India steps into history with women’s quota bill (Roundup)

New Delhi, March 9 (IANS) India’s politics took a decisive step towards change Tuesday with its upper house passing a historic bill giving one-third representation to women in parliament and state legislatures, crossing the biggest hurdle in the road towards political empowerment for women in the world’s largest democracy.

The 13-year perilous political struggle to give women adequate representation ended with the Rajya Sabha finally debating the contentious issue and then voting 186-1 on the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008 amid acrimony, political divides and ugly scenes of dissent.

Only the last step remains – of the Lok Sabha endorsing it. With the numbers stacked in favour of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the lower house, this should hopefully be a formality, said activists and leaders, who had fought long and hard to see the day.

The reserved seats would be allotted by rotation to different constituencies and would be valid for 15 years after the commencement of the Amendment Act.

The flagship legislation did not get passed on International Women’s Day as the government had hoped but a day later. Nonetheless, it was a time for hyperbole and the timing of the bill, introduced by the Deve Gowda government in 1996, could not have been better.

Even for the usually taciturn Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who described it as ‘a historic step forward’ towards ‘strengthening the process of emancipation’ of Indian women. Both he and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had staked the government’s future on the passage of the bill.

‘This is a momentous development in the long journey of empowering our women,’ he said at the end of a lively debate on the bill that saw 27 speakers participate.

‘Our women faced discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education, healthcare, there are all these things. All these things have to end if India were to realise its full potential,’ he added on an emotive note.

That the issue of giving women in a still deeply traditional country assured representation in the highest echelons of political power provoked the most intense reactions was evident from the prime minister’s opening remarks itself.

‘I owe you a profound apology for the disrespect shown to you…,’ he told Vice President and chairman of the house Hamid Ansari.

On Monday, Ansari found himself virtually accosted by a handful of MPs who tore the bill into shreds and hurled the pieces at him. On Tuesday, a disgusted Ansari suspended seven MPs from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Samajwadi party (SP), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), regional parties whose main support base is in the Hindi heartland.

At this point, women constitute nine percent of the Lok Sabha, 10 percent of the Rajya Sabha and only seven percent of state legislative assemblies.

Correcting the anomaly, however, saw the blurring of many political lines and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government losing some of its political edge.

The RJD and the SP announced the withdrawal of their support to the government and the ally Trinamool Congress abstained from the vote. Within the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) divisions appeared with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the move but its other big leader Sharad Yadav bitterly opposed to it.

But the Congress battled the hurdles. It was a triumph for Congress president Sonia Gandhi who was determined that it would go through. In the Lok Sabha, the task would be easier with the Congress having a strength of 208, the largest constituent of the UPA’s 259 members.

The SP’s 22 seats and the RJD’s four would not make a difference, said a party leader.

But this was an issue that went beyond politics, a reflection of the emerging women power in a rapidly modernising India.

Principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley who opened the debate said he had a feeling of being a party to history in the making when he came to the house and his party ‘unequivocally’ supported it.

Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPI-M) Brinda Karat said the move would change the ‘culture of the country because women today are still caught in a culture prison. In the name of tradition, stereotypes are imposed and we have to fight these every day’.

These stereotypes will also be broken by the bill, said a delighted Karat, who believes the entry of a larger number of women in legislatures would make for ‘more sensitive politics’.

Inequalities would be rectified, age-old biases corrected. With this bill, could things finally change. A tempting thought for India’s women.

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