The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023 has finally passed after 27 years of attempts aiming to reserve one-third of seats in Parliament for women. However, this remains a missed opportunity to extend social justice to Muslim women and Other Backward Classes.
THE Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023, also called the Women’s Reservation Bill, has been passed by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha this week.
It took almost 27 years to pass the Bill.
The Bill was first introduced in 1996 by the H.D. Deve Gowda led-government. The Bill was then referred to the joint Parliamentary committee led by Geeta Mukherjee, which submitted its report to Lok Sabha in December 1996 but with no results.
The said Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha. Subsequent attempts were also made for re-introduction of the Bill by Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government from 1998 till 2003.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I introduced it in 2008 and referred it to a standing committee. It was passed by Rajya Sabha as the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008, but it could not proceed through Lok Sabha.
The Bill seeks to reserve one-third of the total seats in Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women.
The Bill also seeks to reserve one-third of the total seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) for women belonging to SCs and STs, by inserting Article 330A in the Constitution of India.
Although it is laudable that the Bill is in line with the affirmative action to increase the representation of women in the legislature, it could have been made even better had it included a provision for reservation for the Other Backward Classes and Muslim women.
Although it is laudable that the Bill is in line with the affirmative action to increase the representation of women in the legislature and taking further the cause of women empowerment, it could have been made even better had it included a provision for reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslim women.
The purpose of providing reservation to the SCs and STs is to bring them into the mainstream.
It was on the same line that Articles15(4) and16(4) were inserted, mandating the State to make special provisions for the advancement of the socially and educationally backward classes of citizens (which generally means OBCs), or the SCs and STs.
According to theMandal commission report, the OBCs form 52 percent of the country’s total population. However, a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2007 put the OBC population at 41 percent.
There is an ongoing debate as to the exact number of OBCs in India, and it is argued that OBCs constitute more than what was estimated by the Mandal commission.
There are certain provisions in the Constitution providing for the upliftment of OBCs, to further the idea of social justice. Similarly various governments have also implemented schemes for the advancement of OBCs, but with little or no effect.
For instance, on the recommendation of the Mandal commission, the Union granted 27 percent reservation to the persons belonging to OBCs in educational institutions and public sector jobs. This 27 percent reservation was upheld by the Supreme Court inIndira Sawhney versus Union of India (1992).
Still, the conditions of OBCs remain deplorable.
According to a press release by thePress Information Bureau, the percentage of OBCs in the posts and services under the Central government, as on January 1, 2016, was 21.57 percent, which is less compared to the prescribed percentage of reservation for them.
How can a particular class be uplifted when the ones who are representing them are not adequate in a Parliament which represents the largest democratic electorate?
In March 2023, while answering a question about the representation of OBCs in appointments to direct All India Services, the minister of state for the Prime Minister’s office, Jitendra Singh said that about 15.92 percent of OBCs have been recruited to such services.
It is to be noted that the provision for reservation in cases of direct recruitment for OBCs is 27 percent.
In higher education programmes, such as integrated PhD programmes, out of the total admitted candidates, a mere5 percent are from the OBC category.
The status of representation of OBCs in the Parliament and state assemblies is also inadequate.
Even if we take a ballpark figure of around 40–55 percent of total OBC population in the country, the representation of OBCs in Lok Sabha and state assemblies is very low.
In 2019, Vijaysai Reddy, a member of Parliament of the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu (YSR) Congress Party, had moved the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which proposed to ensure a proportionate representation to OBCs in Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
While representing the 2018 Bill, Reddystatedthat in 2001, the percentage of OBC members in the Parliament was 18 percent, up from 11 percent in 1984.
Reddy also said that of the total members elected to Lok Sabha in 2009 and 2014, only 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively, were OBCs.
So, how can a particular class be uplifted when the ones who are representing them are not adequate in a Parliament which represents the largest democratic electorate?
The proposed Bill had the chance to incorporate quota for OBC women in the 33 percent reservation.
In 2005, a high-level committee chaired by Justice Rajindar Sachar was set up to prepare areport on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India. The committee submitted its report in 2006.
According to the report, the literacy rate among Muslims in 2001 was 59.1 percent which is below the national average of 64.8 percent, the gap is greatest in urban areas.
The report also states that worker population ratios for Muslims are significantly lower than for all other socio-religious categories in rural areas, which is“due to much lower participation in economic activity by Muslim women”.
According to the report, 40.7 percent of Muslims are OBCs, which is 15.7 percent of the total OBC population of the country. The report states, “the abysmally low representation of Muslim OBCs suggests that the benefits of entitlements meant for the backward classes are yet to reach them.”
The abysmally low representation of Muslim OBCs suggests that the benefits of entitlements meant for the backward classes are yet to reach them.
The report states that “the conditions of the general Muslim category are lower than the Hindu OBCs who have the benefit of reservation. However, the conditions of Muslim OBCs are worse than those of the general Muslim category.”
According to the 2011census, the literacy rate of Muslim females is only 51.9 percent, which is lower than all other religious communities and it is even lower than the national average of females, i.e., 65.46 percent.
The educational status of Muslim women in India is worse as compared to Muslim men, and women of other communities. They have the lowest work participation rate.
Also, Muslim women who have the sole responsibility of earning and taking care of their families are sometimes compelled to take up small contractual roles or gig employment to maintain sustenance.
Hence, a proper representation of Muslim women may help address the issues of literacy, unemployment and backwardness in a better manner.
On September 21, 2023, the member of Parliament Mahua Moitrasaid that in the 17th Lok Sabha, there are only two female Muslim women, and both belong to the Trinamool Congress.
The Act criminalises the practice of ‘instant triple talaq’ by Muslim husbands.
In aspeech given on June 27, 2023, while addressing the concerns about social injustice suffered by Muslim women, Modi stated that he has always been in favour of implementing the Uniform Civil Code, as it will bring equality and justice to Muslim women.
In his speech Modi also added that “the Pasmanda Muslims are not given an equal share in society and often are thought of as ‘untouchables’.”
The Women Reservation Bill is a missed opportunity to extend social justice to Muslim women, empowering them and increasing their representation.
It was a great opportunity to address the issue of discrimination and injustice faced by Muslims, by at least giving a sub-quota to Muslim women.
Sub-reservation for OBC-Muslim women, not on the basis of religion, but caste backwardness
As per Articles 14, 15 and 16, the State cannot grant reservation on the basis of religion, due to the restriction of Article 15(1), which specifically prevents the State from discriminating against anybody on the basis of religion.
On September 20, 2023, during a discussion on the Bill in Lok Sabha, the Women and Child Development Minister, Smriti Irani, hit out at the opposition, demanding reservation for religious minorities, andsaid that, “they do not know that reservation based on religion is ‘prohibited’ by the Constitution.”
However, the idea behind the Articles 14, 15 and 16 is specifically social justice, and it is the State that has to play a proactive role for the upliftment of communities that are marginalised or under-represented.
If Muslim women from OBCs are given the same reservation as women from SCs and STs within the proposed one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, it will be based on the caste backwardness of women in a particular community rather than religion.
Thus, by giving reservation to OBC Muslim women, the embargo created by Article 15(1), which prohibits reservation on the basis of religion, would not be attracted.