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May 9, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Apogee of eccentricity

It is odd, almost eccentric. An ordinary Hindu committing bigamy is considered as violating Section 17 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and therefore punishable under Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code. But a Hindu who is a member of a Scheduled Tribe will be governed by his personal tribal law and cannot be punished for that same bigamous act of his unless and until the Central government issues a specific Presidential notification stating that the relevant Section of the Hindu Marriage Act is applicable to the Scheduled Tribes. That was the judgment of a Delhi High court last month in a classic example of the nation's "secular" fetish prohibiting its diversity from being translated into unity.

Here's another oddity. The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is a law of Parliament dealing with matters of will, intestacy and succession of agricultural property. However, because transfer of agricultural property is beyond the pale of Parliament as per the Constitution's Seventh Schedule enumerating the three Lists specifying the separate and concurrent law-making powers of the Centre and the states, the country finds itself struggling to give the wife and daughters their due share in family and property -- only Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, you see, have amended the Hindu Succession Act in this regard.

It is yet another paradox, therefore, that India was the first country to adopt without any reservation the full text of the 12-point Platform For Action set out at the 4th World Conference on Women held in Peking in September 1995. Gender justice in all walks of life dependent on political policies was the goal of that Action Platform, and since India is slated to present a fact-sheet this June on how it has followed up on this commitment of nearly five years ago, the Women and Child Department of the HRD ministry in Delhi is reportedly struck by apprehension, if not panic.

This anxiety is not without reason. Apart from those 21 states that have not amended the Hindu Succession Act to enable women to get equal share in the property of their Hindu family, none of the 25 states in all has done anything at all to modify the personal laws like Muslim Law although they, like the Centre, have the Constitutional power to do so.

The Centre itself is scared to even air the changes needed to Muslim Personal Law while its attempt to move a new Christian Marriage Bill 2000 has already met with stiff resistance over certain clauses from the Catholic clerics. A Uniform Civil Code is, of course, nowhere in sight or in the mind -- remember, we are a "secular" nation with a magnificent diversity.

The Women's Reservation Bill has admittedly been introduced but that's about all. Whether 'Maulana' Mulayam Singh & Co enable that Bill to become law before we face the World Conference on Women in June is anybody's guess.

Incidentally, it was another oddity that the Chief Election Commissioner of ours should be holding a press conference to announce the Election Commission's views on ways of enhancing women's participation in Parliament and state legislatures. No one in this country pointed out the eccentricity therein that an NRI did so quickly through the E-mail. The EC's function, he noted, is to ensure that conduct of elections is free, fair and impartial, nothing else. Gill, our CEC, should once again read Article 324 of our Constitution to ascertain whether the EC has at all the authority to play the activist and work as a think-tank on political or electoral reforms.

At a time when women's empowerment is almost a daily recurring theme, it is strange that none of our "liberal" dailies seems to have educated its readers on an overview of women worldwide. Oddly enough for these liberals, that task was recently done, albeit briefly, by a printed mouthpiece of the BJP -- the same party that has its roots in the supposedly male chauvinistic RSS. Reproduced in that publication of early this year were the following excerpts from a document produced by Kamla Nath and Milly Chatterjee:

  • In 1993, the Seychelles held the record for the highest percentage of women parliamentarians at 45.8 pc.
  • Australia's Labour Party passed a rule that "By 2002, 30 pc of the seats in the party will change into 'safe seats for women'."
  • In Germany all political parties have reserved a certain quota of seats for women.
  • In several West European countries, women make up from 25 to 45 pc of the membership of major political parties but they are grossly under-represented in the leadership of these parties.
  • In the United States, women never constituted more than 5 pc (and generally far fewer) of the members of the US Congress or of the State Legislatures until 1970. In later years, the political status of women has risen to 10 pc of positions in most elective bodies.
  • Finland has the highest rate of political participation at 39.8 pc followed by Norway (35.8 pc), Sweden (33.5 pc), Denmark (33.0 pc), Netherlands (29.3 pc), Switzerland (17.5 pc) and Ireland (12.1 pc).
  • More than a fifth of parliamentary deputies in China are women.
  • Sri Lanka was the first country to elect a woman head of state, but women parliamentarians are only 5.3 pc of the total.
  • In Bangladesh, the Constitution reserves 30 seats (10 pc) in Parliament for women but this provision has never been fulfilled. Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East, does not have a parliament.
  • The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have no women's political participation.
  • Yemen has 0.7 pc women's participation.
  • Iran has 3.4 pc women in politics while Iraq has 10.8 pc.
  • On the whole, women remain under-represented in the top echelons of government all over the world.
  • The developing countries have a better record of women's parliamentary representation (12%) than the industrialised nations (9 pc).

    Clearly, our Women and Child Development Department in Delhi need not panic, though it may well despair.

    Now to the final funny facet of our state of feminism movement. The Congress party has a woman president whose only demonstrated support for the cause of her gender has been her leading a march to Parliament early last year pressing for the introduction of the Women's Reservation Bill and then to quickly announce that it was the government's duty alone to do so in the light of "Maulana" Mulayam's obstructionist tactics. On the other hand, the BJP has a Mahila Morcha with a national executive that that met in New Delhi last December with delegates from 22 states.

    While the Mahila Morcha resolution passed on the occasion spoke of women's empowerment so as to enable them to "develop themselves with all the attributes of glorious womanhood", Sumitra Mahajan, the minister for CWD, envisaged a major role for women in controlling population and spreading education all over the country.

    The contrast is stark: Congress women want power for themselves to rule the country, while the BJP women seem to want it to control population, spread education and become better women. And to think that communists like Vrinda Karat condemn the BJP as being the bastion of chauvinist males who her supreme leader loves to label as "barbaric and uncivilised." That, truly, is the apogee of eccentricity.

    Arvind Lavakare

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