On September 21, our acrimonious and argumentative democracy witnessed a rare moment of political consensus. This was all the more spectacular because it marked the passage of the very first Bill in the new Parliament complex.
After intense speculation and criticism on what this special session was all about, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took everyone by surprise. He not only struck a conciliatory note by acknowledging the contributions of India’s previous prime ministers, starting with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, but also revived the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill.
Rehashed as the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam 2023, the 128th Constitution Amendment Bill seeks to reserve 33% seats in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies for women. On September 20th, the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha almost unanimously by 454 members. Two members of the All India Majlis-e-Itttehadul Muslimeen opposed the bill demanding a quota for Muslims and OBC women. The following day, the Bill was passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha after an 11-hour debate.
The legislation came with a disappointing rider that it would be implemented only after the completion of the census and the delimitation exercise. This would mean that the newly-passed legislation would remain in cold storage for at least another 5-7 years.
Notwithstanding this disappointment, the fact that we did not witness divisive politics but politics of consensus on this historic occasion was noteworthy. That the consensus was on greater empowerment of women in the world’s largest democracy was all the more significant.
The law will be implemented when its time comes. But the larger message is simple, loud and clear: Empower women and empower the girl child on all fronts - in our homes; in our schools and colleges; in our offices, businesses, establishments and institutions. As would have happened elsewhere, in one Pune organisation, the passage of the Bill triggered self-introspection with questions being asked about gender balance and placements in the organisation.
Undoubtedly, women have made a mark in Indian society with their achievements on various fronts — be it politics, industry, education or social work. The entire nation witnessed the successful moon landing mission of ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 with a number of women scientists at the helm. The Indian IT and IT services industry too owes it success to the women workforce of India.
Where then is India falling short? The absence of a fair, effective and professional police machinery is at the root of many of India’s socio-political problems. Look at the impunity with which sexual violence against women is used from time to time in Indian society — one of the worst instances being the recent tribal clashes in Manipur. The same Narendra Modi government which claims credit for policies on empowering women fell short when it came to protecting women against sexual violence in Manipur.
The other striking example of the government’s failure in protecting women comes from the nation’s capital itself. Look at the way in which India's Olympian women athletes had to protest on the streets of Delhi to demand justice in the sexual harassment case involving the former World Federation of India chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Rather than walking the talk on empowering women by giving the police a free hand to do their investigations, BJP’s central ministers tried to discredit the women athletes to protect their electorally-powerful fellow Member of Parliament.
On all such occasions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who often makes lofty statements of India being a ‘Vishwa Guru’ (global teacher) is conspicuous by his silence. There cannot be true empowerment of women in India unless we have a professional police machinery followed by swift justice from the courts. Education, healthcare and good public sanitation ought to be the other three focus areas for truly empowering the Indian women.
Statistics show that girls do better than boys in school and college education. This trend needs to be consolidated and strengthened further especially for the girl child from India’s poorest sections which includes Muslims and Dalits. It has been rightly said that when a woman is educated, the entire family benefits and so does the society and nation. Indian philanthropists, NGOs, individuals and NRIs are doing good work on this front, but a lot more needs to be done.
Ditto on healthcare and public sanitation for women. In the absence of adequate, well-maintained public washrooms in most Indian cities, poor women suffer the most as they cannot empty their bladders as men do, unmindful of the public gaze. The urban Swaccha Bharat Mission needs a push, not just from the government but from all of us too.
Thus, a bit of self-introspection on our part on how we are contributing to empowering the girl child and women in our lives, in our society, in our professional settings, and in our nation will ensure greater representation for women on all fronts.
This momentum itself will force our otherwise unruly politicians to concede to the mood of the nation and take India forward in her tryst with destiny.
The author is a journalist and works for a policy research think tank. He tweets at @abhay_vaidya