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“They recognise a woman as a mother, daughter, wife, but they do not recognise a woman as a woman, as a person. This is the ideological conflict that is pushing them to not give us the right”, says Dr. Ranjana Kumari, as she sits across the table from me. We are talking about the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), which has earned the title of the ‘longest pending legislation in Parliament’. With the aim of increasing representation of women in politics, the WRB seeks to ensure that 33 percent of the seats in the Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies are reserved for women. Recognising the intersectionality of gender and caste, it also proposes that one third of the seat reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, are reserved for women belonging to these groups.

Dr. Kumari has been fighting for the passage of the WRB for the past 23 years. She is one of India’s most eminent gender rights activists, as well as the Director of the Centre for Social Research and Chairperson for Women’s Power Connect.

Today, she tells me about her journey from student politics to gender activism, what dissent against the Bill says about ‘masculine anxiety’ and why the passage of the Bill is not only about the political empowerment of women but about changing the gendered nature of power in the country itself.

IS: Tell us a little about your journey so far, from your doctorate in political science from JNU to becoming one of India’s leading women’s rights activists.

RK: The Centre for Social Research is an institution that is a product of our collective effort, a group of us from JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) started it and they continue to be on the board to date. During my time in JNU, the slogan was that ‘academics should be relevant’. We have been students of great academicians in JNU. They were the real names of the academic world in India, whether it was political science, history, economics or sociology. We always knew that it was good to be learning, but what was more important was putting that learning to the real use of people.

We started creating a kind of consciousness among students that showed them the importance of reaching out to people and not just sit in their ivory towers and talk about theories. The theory of social change emerged and we all saw the possibility of doing work with people, making development our core agenda. Feminism came as part of the agenda. For example, I lived in Bastar (Chhattisgarh) with the indigenous tribal population. We began to witness the exploitation of the tribal women at many levels, both within the tribal society and by larger society. This pushed my own understanding in perspective. When we were looking at people from the bottom as young idealists, we realised women were at the bottom of the bottom. This made us start working on feminist issues.

IS: The Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) is one of the longest pending legislations in Parliament. Tell us about the journey of the WRB ever since its conception by a committee of women’s activists more than 23 years back. 

RK: It was introduced as a Private Member Bill, by Pramila Dandavate, who was a member of Parliament in Maharashtra. She was a very strong feminist and a strong socialist. A committee was drafted under the chairmanship of many eminent women parliamentarians such as Margaret Alva, Geeta Mukherjee, Susheela Gopalan and Pramila Dandavate and they went around the country sought opinions about the Bill and drafted it. I was one of the young scholars who helped in drafting it. It was their wisdom and I put it in words. We eventually formed the Seven Sisters, where seven major national organisations of women came together and started campaigning for it.

If there is no election without the women’s vote, how can there be a Parliament without their adequate representation?

There has never been a Bill in the history of India’s Parliament that has been put forth so many times and torn by the men. Men were so fearful of that piece of paper. There were fights in the Parliament. We went on a 24- hour strike, we did ‘raasta roko’, by laying down on the streets outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. We also did hunger strikes, which was difficult. 23 years we fought. Every time they said they will pass the Bill. Finally, in 2010, the Bill was proposed in the Rajya Sabha.

A group of us were in the visitors gallery wearing black sarees as a form of protest, when the Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha. We were very happy that it was going to be introduced in the Lok Sabha. But it wasn’t passed in the Lok Sabha. That’s because the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) partners themselves were protesting against the Bill and Congress could not hold down the fort by themselves. But this time is the biggest let down. The Bill was considered the primary agenda of the BJP and they had a two-third majority in the Parliament.

IS: What do you think is the reason the WRB has been repeatedly shelved in the Parliament? What are some of the opposing arguments both in the Parliament and among general public?

RK: There are two factors. One of them is the fear factor. Women are really pushing themselves and proving their competence. In the Panchayati Raj, their reservation has gone from 33% to 50% because women are proving themselves. In every sector, women are less in numbers but when we are there nobody can ignore us. In many ways, women are making their presence felt. They are showing their competence. Secondly, politically they are becoming very ambitious and there is a very conscious choice they are making. All of this is pushing the threshold of fear more for men and that is why this Bill is not getting passed.

