The Women's reservation Bill has once again made it to Parliament, this time, through Rajya Sabha, so that it does not lapse, with the dissolution of Lok Sabha, as happened three times earlier. But have the protagonists of the Bill learnt any lesson?
The Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha three times previously - in 1996, 1998 and 1999. In 1996, it was on the verge of being passed without discussion, on September 12, 1996. The women members resisted the attempts to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. The Government led by Deve Gowda was ready to accept any course to be recommended by the House - adoption without discussion, or a special session, or reference to a Select Committee. The Speaker, Purno Sangma was ready to dispense with the rules, and the Question Hour was suspended.
There was a complaint that the Bill was silent on reservation in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils. The member who expressed the concern was assured that his view would be taken care of after the passage of the Bill. This Bill's Statement of Objects and Reasons claimed that it was only seeking to extend the similar reservation for women already granted in Panchayats and Municipalities. The SOR also claimed the major political parties are in favour of making such reservation for women. The then Prime Minister, H.D.Deve Gowda, who introduced the Bill (rather than the then Law Minister) was ready to pass the Bill, if all the members of the House wanted.
But within a few hours, the Prime Minister and the Speaker changed their stands. The PM saw force in the criticism of some MPs (like Uma Bharati)that there ought to be reservation for OBCs within the women's reservation. The Speaker said he was helpless, because so many other parties wanted to speak on the Bill, and the women MPs felt the more the debate, the less chances of its immediate passage. September 13 1996 was the last day of the session. An all-party meeting convened by the Prime Minister had decided that the Bill be passed, and another Constitution Amendment Bill brought for the reservations for BCs, as stated by Vajpayee on the floor of the House.
But the PM apparently went against the consensus of that all-Party meeting, and found it expedient to consider the concerns expressed by individual MPs, some of whom like George Fernandes, questioned the haste with which the Bill was sought to be passed, when the Bill clearly said, it was applicable only to the next Lok Sabha elections, which was then due only in 2001 (there was no talk of mid term poll in 1998 then), although had it been passed, it would have been applicable in the subsequent state assembly elections.
The Speaker's ruling finally clinched the issue. He said the matter deserved a deeper and more elaborate debate, and he postponed the consideration of the Bill, till after the submission of the report by the Joint Parliamentary committee, to be constituted for the purpose. The JPC did submit its report in time - on the last day of the first week of winter session of 1996. But, in the mean time, politics appeared to have overtaken the legislative business. The JPC's report too recommended that the Government might consider the issue of extending reservations to OBCs also at the appropriate time.
The protagonists of the Bill did not appear to be against the demand for reserving seats for OBC women. But they were impatient that the Bill's passage was sought to be delayed on that ground.
The critics, on the other hand, did not want to postpone the question of reservation of seats for OBC women till after the passage of the Bill. The Bills introduced in 1998 and 1999 were identical to the draft Bill, which was reported by the JPC in 1996. On both the occasions, the Bill was stalled by its critics, and lapsed with the dissolution of the House. Among those who testified to the JPC in 1996 was Ashok H.Desai, then Attorney General of India. But the evidence submitted to the JPC was not part of the annexures of the JPC's report, and as a result, it remains confidential.
If the OBC MPs' resistance to the Bill is understandable, the Bill's protagonists' resistance to any change in the Bill's present form is not very convincing. Nitish Kumar, (presently Bihar CM) in his dissent to the 1996 JPC Report said women literacy is less in comparison to men, but at the same time the literacy among OBC and SC and ST women is far less than that of other categories of women, thus justifying the need for special and preferential treatment for the OBC women. It is a moot point whether the OBC MPs' fears of poor OBC representation in Parliament, after the enactment of the Bill in the current form, have any basis, but the women MPs appear to be doubting the motives of those who demand OBC quota within the women's quota.