Reservations for Women: ‘Am I That Name?’

[I am posting here the chapter from my book – Recovering Subversion. Feminist Politics Beyond the Law – that I referred to in response to demands for references on my previous post on the WRB.  I do apologize to those (including fellow-kafilaites!) who may rightly feel I have said enough on the topic.

The title of this chapter is a tribute to Denise Riley’s question “Am I that name?” referring to the label “Woman.” Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988].

When the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) first appeared as the 81st Amendment Bill in 1996, proposing to reserve 33% of seats in Parliament for women, it burst into public discourse full-blown as a “women’s” (indeed, a feminist) issue, and continues to be debated largely in terms of women’s rights. It is becoming increasingly clear however, that the questions thrown up by the timing of the Bill and the responses to it cannot be understood solely within the framework of women’s rights. This chapter attempts to relocate these questions in a complex matrix of political identities in order to realize their full significance. I also argue that the debates around the Bill reveal a more fundamental set of questions about the issues of citizenship, representation, and the subject of feminist politics.

Historical background

The question of reservations for women in representative institutions has long been debated in India. The issue of reservations for women had come up in the Constituent Assembly but had been rejected by women representatives as it was felt to be unnecessary, since the working of democracy in the normal course would ensure the representation of all sections of Indian society. The suggestion was also seen to underestimate the strength of women to compete as equals. Over twenty-five years later, the Committee on the Status of Women (CSWI) in India considered the same question. It was agreed that rural women’s experience and problems had remained undervalued and invisible. The CSWI therefore unanimously recommended the establishment of statutory women’s panchayats. Prior to this, the Panchayat Acts of most states had reserved one or two seats for women, to be filled by nomination if no woman was returned by election. But this had remained a token gesture and the CSWI recommended instead that the reserved seats be occupied by elected office-bearers of the proposed women’s panchayats. On the question of reservations for women in Parliament and state legislatures, the debate took a shape familiar to us today.      The arguments made in favour of reservation were mainly that a) political parties because of their generally patriarchal character were reluctant to sponsor women candidates, and therefore reservations were necessary;

b) reservations would increase the number of women in parliament all at once and they would be able to act as a strong lobby. At present, their being in a small minority inhibits their effective participation in the interests of women;

c) the presence of more women in parliament would lead to a change in direction of debates and policy.

Arguments made against reservations were mainly that a) this would run counter to the principle of equality in the Constitution;

b) women cannot be equated to socially backward communities as women are not a socially homogeneous group;

c) women’s interests cannot be isolated from those of other economic, social and political strata;

d) such a system would lead to similar demands from other groups and communities, thus posing a threat to national integration.

Finally the CSWI by a majority decided to uphold the position taken in the Constituent Assembly and rejected the reservation of seats for women in parliament and state assemblies.

The latest phase of the debate began with the National Perspective Plan (NPP) 1988-2000 recommending a 30% reservation of seats for women at Panchayat and Zilla Parishad levels. Subsequently states like Karnataka and Gujarat implemented some form of reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendments provided for one-third reservation for women nation-wide in these bodies. By the general elections of 1996, women’s organizations put forward a joint demand to all political parties for reservations for women in State Assemblies and Parliament.[1] The major parties supported the demand although they themselves gave less than 15% of their  total number of tickets to women. The reservations bill was included in the Common Minimum Programme of the United Front which assumed office, and the 81st Amendment Bill was introduced in 1996, proposing 33% reservation for women in Parliament. It could not be passed and was referred to a Joint Select Committee. In 1998 the Bill (now the 84th Amendment Bill), was introduced again by the BJP government to strong opposition, and once again was derailed. Its most recent incarnation is as the 85th Amendment Bill, introduced in December 1999, and its fate continues to be as uncertain as it ever was.

Gender and Caste since the 80s

What were the developments between 1974 when women’s movement activists in the CSWI rejected reservations for women in parliament, and 1996, when almost the same representatives of the women’s movement demanded such reservations? What were the shifts in the two intervening decades that would explain this change? In the years that passed, there were two significant developments in Indian politics. One had to do with challenges to the legitimacy of the national integrity argument. By the mid-70s the legitimacy of the post-Independence elites had begun to erode with the economic and political crisis precipitated by the failure of development planning. There was a resurgence of militancy in every section of society. Critical questions were arising as to whose interests were being protected by the “integrity” of the nation-state. By the mid-80s various regional movements were challenging the inherited idea of Indian nationhood, and backward caste assertion had begun to transform the nature of the political arena and the composition of the Lok Sabha. Yogendra Yadav points out that “The influx of lower orders into the field of democratic contestation has…(made) it respectable to talk of caste in the public-political domain. The emergence of social justice as a rubric to talk about caste equity (and) political representation of castes and communities… is a distinct achievement of this period.” [2]

The other development was that women had emerged as a significant force in politics. Women had been at the forefront of the movements against corruption and price-rise that preceded the imposition of Emergency The 80s saw the emergence of the vocal and visible autonomous women’s groups which placed feminist issues firmly on the public agenda – dowry, rape, violence against women. At the same time it was clear that women were under-represented on representative bodies. Already by the time of the NPP therefore, there was both an acknowledgement of women’s militant participation in politics as well as of their absence in decision making bodies. Vina Mazumdar, who was Member Secretary of the CSWI, points out how as “daughters of independence” her generation had been critical of special representation, but gradually “we have found our understanding of nation-building changing radically.”[3] By 1996 then, the “daughters of independence” had come to acknowledge that abstract citizenship was only a cover for privilege, and that difference had to be acknowledged.

However, the point I would emphasise here is that the emergence of women as a significant grouping in Indian politics is only one of two factors shifting the consensus on women’s reservations. The other, the transformation of the caste composition of Parliament and the growing presence of backward castes through successive elections is an equally significant development. I will argue that these processes produced two very different (even opposed) sets of concerns  – feminist and upper caste – that tied in at this particular conjuncture to produce the sudden general acceptability of women’s reservations.

Is the WRB only about “women”?

The career of the Women’s Reservations Bill in parliament is striking for the high drama and rhetoric of women’s rights that has accompanied it, the passionate opposition to the Bill being generally characterised by its supporters as anti-women and patriarchal. Some of the comments and phrases decrying the derailing of the Bill are illustrative – “a predominantly male parliament developed cold feet”[4]; “sansad par kabiz purush satta” [5]; “Parliament was divided into men and women, the former all opposed to the Women’s Reservations Bill”[6]; “Parliament is like an all-male club and I feel like an unwanted intruder”[7]; “On caste-based arguments in defence of male domination.”[8] Similarly, speculating about the reasons why political parties who supported the reservation of seats for women in local bodies are reluctant regarding similar legislation at the parliamentary level, Shirin Rai and Kumud Sharma wonder, “Could it be that enhanced representation of women in the national parliament spells a far greater and immediate challenge to the gendered status quo within the party political system?” Or conversely, “Is it that the pattern of quota systems in India have shown that elite-based strategies of empowerment are less helpful to groups seeking greater recognition than those based on grassroots institutions?”[9] In other words, is it the case that political parties resist the Bill because they fear it will empower women too much or too little? However, as Rai and Sharma unravel the actual arguments of the protagonists and antagonists of the Bill, it becomes clear that while the protagonists make their arguments in terms of gender justice, the arguments against the Bill come from two opposed positions – they stem either from opposition to reservations in general or from a belief that reservations for women should be extended to other disempowered groups (the quotas within quotas position).[10] The arguments against, in other words, are not “anti-feminist”. In spite of their own evidence however, the writers continue to frame their discussion in terms of whether mainstream political bodies have “embraced the gender justice agenda” or not.

It is now evident that to continue to understand the Bill in terms only of attitudes to women would be a partial exercise at best. Rather, I would argue that when we tease out the strands in the debate, we find two sets of arguments for and against. There are feminist (or at least, pro-women) arguments for and against reservations for women, and (implicitly or explicitly) caste-based arguments for and against.

