-party democracy where the “number game” ensures the formation of governments, the logic of selecting ‘winning candidates’ often works against women despite lip service paid to women in party manifestos.

To examine if the present intervention accepts and acknowledges the problems faced by women in general and recognises that women are not a homogenous group it is important to understand the different approaches employed by the various governments over the time.

Different approaches to development

Broadly there have been three main approaches, namely the Women in Development (WID) approach, Women and Development (WAD) approach and the Gender and Development (GAD) approach. A “woman in development” approach works on the basis that women are in a secondary position in the present political and economic framework. Therefore interventions are introduced to remedy the same. What was lacking in this approach was the examination of why women in the first place were relegated to such a position. An examination of the root of the issue to solving the present inequality was lacking. While discussing this issue  Eva Rathgeber in her article[8] states that the WID is a rather non-confrontational approach where the main issue of the source of women‟s subordination and oppression is not examined and instead it is focussed on advocacy for more equal participation in education, employment and other spheres of the society.

This approach is also ahistorical and overlooks the impact and influence of class, race and culture. It is focussed on women or gender as a unit of analysis without recognizing the important divisions and relations of exploitation that exist among women and men.

The WID approach has offered little defense against this reality because it does not challenge the basic social relations of gender. It is based on the assumption that gender relations will change of themselves as women become full economic partners in development.

WAD approach was marginally better than WID in the sense that it focussed on the relationship between women and development and not only on intervention and policy strategies. WAD offers a more critical view of women’s position than does WID, but it fails to undertake a full-scale analysis of the relationship between patriarchy, differing modes of production, and women’s subordination and oppression. The WAD perspective implicitly assumes that women’s position will improve if and when international structures become more equitable. In the meantime, the underrepresentation of women in economic, political, and social structures still is identified primarily as a problem that can be solved by carefully designed intervention strategies rather than by more fundamental shifts in the social relations of gender.

The GAD approach on the other hand looks at development in a more holistic manner. Its focus is on the social construct of gender and the specific roles that society assigns upon them.

A GAD perspective does not lead only to the design of intervention and affirmative action strategies to ensure that women are better integrated into ongoing development efforts. It leads, inevitably, to a fundamental re-examination of social structures and institutions and, ultimately, to the loss of power of entrenched elites, which will effect some women as well as men. The present bill seeking reservation for women recognizes the complex barriers that exist for women in a patriarchal society and therefore tries to remedy the same by giving them access. Unfortunately this is an superficial remedy for something much deeper none the less necessary considering the present situation.

What GAD approach to development demands is that a more committed and long term solutions be introduced. This would require political will and commitment which is not possible in the present system. Unless the general sentiment and peoples movement so strong that the transitional governments are compelled to act accordingly.




[3] Keer, D., 1962; Ambedkar: Life and Mission; Delhi.

[4] Everett, 1981

[5] Fourth Session on AIWC, Bombay, 1930

[6] Everett Jana, 1981, p.135

[7] CSWI, 1974

[8] Ratherberg Eva “WID, WAD and GAD trends in research and practice” The Journal of Developing Areas, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Jul., 1990), pp. 489-502

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