Contextualizing Reservations For Women

If accompanied by sincere efforts to deal with gender violence, education and healthcare for girls, the Women’s Reservation Bill could be a termination notice for gender inequality in India. If the Women’s Reservation Bill becomes law, then 181 out of 543 national legislators and 1,370 out the 4,109 state legislators will be women, significantly altering the (paltry) number of elected women in the world, multiply these numbers by three, and that makes just under 5,000 women, many of whom are likely to be first-time entrants into politics.Fourteen years is a magic period in Indian mythology; it is the period of exile served by both Rama and Sita as well as the Pandavas. And in both instances, it ended in a landmark battle. Maybe this makes it inevitable that 14 years in the pipeline, the Women’s Reservation Bill in India will not see the light of day without a political battle of similar proportions and historical significance.

This article is written in five parts. The first part reviews different concepts and phrases used freely in any quota debate. The second part briefly reviews the history of reservations and quotas in India. In the third part, an overview of the different kinds of quotas in effect for women around the world, as well as the working of 33% reservation for women in the Indian panchayats is undertaken. The views articulated by different sections of the Indian women’s movement are summarised in the fourth part. Finally, the article looks at the Bill under review, identifies potential issues and speculates about the amendment’s impact.

The lexicon

Reservations. Quotas. Positive discrimination. Affirmative action. In the debate on how to make the right to equality a reality, these terms are used somewhat interchangeably. All the terms refer to policy measures that are intended to redress discriminatory practices or inequitable structures, both in the economy and the political system.

Positive discrimination is the broadest of these terms, used to describe measures that enable those who have faced discrimination in the past. It could mean differential entrance requirements or reserved seats. It differs from affirmative action which encourages disadvantaged groups to enter the mainstream by mandating equal opportunity and equal consideration. Affirmative action does not usually involve quotas. Reservations is the Indian term for quota systems, which work in different ways to set aside or assure a minimum availability of access to disadvantaged groups.

A word about proportional representation in electoral systems is relevant here. One way of avoiding quotas and assuring representation is through a variety of electoral processes designed to ensure that Parliament or Cabinet reflect the diversity of society as much as possible. These are extensively used as measures to accommodate ethnic diversity. The idea of proportionate representation itself goes beyond the institutions of political democracy to the economic and social sectors.

The right to equality and the right against discrimination are two sides of the same coin. They are related in that discrimination violates the right to equality, but a strong critique of positive discrimination and affirmative action is that they manipulate the playing field and its entrance requirements, thereby violating the right to equality. Both measures intended to discriminate and measures intended to reverse or redress discrimination reinforce difference and are potentially divisive. Moreover, the philosophical and political tug-of-war between freedom and equality also finds a place in the debate on reservations.

The Indian historical context

Taxonomy and hierarchy have long been the warp and weft of the Indian social fabric. Work and social responsibility were divided among members of a community, first fluidly, then rigidly. The caste system created the first set of quotas, privileging some, placing others at a disadvantage and simply choosing not to see large numbers of community members in its ‘place for everyone, everyone in their place’ arrangements. This does not mean that inclusivity, fairness or even-handedness were not Indian political values. They were, but these values were interpreted to mean different things to different rulers at different historical moments.

In modern Indian political history, quotas have been used to assure representation for many categories of people.

During the first phase of British colonialism in India, the East India Company and its representatives made decisions for Indians, including decisions about Indian customs and traditions. The 1857 revolt expressed the ferment and anger of the Indian elite which had been dispossessed by the actions of East India Company officers like Dalhousie. A growing class of Indians educated in English and familiar with European political thinking of the time began to press for inclusion in government, even as in 1858, the Crown took over the administration of India, promising that, “…it is our further will that, so far as maybe, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to office in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to discharge,” (Queen’s Proclamation, 1858).

The growing Indian demand for inclusion was accommodated through a growing representation in the legislative councils and by allowing Indians to enter the civil service. The back and forth on this took almost a century, culminating in Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent. Demands for more representation, and to be able to write the Indian civil service examination in India were accommodated gradually, grudgingly. The size of the councils was expanded to accommodate more Indians. Experimental arrangements like ‘dyarchy’ were introduced. The Government of India Act (1919) which implemented the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms, introduced a bifurcation of responsibilities in the legislatures where some portfolios were reserved for British administrators in the governor’s office, and some were delegated to Indian ministers chosen from the legislative council. The delegated portfolios depended on disbursements from departments overseen by the governor. Dyarchy did not work, and, strangely, this prompted its adoption at the Centre even as it was withdrawn at the provincial level by the Government of India Act (1935). In any event, the demand for inclusion had transformed by 1920 into the Home Rule movement and then for complete independence. Merely including representatives, creating a council for princes or delegating portfolios had long become inadequate.

