India parliament in turmoil over women’s quota bill

by Rupam Jain Nair Rupam Jain Nair

Women supporters of India’s ruling Congress Party carry placards portraying party president Sonia Gandhi as they rally in support of the proposed Women’s Reservation Bill in New Delhi on International Women’s Day. An attempt by India’s government to pass legislation reserving a third of all seats for women in parliament has failed amid uproar among politicians opposing the move.

NEW DELHI (AFP) – An attempt by India’s government to pass legislation reserving a third of all parliamentary seats for women on Monday failed as politicians opposed to the draft law forced repeated adjournments.

The government had been confident that the Women Reservation Bill, which has been stalled for 14 years, would gather the required votes to pass in the upper house on Monday after being presented on International Women’s Day .

The house was adjourned several times as MPs from socialist parties shouted slogans, refused to allow the introduction of the proposed legislation and at one point tore up the draft bill and hurled it at the speaker.

The ruling Congress party, and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have pledged their support in public.

The detractors argue the law, which would reserve a third of seats for women in the parliament and state assemblies, would lead to a monopoly by upper-caste women at the expense of lower caste and religious minority Muslims.

“We are not anti-women but we want reservations for women hailing from minority and backward classes first,” Mulayam Singh Yadav , a leader of the pro-Muslim Samajwadi (Socialist) party said outside parliament.

The Congress said it was adamant it would bring in the law.

“The bill is a subject where the only question is when and not if. It is an idea whose time has come,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said, lashing out at MPs who tore papers and screamed slogans in parliament.

Attempts to pass the bill over the last decade and a half have been blocked by various political groups who have demanded separate quotas for women from Muslim and low-caste communities.

Yadav said the draft law was an attempt by the Congress and the BJP to appease the rich and the influential upper class.

The thorny proposal to reserve 33 percent of seats, first introduced in parliament in 1996, would increase women’s membership in both houses where they now occupy about one in 10 seats.

Because the bill involves a constitutional change, it needs the approval of two-thirds of legislators in the upper house after which it will go before the elected lower house where it also requires a majority of the same margin.

Women currently occupy 59 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house. There are just 21 women in the 248-member upper house.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to hold an all-party meeting on Tuesday to iron out differences over the bill, Indian media said.

Sonia Gandhi , president of the Congress party and regarded as India ‘s most powerful politician, has thrown her weight behind the bill, saying she attaches the “highest importance” to it.

It will be a “gift to the women of India if it is introduced and passed” on International Women’s Day , she told party MPs last week.

Political analysts said the government was testing the waters by introducing it in the upper house first instead of the lower house, where most proposed legislation is sent.

Some accused the government of playing politics by seeking to appease women by proposing the legislation but without having any realistic chance of it passing.

Politics in India has traditionally been a male bastion, but women now hold prominent positions, including President Pratibha Patil and Sonia Gandhi. India has had one female prime minister, Indira Gandhi .

Panchayats — local governing bodies in towns and villages — already reserve a portion of their seats for women and experts say the move has given women greater status in their communities.


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