Women’s bill can wait
By Kuldip Nayar
Jihad has different meanings. Islamist terrorists have one meaning. Leaders of Other Backward Classes (OBC) in India have another.
The latter have used the word ‘jihad’ to raise the standard of revolt against the government. The Congress party had the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, endorse the controversial Women’s Reservation Bill.
The OBC, a caste between the upper castes and the lowest caste, fear that the 33 per cent reservations in the two houses of parliament and the state legislatures would benefit primarily the elite and the affluent (today 68 per cent of woman MPs are millionaires) and leave their womenfolk still more backward.
Many male MPs of different parties are also having second thoughts. The bill when enacted will curtail 181 seats for men in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the lower house. It is laid down that after every general election, reservations for women will rotate to embrace new constituencies. The process, covering the entire country, will end after 15 years when the reservation period ends.
The three OBC leaders who are leading the agitation are Mulayam Singh Yadav from UP, Lalu Prasad Yadav from Bihar and Sharad Yadav, president of the Janata Dal (United). They have threatened not to allow the government to function if their castes are not accommodated. Their apprehension is exaggerated. Yet they have a point when they argue that reservations may come to work against the women from their castes and the minorities.
The remedy they suggest is, however, worse than the disease. They demand a quota within quota, 10 per cent for the OBC and five per cent for Muslims. This proposal may evoke a feeling of separation.
There is no doubt that the legislation fulfils the call by parliamentary democracy for gender equality. But was it necessary to take such a step when the country is plagued by numerous problems, from Maoist violence to dismal poverty? True, the bill has been languishing for 14 years. But no span of time is long enough when the alternative is cleavage in society.
India has not yet developed into a polity where differences over caste or religion have been allayed, much less settled. Indeed, it is tough for a liberal or a democrat to ignore what the modern world achieved long ago. Yet a nation has to define its own priorities. I do not think that the bill should have been on top of the agenda when consensus was lacking.
Prosperity and pluralism may make exploitation in the name of caste and creed irrelevant one day. Till such time, the leaders have to resist the temptation to hit the headlines, because the gain of a few may spell the ruin of millions.
Unfortunately, all three OBC leaders have played the caste card. They are trying to reignite the fire that was quenched some 20 years ago by implementing the Mandal Commission report and giving reservations to OBC. Still the country remained on the boil till the report was implemented. A similar situation can take place if the women’s bill is sought to be passed. Hamlets and neighbourhoods would become a warfront. OBC leader Lalu Prasad has said that the bill would be passed over his dead body.
A better suggestion is that political parties should be legally bound to allocate 33 per cent of seats to women in parliament and the state legislatures. I am told that all parties except the Left are agreeable to the proposal.
Why the communists are against it is not understandable. Another suggestion that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has given is that the 33 per cent seats can be converted into dual constituencies so as to accommodate women.
There is no option to conciliation. The Congress which has in the Lok Sabha 208 seats, 65 short of a majority, cannot afford to alienate the Yadavs because their support is crucial to the government’s viability. The Congress has, perforce, assured parliament that all parties would be consulted before proceeding further.
The party should not be in hurry. In any case, it has already announced that it would present the bill after the budget was passed. The ugly scene witnessed in the Rajya Sabha, resulting in the physical ouster of seven members, brought parliamentary democracy to the level of a mobocracy.
The demolition of the Babri mosque was the fallout of the Mandal agitation. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted after the demolition that if the Mandal agitation had not taken place, “we would not have picked up kamandal (a vessel used by hermits)”. The nation is still paying for the sins committed at that time. Must we add to our miseries?
It is welcome to see Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s nemesis catching up with him. This is also a slap in the face of the leading industrialists who gathered at Ahmedabad some weeks ago to announce that the next Indian prime minister should be Modi.
The corporate sector should realise that the people elect a ruling party which in turn appoints the prime minister. Moneybags have a limited say. What Modi did was to spread extremism which the industrialists should know is the anti-thesis of development.
Modi has at last been summoned by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on the basis of a complaint filed both by the wife and the son of former Congress MP Eshan Jaffrey. The latter rang up everyone, including Modi, for help when his house was surrounded by rioters during the Gujarat carnage. No help reached him until 69 people were butchered and the house burnt.
The SIT was appointed by the supreme court to inquire into 10 cases relating to the murder of Muslims in the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. The report may not set every wrong right. Yet it is expected to name the guilty. Families of the victims have been waiting for the last eight years to see that those whose hands are soaked with blood do not go unpunished.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.