A feminist case for reservations is made in terms of the need for affirmative action to redress the situation of women. This argument comes from Left parties and women’s groups. A characteristic statement of this kind is that made by Vasanth and Kalpana Kannabiran, longtime actvists of the women’s movement. “Women’s participation in the political process is critical both to the strengthening of democratic traditions and to their struggle against oppression.” But they are obstructed in such participation by “power relations that… operate at many levels of society from the most personal to the highly public.” It is necessary therefore to appropriate “spaces in mainstream political arenas and reshape them.” [11] A CPI(M) MP expresses another facet of this strand when she argues that while reservations policy per se is not democratic, it is nevertheless necessary to rectify existing imbalances. Thus, it is a partial measure, but one that is unavoidable if women are to participate effectively in politics.[12] Similarly, an editorial of ML Update, the weekly bulletin of CPI (ML)-Liberation, states that while “formal equality in law hardly brings equality in society”, the WRB is important as “The moot point at this stage is to recognize women in their entirety as an oppressed category in an otherwise male-dominated society.” More importantly, the Bill  “may prove catalytic to the larger entry of women from backward and dalit castes in the political arena.”[13] The feminist argument for reservations is thus made in terms of creating equality of opportunity in order to make real the formal equality given by he constitution.

What could be called a pro-women case against reservations is made by Madhu Kishwar, the editor of Manushi (which calls itself “a journal about women and society”), and by the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi (SMA), a peasant women’s organization founded in 1986. Their broad argument has to do with the concern that reservations will only bring to the fore the “biwi-beti brigade”. The SMA in an “Open Letter to MPs”, signed by Gail Omvedt among others, said that quotas for women “is being pushed by women in the creamy layer”. Omvedt too, opposes the WRB, terming one of the most disturbing aspects of the debate around it, “the way it seemed to set (mainly upper caste) feminists against (mainly male) OBC leaders.” [14] The SMA prefers to put up all-women panels for panchayat elections as the experience of reservations in panchayats in Maharashtra has not been favourable – relatives of established male leaders are fielded, and there has been no impact at all on inefficiency and corruption. It suggests a more fundamental transformation in the election system, the introduction of three-seat constituencies, with each voter having three votes, one of which has to go to a woman. One seat is to be for the woman with the highest votes from among women candidates.[15]

Kishwar too originally backed the proposal of the SMA although now she has come up with a separate proposal (endorsed by Omvedt in a different form) which we will look at later in this paper. Kishwar believes that reservations are unnecessary because “our country has a well-entrenched tradition whereby any party, politician or public figure who tries to bad mouth women in public or oppose moves in favour of women’s equality is strongly disapproved of…Hence, compared to many other parts of the world, it is relatively easy to get legislation favouring women passed in India.”[16] This is an amazing statement – a cursory look at newspapers would reveal that extremely patriarchal and sexist, at best protectionist, views of women are routinely publicly expressed in the course of rape trials and election campaigns, in police statements on violence against women, and the like. These are contested only by women’s groups and women’s wings of political parties, usually of the Left. As for legislation favouring women, Kishwar’s is a surprisingly naïve understanding of Indian politics, and of how and why laws get passed. Take for instance, the right to abortion which she cites as an example. As we saw in Chapter Two, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill was introduced as a population control measure in 1971 and the debate in Parliament was entirely within those terms. It is not surprising therefore that only two MPs opposed it. Abortion was not being discussed as a question of women’s rights over their bodies, but on the contrary, as a measure necessitated in order to achieve lower population growth. In the context of countries of the global South where “overpopulation” is presented as the reason for poverty, state control of fertility is the problem for feminists, not the illegality of abortion. Therefore, the fact that this right took “decades of struggle in the West” while it was “enacted in India without a fight”, as Kishwar puts it,[17] has to be understood very differently. In other words, the passing of apparently “feminist” legislation has to be located also in the context of the compulsions of ruling elites in order to understand the complex dynamics involved.[18] Eventually however, Kishwar concedes that “our democracy has failed to include women in its purview”, partly due to the Gandhian legacy which saw women’s role in politics as self-sacrifice rather than as a bid for power, and more recently, because of the increasing corruption and criminalisation associated with politics.[19]

I term SMA and Kishwar’s position as a “pro-women” critique of reservations because their objections arise from focusing on women’s interests, which they believe would be better served by other measures. The next set of arguments, which I term “caste-based”, take positions for and against reservations explicitly or implicitly, in terms of caste. The most reviled, explicitly caste-based opposition to women’s reservations has been the derogatory reference of Sharad Yadav to the “short-haired” women who would overrun Parliament. While this has been understood as a misogynist statement, we must see it also as expressing a legitimate fear that reservations for women would radically alter the composition of Parliament in favour of upper classes and upper castes – the term  “parkati mahilaen” in this context drawing upon a common stereotype of westernized and elite women. Of course this stereotype is sexist and misogynist, but that is not really the point here, because surely we are under no illusion that all the support for women’s reservations comes from those who actively contest and reject such stereotypes. Rather, this kind of opposition to the Bill in its present form has to be recognized as arising from the politics of caste identity.

The idea of reservation for an undifferentiated category of “women” has been uniformly denounced by politicians and writers speaking for backward castes and dalits. At its most explicit, such an argument attacks the Bill as an upper caste ploy to stem the rising tide of lower caste men in politics.[20] In this context, we must take into account the experience of women’s reservations in Panchayati Raj Institutions. Studies in Gujarat and Karnataka have confirmed that the entrenched power of the dominant castes has been strengthened by women’s reservations.[21] It is not surprising then, that OBC and Dalit leaders are highly suspicious of the WRB. In an interview, Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, demanded that there should be 50% reservations for women, and within this, separate reservations for Backward Castes and minorities.[22] Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party has consistently opposed the Bill, saying that in its present form it is anti-minority and anti-dalit.[23]

Most interestingly, Uma Bharati of the BJP, herself from a backward caste, has taken a position opposed to that of her party’s. Unlike Sushma Swaraj, the upper caste BJP leader most vocal in support of the Bill, Uma Bharati makes a clear feminist argument for reservations, while asserting that a backward caste or dalit woman is doubly oppressed, and so should have a place within the quota. Characteristically, Uma Bharati does not grant a quota for Muslim women, even while conceding that they are among the most oppressed, for “In a secular constitution, there can be no place for reservations based on religion.” This could push the country towards theocracy. She does not however, reject the idea of reservations for Muslims altogether. Her solution is instead, to give reservations to Muslim caste- groups included in the Mandal OBCs, for example, julahe, bunkar, ansari. Thus, in a move which challenges BJP’s nationalist Hindutva perspective, she decisively privileges caste identity over a monolithic religious community identity.[24] It is this split within the party that keeps the BJP from pushing through the Bill, rather than mere “hypocrisy” about gender justice, as many commentators have suggested. “Hypocrisy” is in my opinion, insufficient as an explanatory device.

Within the caste-based opposition to the Bill I would place another strand – a defence of abstract citizenship against any kind of affirmative action. That is, an anti-reservation position in general. It is significant that this position is not taken by any political party, and is expressed only by individual commentators in the media. Thus for example we have an editorial in The Indian Express which says that the pandemonium in Parliament over the Bill “is a sorry vindication of this newspaper’s traditional position that affirmative action is a wrong-headed idea…Once unleashed, it perpetuates and propagates itself in the most divisive ways…Is Parliament to be parcelled into lots of the historically oppressed, leaving the rest of mainstream India to its own devices?”[25] Chandan Mitra bemoans the fact that “Already the vicious spectre of casteism has begun haunting the party system” and feared the degeneration of parliament to a “caste panchayats’ union”. Reservations for women would lead to demands for reservations for other groups, and “instead of moving towards the 21st century and age of virtual reality, we have been dragged back into medievalism.”[26]

This last anti-reservation position opposing the Bill is an interesting counterpoint to the final position I present – the (implicitly) caste-based support for women’s reservations. These two apparently contradictory positions, one rejecting reservations in toto and the other supporting women’s reservations while rejecting caste-based reservations, represent similar interests. It is when we examine the latter that we move more directly towards the suggestion I made earlier, that upper caste concerns and feminist concerns tie in at this historical moment on this question. This position pushes for the passing of the Bill and flatly rejects the demand for further quotas. Within this last position I would place the BJP and the Congress. While within the BJP there is considerable contestation of the official party line rejecting “quotas within quotas”, as we have seen, any debate within the Congress is muted. The party seems reconciled to the loss of its earlier Dalit and Muslim base, and is pushing for the Bill in its present form.

