Opposing the women's reservation bill in Parliament, Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal is reported to have thundered, ``Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women... let them take out a rally. We will match them 1,000 for every one.'' His rhetoric resounded rather ominously, as though he were thinking of vanquishing an enemy army rather than debating with fellow legislators on the merits or demerits of a bill under consideration.
In his anger, Sharad Yadav seems to have forgotten that Uma Bharti -- the OBC woman who has given a tough challenge to this bill -- has the shortest hair among all women parliamentarians. Yet she represents the interests of not just OBC women but also men, and far more effectively than Yadav. Similarly, the self-proclaimed female messiah of the scheduled castes, Mayawati, also sports short hair. Mercifully, there is no constitutional requirement that hair be of a certain length before parliamentarians can claim to represent other men and women.
Sharad Yadav possibly used short hair as code words to target women from educated, urban, and elite families. But Yadav bhai, now that you have confessed that both your wife and daughter have short hair, (Indian Express, May 26), I wonder if you consider them worthy of representing backward caste women? Or are they disowned for having defiled their caste?
Women of OBC communities are indeed among the most disadvantaged and oppressed women in our country. Their voices seldom, if ever, get heard not because of elite women but because they are muffled by men of their own families and biradari. Have a look around at the women in your own caste and community, Sharad Yadav ji. You will discover that literacy rates among OBC women in Northern India are among the lowest in the world. Their mortality rate due to denial of proper food and health care is among the highest in the world. `Your women' live pitifully restricted lives. Most of them are denied the right to interact with the outside world, the right to own property, and to earn an independent income.
Too many are married and trapped in motherhood even before they leave adolescence. These are some of the major reasons that they are marginalized in their own community's political life and are consequently invisible in the social and political life of the country. While many of the so-called upper caste groups have carried out intensive social reform campaigns over the past hundred or more years to remove many of the disabilities imposed on women within their respective communities, most of the OBC caste groups have moved in the opposite direction -- making the lives of `their' women relatively more vulnerable and dependent, as is evident, for example, in the declining sex ratio figures for many of the OBC groups, especially in the Hindi belt.
You have opposed the Women's Reservation Bill on the pretext that the quota would be cornered by upper caste women. But the sad truth is that you are not willing to share power even with women of your own community. That is why there are hardly any OBC women leaders in your party. If the fear of upper caste women cornering the women's quota can spur you into making space for OBC women in your party and in the electoral arena, the bill would have served its purpose.
Like OBC men, women of OBC communities will have a distinct electoral advantage because the caste arithmetic favours OBC candidates in most constituencies in India. OBC men have come to dominate state legislatures as well as the Parliament without any quota because of strategic voting by the varied caste groups that come under the OBC umbrella. It is highly unlikely that so called upper caste women will win from OBC dominated constituencies. If you are really concerned about the empowerment of OBC women, please make sure that your party fields only OBC women and work hard to make them strong contenders.
However, to ensure that male politicians do not capture the women's quota through their wives and daughters who can then be used as puppets, the reservation bill should have a provision that a woman whose husband, father, brother, or other close blood relative is a sitting or former MLA or MP, or an important office-bearer of the party, would not be entitled to avail herself of the women's quota. She would have to fight from a general parliamentary seat, since her family's political clout makes redundant the need for any special concessions.
It is unfortunate that in your desperation to hold on to as many seats in Parliament as possible for men, you seem to have ignored some basic flaws in the proposed reservation bill. Overtaken by this siege mentality, even the pro-reservationists seem unwilling to acknowledge and remove these flaws. The caste issue you have raised is a mere bogey. There are far more serious issues at stake.
The present bill proposes a system of rotation through a draw of lots for determining one third of the total number of constituencies to be reserved for women candidates at every election. This system will be calamitous both for the women's cause, male politicians, as well as for the country.
The constituencies chosen at random will rarely match up with those where the most meritorious women candidates are strong. Good women candidates in the prime of their political career will find themselves deprived of the possibility of contesting elections simply because they can't contest from their own preferred constituency.
Thus it would become extremely difficult, barring a few otherwise privileged women, to get elected from unreserved constituencies.
As a result of the lottery system for earmarking reserved constituencies, it would become a rarity for any woman to get elected twice to the Lok Sabha or any State Assembly. Similarly a large percentage of male MPs whose own constituencies are chosen for reservation will be uprooted from their chosen constituencies. This will make our politics very unstable. Since women legislators will realize that they are not likely to be able to contest from the same constituency in the next elections, they will all have less incentive to serve their constituencies.
Moreover, the present bill allows only one-third of the voters in the country to exercise a vote in favour of women, while denying the right to elect women to voters in other 2/3rd of constituencies. The bill's method of implementing reservations for women will ensure that they enter the electoral battle only against other women and never get an opportunity to contest against men, a sure way to perpetually ghettoise women's politics.
The negative fallouts of the rotational system are already evident at the zila parishad level where it has been in operation for some years now. It is unfortunate that the simplistic polarization of opinion on this issue prevented a meaningful debate on far more basic issues than the spectre of upper castes capturing a substantial number of seats through the women's quota.
The Indian Express, June 16, 1997
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