The Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 was passed in the Rajya Sabha on September 22 and in the Lok Sabha on September 20, 2023. It is now known as the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam 2023.
It reserves 33% of Lok Sabha seats and state assembly seats in the General category for women through direct election. One thirds of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies which are currently reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will be reserved for women of these sections respectively.
The reservation period will initially last for 15 years from the commencement of the Act, with Parliament having the power to extend it. The implementation of the reservation will begin after the completion of the delimitation process based on the first census conducted after the Bill’s passage. Seat rotation for the reserved seats will occur after each subsequent delimitation. This implies rotation approximately every 10 years, as after 2026 delimitation is mandated to take place after every census.
The next census is proposed to be held in 2024, after the General Elections. Usually results of census take about 2 years to come out. After this, delimiting of constituencies will take another 2 years. Therefore, it is not expected to have the law implemented till the 2029 General Elections.
The Act has been portrayed as a victory for the cause of emancipation of women in India.
The effort to pass a law mandating 33% reservation for women in legislative bodies has a long history, stretching over more than 27 years. Women’s organisations have held passionate debates and protest actions on this issue. Every government has promised to implement this demand. However, the Bill had failed to be passed in Parliament, until September 2023.
Why is women’s empowerment such a burning question?
The demand for empowerment of women arises out of the conditions of exploitation and oppression of women in our society.
In spite of all the claims of economic development by our rulers, the conditions of the vast majority of women remain extremely oppressive and backward.
Women are victims of multiple forms of exploitation. In our country, women suffer from capitalist exploitation as well as the remnants of feudalism and the caste system. Women carry the double burden of working for a livelihood and of bearing and nurturing the new generation. Women and girls of the working class and peasantry continue to be deprived of access to education, adequate nutrition and basic health and maternity services. They are paid less than men for the same work, they are the first to be thrown out of jobs. Women continue to remain victims of caste oppression and other backward practices. They are the worst victims of every form of communal and sectarian violence. Religious authority is used to suppress the rights of women. They are deprived of an equal share in family inheritance. They continue to be treated as objects of sexual gratification and super-exploitation. The institutions of the state, including the bureaucracy, the police and the courts, blatantly discriminate against women and routinely hold women themselves responsible for the numerous crimes committed by the exploiters.
The degree to which women are represented in legislative bodies is just one symptom of the position and condition of women in our society. The question that needs to be addressed is: will “correcting” this symptom artificially through a fixed quota, without identifying and addressing the root cause of the problem, serve to really empower women?
What are the factors that perpetuate the oppression of women? What keeps women marginalised in the economic and political life of our country? Unless these factors are identified and eliminated, women cannot be empowered to liberate themselves from all forms of oppression, merely through seat reservation in legislative bodies.
The source of women’s oppression
The subordinate position of women in society has its source in the class division of society. Women will remain oppressed as long as the exploitation of one class by another prevails in society. This was recognised by the communist leaders of working women in North America and Europe more than 100 years ago. They gave the call that the path to the liberation of women lies in the struggle for the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism and communism.
The root cause of continuing discrimination and oppression of women lies in the nature of the capitalist economic system, which is oriented to maximize private profits in the hands of a wealthy minority, through maximum exploitation of the toiling majority. Capitalism in India has developed by perpetuating caste and gender-based discrimination and oppression. The subordinate position of women in society helps in maximising capitalist profits through their super-exploitation.
Having more women legislators will not change the nature of the capitalist economic system and its political process
The demand for 33% reservation for women in legislative bodies is based on the notion that the problems of women will get addressed, that laws and policy decisions will be more favourable towards women if more women occupy legislative positions.
The existing system of parliamentary democracy is designed to concentrate decision-making power in the hands of political parties which faithfully implement the agenda of the monopoly capitalists. The vast majority of women and men are completely excluded from political power.
Through their money power and monopoly control over the media, as well as manipulation through EVMs, the monopoly capitalist houses determine the outcome of elections, while perpetuating the illusion that “people are voting for the government of their choice”.
People have no mechanism to select their candidates for election, to hold them accountable or to recall them. Elected representatives are not accountable to the electorate, but to the high command of the political party they represent. People have no mechanisms to make laws or amendments to laws, in defence of their interests.
In the present system, the power to make policy decisions rests with the Cabinet. Laws are tabled by the Cabinet in the legislature for ratification. Ratification is a mere formality as long as the party in charge of the executive has a majority in the legislature. The elected MPs and MLAs have to vote on legislations according to the party whip and not according to their conscience. This will hold true for the elected women MLA’s and MP’s as well.
Political parties represent definite classes in society. The elected representatives of the parties of the bourgeoisie will implement the agenda of the bourgeoisie. Women MPs and MLAs of these parties will have to defend the agenda of their parties, even if that agenda means greater exploitation and oppression of women.
The role played by women representatives in parliament and assemblies till now confirms this. For instance, the women representatives of the BJP in parliament voted in favour of the anti-kisan laws and anti-worker labour codes, all of which attack women’s rights. In the Karnataka Assembly and the Tamilnadu Assembly, women legislators of the party in charge of the executive voted for laws that allowed night shift and 12 hour working day for women workers.
The accommodation of more women in legislative positions will not change the capitalist nature of the economic system. It will not end the cruel exploitation and the blatant violation of the rights of workers, both women and men. It will not change the oppressive nature of the state or the anti-people character of the political process. It will not change the complete marginalisation of the vast majority of women and men from the political process and from decision-making power.
The Women’s Reservation Act 2023, apart from introducing some new female faces in the parliament and assemblies, will have no impact on the nature of the political system and process. It serves to create an illusion of power, through greater representation of women, without bringing about any of the fundamental transformations in the prevailing system of parliamentary democracy, that will ensure decision-making power in the hands of women and majority of people. The political system and process will continue to be dominated by the same established political parties that faithfully implement the agenda of the monopoly capitalists.
Affirmation of the rights of women
Women have rights as members of human society, as well as due to their crucial role in the reproduction of human life. Capitalist society and the existing political system and process which defend and perpetuate it, do not guarantee these rights for all women. Women demand nothing less than their complete emancipation from all forms of enslavement and discrimination. They demand from society conditions that will ensure the full and free participation of the masses of women in all aspects of social life, including in governance.
Women are not a ‘minority’ to be accommodated or appeased by reservation. They constitute one-half of the society. The reservation of one-third of seats in elected bodies for women appears as an insult to the dignity of the modern working woman. The conditions need to be created through deep-going transformations, so that women will occupy not one-third but half or more of the seats in elected bodies, without any reservation.
While the Women’s Reservation Act is a consequence of the struggle of women against their oppressive conditions, it is no cause for celebration, for the masses of toiling women of our country.
What women and the working people need is political power in their hands so that they can set the agenda, make crucial decisions that affect their lives and change their conditions. The means of production, which are at this time the private property of the capitalists, need to be converted to social property, in order that the economy can be oriented to ensure the fulfilment of the needs of the people rather than the greed of the capitalists.
Women are a crucial force in the struggle to end capitalist exploitation, the feudal remnants and the entire colonial legacy, in order to open the path to progress. Ending the monopoly of political power in the hands of an exploiting minority and its criminal parties is the first and necessary step to open the path for these profound revolutionary transformations.
This is what women need to focus on, instead of allowing themselves to get diverted into becoming an appendage of the bourgeois parliamentary political parties which all serve the agenda of the exploiting capitalist class.