Madhu Kishwar takes heart from the fact that the very same people who opposed the Mandal reservations for OBCs have accepted the reservations for women “with apparent grace and enthusiasm”. For her this is further proof of the great women-friendly traditions of India.[27] As a political analyst one cannot help but note, however, that the fearsome future that Chandan Mitra and the Indian Express editorial outline is precisely what a blanket 33% reservation for women hopes to prevent. That is, an immediate filling of 33% of seats with women would certainly change the class and caste composition of parliament back in the short term, to one more comfortable for our elites, which clearly considers itself to be “the mainstream”, as opposed to the “historically oppressed”, as the editorial quoted above unabashedly declares. As Vasanthi Raman points out, OBCs and Muslims, given their numerical strength as well as their social location, pose a greater threat to upper castes than SC/STs, about whom some complacency was still possible.[28]

Within the broad feminist camp, the suggestion of “quotas within quotas” has received mixed responses. As Gail Omvedt points out, by now the stark antagonism between OBC and feminist leaders is easing.[29] Most women’s groups accept the principle of quotas within quotas, but while some groups are prepared for a redrafting of the present Bill to include such quotas, others, like the Left groups, continue to insist that the Bill must be passed first, and further quotas can be worked out later.[30]

This survey of positions on the WRB throws into relief a set of interrelated questions about a) “women” as the subject of feminist politics, b) citizenship in postcolonial democracies and c) the idea of political representation. That is, about women and the women’s movement on the one hand and women and the nation-state on the other, with representation as the category mediating both relationships.

Feminism and Citizenship

A good question to begin with here could be this: Why are “women” acceptable to the ruling elites as a counter-measure to deal with rising backward caste presence in parliament? Why are women and the women’s movement not only not perceived as a threat to social order, but even as a force that can restore the control of upper castes and classes? One possible explanation could have to do with the cooptation and domestication of gender issues by the state and NGOs since the late 80s. The emergence of autonomous women’s groups at the beginning of that decade marked a new and militant, highly visible phase of the women’s movement, but by the end of the 90s, almost all of these groups were running on funding from government and international bodies. That is, these groups which began as an attempt to create spaces outside the orthodoxies of party women’s wings, are now far from autonomous of the compulsions of getting and retaining funding.

Further, while the “empowerment of women” is a slogan much in use by government agencies, it has been argued that this kind of government programme aims at empowering women only to the extent of harnessing women’s contribution to “growth”- a goal to attain which there is considerable external pressure on the government. Thus, drives against child marriage serve the purposes of population control. Or to take another example, the growth of grass roots women’s movements centering on the disastrous impact of development policies, like the Chipko Andolan, have posed a challenge to the state. By providing space to women in the planning and implementation of government programmes, such as forest management programmes, protest movements are sought to be led into non-confrontationist channels.[31]

Writing on the increasing circulation of the term “empowerment” in the context of World Bank-directed new economic policies in India in the 90s, Manoranjan Mohanty argues that empowerment, particularly of women, is understood in international documents not as a goal but a prerequisite for productive investment. Terms like empowerment, civil society and democratization, which form part of the new liberalisation discourse therefore, are not a response to the struggles that have marked Indian politics, but have been given a restricted meaning and oriented in order to “serve the present global drive of western capitalism.” Since market development is a key feature defining the stage of development of “civil society” in this understanding, those who are weak or unorganized, or who reject the prevailing system are excluded from “civil society.” Thus, he concludes, “the agenda of globalisation promotes democracy for those who can participate in the bargaining process.”[32] The growing statism and NGO-ization of the women’s movement are a cause for concern in this sense.

This is a feature of which the movement is very aware. A report by six women’s organizations from Delhi and Bombay, investigating the dismissal of some employees of the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme, came to the conclusion that the WDP, designed with the active cooperation of feminist activists, had been successful in reducing people’s distrust of the state by appropriating the legitimacy garnered by the women’s movement. The report urged a serious consideration of the implications of this.[33] So a harsh conclusion that we seem to be forced to confront is that as far as the ruling elites are concerned, “women” are something they can deal with.

A more complicated reason for “women” being acceptable while “OBCs” are not, has to do with the way in which identities emerge in politics. Indian politics has shown often enough that class, religious, caste (or any other) identity has tended to prevail over gender identification. On issues like the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), the anti-Mandal upper caste agitations, or in Hindu right-wing mobilisation, “women” have tended to rally as upper/lower caste or Muslim/Hindu.[34] The women’s movement has been as much attacked by dalit women for being savarna as the dalit movement has been attacked for being patriarchal, and feminists of minority communities have challenged the women’s movement for being Hindu by default, in its claim to being secular.[35] Thus, by the late 80s, the women’s movement had to accept that “women” as the subject of feminist politics, and gender justice as an issue, would have to be inflected through the lens of other identities. On the UCC for instance therefore, from a straightforward demand for a state-legislated UCC, other positions have emerged within the women’s movement, which seek in different ways to support initiatives for reform within communities, or to provide alternative, differentiated legal spaces for women.

In other words, feminist politics has been coming to the difficult recognition that “women” do not simply exist as a category that is available for feminist mobilization – the question then remains, who is the subject of feminist politics? If “women” must be located within the grid of other identities that circulate, then what a “feminist” position would be, on questions like the UCC and women’s reservations, is not so self-evident. For what we are talking about here is more than simply the truism that “women have many identities”. So we must go much further than saying that “women” mobilise as upper-caste/dalit and so on. Rather, we need to come to the more complex recognition that under different circumstances, and given different kinds of political mobilisation, “people” identify and come together as “dalits”, “muslims”, “working class”, or much less often, as “women”. This is the difficult political fact to face – that women coming together as upper-caste/dalit may not necessarily be coming together as upper-caste/dalit women. We are forced to see the creation of “women-as-subject” as the end or goal of feminist politics, not the starting point.

What this means in the context of the WRB is that when confronted with upper-caste concerns that seem to tie in with feminist concerns at this conjuncture, the women’s movement must make the moves necessary to undercut the upper-caste project – and quotas within quotas seems to offer that possibility. But this is only the minimum required of us.

We need to push the question much further. Have we taken seriously the ways in which the core operating principle of bourgeois democracy – universal suffrage – is reshaped by the principle of reservations for groups in representative institutions? And have we confronted how the very understanding of “democracy” can take different forms over space and time? For western liberal democracies, as Anne Phillips points out, the institutionalisation of group representation seems to conflict with the historical movement of democracy away from group representation and group privilege and towards the ideal where every individual vote counts equally as one. The question of group identity in those societies has therefore been at the centre of heated debate, the most well known form of which has been the individualist/communitarian debate.[36] Will Kymlicka points out that the acceptance of group identity and group rights is usually on the understanding that they are “a temporary measure on the way to a society where the need for special representation no longer exists”. Ideally society should seek to remove the oppression thereby eliminating the need for these rights.[37]

In postcolonial societies of Asia and Africa on the other hand, as Sudipta Kaviraj has argued, the fact that democracy entered before the notion of the individual took root means that our democracy takes very different shapes than it does in the societies of its origin.[38] As a large body of scholarship in our societies shows, liberal individualism never became the uncontested core of anti-imperialist struggles or of post-independence politics. Whether Gandhi and Ambedkar in India or African socialists like Nyerere or Nkrumah, most nationalist leaders constructed national identities, not through the idea of individual citizenship but through that of communities – caste, religious, ethnic groups. Their language of politics remained non-individualistic, although ultimately there remained a tension between two notions of the bearer of rights – the community defined in various ways and the individual – a tension we know to be reflected in the Indian constitution.

In this context the movement for parite (parity) in France offers an instructive comparison. The parity movement, which emerged in the 1990s, is a demand for complete equality, that is, numerically equal representation for women and men in decision-making bodies, especially elected assemblies. However the debates over the issue play out very differently in France than in India. The centrality occupied by the category of the Universal in France is in stark contrast to India, where both the demand for reservations as well as the opposition to it, is posed in a way that challenges the universal abstract citizen. The demand itself introduces the difference of “women” into the category of “citizen” while the opposition to it poses further differences (caste/community) against that of “women” (the “quotas within quotas” position). But in the case of France, all arguments on the issue of parity – both feminist pro- and anti-parity positions as well as anti-feminist denunciations of parity – are largely in terms of different kinds of reassertion of the Universal. In other words, in France, parity is both demanded on the grounds that it would make the Universal more meaningful, and rejected because it threatens with fragmentation the universal unmarked citizen. In India, on the other hand as we have already seen, the opposition to the demand of reservations for women comes from a position that would push further the critique of the abstract unmarked citizen.

The distinctive historical trajectories of the two democracies – the one having undergone a “classic” bourgeois democratic revolution in the 18th century, the other a postcolonial democracy that came into being two hundred years later – have created different sets of concerns about citizenship and representation. The next section will explore some of the questions that arise for feminist politics from such a recognition of the significance of differential “locations”, both temporal and geographical.

