Grow Up Boys!
The Women’s Reservation Bill was finally passed in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, but not before a disgraceful and downright shameful display of aggressive male chauvinism. It was a crude and rude reminder to all of us, who thought that gender equality is, with hesitant steps, becoming a reality in many spheres. One wonders, as Sharmila Tagore put it, “About how these men would be behaving within their spheres of influence, when they are so blatantly aggressive in the House of Elders.” Imagine the conduct of the Sadhu Yadavs and Kamal Akhtars in their constituencies! How they would be ordering around the bureaucrats, with ten times their education and, if I may add, their wisdom? How, in fact, would they be with their children, and especially their wives? The servile attitude of the women, in such closed societies, and the assumed superiority of the men folk can be well inferred from the ruffian tactics that some of the MPs adopted to oppose the Bill. While reservation is a highly debatable issue, it is precisely this naked hostility that was on display in Parliament that makes one feel that there is no other way, at least in this country, for women. One of my colleagues said he opposed reservation of any kind and that an alternative was possible. I gave him the option: Voluntary political party quota for women. Norway gives it, so do Sweden, Holland, Iceland and South Africa. But this is India. For me to believe that the likes of Lalus and Mulayams, or even a lot of male MPs in the Congress and the BJP, would voluntarily give up seats for women, I would have to belong to another planet. Sample this. What did Lalu say when he was asked why he wasn’t backing the piece of legislation that would help empower women? He dismissed the entire exercise, saying that we were living in a fool’s paradise, if we thought women would be able to develop an independent political thought, and then counter questioned, “If I were to ask Rabri to vote a certain way, do you think she would not.” This comes from a man, whom Sonia Gandhi reminded, has seven daughters! I am convinced this is exactly what a lot of men, in circles like his, feel. But I don’t totally share his certainty. Yes, Rabri will do exactly what Lalu tells her to. But will Misa do the same as well? Daughters belong to another generation and have greater exposure to the world and a better education. There would be, by and by, some daughters who would rebel. This legislation would help the generation-next women, even in rural and backward social orders. It has already taken 14 years for the Bill to come this far. Most men, across parties, never wanted it to. Had it not been for the determination of Sonia Gandhi, there is no way that the Bill would have seen the light of day even now. Sonia Gandhi is not just making brownie points with the women electorate, she is undoubtedly seeing the larger picture related with women's empowerment. The reason I say that is not because she belongs to a more enlightened strata, but because this is an issue she strongly believes in. Let me cite the Shah Bano case here. When Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, he had infamously buckled under the pressure of Muslim clerics. It is believed that Sonia Gandhi, who used to keep a very low profile then, had for the first time spoken on a political issue, and that too against her husband’s decision, saying that the government needed to stand up for the rights of an old and deserted woman instead. Even after the Rajya Sabha victory, it is not going to be an easy political ride to get this Bill cleared. The Congress would have to fight another battle in the Lok Sabha, just like it had to bulldoze the Indo-US nuke deal through. The terms are easier. The Congress has more seats and the opponents can’t muster enough strength to bring in a no-confidence motion. This time, the BJP and the Left are in favour of the Bill. The Left may be ideologically inclined to back it, but the BJP is doing it mainly to appear progressive amongst its urban votebank. Whether one backs any bill or opposes it, the point is that mostly our politicians miss the bigger picture, concentrating only on their parochial party interests. The BJP opposed the nuke deal, despite having initiated it, as it wanted to destabilize the government. The SP and the RJD are hell-bent against quota for women because it may outrage the minority community. Even Mamata Banejree, who is said to have stood up when the Bill was brought before Cabinet, as a gesture of welcome, has now changed her mind because she has an eye on West Bengal polls, which would include a substantial Muslim population. The sorry part is that our political class doesn’t put the country first. That is a depressing reality, which even a true patriot like Nani Palkhivala had admitted to. Despite having put everything on stake to preserve democracy and the Constitution, especially during the Emergency, this advocate of free rights had later bemoaned that the answer for India was a controlled dictatorship on lines of what is in place in Singapore. Coming from Palkhivala, it couldn’t have been sadder. From the time of England’s Suffrage Movement in 1913, when activist Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse and died, till now, when the women’s reservation in Parliament is close to becoming a reality in India, women have come a long way. But, it is equally true that the road ahead to achieve a genuine visage of gender equality is probably going to be even longer. If anything, what the Rajya Sabha proceedings have proved without doubt is that men in this country, on being forced, will concede ground to women, inch by inch, only kicking and screaming.
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