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Reservation Express final stop: The Indian Parliament

Jun 22, 2010

To clear the air over the Women's Reservation Bill, a Reservation Express was launched to mount pressure on the political class. The organisers promise of an even bigger showstopper in Delhi, if the Bill is does not get presented in the Lok Sabha, writes Amrita Nandy.

New Delhi: "Who says reservation in politics does not benefit women? Look at me! If it was not for 33% reservation for women, I could not have made it all," said Veena Sharma, the confident 40-year-old panchayat samiti member of Dari, a village in tehsil Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

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Veena was addressing a gathering in Dharamshala's zilla parishad hall to welcome members of the Reservation Express, a nationwide campaign to mobilise public opinion in favour of the Women's Reservation Bill.

Veena defies reasons touted by a few politicians to stall the Bill - she is neither the relative of a politician nor elite. She is an underprivileged woman whose entry into local governance has given her a new lease of life.

Yet, after 14 years of silence and opposition, the Bill is again waiting at the Lok Sabha. Like the Reservation Express campaign, the Bill is an ambitious and long overdue exercise to combat persistent gender inequity in political participation.

Though the Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha after much rancour on March 9, 2010, its future has been uncertain ever since. A few political parties, notably the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party, have opposed the legislation, demanding a quota within the 33% quota for OBC, Muslim, Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) women. On the other hand, Islamic hardliners have denounced the demand for reservation, stating that the Shariah (Islamic law) prohibits Muslim women from political participation.

With such dissonance and confusion over the Bill, a large group of civil society organisations decided to step in. The result: The Reservation Express, a unique lobbying exercise to mount pressure on the political class to pass the Bill. Conceived by Delhi-based NGO, ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy), the campaign brought together as many as 200 organisations from across the country, comprising civil society and women's groups, student organisations, artists, activists and intellectuals.

Divided into three caravans with 25-odd people each, the Reservation Express travelled across 60 towns and cities, covering over 20,000 kilometres in 17 days. Each caravan was made up of a diverse group of people - internally displaced women and victims from the Gujarat carnage, young girls from the remote village of Tangdar in Kashmir, activists from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, senior women activists and filmmakers.

For its powerful symbolism, the caravans started from Jhansi, the site of a woman's political struggle, on May 20. Annie Raja, General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW); Subhasini Ali, President, All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA); and Qamar Azad Hashmi, mother of Safdar Hashmi, a well-known revolutionary and activist, flagged off the caravans.

Travelling in different directions, the caravans halted every day at a pre-determined venue where local civil society and women's groups joined hands for public meetings, rallies, and press interactions. Supporters pitched in different ways. In Jalandhar, Punjab, Jaswinder Singh Mand and his wife, played hosts to caravan members by providing beds and food.

An author, journalist and travel writer himself, Mand facilitated and moderated the press conference at the local press club too. In Kanchipuram, the Makal Mandaram commune that works for tribals and women's rights, fed the caravan and let them rest in their lush green campus. In Jaipur, the caravan was joined by hundreds of women's groups who marched through the city and invited the mayor and other local leaders to speak at a state-wide convention on the issue. Annie Raja and CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat joined the caravans at some destinations and addressed public meetings.

Though the campaign mostly won support, questions about sub-quotas for women from minority and marginalised communities popped up repeatedly. The caravan was successful in clearing the air, by giving the relevant information. For instance, it was explained that there already exists a 22% quota for the SCs/STs in the Lok Sabha. In its present form, the Bill ensures the presence of 40 SC/ST women, as against the 17 in the current Lok Sabha.

The fear about 'elite' women grabbing reserved seats was palpable too. The argument has a grain of truth in it but cannot be turned into a paranoia that stalls the much-delayed Bill. The truth is that the elite gets it easy in various walks of life. Clearly, the reason is the economic model that creates and perpetuates these vast socio-economic chasms.

However, such deep, systemic flaws cannot be treated within the narrow ambit of the Women's Reservation Bill. Asked Radha, a woman activist from Himachal Pradesh, "Our political arena is packed with 'elite' male politicians.

Such vehement questioning about their elite status has not been done for them. Why does this become such a huge issue when women have to enter politics?" Besides, the question about privileges should also make the opponents of the Bill question the nepotism and backroom deals that ail our politics anyway.

In her travels with the caravan, Sultana Sheikh, a rape survivor from the Gujarat carnage, responded to queries about Muslim women and politics. "Who are the 'mullahs' to object to a Muslim woman's rights to political participation? Where are they when she is beaten at home or raped outside? Why have they been silent all these years?"

The presence of women's groups in the Reservation Express helped surface an under-articulated factor: the hidden and complex patriarchal mindset among people in general. Said Seema Duhan, 27, a caravan leader, "Our purpose was not just to address the opponents. There is a large section of people who are plain indifferent. To convince an almost misogynist culture that women have a role to play in politics can be an uphill task, especially given the cynicism towards politics. Yet, we have to change these mindsets."

Judging by the response to the culmination of the three caravans in Delhi on June 6, it seems that the change may just be achievable. Yet, the hundreds who had collected to greet members of the caravans with drums and trumpets were the converted lot - Dr Syeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission; Dr Mohini Giri, former Chairperson of the National Commission of Women and President of the Guild of Service; Dr Beulah Shekhar, General Secretary, YWCA; Sehba Farooqui, AIDWA; Anne Stenhammer, Regional Director, UNIFEM, and so on.

"Shabnam Hashmi, Founder and Managing Trustee of ANHAD, said, "We have highlighted the need for women's reservation and brought clarity about the nuances of the Bill. Hopefully this will pressurise the UPA government"

Happy at the warm welcome she and her caravan friends received in Delhi, Bhanwari Devi, the survivor of a gruesome sexual assault and a shameful litigation battle that gave rise to the Vishaka judgment, said, "I think that if women come to power, the situation should improve. It will not worsen like it has in the last decades. Nothing moves our male politicians - not poverty, not discrimination against women... nothing."

Reviewing the campaign, Shabnam Hashmi, Founder and Managing Trustee of ANHAD, said, "We have highlighted the need for women's reservation and brought clarity about the nuances of the Bill. Hopefully this will pressurise the UPA government. We have already had a meeting with Sonia Gandhi and presented her with nearly 10,000 signed postcards that appeal to the government to pass the Bill."

After the Bill is passed - if it is passed - it will be yet another exercise to help women achieve their full potential and prepare able women leaders. Meanwhile, the organisers of the campaign promise an even bigger showstopper in Delhi, if the Bill is not presented in the Lok Sabha.

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