The Movement for Parity in France

The universalism of the French Republic is a hardy notion that has survived despite every evidence of exclusion. When “universal suffrage” was declared in 1848 there was no written law prohibiting women from voting. So it has been possible for French history books to proclaim to this day that “universal suffrage” was achieved when all men were allowed to vote, without property qualifications, in 1848.[39] Joan Scott argues that the granting of the vote to women in 1944 (through an ordinance) was seen as signifying the dissolution of all difference. The inclusion of women as citizens “was a gesture of national reconciliation, ending divisions among Radicals, Socialists, Communists and Catholics…even between colonial subjects and their rulers, as well as between men and women. All were declared the same, and their sameness lay in their membership of the nation.”[40] So five decades later when the parity movement was launched (in 1992) with a tract authored by three women calling for equal representation for women and men in all French elected assemblies, it was met with general hostility.[41]

The point of the demand was to correct a situation where, in 1992, fewer women were elected to national public office (4.3%) than in 1946, the first year they voted, when 6% of the Chamber of Deputies was female. Later, in 1993 a full-page advertisement appeared in the newspaper Le Monde entitled “The Manifesto of the 577 for a Parity-Democracy”, signed by 289 women and 288 men (representing the total number of deputies in the National Assembly), asking that a law be voted or a constitutional amendment be brought about to ensure that as many women as men hold elected office in France. In 1996 a new manifesto was published, signed by ten women from different political parties ranging from centrist to socialist, calling for parity on electoral lists, but not making the demand for a law.  Many of the problems faced by pro-parity groups centred around a decision by the Conseil Constitutionnel, which rules on whether laws passed by the legislature are constitutional. In 1982 it struck down as unconstitutional a law passed unanimously by the National Assembly and the Senate, stipulating that no more than 75% of candidates running for office should be of the same sex. After this setback, two pro-parity strategies emerged – one targeting the Constitution since the “quota law” as it was called was deemed to be unconstitutional under the present one, and the other submitting to the National Assembly and the Senate a new law for parity, arguing that “parity”, unlike “quotas”, was not unconstitutional. We will look more closely at this intriguing distinction later in this section.

After intense lobbying with political parties, in 1998, a motion was submitted to vote in the National Assembly. This was an amendment of Article 3 of the Constitution which read – “The law determines the means to ensure equal access to women and men to all elected bodies.” An overwhelming majority passed it in the National Assembly, but in 1999 the Senate turned it down and proposed an amendment to Article 4 that would have made political parties responsible for equal representation on electoral lists. The National Assembly voted again reaffirming that the legislature should be responsible for parity, not political parties. The Senate capitulated, but insisted on one change to the original amendment suggested – the law would “encourage” rather than “determine” equal access for men and women. This is the diluted form in which both houses have now passed the amendment.[42] Further, there is no enforcing machinery, and many pro-parity feminists feel that the constitutional amendment has no teeth. Eliane Viennot for example, holds that the amendment has achieved nothing, and that there should be electoral laws that will ensure that all elected bodies will be composed of fifty percent women. Such laws would force political parties to field as many women candidates as men.[43] In the last municipal elections, the first to be held after the amendment, there has been a substantial increase in the number of women elected – from 25% to 47%. However, since these were only local elections, in which a substantial number of women contest as Independents, this is not being seen as an accurate indicator of the success of the parity amendment.[44]

When we look at the debates swirling around the issue, what is interesting from the Indian perspective is that at the heart of it all lie competing claims to the universal. First, let us consider the crucial distinction (referred to above) made by pro-parity feminists, between “parity” and “affirmative action” (or quotas). Haase-Dubosc for instance, puts it this way – “Parity is not affirmative action. It is not a series of aggregative and pragmatic measures such as quotas or ‘reservation’ by which women can be ‘added’ to political life, the way one can include a particular into the general or add it to another particular. It is about universal rights…[C]alling for sexual parity…postulates a bi-gendered universal.”[45] In this understanding, parity is a more fundamental, radical demand than merely asking for quotas. More importantly, as we saw with the second pro-parity strategy discussed earlier, it is conceded that quotas may be unconstitutional since they present a “difference” to be accommodated, while “parity” is presented as simply an attempt to fully realise the universal.

Anti-parity feminist Eleni Varikas on the other hand, prefers affirmative action strategies as a more limited, practical method to deal with the problem of under-representation of women. The amendment of the constitution to bring about parity, Varikas feels, splits the category of “citizen” into male and female and then homogenizes the two new categories produced – it erases the power relations among women. Parity does not make “women” visible, rather, in her understanding, it produces an essentialised category of “Woman.” Thus it goes beyond challenging the non-fulfilment of the universal (which can be done by using corrective strategies to remedy the exclusion of non-whites, women and so on), and inserts a homogenized and essentialised sexual difference at the heart of citizenship.[46] This is not seen as a problem by all feminists of course – pro-parity feminist Monique Dental for instance, asserts this as precisely the significant contribution of the parity amendment. Parity recognizes that the Universal is made up of two sexes, while affirmative action is an uncertain strategy, and makes women into merely another category like other categories in society. Dental pointed out that in France the term for affirmative action is “positive discrimination“, throwing up the spectre of American-style “multiculturalism”, which is seen as the ultimate threat to the Republic.[47]

An argument similar to that of Varikas against parity is made by Christine Delphy when she says, “Parity wants to inscribe the duality of the human species in the Constitution; on the contrary, the philosophy of affirmative action wants to affirm the oneness (unicity) of the species and translate it into facts.”[48] Delphy argues for affirmative action projects, for according to her, “Affirmative action is a universalist philosophy that unlike false universalism, does not start from the premise of equality between all human beings. It wants to achieve this equality.”[49] On the other hand, Francoise Gaspard considers quotas to be “demeaning”, a merely “cosmetic” method that would prove to be an insurmountable ceiling unless pursued as part of a broader plan for equality, while parity is “quite simply an application of the principle of equality among the people who make up the human race.”[50] Or as Janine Mossuz-Lavau put it, quotas are only “a small part”, but parity is “perfect equality.”[51]

What is striking about this exchange is that all the arguments are set out from a universalist position to criticise the strategies they reject, whether it is “parity” that is being rejected or “affirmative action.”[52]

The anti-parity arguments from feminists on the Left too, can come from a universalist position. Christine Delphy, for example, argues that “difference” expresses not only sexual but also class positions, and parity “puts them both in the same box”. She is worried that social conflicts are “becoming increasingly culturalised.”[53] Eleni Varikas develops a post-Marxist critique of parity on the grounds that it cannot transform the practices of power, will only benefit privileged women, and will not bring in “authentic” democracy.[54] This understanding replicates the long-standing tension between liberal notions of formal political rights and the socialist understanding of substantive economic and social rights. Parity is problematic, from her point of view, for two reasons – one, parity brings in the idea of a fixed self-definition, which is never settled once and for all, since identities change, and we have multiple identities. Two, parity obscures power relations among women. It is dangerous, she said, to argue that “women have better things to bring to politics”, for it essentialises an idea of the moral superiority of women.[55] This understanding seems to reject parity as an attempt to split the universal permanently, on the basis of some assumed natural difference, and Varikas believes that more limited strategies are sufficient to deal with the non-fulfillment of the universal with regard to categories that have hitherto been excluded. This is an interesting anti-essentialising move in defence of the universal.

There are other arguments that reject both parity and affirmative action on universalist grounds. Elisabeth Badinter, for example, dismisses parity as nothing more than a call for quotas. Parity claims to be positive discrimination, but discrimination can never be positive, she argues, for discrimination of any sort carries “carries mortal implications for our secular and universalist Republic.” Once sexual difference is granted representation in the Assembly, all manner of groups will come forward to claim this right, undermining the greatest achievement of French republicanism, national integration. Joan Scott, who is sympathetic to the parity movement, points out that in this understanding, unlike race and ethnicity which are understood to resist assimilation into the republican culture, women are seen as “already French, already integrated” – their challenge is therefore more threatening.[56]

It is clear then, as Rada Ivecovic demonstrates, that parity is both advocated and opposed in the name of universalism – the criticism of parity (accommodating difference within the universal) is that it “breaks the rationality of the legal system.” On the other hand, “the claim for parity is also made in the name of a completion of universality.” (Emphasis in original). However, Ivecovic believes that the former, those who oppose parity in the name of protecting universalism, are mistaken, because there is no universality that is not historically mediated.[57]