BJP’s agenda to pass the Bill does not exist. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is so patriarchal and male-centric in their ideological thinking. Look at these men, you don’t know who their women are, except for the mother factor they keep bringing in. If I do not want to be a mother do I cease to be a citizen, do I cease to be a woman? I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to get married. I want to make my own choices. They recognise a woman as a mother, daughter, wife, but they do not recognise a woman as a woman, as a person. This is the ideological conflict that is pushing them to not give us the right.

IS: Some opponents of the WRB believe that reservations for women will bring a woman’s merit into question and further alienate them. What do you have to say to this opposing argument, and about the importance of affirmative action in general?

RK: I think we should not have called it reservation. It is a matter of women’s constitutional right. We are not begging, it is a matter of right and not a matter of favour. A lot of people see this as quota, but this is not quota. Even women will have to go through the same democratic process. The only binding on the political parties is that they put up a woman candidate. Let them contest the way other candidates are contesting for the seats. Unfortunately, around 90% of the women are given weak seats, just for the sake of filling up so-called ‘quotas’. It is absolute tokenism.

If you are making someone run with weights, and someone else run without it, it is but fair that the person running with weights gets a head start, so as to be on an equal footing with the rest.

Some parties who give money to candidates to contest elections, pay women candidates substantially lesser. Women candidates are also the last to receive something as simple but pertinent as posters from their parties during election time. With the WRB, the ability and power to contest will open up for common women. These women might not have accessibility to the seat by themselves. If you are making someone run with weights, and someone else run without it, it is but fair that the person with weights gets a head start, so as to be on an equal footing with the rest. In every sector, women are less in numbers but when we are there nobody can ignore us. In many ways, women are making their presence felt.

IS: According to you, what does the 73rd and 74th Amendment Act tell us about the impact women leaders can have on their communities? If passed, how similar or different do you believe the impact of the WRB is going to be?

RK: It is important that we start realising that women in India after getting the 73rd and 74th Amendment at the grassroots have emerged as strong leaders with good political understanding and aspirations. They are also contributing to development process, education, and so many things in the country, so similarly when they come to a higher level of leadership, the nature of power will change. You will have less criminals in the Parliament.

There will be some decency, there will be some respect for human dignity and most importantly there will be steps taken to protect our planet. Who can protect it better than one who has protected lives. Whether we are mothers or not, we always know how to protect another life. We love the dogs on our street, every day I see young girls bringing food and feeding the street dogs. We respect and love and nurture. It is not just ideological or idealistic, it is realistic. It is what you see around you, that you will get in women leadership.

IS: What can our readers do to support this ‘cause’ you have been so tirelessly endeavouring for? In fact, why and how can it also become ‘their’ cause?

RK: I think they should that women are now a formidable political force in the country, with political ambition and aspiration. They are making a difference politically; their vote has started to matter and will matter more in the future. If there is no election without the women’s vote, how can there be a Parliament without their adequate representation? Moreover, there are parallel politics in India. There is a party politics and social change politics. The social change politics of our country has been led by women in many ways, whether its LGBTQIA+ rights or environmental conservation. We are a part of all those struggles. If we want such people-oriented politics to nurture in a democracy, we will have to bring more women into party politics. This will create a bridge between the two.

Even women will have to go through the same democratic process. The only binding on the political parties is that they put up a woman candidate.

I want people to make the right choices in the upcoming elections, or not to make a choice and put NOTA (None of the Above). Please do go and vote, we are democratic nation and its important to vote. Make a good choice and choose a good woman to come to Parliament. A party that will promise to give you your future.

Also read: In Conversation With Cynthia Stephen: Dalit Activist And Writer


FII thanks Dr. Ranjana Kumari for taking out time to do the interview.

Featured Image Source: Gender Matters

1 COMMENT

  1. Well we are for gender equality. In that case we will support 33 percrnt for women 33 percent quota for men remaining 34 for common. Let’s see how many ppl support it.

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