The Women's Reservation Bill has been a political raw nerve for nearly a decade now. It has always triggered heated debates in Parliament and outside.
Its advocates say the Bill is essential for active political participation of women.
Opponents argue that reservation would only help women of elitist groups gain political power, aggravating the plight of the poor and deprived sections.
If you are wondering just what the Women's Reservation Bill is and why it is so controversial, read on.
How did the Women's Reservation Bill originate?
The proposed legislation to reserve 33.3 percent seats in Parliament and state legislatures for women was drafted first by the H D Deve Gowda-led United Front government. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996. Though it has been introduced in Parliament several times since then, the Bill could not be passed because of lack of political consensus.
What does the Bill provide?
Reservation for women at each level of legislative decision-making, starting with the Lok Sabha, down to state and local legislatures.
If the Bill is passed, one-third of the total available seats would be reserved for women in national, state, or local governments.
In continuation of the existing provisions already mandating reservations for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, one-third of such SC and ST candidates must be women.
What is the argument in favour of the Bill?
Its proponents say it would lead to gender equality in Parliament, resulting in the empowerment of women as a whole. Historically, the Bill's supporters say, women are deprived in India. Increased political participation of women will help them fight the abuse, discrimination, and inequality they suffer from.
Does reservation for women exist in panchayat elections?
Yes, 33.3 per cent seats in panchayat elections have been reserved for women already. The experience of women's reservation at the panchayat level has been very encouraging. A million women are being elected to the panchayats in the country every five years. This is the largest mobilisation of women in public life in the world.
Then why is there opposition to the Bill?
Various political parties have staunchly opposed it because they fear many of their male leaders would not get a chance to fight elections if 33.3 percent seats are reserved for women. The Bill has also been opposed by politicians from the socially and economically backward classes. They argue that reservation would only help women of the elitist groups to gain seats, therefore causing further discrimination and under-representation to the poor and backward classes.
Who are the main political opponents of the Bill?
From day one, Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party have been the main political forces opposed to the Bill.
The SP and RJD are opposed to the bill in its present form and want a quota within quota for women from backward classes.
Lalu says the Bill 'would deny adequate representation to other sections of society.' He favours 10 to 15 percent reservation for women. 'My party is not opposed to women's reservation, but the case of Dalits, backward classes, Muslims and other religious minorities should not be overlooked,' is his argument.
"I want to see women like Kalawati and Bhagwati Devi to be included in the quota. There should be reservation within reservation," said Lalu.
Mulayam favours making it mandatory for political parties to give 10 percent of election tickets to women.
His argument is that if inadequacy of representation is the issue, why not reservation for Muslim women (there are only two in the present Lok Sabha)?
If 33.3 per cent reservation for women is added to the already existing 22.5 percent for scheduled castes and tribes, more than 55 per cent of seats in Parliament would be reserved. This would not be fair to other sections of the population, he says.
Those who oppose the bill are saying that by asking for reservation women are perpetuating unequal status for themselves. But, then supporters argue that provision of reservation for women is only for 15 years. The idea of reservation is to create a level playing field so that women can raise their share in politics and society and then, look for equal status.
Most members opposing say that it is better to create reservation of women in political parties than in Parliament. The provision of rotation of reserved states is also debated. It can reduce the incentive of the elected MPs to spend energy because he or she may not be able to re-seek the mandate from the same constituency.
What is the status of the Bill now?
The Bill had been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and Personnel, which gave its report in December 2009.
It recommended passage of the Bill in its present form and suggested that the issue should not be left to the discretion of political parties.
The central government cleared the Bill on February 25, 2010. For such a bill to pass, the Constitution has laid out an elaborate procedure. So, even if the Rajya Sabha passes the bill its real impact will be felt only when it passes through the Lok Sabha.
On March 8, it's difficult to say how the government will manage order in the Upper House so that members favouring the bill can vote without disruption or chaos created by opposing members.
Political pundits, sociologists, political scientists, feminists and historians and almost everybody has said that if the bill becomes an act then it will be the biggest socio-political news since independence.