Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Women's Reservation Bill: Interpreting Its Passage and Predicting Future Implications

Now that the Women's Reservation Bill has passed in the Rajya Sabha, there is a good chance that it will pass in the Lok Sabha as well and will soon become law. Given that this is now going to be reality, it is worth reflecting upon what it means and what its consequences may be.

1. Besides the argument that this enactment will empower women, there is also another truth: passage of this bill is itself a sign of their empowerment and the enormous influence of groups that fought for it. Women's issues have gained a great deal of recognition, legitimacy and support over the years and this is only the latest manifestation of that fact.

2. We have a had a freedom versus equality debate upon this issue for some time. Most recently, P.B.Mehta and Kanchan Gupta have weighed in on the issue among others. Skepticism voiced by these commentators has had virtually no support amongst the political leadership. Even parties opposed to the bill have been speaking in quota terms, not freedom. This is not very different from the earlier Mandal/OBC quota debate. There too, political support for students fighting the OBC quota whether in employment or education came only behind the scenes and in subtle ways, not publicly and openly. This bill only reiterates the fact that identity politics remains the mainstay of Indian political discourse and political parties of all hues tailor their messages to suit this framework. Only a paradigmatic shift in this discourse can bring salience to a non-interventionist agenda; barring that, contrarian sentiments will remain limited to the blogosphere, think tanks, academia and other watering holes in the political wilderness.

3. The bill expires after 15 years but as everyone knows, such sunset clauses are rarely meaningful. Those who support it point out that it will increase representation of women in the legislatures and more generally, women's participation in politics. Critics argue that what we will get is mainly the 'biwi-beti-bahu-behen' brigade remote controlled by powerful men and will not represent true empowerment. My guess is that there will be some of both. MPs who are leaders in their own right will successfully ensure that their family members or close and trustworthy aides will get nominated. A significant proportion of less prominent MPs who lack such a dominant advantage will likely lose their seats to women activists from their own parties.

4. Jaithirth Rao makes some excellent observations in today's IE op-ed. On his main point, I fully agree. Caste calculations have been integral to the politics of this issue. OBC and minority groups face sharp disparities between men's and women's education and employment levels - reservations have disproportionately benefited men - and these groups will have a harder time finding suitable women to step up to responsible political positions. It will not be entirely surprising if their numbers go down in future elections in which case, the demand for OBC/minority subquotas will grow louder over time.

5. Studies of the impact of women's reservations in local bodies (ushered in through the 73rd and 74th amendment acts) show that women who gain entry into politics through a quota do find it difficult to get reelected without it though the exposure gained through political participation may enhance their chances of subsequent victory. The rotation system will also make enduring gains harder to achieve. Esther Duflo's study showed that prejudice about women's competence diminished when villages witnessed their performance and a similar change might also provide a push towards gender parity in political representation.

6. Studies in other countries have yielded some albeit disputed evidence that women take more liberal policy positions than men. I doubt this finding carries much relevance in the Indian system where individuals are constrained by party diktats and political correctness is the universal norm.

7. It has also been suggested in the Indian context that women have different political priorities as for eg., in local bodies they prioritize potable water over building roads or educational facilites. This has been an important expectation of women's organizations in supporting this bill. Government priorities, however, are to a large extent determined by many powerful interest groups and whether the person in office is a man or a woman probably makes only a marginal difference at best. Nevertheless, the power of a large contingent of women MPs should not be underestimated: Opinion makers in women's organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, in collusion with the media drive agendas these days and these non-descript, greenhorn women MPs, though having limited impact individually, can collectively be very influential supporters prodding the government and their respective parties to adopt their positions. Therein lies both an opportunity as well as real danger.

Legislation such as the sexual harassment at workplace bill, the assisted reproductive technologies bill, amendment to the immoral traffic act and other bills which cater to particular women's interests which have all been gathering dust for the last several years could get a real push in a new parliament with many women. Extreme views of these organizations could also end up being shoehorned into law and legitimate interests of other groups could potentially be blocked or undermined if they are so much as remotely perceived to be contrary to women's interests. For example, anti-harassment legislation allowing men to be jailed for vaguely defined crimes such as 'mental harassment to a woman' (whatever that means) and provisions providing daughters-in-law a veto over the privacy and property rights of their husband's families in domestic conflict cases by invoking theories of vicarious liability could become law. On the other hand, any attempt to change the penal code allowing women to be charged with adultery (presently only men may be so charged) might be blocked.

8. Courts and the criminal justice system are likely to come under a great deal of stress in the coming years in women's rights cases. Judicial decisions have already steadily undermined defendant rights in certain categories such as rape cases over the last several years. My fear will hopefully be belied but with more uproars such as in the Ruchika Girhotra affair probably getting even more magnified with women MPs publicly pressuring the government, maintaining a measure of equanimity in the government and a modicum of fairness in such trials, preventing ad hoc interventions, frivolous prosecutions and witch hunts could become a real challenge.

1 comment:

Damo said...

Sensible liberal comment, the way God meant it to be, Pilid's posts are like a cool breeze in a blog otherwise reeking of Fundamentalist Dirt ...