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Political Status of Indian Women: Progress since independence

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Raichel Matthai


Political participation of Indian women, though in a miniature form, started with the freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi was mostly instrumental for arousing political consciousness in the poor, illiterate women and making them take part in the freedom movement.

Political participation may be defined as voluntary participation in political affairs through membership, voting and partaking in the activities of the political parties, legislative bodies and/or politically motivated movements. The Constitution of India guarantees adult franchise and provides the framework for women to participate actively in politics. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It is a pity that women have not substantially availed of the constitutional provisions. The successive election statistics shows that the number of women who exercise their franchise has increased from election to election. For the last two decades almost equal numbers of men and women have gone to the polling booths to vote.

The number of women filing their nomination papers in any election, national or State, is only a fraction of the corresponding number of men. Some withdraw at the last moment and the contesting candidates become fewer in number. Ultimately the number of women winning elections will be so small that their percentage in the legislative body will be nominal.

Women Members in Lok Sabha
Lok Sabha Years Total No. of Seats No. of Women Total Percentage
First 1952-57 499 22 4.4
Second 1957-62 500 27 5.4
Third 1962-67 503 34 6.7
Fourth 1967-71 523 31 5.9
Fifth 1971-76 521 22 4.8
Sixth 1977-80 544 19 3.4
Seventh 1980-84 544 28 5.1
Eighth 1984-89 544 44 8.1
Ninth 1989-91 529 28 5.3
Tenth 1991-96 509 36 7.1
Eleventh 1996-98 537 34 6.3
Twelfth 1998-99 543
Thirteenth 1999-2004 543 42 7.8

The percentage of winning candidates has been below ten in Parliament, in all the past elections, as shown in the chart. The State Assemblies too present a similar situation. No variation whatsoever has occurred in half-a-century! In the same period, Indian women have achieved commendable progress in literacy, education, and employment. They have achieved rights equal to that of men for parental assets. They have proved their ability to master science and technology.

In the past we were under the impression that political empowerment will follow economic empowerment automatically, but we were utterly wrong. Under the circumstances it became obligatory for the women’s organisations as well as the Government of India to search for remedial measures to improve the political status of women. After prolonged deliberations, as a first step, the government made the provision in the Panchayat and Nagarpalika Bills of 1992 to reserve 33 per cent of candidature and constituencies in the local bodies—panchayats, municipalities and corporations—for women. There was widespread criticism that it will be difficult to find such a big number of eligible women candidates all of a sudden, and the newly elected members’ performance may not be befitting to the dignity of the post etc. Two local body elections have taken place since then and twelve uneventful years have passed. Now nobody is bothered about the women members of the local bodies.

In 1995 the representatives of the Government of India reported at the Fourth World Conference on the Status of Women at Beijing that the government intended to reserve 33 per cent of candidature and constituencies in the legislative bodies—Parliament and State Assemblies—for women. In September 1996, the Constitution 81st Amendment Bill, 1996 was introduced in Parliament. However, following opposition, the bill was referred to the scrutiny of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament with late Ms Geeta Mukherjee as the chairperson. The report of the Committee was produced in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha in the winter session, presuming that the Bill could be reintroduced in the current session itself but nothing positive happened.

The main provisions of the Bill, as introduced in Parliament in September 1996, were: (1) not less than one-third seats have to be reserved in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies for women, and among these reserved seats, provision has to be made for reserved seats for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in the same proportion as provided in the Constitution for the SC and ST people in general; (2) in the States where there are less than three seats for the Lok Sabha, there will be no reservation. The original Bill made no mention of Rajya Sabha or the Legislative Councils of States.

Women’s organisations all over the country went on protesting and in the end the Bill was reintroduced on May 16, 1997. Overtly and covertly coalition partners of the ruling as well as the Opposition groups put forward objections. Some members wanted the quantum of reserved seats for women to be reduced to 25 per cent. Leaders of the Other Backward Classes wanted to reserve special quota for the OBC women. There were suggestions that half the parliamentary/State Assembly constituencies could be given dual representation, a male and a female representative simultaneously. All these suggestions, which could be implemented only by further constitutional amendments, were intended to make matters more and more complicated and obstruct the Bill. Now and then a few more attempts were made to take up the Bill, but without success. After all, reservation is a constitutional provision to improve the status of weaker sections of the society. It is only natural that the male dominated legislative bodies would try to find out any number of excuses to obstruct the Bill and maintain male domination in the legislative bodies.

The system of reserving for women 33 per cent seats in Parliament already exists in Russia, the Philippines, Korea etc. In certain other countries—Norway, Sweden, France, Germany etc.—the political parties take initiative to reserve 33 per cent seats for women. Both ways it has worked well. Unfortunately in India, no political party has come forward with the suggestion of reserving the candidature for women. Also the Indian political parties arriving at a consensus on the issue is remote.

In the majority of our States, women form a bigger vote-bank than men. Eyeing on the women’s vote-bank, before every election, most national political parties, in their manifestos, do not fail to promise to make women’s reservation a reality. They gather the votes and do nothing to make the Bill an Act of Parliament.

What is the root cause of the low representation of women in the elected bodies? I have had opportunity to discuss the matter with many eminent men and women including late Ms Geeta Mukherjee, the chairperson of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, for the scrutiny of the Women’s Reservation Bill. The women put the blame on the patriarchal society. The men accept male domination to a certain extent, but place the main responsibility for thus vicious situation on the women themselves. The crux of the matter is that in politics a person who is not a member of a political party is a lay person politically. The membership of women in the political parties is extremely low. The representation of women in the higher cadres of the political parties is lower still. The number of women at the top, policy-making executive bodies of the parties is absolutely nominal. In any political party, if there is a section without sufficient and effective presence in the executive bodies, the interests of that section will naturally be neglected.

The male dominated political parties are interested only in the female vote-bank. They are not interested to promote female membership in the party beyond a certain limit so that men could hold maximum number of important positions. In all the main national parites there are separate sub-sections for women—Mahila Congress of the Indian National Congress, Mahila Morcha of the Bharatiya Janata Party, National Federation of Indian Women of the Communist Party of India etc. The women’s wings are eternally agitating against price rise, atrocities against women or such other topics, which any government should take up in the priority list and address, with the objective of resolving them. But in practice, the governments leave such issues unresolved, and women go on making a little noise now and again, and gain certain illusory gratification that they have performed some great political task. The poor women are not much aware of the mainstream activities of their respective parties at all. When the election comes they vote for the party’s symbol and the matter ends there.

Obviously women have to change their mode of approach to political participation, if they aspire for substantial representation in the legislative bodies. Women from all strata of society should join political parties of their choice and correct the disparity in male-female ratio in the parties at the grassroot level, as well as in the executive bodies. More and more women should take the primary membership of the parties and involve themselves in the local activities. Without improving the primary membership and the grassroot level activities, not many people could go up in the cadres. Political status could be achieved only through hard and persistent work. If you have your husband or father or brother to prop you up, you are extremely lucky. In general women may have to face a lot of obstacles—gender discriminations, petty jealousies, scandals, economic constraints, discord in the family and so on—which should be circumvented with grace and determination. However, it is easily said than done!

Without proper representation of women in the legislative bodies and political participation of women at all levels, issues concerning women would remain neglected. According to the Indian Constitution women being the weaker section are eligible for reservation wherever necessary. Till date, women’s representation in the legislative bodies is literally being obstructed by male domination. Constitutional and political action has to play a positive roll to solve the problem.

As an interim measure, reservation of 33 per cent seats in the legislative bodies for women, through an Act of Parliament, is only just, prim and proper.

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