This is one thread of the representation and quota story. Two parallel threads were evolving that would remain important to subcontinental politics.

The first emerged as the demand for separate electorates by Muslims. The partition of Bengal along communal lines, dividing the Muslim majority East from the Hindu majority West, was strongly protested by the Congress, rallying support for an overarching Bengali identity. The protests and subsequent reversal of the partition in 1911 motivated the formation of the All-India Muslim League in 1906 and the demand by a deputation of Muslim leaders for separate electorates. Seats would be reserved for Muslim candidates for whom only Muslims would be eligible to vote. In addition, Muslims would also vote as part of the general electorate. In 1916, the Congress and the Muslim League signed the Lucknow Pact, whereby the principle of separate electorates for all communities was accepted. In 1919, the Government of India Act extended separate electorates to include other communities.

The second thread emerged in the following decade: the demand for separate electorates for the depressed classes. Gandhi opposed the demand saying it would divide Indian society and went on an indefinite hunger strike. Ambedkar was left with no option but to meet him for discussions. The Poona Pact was a compromise whereby a joint electorate would vote in depressed class candidates in specially reserved constituencies — a system that still obtains, except that they are now called scheduled castes in the Constitution.

By the mid-1930s, the great centrifuge of Indian politics was almost fully operational and large and small assertions of identity arose that were all oriented towards better representation and more of a say in their own affairs. Some, like the Pakistan Movement, ended in partition; some like the Dravidian Movement made space for themselves within a post-colonial Indian mainstream. After 1947, in India, this has taken the form of state re-organisation; reservations in public sector jobs; reservations for entrance into educational institutions; reserved constituencies for scheduled castes, among others.

Positive discrimination is intended always to be a remedial measure; it is meant to become redundant as a result of its own working. However, in India, the scale of the problem that has to be corrected, the half-hearted investment in social development and the short-sighted leadership of the political elite have combined to make quotas a desirable, even fungible, political good.

In 1979, the Morarji Desai government set up the Mandal Commission with a mandate to consider the extension of quotas and identify appropriate beneficiaries. The Mandal Commission recommended extending reservations to other backward classes (OBCs) to the order of 49.5%. Every party committed to implementing the recommendations, but when the V P Singh government announced its intention of doing so, north India witnessed student protests on an entirely unexpected scale, including several incidents of self-immolation. This was in contrast to states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where social reform movements fought to open up social, economic and political access to previously excluded castes and classes. If Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and B R Ambedkar pushed back the barriers in Maharashtra, the Justice Party leadership, Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement and its successors, the Dravida parties, did the same in Tamil Nadu.

Reservations based on caste have acquired the accordion quality of the caste system itself, with castes fighting to prove their backwardness as a way of gaining exclusive access to jobs and political opportunities. There is a push towards expanding the quota system to include more and more groups. On the other hand, in parts of India where social movements have not already brought about attitudinal and power shifts, each push to expand is countered by resistance which is sometimes violent. Tinkering with reservations has become our substitute for building a social infrastructure and enlarging the pie so everyone has more.

Gender hardly blends in with the other flammable ingredients in this cauldron — caste and religious identity, particularly. It cuts across all the other categories for which there are reservations in India, from the children of freedom fighters to army veterans. Little wonder that even in a polity used to an endless stream of demands for inclusion in quota lists, the reservation of seats for women in Parliament touches an especially raw nerve.

Global perspectives

India is far from being the first country in the world, or even South Asia, to adopt quotas. In the interest of bringing more women into mainstream democratic politics, almost 60 countries around the world have experimented with quotas. There are as many permutations of quota systems as there are contexts in which they work — from Angola to South Korea to Slovenia to Uzbekistan (1).

First, we can differentiate quotas on the basis of whether they are mandated by law, either in the constitution or through simple legislation, or whether they have been adopted voluntarily by political parties.

Second, the circumstances of their adoption vary. In the Scandinavian countries which have long been the exemplars for women’s participation in public affairs, quotas were adopted voluntarily following political work by women’s organisations that wanted to consolidate a growing presence of women in public life. In Rwanda, they were part of the post-genocide dispensation that women played a major part in creating. In Afghanistan, too, quotas for women are a post-conflict introduction. India however, introduced reservations for women at the local government level by constitutional amendment in 1992.

Third, quotas can operate at different levels of the political system, from local government to sub-national units to the national parliament.