This last contention is strongly made by pro-parity feminists arguing in the name of the universal. Francoise Collin puts it this way – “…we ought first to consider whether the citizenship of the individual citizen is as neutral as “universalism” presupposes it to be, and whether to accede to representation as a human individual is not and has not always been marked by gender. It seems to me in fact that the neutrality of the citizen, which determines its potential universalism, is a decoy both in its foundation and in its actual functioning.”[58] It is universalism itself, she suggests, that ensures the “sexualisation of power”. Parity attempts to desexualise power by extending it to both sexes, “therefore the true universalism (not a monoversalist universalism but a pluriversalist universalism) is parity.”[59] Indeed, Janine Mossuz-Lavau sees a contradiction in the position of anti-parity feminists who resist the differentiation of the universal citizen on the basis of sex. She argues that in that case, these feminists should not see it as problematic that Parliament is almost entirely composed of men, for from the point of view of abstract citizenship, men can represent women. But even feminists who reject parity do see it as a problem, and suggest instead, some form of affirmative action to remedy the situation. Thus, according to Mossuz-Lavau, it is not possible to sustain a critique of the male-domination of Parliament along with an assertion of the indispensability of abstract citizenship.[60] Eliane Viennot makes a similar point when she says that while she understands the anti-parity argument against essentialising “man” and “woman,” nevertheless in real life people are recognized as such, even legally, as in identity cards, for example. So the difference between “man” and “woman” already exists in law, and is not a creation of the parity movement.[61]

Joan Scott has pointed out the paradoxical way in which notions of French national character depend on an intertwining of sexual difference and republicanism, so that a critique of one is taken as an assault on the other. Scott takes up a particular kind of anti-feminist critique of parity that valorizes sexual difference and which attacks parity as influenced by “American feminism” that supposedly destroys the “natural” erotic difference in sexual relationships. Thus, she shows that “The insistence that sex and sexual seductiveness are traits of French culture is tied to the belief that universalism of the abstract individual is the key to equality in the French republic.” As she demands indignantly, “Why are French critics of feminism so eager to defend sexual difference as a social practice and so quick to denounce it as a political demand?”[62]

These pro-parity feminist arguments argue, in opposition to critiques of parity from the universalist position, that the Universal has never been unmarked. From this point of view therefore, parity therefore, is simply an attempt to realise the true universal.

Thus, both pro-parity as well as anti-parity feminists in France bring into play different kinds of universalist arguments, while anti-parity non-feminists too, mobilise the universal to present it as being under threat. This is remarkable for us, because, as this chapter has shown, in the Indian debate on reservations for women the notion of the universal has not come into play in any significant way. Rather, different kinds of “difference” have been posited against the identity of “women.”[63] As I have shown, there was a point up to the 1970s when some notion of the universal did operate, in arguments such as that reservations for women would a) open up the possibility of other groups making similar demands, thus posing a threat to national integration, and b) run counter to the provision of equality in the constitution. However, even at that time, not only did such arguments not operate in the case of caste-based reservations, but there has been a remarkable shift in the women’s movement’s position on reservations since the late 1980s, when the idea of the nation itself came into question. It would seem that citizenship has from the beginning been understood in a relatively non-individualist and group-differentiated way in our postcolonial context, and the decades after independence have only strengthened that trend.

Representation: The Identity-or-Ideology Dichotomy

The phenomenon of groups seeking recognition in representative bodies on the basis of ethnic, religious or gender identity has been understood by many scholars as the shift from “ideology” (in which people are willing for their “ideas” to be represented rather than their “self”) to “identity” (where the representative must actually “mirror”[64] the characteristics of the people represented.) Anne Phillips, for instance, terms this the shift from a politics of ideas to a politics of presence.[65] The politics of ideas suggests “a broadly secular understanding of politics as a matter of judgement and debate, and expects political loyalties to develop around policies rather than people.”[66] A politics of presence on the other hand, privileges the question of “who” rather than “what” and demands equal representation of women, ethnic minorities, and other groups that see themselves as excluded.[67]

In this section, I will problematize the very framing of the relationship between ideas/presence (or who/what) as a dichotomy. I must emphasise that I am not concerned with finding arguments to justify the legitimacy of the demand for recognition of “identity” over “ideology”. Such arguments that justify the need for group representation over abstract citizenship (or identity over ideology) may have relevance in the liberal democracies of the West, which have traced a different route to democracy. However, the experience of societies that came to democracy and modernity through the encounter with colonialism has been such, that group identity has always been the axis upon which democratic institutions turn. So it is not necessary in our context to rehearse the arguments justifying recognition of difference.[68]

To return to the main argument of this section then, in my opinion the distinction made between presence and ideas is unsustainable. The distinction can be maintained only if we assume that “identity” is natural, pre-political – that is, pre-ideology. That “presence” is pre-“ideas”. However, as I have argued in an earlier section, identities are created and mobilised in and through politics, they do not pre-exist politics. When we make this argument about caste or religious identity in India it is by now generally accepted, for these are no longer seen as natural or primordial identities, but as identities that have taken their present forms over the course of certain historical developments. The huge body of writing and debate over the Uniform Civil Code bears witness to this assertion. However, when it comes to “women”, there continues to be a tendency to view the category as self-evident, when in fact the painful recognition that the women’s movement has had to come to terms with is precisely that “women” as the subject of feminist politics has to be brought into being by political practice.

It is interesting in this context to note that Anne Phillips makes only a minimalist case for “quotas” while rejecting the idea of “representation”. Phillips makes a limited argument for a politics of presence – since half the population is female and there is a substantial non-white presence, bodies of elected representatives should reflect this distribution. “When the composition of decision-making assemblies is so markedly at odds with the gender and ethnic makeup of the society they represent, this is clear evidence that certain voices are being silenced or suppressed.”[69] However, she is very clear that the argument is not strengthened, is even weakened, by claims that this quota would represent a constituency. “Accountability is always the other side of representation, and, in the absence of procedures for establishing what any group wants, or thinks, we cannot usefully talk of their political representation.” This is why “we should detach the arguments, for example…for parity between men and women, from the arguments for representing women as a group. The case still stands whether the women ‘represent’ women or not.”[70] From Phillip’s point of view, the political views of the women entering legislatures are irrelevant, they may or may not be feminist, right-wing or socialist. The point she makes is that women’s presence in legislatures is justified by their presence in the population.

The problem with this argument is that Phillips sees “women” as a category existing in society independently of their politics, when the dilemma for feminist politics arises precisely from the fact that different political configurations produce different identities. Identity does not exist independently of ideology, or, to put it differently, “presence” is already constituted by a number of identifications, of which gender is only one. To reiterate a point I have made earlier, there are not “women” who may be right wing or left wing, white or black – there are people who may respond in different kinds of political mobilisation as “white”, “left wing” or as “women”. Phillips can see this point when it comes to race:

“In the case of Britain, for example, the all-embracing concept of ‘black’ people rapidly dissolved into a distinction between Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities, and then subsequently into finer distinctions…What in this context then counts as ‘adequate’ ethnic representation? Such questions can hardly be answered in isolation from politics and political mobilisations…”

However, she uses this understanding to cast doubt on the legitimacy of demands for ethnic quotas, as opposed to “more ‘permanently’ relevant categories” such as women.[71] The apparent intractability of the biological category of “women” blinds Phillips to the implications of her own argument. If “women” too is recognized as produced by political mobilisation, then quotas for women cannot be promoted in isolation from quotas for other marginalized groups in society.

Here her position is similar to some feminist Muslim voices in the Indian debate (individuals, not groups), which continue to make a feminist defence of women’s reservations while totally rejecting the idea of other quotas within the women’s quota.[72] The demand for quotas within quotas is seen as an attempt to “divide” women into categories like Muslim and OBC.[73] The argument here is that quotas for Muslim women, for instance, will segregate them from the mainstream – surely something that can be said for reservations for women in general? Or that the demand for quotas for Muslim women is suspect because it comes from the same patriarchal quarters within the Muslim leadership that pushed for the Muslim Women’s Bill.[74] But again, this argument does not stand, because one of the strongest supporters of the WRB is the Hindu right-wing BJP, which was opposed to the Muslim Women’s Bill for entirely communal reasons while it supports the WRB to preserve upper-caste power. This is precisely the point, that “women” have proved to be remarkably difficult to demarcate within the matrix of other identities in which they are embedded. On the question of gender-discriminatory personal laws as we know, feminist demands for a UCC seemed indistinguishable from the Hindu right’s programme for the same. “Speaking for women” has been demonstrated to arise from very different kinds of concerns. It is impossible to sustain an argument defending reservations for “women” on the basis of an assumed shared experience while at the same time rejecting any notion of a shared experience that is “Muslim” or “Dalit”.

