A giant step

The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill by the Rajya Sabha is a historic penultimate step in the story of women’s empowerment in India. After the shameful incidents in the House on Monday when a determined minority blocked the bill, the country’s political and government leadership rose to the occasion to debate and vote on it on Tuesday, endorsing the national will behind the idea with strong parliamentary approval.

The idea of statutory representation for women in parliament and state legislatures has now come out of a dark tunnel after nearly 15 years of groping for light. If the Women’s Reservation Bill seemed lost as late as on Monday it was because of the vocal and subterranean opposition to it from a section of the political establishment. But ultimately all the main political parties came round to support and pass the bill.

The BJP, the Left parties and many regional parties deserve praise for setting aside their differences with the government and supporting the measure. However, it is no time for full celebration yet, as the bill has to go through the Lok Sabha before it becomes law and it is here it had met the most vociferous and repeated opposition earlier. There are many Doubting Thomas’s even now among supporting parties and they may subtly join hands with the opponents to scuttle the bill. But, Tuesday’s developments give hope that history is within India’s grasp.

The 33 per cent reservation that the bill proposes for women is not a concession for women but an acceptance of their rightful role in national life. The bill was passed without diluting its original intent. There were demands to break up the reservation into sub-quotas or to increase the number of parliament seats so that men’s representation would remain the same. The government has indicated that it is ready to accommodate some concerns when the bill comes up in the Lok Sabha but this should be done without compromising the purpose of the bill.

That purpose is to increase the role of women in public and parliamentary life and make them more active participants in governance and national life. Experience has shown that this is not possible without legislative support. Experience has also shown that women have risen to the occasion when they were given the opportunity, as in the local self-government bodies where women’s reservation has worked well. When the bill becomes law and gets finally implemented, it will be a game-changer and will make a signal difference to national life.

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