Women's Reservation & Our Founding Mothers: Reflections On Constituent Assembly Debates
The Centre’s introduction of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, otherwise known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, has created a buzz in all sectors by proposing to reserve one-third seats for women in the Lok Sabha, the State Legislatures, and the Delhi Legislative Assembly. This Bill, which is expected to raise the political representation of women,...
The Centre’s introduction of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, otherwise known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, has created a buzz in all sectors by proposing to reserve one-third seats for women in the Lok Sabha, the State Legislatures, and the Delhi Legislative Assembly.
This Bill, which is expected to raise the political representation of women, once the law comes into force, was the first to be tabled for consideration after the shifting to the new Parliament building, in a concerted effort of the Government to portray the building as a harbinger of gender justice.
In this backdrop, it will be interesting to know what the founding mothers of our Constitution thought about women reservation.
The Constituent Assembly comprised a bleak figure of 15 women representatives - Ammu Swaminathan, Annie Mascarene, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Dakshayani Velayudan, G. Durgabai, Hansa Mehta, Kamla Chaudhri, Leela Ray, Malati Chowdhury, Purnima Banerji, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Renuka Ray, Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, and Vijayalakshmi Pandit. These names, which are often ‘forgotten’ when one remembers the drafting of the Constitution, had been instrumental in representing diverse voices in an otherwise male-dominated Assembly.
Although not all of these women had actively participated in the debates and discussions in the Assembly, ten of them had done so, and argued for ‘merit’ as opposed to any kind of special consideration.
The voice of Hansa Mehta rang loud in this regard. While Mehta acknowledged that Indian women would be grateful to know that free India would mean not only equality of status but also equality of opportunity, she however, emphasized that the women of the land did not seek reservation of seats or separate electorates but only justice – in the social, economic, and political spheres.
“The average woman in this country has suffered now for centuries from inequalities heaped upon her by laws, customs and practices of people who have fallen from the heights of that civilisation of which we are all so proud…There are thousands of women today who are denied the ordinary human rights. They are put behind the purdah, secluded within the four walls of their homes, unable to move freely. The Indian woman has been reduced to such a state of helplessness that she has become an easy prey of those who wish to exploit the situation…
In spite of all these, we have never asked for privileges. The women’s organisation to which I have the honour to belong has never asked for reserved seats, for quotas, or for separate electorates. What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice. We have asked for that equality which can alone be the basis of mutual respect and understanding and without which real co-operation is not possible between man and woman. Women form one half of the population of this country and, therefore, men cannot go very far without the co-operation of women. This ancient land cannot attain its rightful place, its honoured place in this world without the co-operation of women” [Constituent Assembly Debates December 19, 1946; 1.9.42]
Renuka Ray, on her part, voiced strong objection towards reservation for women. Ray cited the example of her counterpart Vijayalakshmi Pandit, whom she expressed, had found her place in the Constituent Assembly and had been appointed as an Ambassador, not on account of her sex, but due to her ‘proven worth’.
“We are particularly opposed to the reservation of seats for women. Ever since the start of the Womens’ Movement in this country, women have been fundamentally opposed to special privileges and reservations. Through the centuries of our decadence, subjection and degradation, the position of women too has gone down until she has gradually lost all her rights both in law and in society….Women in his country have striven for their rights, for equality of status, for justice and fair play and most of all to be able to take their part in responsible work in the service of their country…
…. We always held that when the men who have fought and struggled for their country’s freedom came to power, the rights and liberties of women too would be guaranteed. We already see the evidence of this today. No reservation of seats was required to induce the men who are today in power to select a woman as Ambassador, the second in the history of any nation…. This has vindicated our position and women are indeed proud of this. I am confident that it will not be only women of exceptional ability who in future will be called upon to occupy positions of responsibility, but all women who are equally capable, equally able as men will be considered irrespective of sex”. [Constituent Assembly Debates July 18, 1947; 4.26.84]
Purnima Banerji, when she sought for the filling of the seats that had been left vacant by Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and Malati Chaudhuri, too underscored that the same ought to be offered to other women on the basis of their merit.
“…Three women Members for various reasons have had to leave this House. Mrs. Naidu who could never be replaced both from among men and women, Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit who is so very highly talented and our friend Shrimati Malati Chaudhuri–all these three women have been replaced by men Members. I do not speak in disparagement of the honourable Members who may have been returned in their places and I am sure they are worthy and fit Members of this House. But I do hold that women could have also filled those Places with equal merit and they should have been invited to do so….I feel, that not only is the association of women in the field of politics essential but it is indispensable, and therefore I feel that this indispensable section of the people should be amply represented in this House and therefore my amendment proposes that in the casual vacancies Which will occur women should at least be returned to the seats which they hold today, if not more”. [Constituent Assembly Debates October 11, 1949; 10.148.143]
While being supported in this regard by H.V. Kamath who said that he would be ‘quite happy’ if there were more women in the House, and added that such vacant seats should normally go to another woman, however proceeded to note:
“…So far as the work of Government is concerned, if I heard her aright, she said that women should be given a greater chance more scope, in affairs of administration and government than they are being given today. The most common and the strongest objection so far put forward by political philosophers in this connection, that is to say as regards the capability of women for government and administration is that woman is ruled more by the heart than by the head, and where the affairs of Government are concerned, where we have to be cold and calculating in dealing with various kinds of men, women would find it rather awkward and difficult to deal with such persons and that the head may not play the part that it must play in the affairs of government. If the heart were to rule and the head to take a secondary place then it is felt by many thinking men, and thinking women too, that the affairs of government might go somewhat awry, might not fare as well as we might want them to be. However, I do not wish to dwell on this point further…” [Constituent Assembly Debates October 11, 1949; 10.148.151]
It is significant to note that Ray had opposed reservation for women due to her qualm that reservation could lead to women’s competence being overlooked.
“When there is reservation of seats for women, the question of their consideration for general seats, however competent they may be, does not usually arise. We feel that women will get more chances in the future to come forward and work in the free India, if the consideration is of ability alone”. [Constituent Assembly Debates July 18, 1947; 4.26.85]
Yet, in the 76th year of Independence of our nation, it is significant to note that women representation in the Parliament and State Legislatures still fall below 15%.
Is the same due to a lack of ‘merit’ that our founding mothers had advocated for? Or is it because of a lack of opportunities that hinder women from leaving their mark on the political front? Or does the Indian population at large believe the archaic notion of the political philosophers of yesteryear that women are incapable of taking administrative decisions since they are ruled by their 'heart' as opposed to their 'head', and affording them space in the political sphere might not be ideal?
As the new Bill, if it does come to be passed, shall only be enforced after the delimitation exercise, which would certainly take a while, these are questions to be asked to ourselves.
On this note, let us part by adverting to the remark made by yet another Founding Mother of ours - albeit in a different context - in the hope that the new Bill if enacted shall be instrumental in adequately representing 50% of the nation's population in the 15 years that it is expected to prevail:
"Equal right is a great thing and it is only fitting that it has been included in the Constitution. People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their Constitution they have given rights to women equal with every other citizen of the country. That in itself is a great achievement and it is going to help our women not only to realise their responsibilities but to come forward and fully shoulder their responsibilities to make India a great country that she had been" - Ammu Swaminathan [Constituent Assembly Debates November 24, 1949; 11.164.213].