Phillips of course, does not make “shared experience” a criterion for quotas – as we saw, she considers “presence” a sufficient condition to justify them. What she shares with the positions discussed above though, is the assumption that the presence of “women” can be clearly demarcated from that of “race”, “caste” or “religious” identity – the belief that while these are politically produced categories, “women” pre-exist politics.

A recent alternative proposal to the WRB makes the same assumption. Since the WRB ran into such rough waters, the Election Commission proposed that all political parties should mutually agree on the percentage of seats where they will mandatorily field women candidates in parliamentary and Assembly elections. Failure to do so would result in punitive action to be taken by the Election Commission, even up to derecognition.[75] Left parties have criticised this formula, but the opposition is on the grounds that this is a “compromise formula” that will only ensure tickets for women, not guarantee their victory.[76] However, this seems to me to be the weakest argument against the proposal. The more serious objection to it should be on the grounds of the anti-democratic nature of this kind of policing by the EC, a body not accountable to the people in any way. The principle of parties ensuring female representation internally has worked elsewhere, in the Nordic countries, and in the African National Congress, for example. But in these cases it has been a self-regulating move. In 1980, parties in Norway and Sweden proposed legislation that would commit all political parties to a minimum of 40% women on their electoral lists, but failing the success of this bid, various parties introduced the practice unilaterally.[77] There has been no attempt to police the practice except through the sheer pressure of democratic politics.

It is one thing to say that Parliament as an institution of state should at least formally serve as a forum representing all interests and identities, but quite another to insist that political parties as part of political society, should also be modeled on the same pattern. Parties exist in a democracy precisely in order to represent sectional interests. The absurdity of this proposal, that the EC should have the right to regulate the internal matters of political parties, would be immediately evident if the suggestion had been that all parties would be forced to give a percentage of their seats to dalits or upper castes, to Muslims or Hindus, or to working class people. Why does it not seem absurd when the category here is women? The suggestion can seem reasonable only if “women” is evacuated of all political content, as if it is a neutral category that exists independently of all political considerations. And the burden of this paper has been to show that this is most definitely not so.[78]

Gail Omvedt also supports the alternative proposal that parties should reserve a proportion of their tickets for women, which she sees as an advance on the original WRB. However, she does not explicitly appear to endorse any role for the EC in ensuring that parties do so. Rather, she concedes that the alternative proposal does not guarantee 33% reservation, but it is nevertheless “a move towards real empowerment – and in a way that brings about the total welfare of society.”[79] It is clear that the only “guarantee” she assumes is that of political commitment, which gives the proposal a different shape altogether. Omvedt’s rejection of the WRB and support for the alternative proposal then falls into place within the context of her general preference for mass politics over legal reform. In 1990, for example, she saw the government proposals for 30% reservation for women that were then circulating, as a response to the collective challenge offered by different “drives of women for local political power” all over India. That is, she sees legal reforms as a consequence of the pressure created by mass politics, not as the precondition for social transformation.[80] This puts her support for the proposal in a very different category from the form in which it is cast, both by the Election Commission and the Forum for Democratic Reforms.[81]


This final section brings us to a set of questions that is by no means amenable to easy resolution. If we accept that it is not the individual but the group, defined in whatever way, that is the basis of representation, then we need to evolve a way of leaving open the potential for any group to choose in the future to define itself as one which requires reservation in parliament. If identities emerge in and through political mobilisation, then we need to guard against the possibility that some identities may freeze into new formations of power, thus blocking the emergence of new identities and new alignments. Cautioning against the possibility of collective rights “overtaxing” the theory of rights “tailored to individual persons”, Habermas fears that group rights could represent “a kind of preservation of species by administrative means”:

“For to guarantee survival would necessarily rob the members of the very freedom to say yes or no if they are to appropriate and preserve their cultural heritage.”[82]

Although Habermas uses this critique to limit the recognition of group rights, a debate we have already seen to be framed very differently in postcolonial societies, nevertheless this point must be taken seriously. We would however, need to take it in the opposite direction to the one taken by Habermas. That is, rather than reasserting the need as Habermas does, for “political integration of citizens”[83] we would need to push the possibilities of continuing “pluralization”. Here I refer to the distinction made by William Connolly – “pluralism is often presented as an achievement to be protected, while the eruption of new drives to pluralization are often represented as perils to this achievement.”[84] If democracy remains unresponsive to the emergence of new configurations of identity, then once-emancipatory identities can entrench themselves into formations blocking further democratization.

What kinds of transformations of democratic institutions and practices would ensure an “ethos of critical responsiveness”? [85] Serious debate on radical alternatives is necessary. One of the suggestions doing the rounds is the advocacy of proportional representation.[86] But to conceptualise PR in the context only of currently existing parties that would get seats in proportion to their votes, is not sufficient. We would have to think of a re-visioned PR system that would have room (and continue to make room) for newer kinds of political configurations – the anti-big dam movements, anti-nuclear energy movements, alternative sexualities/gay and lesbian rights movements, to name but a few. A public debate on the potential and limitations of proportional representation is certainly worthwhile, although that too would only be a beginning. We would also need to keep in mind the fact that in a globalised world, as Canadian feminist Maude Barlowe puts it, “Power has shifted elsewhere. It has been sucked away by an elite group of global capitalists who dictate to national governments…” Almost every political party in Canada has affirmative action programmes to ensure women candidates. But like Barlowe, many feminists in Canada feel that when they finally got there, as in the nursery rhyme, “the cupboard was bare” – the national government is under the control of global capital.[87]

David Scott, discussing the impasse that constitutional negotiations on ethnic politics in Sri Lanka seems to have reached, suggests a more radical reformulation of democracy. He makes a case for the need to re-examine “the inscription of liberalism and democracy into the colonial and postcolonial state”, arguing that this has created a “whole new game of politics” of which one crucial aspect is its reliance on ‘number’. In his view, modern liberal democracy is inseparable from the “statistical principle”. Therefore, “[t]he task rather is to find the institutional arrangements in which to embody the forms of life of historical communities and then determining what kinds of mediating frameworks can be established in which these groups can negotiate their claims. What this means in effect, is the establishment of intersecting public spaces – spaces that practice different forms of belonging, in which different self-governing practices can be cultivated, in the different languages of identity.”[88]

The discussion has only begun. For now I would conclude by suggesting that if reservation politics is not to solidify into different forms of elite control over state institutions, if it is to act, as indeed it must, as merely one of the strategies in a radical politics of subversion, then the debate cannot remain limited to the quotas question.

[1] Veena Mazumdar “Historical Soundings” Seminar 457 September 1997 P 16.

[2] “Electoral Politics in the Time of Change. India’s Third Electoral System, 1989-99”, Economic and Political Weekly August 21-28 1999 P2393-2399. (Emphasis added. ) Yadav concludes that from the 1989 election onwards, the electoral political arena has seen greater participation and more intense politicisation, particularly among marginal social groups. The odds that a dalit will vote are much higher today than that of an upper caste. The dominant peasant propreitor OBCs were already politicised, but now the lower OBCs are equally militant.

[3] “Historical Soundings” Seminar 457 September 1997 P 15.

[4] Shirin Rai and Kumud Sharma “Democratising the Indian Parliament: The ‘Reservation for Women’ Debate” in International perspectives on Gender and Development ed. Shirin Rai, London, Macmillan, 2000, P 159

[5] Translatable as “the patriarchal forces controlling parliament”. Yogendra Yadav “Swarth Aur Moh ke beech Fansa Mahila Arakshan Bill” Dainik Bhaskar August 26, 2000

[6] Seema Mustafa, “Forget footing, men can’t even stomach the Bill”, Asian Age July 18, 1998

[7] Krishna Bose, Trinamool Congress MP, in Parliament. Reported in Times of India March 9,1999.

[8] Title of article by Brinda Karat, in People’s Democracy June 15, 1997.

[9] Shirin Rai and Kumud Sharma, Op cit P159

[10] ibid Pp 159-162.

[11] “From Social Action to Political Action. Women and the 81st Amendment” Economic and Political Weekly February 1 1997 P 196.

[12] Malini Bhattacharya, “Democracy and Reservation” Seminar 457, September 1997. Pp23-4.

[13] ML-Update Vol 1, No. 9, 15 July 1998.

[14] Gail Omvedt “Women and PR” The Hindu September 12, 2000.

[15] Statement of the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi  “Reservations on reservation” Communalism Combat June 1997 P 6.

[16] Madhu Kishwar, “Women and Politics: Beyond Quotas” Economic and Political Weekly October 26 1996. P 2867

[17] ibid P 2867

[18] See Chapter Two for a fuller discussion.

