India has come a step closer to reserving a third of the seats in the lower houses of its parliament and state assemblies for women – a long-standing demand that has been pending for more than a decade.
Even though Indian women have made powerful strides in all sectors that range from science to agriculture, the country’s parliament has not had a fair representation of the gender since its independence in 1947. Women at present account for just about one in 10 national and regional lawmakers.
And the move to reserve 33 per cent of the seats for women will not come into effect until 2027, when India will hold its next population census. Another hurdle that could hobble the landmark move comes in the form of India redrawing all of its political constituencies.
The Women’s Reservation Bill 2023, also known as the “Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam” in Hindi, was tabled in parliament by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government on Tuesday and is currently in the throes of hectic discussions between the ruling party and opposition lawmakers.
Even though the bill enjoys wide support and has been deemed progressive by all parties, Mr Modi’s government has come under criticism because, while it did not clear the bill in scores of parliament sessions since he came to power in 2014, it has been accused of doing so now, with less than a year to go for national elections.
Once the bill gets cleared by the parliament’s upper and lower houses and is assented to by the president, it will become a law – only to be put on hold until India’s next census.
The bill has been pending clearance for over 15 years and was first introduced by the coalition government of Mr Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2008. It never reached the parliament’s lower house for consideration and was used as a major poll plank by Mr Modi.
However, his government did not clear the bill in dozens of parliament sessions once he became prime minister in 2014.
Sonia Gandhi, the Indian opposition leader from Congress, vowed unequivocal support to the bill and asked Mr Modi’s government to roll it out “as soon as possible”.
Ms Gandhi, a prominent opposition political leader, became the first lawmaker on Wednesday to initiate the debate.
“For how many years women will have to wait for a larger role in the parliament?” she asked.
“Women in India have made enormous sacrifices for the growth of India,” she said.
The opposition also accused Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of hurriedly tabling and intending to implement the bill ahead of critical national elections next year where he is facing a united opposition.
The opposition Congress party, in a post on X, referred to the current discussions on the bill, as “jumla”, a Hindi word that has acquired the political meaning of being a “u-turn” or empty statement made to gain political clout.
As election season approaches, the grand spectacle of Jumlas by the masters of jumlabaazi unfolds...
And behold, the debut jumla of the season is none other than the "Women's Reservation Bill".
PM Modi, the maestro of Jumlebaazi, takes center stage once again! pic.twitter.com/FqqjPIaUuY
— Congress (@INCIndia) September 20, 2023
Ms Gandhi and other women lawmakers from regional parties also demanded a quota for women from backward castes within the overall 33 per cent quota for women to ensure equal gender representation from all strata of life.
Another opposition leader, Supriya Sule, questioned the Modi government’s push for the welfare of women “when their own ministers are making misogynistic comments against elected women Parliamentarians” like her.
She claimed a minister from Mr Modi’s cabinet had told her to “go home and cook food, someone else will run the nation, we will run the country”.
#WATCH | Women's Reservation Bill | NCP MP Supriya Sule says, "Nishikant Dubey said that INDIA is on the side of people who ran women down and spoke derogatorily...There was a Head of the BJP in Maharashtra. He told me personally on record on television - "Supriya Sule ghar jaao,… pic.twitter.com/wfHWUlHz7q
— ANI (@ANI) September 20, 2023
The implementation of the bill – deemed progressive and critical for India by all parties – has been complicated by the Modi administration that said it will come into effect after a census that has not been undertaken since 2011, and after boundaries of all political constituencies will be redrawn.
The last pending census was supposed to have begun in 2021, but was delayed by pandemic, with the Modi government blaming technical and logistical hurdles.
Political commentators in the country also criticised the annulment of the exercise and said it has hurt micro-level economic policies.
The lack of data also hides valuable information classified by gender, religion and age, experts have argued.