Tue, Mar 09, 2010 - Page 4 News List

Women’s bill triggers uproar in India

MISPLACED CONFIDENCE The government thought the long-delayed bill would sail through the upper house, but lawmakers forced repeated adjournments


Indian laborers carry bricks at a kiln on the outskirts of the eastern city of Siliguri yesterday. Protests by regional parties opposing New Delhi’s plans to reserve a third of parliamentary seats for women forced the upper house of parliament to adjourn proceedings yesterday.


An attempt by India’s government to pass legislation reserving a third of all seats for women in parliament provoked uproar yesterday as opposition politicians forced repeated adjournments.

The government had been confident that the Women Reservation Bill, which has been stalled for 14 years, would gather the required votes to pass in the upper house yesterday after being presented on International Women’s Day.

The upper house was adjourned twice as politicians opposing the bill shouted down speakers and refused to allow the introduction of the proposed legislation and a scheduled debate. At one point lawmakers from the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rushed to the center of the house to tear up copies of the bill.

Meanwhile, hundreds of women gathered outside the building.

The ruling Congress party, its allies and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have pledged their support in public, but the SP, RJD and other socialist parties oppose it.

They argue that the law, which would reserve a third of seats for women in the parliament and state assemblies, would lead to a monopoly by upper-caste women at the expense of lower caste and religious minority Muslims.

“We are not anti-women but we want reservations for women hailing from minority and backward classes first,” Mulayam Singh Yadav, a leader of the pro-Muslim SP said outside parliament.

Attempts to pass the bill have been blocked by various political groups in the past who have demanded separate quotas for women from Muslim and low-caste communities.

Yadav said the bill was an attempt by the Congress and the BJP to appease the rich and the influential upper class.

The controversial proposal to reserve 33 percent of seats would dramatically increase women’s membership in both houses of parliament where they now occupy about one in 10 seats. Because the bill involves a constitutional change, it needs the approval of two-thirds of legislators in the upper house after which it will go before the lower house where it also requires a two-thirds majority.

Women currently occupy 59 seats out of 545 in the lower house. There are just 21 women in the 248-seat upper house.

“Our government is committed towards women empowerment. We are moving towards one-third reservation for women in parliament and state legislatures,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a women’s leadership summit on Saturday.

Analysts said the government was testing the waters by introducing it in the upper house first instead of the lower house, where most proposed legislation is sent.

Some accused the government of playing politics by seeking to appease women by proposing the legislation but without having any realistic chance of it passing.

The SP and RJD later announced they were withdrawing their support for Congress to protest the bill, possibly weakening the government’s capacity to pass laws. They hold 26 seats in the 545-seat lower house.

“We will withdraw our support to the government and continue our protests against the bill,” said Lalu Prasad Yadav, the RJD leader.

The withdrawal gives the government less breathing room over key pending economic legislation.

The Congress party is already under fire over a slew of issues, including a fuel price hike announced in the budget last month.

“Certainly the party will be weakened for future legislation,” analyst Amulya Ganguli said “The government will need every vote it can.”

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