[19] Madhu Kishwar, op cit P 2869

[20] PT Rajshekhar, “The voice of the persecuted nationalities denied human rights”, Dalit Voice Vol 17, No. 18, August 1-15, pp 3-5. Cited by Meena Dhanda “Representation for Women. Should Feminists support quotas?” EPW August 12, 2000 P 2971

[21] Indira Hirway, “Panchayati raj at the crossroads” EPW Vol XXIV No. 29 1989 and Utsahi Mahila Abhyudaya  in UMA Prachar April-June 1996. Cited by Janaki Nair, “An Important Springboard”, Seminar 457, September 1997.

[22] Press Conference, The Hindu November 28 1999.

[23] News report in Times of India March 9, 1999

[24] Uma Bharati “Not a Woman’s World. Case for OBC Reservation” Times of India 17 July 1998 P 12. As told to Vidya Subramaniam.

[25] Editorial, The Indian Express July 15, 1998

[26] Chandan Mitra The Pioneer

[27] op cit P 2867

[28] Vasanthi Raman “Women’s Reservations and Democratization. An Alternative Perspective” EPW December 11, 1999. Pp 3494-5.

[29] “Women and PR” The Hindu September 12, 2000

[30] There is now recognition on the Left, although it is grudging, that caste is a reality of Indian politics, and has to be dealt with. The CPI(M)’s Draft of Updated Party Programme (May 2000) acknowledges that “The assertion by dalits has a democratic content reflecting the aspirations of the most oppressed sections of society. The backward castes have also asserted their rights in a caste-ridden society.” However, this is qualified by the following: “At the same time, a purely caste appeal which seeks to perpetuate caste divisions for the narrow aim of consolidating vote banks and detaching these downtrodden sections from the common democratic movement has also been at work.” (P 25). The Left engagement with caste is still very uneasy.

[31] Anonymous “Women. Invisible Constituency” Commentary in EPW May 18 1996. P 1173.

[32] Manoranjan Mohanty “On the Concept of Empowerment” EPW June 17, 1995. Pp 1434-6.

[33] Saheli, Sabla Sangh, Action India, Disha, Women’s Centre, Forum Against Oppression of Women and Awaz-e-Nizwan, Development for Whom – A Critique of Women’s development Programmes 1991. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Gender and Politics in India ed Nivedita Menon, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999. Introduction  Pp 20-21.

[34] Gabriele Dietrich “Women and Religious Identities in India after Ayodhya” Against All Odds ed Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Nighat Said Khan, Kali for Women Delhi, 1994, P 43.

[35] Flavia Agnes “Women’s Movement within a secular framework: Redefining the agenda” EPW Vol XXIX No 19 1994. P 1123; Gail Omvedt, Violence Against Women. New Movements and New Theories in India Kali for Women, Delhi 1990. P 39.

[36] Anne Phillips “Democracy and Difference: Some Problems for Feminist Theory” in The Rights of Minority Cultures ed. Will Kymlicka, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995. Pp 290-293.

[37] Will Kymlicka “Three forms of group-differentiated citizenship in Canada” in Democracy and Difference. Contesting the Boundaries of the Political ed. Seyla Benhabib, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996. P 158.

[38] Sudipta Kaviraj “Dilemmas of Democratic Development in India” in Democracy and Development ed. Adrian Leftwich, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996 P 132.

[39] Danielle Haase-Dubosc, “Sexual Difference and Politics in France  Today”, Feminist Studies Vol 25 No. 1 (Spring 1999) P 184

[40] Joan W Scott Only Paradoxes to Offer. French Feminists and the Rights of Man Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press 1996, P 163

[41] Francoise Gaspard, Claude Servan-Schreiber and Anne Le Galle Au Pouvoir, Citoyennes:Liberte, Egalite, Parite Paris, Le Seuil, 1991. Cited in Francoise Gaspard, “Parity- Why Not?” in differences A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(2) Summer 1997

[42] This account has been taken from Danielle Haase-Dubosc op cit and from Joan Scott, “‘La Querelle des Femmes’ in the Late Twentieth Century” in differences A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(2) Summer 1997 70-81

[43] Interview with Eliane Viennot June 14, 2001.

[44] Interview with Sandrine Dauphin, June 29, 2001 and Monique Dental, June 22, 2001. (The interview with Monique Dental was simultaneously translated by Danielle Haase-Dubosc.)

[45] Danielle Haase-Dubosc, op cit P 187

[46] Interview with Eleni Varikas, June 13, 2001

[47] Interview, June 22, 2001.

[48] Christine Delphy in Le Monde Diplomatique March 1997 Pp7-8. Cited in Haase-Dubosc op cit P 199

[49] Cited in Haase-Dubosc, op cit P 199

[50] Francoise Gaspard, “Parity – Why Not?” in differences A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(2) Summer 1997 P 96.

[51] Interview with Janine Mossuz-Lavau, June 22, 2001

[52] I also spoke to two feminists who felt that the distinction between parity and affirmative action was being drawn too sharply, and that in fact, parity is a form of affirmative action. Interviews with Eliane Viennot,  June 14, 2001  and Sandrine Dauphin, June 29, 2001.

[53] Christine Delphy in “Parity and Universalism”, translated transcript of a discussion held at Maison des Sciences Humaine, Paris. Published in differences A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(2) Summer 1997 op cit p 131.

[54] Discussion in Haase-Dubosc op cit p 194

[55] Interview, op cit. A pro-parity feminist Sandrine Dauphin, however, seemed to suggest that the point is not that women would bring something different to politics. Their political positions are irrelevant, what is important is that they need to be in parliament because they are half the population. (Interview, June 29 2001). This is also the position taken by Anne Phillips, discussed in the next section.

[56] Scott discusses Badinter’s position in “‘La Querelle des Femmes’ in the Late Twentieth Century”, op cit.

[57] Rada Ivecovic, “A Feminist Philosophical Approach to Nationalism.” Unpublished lecture delivered at Copenhagen University, April 7 2000.

[58] Francoise Collin in “Parity and Universalism”, op cit. P 117

[59] ibid Pp 118-9

[60] Interview, op cit.

[61] Interview, op cit.

[62] Joan Scott “‘La Querelle des Femmes’ in the Late Twentieth Century” op cit P 79

[63] I found it significant that in French, the word often used in the context of recognizing difference is “stigmatisation”. The very recognition of difference in the French context has negative connotations, suggestive of being “branded.”

[64] A term used by Hanna Fenichel Pitkin in The Concept of Representation University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967 Cited by Anne Phillips in “Democracy and Difference” op cit P 297. Pitkin was critical of the idea of mirror representation, but Phillips develops the idea more positively.

[65] Anne Phillips The Politics of Presence. The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity and Race Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995. Reissued in paperback, 1998. All references to the book here are to the 1998 edition.

[66] Ibid P 1

[67] ibid P 5

[68] We may note that feminist/pro-women arguments against reservations in India do not reject identity politics as such. That is, Madhu Kishwar and the SMA, for example, or Gail Omvedt, all fully endorse the need to see women as a collectivity with shared experiences which require special strategies to be fairly represented in decision-making bodies. Their opposition to the WRB is on the grounds that it is not an effective strategy. This is why Meena Dhanda’s carefully argued defence of identity politics as a counter-position to Kishwar is rather off the mark. However, Dhanda’s refutation of Kishwar’s consequentialist arguments against the WRB is very useful. See Note 79 below.

[69] “Democracy and Difference” op cit P 296

[70] ibid Pp 296-8.

[71] “Democracy and Difference” op cit P 297

[72] Seema Alavi, “Muslim Women don’t need reservation”, Times of India July 15 1998, P 12; Seema Mustafa “Forget Footing, men can’t even stomach the Bill” op cit

[73] Seema Mustafa op cit

[74] Seema Alavi op cit

[75] Nirmala George “Debate on Women’s Bill is two years old, it’s going nowhere”, Interview with MS Gill, Chief Election Commissioner, Indian Express April 26 2000, P 9.

[76] Shahid Faridi “Left criticises Gill formula for women’s reservation” Asian Age April 25, 2000

[77] Anne Phillips, “Democracy and Difference” op cit P 296.

