Statements of Radical Socialist

STATEMENT ON THE WOMEN’S RESERVATION BILL


No legislative proposal in India has had such an uncertain fate as the proposal to reserve one third of all the seats in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies for women. Proposed 14 years back, it is yet to be passed by the Lok Sabha and by half the Assemblies, before it becomes operational. In that sense, it bears an interesting comparison with the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA. Originally proposed by suffragette Alice Paul in 1923, it was approved by the 92nd  US Congress (the US two-chamber central legislature) only in 1972, but failed to be approved by the necessary number of States.
The Indian proposal is however much more limited. It is also an interesting, if sometimes forgotten fact, that this was not part of the agenda of the women’s movements – neither the left party led organizations nor the autonomous feminists raised such a demand. In its origin it came from the Indian National Congress as an electoral move. It was then that the parliamentary left parties took it up. Women activists like the late Geeta Mukherjee of the CPI, and Brinda Karat of the CPI(M), have been vocal about the Bill. The passage of the Bill by the Rajya Sabha earlier in 2010 raised the likelihood that the Bill will be passed by the Parliament. This makes it necessary to look at the long struggle over it, the opposition to it, and ask what could be a revolutionary socialist and feminist response.

In defence of affirmative action:

The first thing to assert is that we support a variety of forms of affirmative action for women, as well as for other specially oppressed social categories. Ruling class domination is always historically specific and related to specific ways in which the ruling class is connected to other dominant groups. Patriarchy is not merely a hangover of “feudalism”, but one of the important oppressive structures in the present, and at the same time one of the ways in which capitalism reinforces its domination. Women constitute half the population of India and in the era of globalization, the double burdens on the toiling women, of the urban and rural working classes, of the peasantry, of the working petty bourgeoisie, have increased significantly.
In such a situation a mere iteration of bourgeois-liberal equality cannot be a revolutionary response. As revolutionary communists, nor are we bound by the so-called constitutional boundaries set by the courts. We campaign aggressively for affirmative action to whatever extent it is necessary. Historically, it was the proletarian women’s movement that campaigned hard for the unconditional enfranchisement of all adult women, leading to the Europe-wide campaigns and the launching of International Working Women’s Day.
At the same time, we make it clear that we do not support the demand for reservation for women based on false considerations. We do not argue that the entry of greater numbers of women will mean greater voices for peace, or that women’s entry in politics will automatically lead to reduction of violence or corruption. For us, the struggle for greater representation of women in parliament is not a literal feminisation of politics, but only a step, which will educate masses of women about political activities, and enable them to also understand that substantive equality will not come about only through formal political rights. As with the struggle for women’s right to vote a hundred years ago, the struggle for women’s representation can become meaningful only if we see in the struggle the possibility of developing women’s political awareness to the point where they see themselves as equal partners in the struggle for socialism.

Is it possible to impose quotas on parties instead?

We do not accept the argument that a better alternative would be to insist that every party must put up a certain percentage of women candidates in elections. This is because, parties which are opposed to increased women’s participation in parliament, as they have shown themselves in practice to be, will put up women candidates in seats they expect to lose.

Women’s lives and conditions of existence and the limited relevance of reservation

The majority of Indian women live under difficult conditions. The Second NGO Shadow Report (2006) on CEDAW shows a considerable decline and in some cases closure of employment opportunities for large numbers of women. Work participation rates for women fell from 444 per thousand in 1993-1994 to 419 in 1999-2000 across rural India, and from 154 per thousand to 139 in urban India in the same period. In most Indian families, women do not own any property in their own names, and do not get a share of parental property. Police records show high incidence of crimes against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau reported in 1998 that the growth rate of crimes against women would be higher than the population growth rate by 2010. According to UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children-2009” report, 47% of India's women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56% in rural areas. Forms of violence on women are so extreme that they are murdered for a plethora of reasons, whether because the young wife is too fat, or because she has married out of her caste, thereby ‘dishonouring’ her family. Merely ensuring that one third of the MPs of the Congress, the BJP, the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, or the JD(U), are women, will hardly improve the conditions of those masses of women. Nor are bourgeois parties concerned about the real conditions of women. Sonia Gandhi is silent on atrocities (honour-killing) by khap panchayats in Congress-ruled Haryana; Sushma Swaraj likewise on the attacks on women’s freedom by Sangh outfits.

Moreover, the bourgeois parliamentary system as it works today is tilted so totally in defence of the upper classes, that without major reforms that would virtually transform the class nature of parliament, something impossible without an immense class struggle, neither women nor men of the working class or peasant levels will find much presence in parliament. Contesting a parliamentary seat with serious intent to win it would mean spending tens of lakhs, if not crores of rupees. Women in the bourgeois parties, with small exceptions about whom we will discuss later, will be dependents of the dominant groups. And does one really expect that there would be a big difference if leading bourgeois politicians started grooming, not just their sons and sons-in-law, but also daughters and daughters in law? Only if election costs were borne by the state, if all candidates had equal radio and TV time, and if parties had plenty of women in their own leadership structures could reservations make significant changes.
There are exceptions, like Mayavati in BSP, or Mamata Banerjee in Trinamul Congress, who are women leaders without any male patronage network. But they have clearly placed themselves within the patriarchal mould. One would search in vain for any gender sensitivity in them. Not surprisingly, Mamata Banerjee is one of those who are opposing the Bill in the name of representation for Muslim women, and the TMC abstained during the voting in the Rajya Sabha.