Fourth, at each of these levels, quotas usually take the form either of reserved seats or of legislated candidate quotas. Reserved seats guarantee an “equality of result” where candidate quotas focus on getting women an “equality of opportunity”. “Reserved seats” are parliamentary membership slots (they may or may not be territorial) which may only be filled by women. Candidate quotas mandate that a fixed percentage of those who contest elections should be women; they may or may not win. Voluntary adoption of quotas by political parties usually pertains to candidate lists. Candidate list quotas may either be phrased as a minimum or a ceiling. Mexico, for instance, considered capping at 70% the number of candidates from either sex; it has since rephrased that to a minimum guarantee of 30% for each. In addition, there may be stipulations to assure that women candidates are not positioned to lose the election, especially in ranking or list systems.

Finally, while quotas typically seek to ensure the presence of a critical mass of women in the electoral fray or in the legislature, it is also possible for quotas to be gender-neutral, either 50-50 or 60-40, essentially limiting the domination or under-representation of one gender.

Do quotas work?

Have quotas worked? This is the really important question. The first disclaimer has to be that quotas are not always implemented as designed. Second, they have to be appropriate to the electoral system in which they operate. Finally, they are not meant to be a final fix or permanent measure.

Having said this, what quotas do is to quickly bring a lot of women into the political arena for whom there may have been no space earlier. The introduction of the 33.3% quota in India’s panchayats is a really good example of this. Many of the women may have been related to the men they displaced, but they too gained confidence and the evidence is that social relationships within the village began shifting as a result. Even if women come in as token women, they are still likely to make a difference simply because they form a critical mass in any legislative or executive body.

Quotas work best when they reflect social momentum towards greater empowerment and participation on the part of women across all sectors of society. They consolidate those social gains, and enable it to be reflected in law-making and governance. Sweden is a really good example. There are no legislated quotas, but all four major parties have chosen to make equal representation part of their process. The voluntary party quota is a reflection of changed social attitudes, a guarantee of inclusivity.

Rwanda suggests that when the very foundations of a society are shaken, gender roles and expectations change and it is possible to write in a more equitable dispensation. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution requires 30% of all government posts to be filled by women. The 2008 elections returned a majority of women members to the lower house, well above the mandated 30%. The quota in this case is likely to become redundant before long — precisely as it should.

Quotas that are imposed on a system where women’s participation is below the prescribed level can take time taking hold. Parties have to ease sitting members out to accommodate women, a process that can be contentious.

Quotas are also limited in impact unless the incumbent women law-makers have the capacity to carry out their functions. It is another matter that no one thinks it essential to train men to be legislators, but where training programmes and support services have been available to new political entrants, the investment has paid off both in the political and social spheres. Again, it is an Indian example that comes to mind: several NGOs have invested time and resources to work with panchayat leaders, and the results have been positive.

Finally, quotas for women in politics, in the absence of good social infrastructure, livelihood security and a no-tolerance mindset for gender violence, remain cosmetic. As other experiments with affirmative action and quotas have shown, treating quotas as a panacea in the absence of other enabling social investments leads to quota addiction, not empowerment or access.

The Indian women’s movement and the question of quotas

The women’s movement in India is large, diverse and vocal. Because the social and political movements of the colonial period were mass movements, women took part in protests, rallies, political programmes and underground activities in large numbers.

Women in the nationalist movement did not ask for reservations in 1917 when they met Montagu to ask for the vote. For decades, the idea of equal citizenship in a free India was considered enough guarantee. For decades, the number of women in Indian legislatures has remained pathetic, with 10% or 12% being considered a breakthrough (these are the same decades in which the sex ratio in India has been falling).

Even as late as 1975, when the Committee on the Status of Women was constituted, the majority of its members placed on record their view that reservations for women would be a retrograde step from the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. They were also concerned about contagion — if women got reservations, others would demand them — and about the “privilege” becoming permanent. The committee also stated: “Women are not a community, they are a category and share with men the problems of their groups, locality and community” (2). However, two of the committee’s members disagreed — Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar. So did many of the people that the committee interviewed across the country. Moreover, the committee rejected statutory reservation of seats in the legislature but urged political parties to agree that some percentage of their election candidates should be female.

When asked what changed between 1975 and 1996 when the Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament and supported by most of the same feminists, Nivedita Menon identifies two factors: first, the emergence of identity politics as a counterpoint to the politics of national identity, and second, the emergence of the women’s movement as a visible and vocal force (3).