[78] The alternate proposal to reservations in parliament, that instead, parties should reserve a proportion of their tickets for women has a longer history. Mulayam Singh Yadav first made the suggestion in 1998, (as a self-regulating mechanism, without any role for the EC) but it was not seriously considered. Then in 2000, Madhu Kishwar of Manushi, along with Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta Hyderabad, Yogendra Yadav of CSDS Delhi and Dhirubhai Sheth of Lokayan Delhi, came out with an alternative proposal to the WRB, as the Forum for Democratic Reforms. This proposal is titled “Women’s representation in Legislatures” and is an undated publication, jointly by all 4 organizations/individuals. Here reservations are rejected as an effective measure, and instead, the role of the EC in ensuring that parties not only give one-third of their tickets to women, but that these tickets are spread out over all constituencies, is worked out in great detail. Apart from the objection I have outlined in the text of the paper above, to giving the EC this kind of control over the political agenda of parties, there are other problems with this alternative proposal. Meena Dhanda has dealt exhaustively with the kind of argument in the proposal which envisages certain consequences of following the reservation policy.  Kishwar originally laid out these supposed consequences in her article, “Women and Politics. Beyond Quotas”, cited above, and these are outlined once again in this proposal. Dhanda, addressing the earlier article, points out that not all the relevant consequences are necessarily taken into account, and it is a matter of disputation whether some of the consequences presented as negative are indeed so. She concludes, “Reflection on the Indian debate shows that selective emphases and different interpretations of the probable consequences of following a policy of gender quotas leads to stalemate.” See “Representation for Women. Should Feminists Support Quotas?” op cit Pp 2970-71.

I shall briefly lay out the other problems with this proposal  – a) Six of the fourteen points that outline the problems with the WRB (Pp 3-4, points 1-5 and 9), have to do with weaknesses in the idea of the rotation of reserved constituencies. An alternative which thinks in terms of fixed reserved constituencies could perhaps be considered, rather than giving up on reservations in Parliament altogether. b) Most of the other arguments against the Bill function on the classic assumption made by the privileged to reject reservations on principle. That is, instead of going on the assumption that it is patriarchal structures that keep women out of decision-making bodies, which is why reservations become necessary, the document makes arguments which suggest that the absence of women is because there are not enough capable candidates among them. With this underlying assumption, it becomes easy to make predictions like “women elected in reserved constituencies will be contesting against other women only, and will lack the legitimacy…to prove their ability.” (P 4) Conversely, if parties can choose their female candidates, “natural leadership” is promoted, and there will be a large pool of “credible and serious” women candidates. As they will be elected in competition, they will have legitimacy and not be seen as “beneficiaries of charitable measures” and will not be “mere proxy or lightweight.” (P 5)  Clearly, the assumption is that this would be the case with reservations. Such assumptions are elitist and even offensive. c) The concern of the proposal is weighted in favour of the interests of the male candidates, rather than those of the electorate or of the women candidates. Thus, an assumption of “resentment” against women by “men who get pushed out of their constituencies” is one of the problems outlined, if reservations are enforced. (P 4)

[79] “Women and PR” op cit

[80] Violence against Women op cit Pp 39-41.

[81] See Note 55

[82] Jurgen Habermas “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State” (Tr. Shierry Weber Nicholsen), in Multiculturalism ed. Amy Gutman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994. P 130

[83] ibid. Pp 134-135.

[84] William Connolly The Ethos of Pluralization University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota and London, 1995. P xvi

[85] ibid

[86] See Gail Omvedt “Women and PR” op cit

[87] Rama Lakshmi “Having a Say in Policy” The Hindu April 15 2001

[88]David Scott “Community, Number, Ethos of Democracy” in Refashioning Futures. Criticism After Postcoloniality Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999 Pp 162, 188-9.

11 thoughts on “Reservations for Women: ‘Am I That Name?’”

  1. nividita,

    in all sincerity, i agree with the quota within quota system for women’s reservation. i liked your previous post. however, not everyone clearly has the time to read such a lenghthy chapter from your book. i think it will do your cause better if you simply answer the three-four questions raised in the previous article. not all of them were emperically grounded and i think, shivam vij raised an intersting and though provoking question.

    people go through kafila to browse through alternative opnions and suggestions, not get entangled in academic discussions that will cater only a few of your friends in a seminar. i hope you don’t mind my suggestion.

  2. Rakshit, thank you for your comment. You will notice, if you go back to the earlier post, that in my last comment before I posted this article, I did reply to all the points raised, including Shivam’s. At least, I did to the extent I could.
    As for this piece, you will remember that I did in fact post a shorter piece, which raised many more questions, and this one was meant for the one or two people who have the patience and interest to read more on the issue.

  3. Finally, read it!! Took a long time!! Nice post rather chapter. But still, I doubt one thing and that too because I have seen this happening. I have seen a woman corporator from Agra had no control about her actions. It was either her father and later her husband who used to take decisions on her behalf. Do you think women will really have their say if this Constitution Amendment Bill is passed and enacted?

  4. Shivam, I have discussed this proposal at length in the post which you have not read :(

    Since the WRB ran into such rough waters, the Election Commission proposed that all political parties should mutually agree on the percentage of seats where they will mandatorily field women candidates in parliamentary and Assembly elections. Failure to do so would result in punitive action to be taken by the Election Commission, even up to derecognition. Left parties have criticised this formula, but the opposition is on the grounds that this is a “compromise formula” that will only ensure tickets for women, not guarantee their victory. However, this seems to me to be the weakest argument against the proposal. The more serious objection to it should be on the grounds of the anti-democratic nature of this kind of policing by the EC, a body not accountable to the people in any way. The principle of parties ensuring female representation internally has worked elsewhere, in the Nordic countries, and in the African National Congress, for example. But in these cases it has been a self-regulating move. In 1980, parties in Norway and Sweden proposed legislation that would commit all political parties to a minimum of 40% women on their electoral lists, but failing the success of this bid, various parties introduced the practice unilaterally. There has been no attempt to police the practice except through the sheer pressure of democratic politics.

    It is one thing to say that Parliament as an institution of state should at least formally serve as a forum representing all interests and identities, but quite another to insist that political parties as part of political society, should also be modeled on the same pattern. Parties exist in a democracy precisely in order to represent sectional interests. The absurdity of this proposal, that the EC should have the right to regulate the internal matters of political parties, would be immediately evident if the suggestion had been that all parties would be forced to give a percentage of their seats to dalits or upper castes, to Muslims or Hindus, or to working class people. Why does it not seem absurd when the category here is women? The suggestion can seem reasonable only if “women” is evacuated of all political content, as if it is a neutral category that exists independently of all political considerations. And this is most definitely not the case.

    Palak – it is possible that some or many elected women might be manipulated by male relatives, but this would not be true for all elected women. It is a chance worth taking, because I dont think all elected male politicians function as resolute individuals, uninfluenced by powerful men in their families, or by other powerful political figures, generally. My point is that all politicians are influenced by powerful figures/groupings/their own parties to a greater or lesser degree, and the voting for them takes this into account. As the old Hindi song goes, yeh public sab janti hai! When people vote for a person, they know what configuration of political forces they are voting for. If a powerful, politically active male fields his wife or daughter-in-law, the woman will lose or win according to *his* support in the area. Just as when a young male contests elections, he wins or loses according to the support his political patrons have. In short, I believe the point about being “manipulated” is always overstated for women, as if it is unique to them. Democratic politics is entirely about patronage, group support etc. for everyone, male and female.

  5. “I believe the point about being “manipulated” is always overstated for women, as if it is unique to them. Democratic politics is entirely about patronage, group support etc. for everyone, male and female.”

    Patronage and group support is ok but manipulation has a broader meaning. In case of women and those who are in villages, it will be more prominent.

    I am not against Womes’ Reservation Bill. What I want is that government should reach out to the masses with its education schemes. Also, these schemes should not focus on mere reading and writing but should inculcate sense of belonging and morality.

  6. Mechanical reservation will never bring any change in society. Why do intellectuals like you keep on supporting reservation as a panacea for inequality? Inequality can only be addressed if we work towards equality of opportunity for every citizen of this country. That means you provide a certain acceptable level of education to everyone in society (which means you have to change government rules of not firing any body for incompetence). There will never be a society which is completely equal (I do not believe in equality of outcomes argument) but if there is equality of opportunity, meritorious, talented people will be able to raise their standard of living. By endorsing reservation in Parliament, you are undermining the basic task of a legislator which is to legislate based on national interest, oversee the executive based on national interest, etc. If we allow reservation based on groups, no legislator will be thinking of national interest but his own narrow group interest. Do you as a political scientist really think that’s a good idea or a way forward? I don’t…to me its a recipe for more caste based/religion based politics of the Laloo/Mulayam/Mayawati/Modi variety.

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