Accordingly, while supporting the struggle for reservations, we warn against seeing in it any easy cure. But we support it, since the historical experience of the twentieth century has clearly been that any attempt at assuming that gender does not matter in the struggle to build socialism is totally wrong. Even if the socialist revolutionary struggle again threw up new soviets or similar institutions, there would be a need to ensure that women are incorporated in adequate numbers in them. 

Is the plea for a quota for Muslim and OBC women legitimate?

It is a matter of fact that there are many groups of people who carry the load of multiple burden, exploitation and marginalization. Different strategies are required for different types of marginalized and exploited. Historically, the issue of seat reservation for Muslims proved a deeply flawed one, contributing to the communalization of the political environment. Independent India did not have separate Muslim seats. And if there are no Muslim seats, there is no call for separate quota only for Muslim women. It is to be noted that currently only 1 per cent of MPs are Muslim women, and that most Muslim women candidates have been independent. The political parties do not put up Muslim women. This suggests that it is indeed a case that special measures need to be taken for such a group. But there does not exist any quota for Muslims or for OBCs, so there cannot be the solution that there should be a quota–within-quota for Muslim women and OBC women. The proposed Bill already has a quota-within-quota for Dalit and Adivasi women. If the bill is turned into law, that would immediately mean 40 SC/ST women, which is much higher than the current Lok Sabha’s 17. Moreover, it is clear that the opponents of the Bill who are raising concerns for OBC and Muslim women are plainly hypocritical. Mulayam Singh Yadav was bluntest when he threatened that if this bill was passed in 15 years parliament would no longer have men. This is not so much a genuine fear, as a rhetorical device aiming to mobilize the support of conservative patriarchal elements, be they from Hindu, Muslim or any other community.

The Left Parties

The Left Parties have of course tried to be much more consistent. Yet even in their cases, inconsistencies, inability to recognize patriarchy and reformism have limited their visions. None of the left parties has adequate women membership, nor an adequate number of women in the leaderships. And barring the occasional woman’s voice – once more, one is reminded of Geeta Mukherjee or of Brinda Karat – the leaders of the left parties are quite complacent about this. Their standard answer is that if people have the requisite abilities then they go to the leaderships. The reality is, ability is defined only for the public sphere, and the totally unequal burden in the private sphere is kept concealed. In addition, even when women break through to the public sphere, left parties too, all too often, adopt patriarchal stereotypes. Women are therefore relegated to the margins. Not surprisingly, the Left, even in West Bengal in 2009, had put up only two women candidates for the 42 seats. Interestingly, for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections of 2010, the Left Front has put up 67 women for 141 seats. This new found gender concern is at least partially an attempt to cash in on the sudden revival of the debate over the Women’s Reservation Bill. Had the left parties been really consistent, over the last 14 years at least, we should have seen a significant rise in women in all their own leadership structures. The Fourth International, on its part, has had such a policy. While admitting the difficulties, it has also registered important progress. The International Committee of the Fourth International, elected by its World Congress of 2010, is over 40 per cent female in composition. Political awareness and conscious organisational effort, rather than any view that the “really meritorious” will come forth, lies behind this progress. This in turn is linked to the question of whether women cadres have autonomy and whether the organisation is trying to build women cadres and leaders with a perspective that links socialist revolution and women’s liberation.

For a revolutionary or a parliamentary bourgeois resolution of the “women’s question”?

From the foregoing, we clearly stand for immediate passage of the bill, but not out of any reformist utopian dream of changing the conditions of the masses of women workers, peasants, dalits, adivasis, through the action of women in the existing parliamentary set up. As long as the rule of capital persists, every reform will ultimately be co-opted by capital to its goals. But it is through the partial struggles, through the struggles for reforms, that women and men, toiling people from all parts of the country and different sectors of the economy, will come to recognize the limits of bourgeois democracy as well as the value of the gains working people have wrested from the bourgeoisie. We are neither reformists who despite any occasional revolutionary rhetoric are committed to seeking the amelioration of the conditions of the toilers within the existing system. Nor are we pseudo-revolutionaries who reject, not bourgeois class dominated parliaments and a bourgeois state that renders democracy ineffective, but who go on to reject democracy as such, in favour of one party rule dressed up as working class dictatorship. The real rule of the working class and its allies has to be far more democratic than bourgeois democracy, but it can be so only by incorporating all the gains made by our own struggles within that bourgeois democracy. We call on revolutionaries to address struggles against special oppression to achieve greater class unity, collective class control over its own destiny, and the struggle to overturn capitalism and build a socialist alternative that can only lead to a society of associated production, where every segment of the oppressed must find their own voices to ensure their own liberation.