In the same article, she explicates feminist or pro-women arguments for and against reservations. Reservations are seen as an imperfect but essential way of making sure the right to equality is a reality, because it creates equality of opportunity in a playing field that is not level. However, reservations are opposed by some activists like Madhu Kishwar and Gail Omvedt as likely to benefit the already-privileged — whether that refers to female relatives of men in power or upper caste groups.

In 1993, the 73rd constitutional amendment provided that 33% of positions in panchayati raj institutions should be reserved for women. In the last two decades, notwithstanding scepticism about how this would work, studies from various Indian states have shown that this measure made a very positive difference. Tens of thousands of women have had the experience of holding office, making decisions for their communities, leaving their homes to interact with officials, with other panchayat officials and with people from the social and development sectors.


This is a moment of rare consensus in mainstream Indian politics, with the Congress, BJP and the Left all agreed that reservations for women in Parliament is an idea whose time has come.

Opposition to the Bill has come from those who are opposed to any reservations and those who are anxious that the women’s quota will dilute their own quotas. Others look regretfully at how entrenched the idea of quotas has become in Indian political culture; they would like to see more women in politics, but they really wish that we did not live in a quota raj, with people competing to seek entitlement on the basis of victimhood. One political leader warns that those who enter Parliament under this scheme are those who receive cat-calls and get harassed in public spaces — he doesn’t realise that accounts for most Indian women, of all ages and classes!

But, the Indian political class is as diverse as the rest of India. There are also those like Swami Ramdev who asked on a recent TV talk show: Why 33%, why not 50%?

What will happen if the Bill passes through both houses of Parliament?

“If the Women’s Reservation Bill becomes law, then 181 out of 543 national legislators and 1,370 out the 4,109 state legislators will be women, significantly altering the (paltry) number of elected women in the world,” wrote Rohini Pande and Esther Duflo in a recent Indian Express op-ed (4). Multiply these numbers by three, and that makes just under 5,000 women, many of whom are likely to be first-time entrants into politics. Consider the ripple effect in their cohorts, communities and families and that makes for a very large short-term expansion of the political class. Even if many of the women come from political families — the biwi-beti-bahubrigade as it is pejoratively called — they will still displace, to a greater or lesser extent, the sons, brothers and sons-in-law who now find lateral entry into the system. Even nepotism should be an equal opportunity enterprise!

As the panchayat quota experience has shown, it’s not just the numbers that change, but the entire web of social and familial relationships. The new women leaders that have emerged in the panchayats could, should form a substantial part of the candidate pool for reserved seats. This would remove an important glass ceiling and also bring into Parliament the grassroots insights and governance experience of women who have become a part of local government in the last two decades.

The requirement for seat rotation is another concern specific to this Bill. The new women MPs will not get a chance to nurse their constituencies over a couple of terms. On the other hand, it could be a make-or-break term — if they perform very well, the argument for not nominating them in an open election is flimsy. Thus, high-achieving women MPs from initially reserved seats could actually weed out non-performing politicians over time. One reads time and again in academic literature a Norwegian observation that it takes three terms for a quota system to become effective. Those are the three terms this Bill offers.

There are two far more critical concerns, and concerns that extend to other groups for whom quotas exist or have been demanded.

This quota is intended to be operational for three parliamentary terms, ie 15 years. What else will we — the Indian state and civil society — do in those 15 years? If this is a time in which we work with renewed vigour on other gender justice issues and ensure more girls and women are educated and have livelihood security, then at the end of the quota period there will be more women able to engage with issues in the public sphere and to gradually enter the political mainstream. However, if the quota operates in isolation, with no efforts towards social transformation outside of its operation, then its purpose will be limited and its existence likely to become a routine, indefinite item for renewal — like other quotas in India.

If this period is used by state and civil society to make a sincere effort to deal with at least gender violence, education for girls, and healthcare issues, there is a chance that the idea of gender equity will become an instinct at least in the political class. We will then be able to move from legislated quotas of reserved seats to voluntarily adopted quotas or formulae where political parties automatically ensure gender parity, from 33% to 50% even perhaps!

Fifteen years is not a long time for the scaffolding of social change to be standing. It is a long enough time to make the scaffolding redundant if we want. As with all other quotas, the measure of this one’s efficacy is going to be in the speed with which it becomes redundant. If the Bill serves to bring more women into Parliament, it is not just or even primarily to further women’s issues but to give women a chance to engage with all governance and policy matters — foreign policy, finance, infrastructure and, yes, social welfare too. Simultaneously, it sets a time limit within which we can bring a sense of urgency to the work outside Parliament of making this quota redundant as soon as possible. That would be 15 years well spent, and the Women’s Reservation Bill will come to be read by historians as a termination notice for gender inequality in India.


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