Women’s Bill: Liberal measure, illiberal politics
By Saeed Naqvi
I was surprised by the sympathy for the opposition among educated Muslims in my UP village on the Womens’ Reservation Bill. The drift of their argument was that most of the 182 seats being reserved for women in Lok Sabha of 545, will be cornered by women attached to the “political class”.
That the Yadavs also constitute the political class is a fact but in this instance neutralized by the backward environment in which women of intermediate castes live. But this is not the only reason why the JDU and Samajwadi parties are opposing the Bill. Their primary game is elsewhere. By this opposition they emerge as champions of the Muslims who have no “political class” at all only groups and individuals in certain pockets. After all, in a House of 545 there are only 29 Muslim MPs, the lowest representation since independence. This downward slide will be aggravated by the Bill, they said.
If you add 122 seats reserved for SC,ST, there is very little left in the kitty to be distributed.
Basically, Muslims are seeing the Sachar Committee report, Ranganath Mishra Commission and the Women’s Reservation Bill in one sequence.
The Sachar Committee, a historic breakthrough in shedding light on the socio economic condition of Muslims, has established that in 60 years Muslims are down to the level of Dalits without having the facility of reservations.
The Ranganath Mishra Commission, which recommends steps to redress the gloomy picture painted by Sachar, is shrouded in arcane percentages. If OBCs have 27% reservation and Muslims are to get 15% reservation, it will work out to 4% of the total when they constitute 14% of the population.
In brief, the Women’s Bill leaves the Congress vulnerable on account of the Muslim vote, particularly in UP where Rahul Gandhi has pitched his tents for the 2012 assembly. What if Mayawati calls for election in 2011?
That the Left is supporting the bill does not appear anywhere in the frame. Their’s is a sideshow, keeping Mamta Bannerjee out of any floor co-ordination in the course of which she may have supported a quota for Muslims in the Bill. What emerges in bold relief is the Congress joining hands with the BJP to have the Bill passed. Remember, Mulayam Singh’s embrace of Kalyan Singh for the 2009 poll had a considerable political cost attached to it!
Another vulnerability the Congress exposes itself to is that with Yadavs opting out, it would barely survive with a seat or two ahead of the 272 absolute majority mark. This would expose it to blackmail on countless issues for the next four years.
Logic, most of my friends in the village felt, must dictate the Congress approach. After all, 50% of humanity are women. But that is not the quantum of reservation proposed. If 33 % is an arbitrary figure, why not accommodate the Yadav’s on a figure they were willing to accept.
Also, if the party is sensitive to the evolving socio-economic picture as the Sachar initiative suggested, it must not lose its sense of proportion in redressing one centuries old bias at the cost of other biases which have plagued us for millennia.
Of all the disabilities society suffers from there is none more glaring than the acute backwardness of Muslim women. I do not see how Muslim women will in the near future make an appearance in Parliament in excess of two or three at the very most. The picture in the state legislatures is worse. That the village gentry had cogent views on the Bill proves one thing: Muslims may be down and out but they have their ears close to the ground on issues of interest to them.
If affirmative action as a principle is acceptable, surely some consistency must be demonstrated for the Muslims as well. And yet, it must be admitted that quotas for Muslims is, in any case, extremely tricky for more reasons than one.
For example, historically an overwhelming majority of those who converted to Islam came from the lowest rung of the social order – SCs. But the quest for pedigree among Muslims has caused most of them to deny their SC roots.
Thus, 31% of Sikhs and 9% of Christians have accepted their SC roots but only 0.5% of Muslims. Over 39% have preferred to characterise themselves as OBCs. They are, of course, 60% in the general category.
Instead of proceeded one by one from Sachar to Ranganath Mishra, the Congress by promoting the Womens’ Bill, has taken a social leap but may have risked reviving the Mandal politics which, by its very nature, invites, Hindu consolidation and communalism.
Token gestures like a Minority Affairs Ministry and Haj subsidies irritates a section of the majority community without doing a jot for the minorities.
The person who should give these informed rural lot a hearing is Rahul Gandhi. He is seen in a positive light but Congress – BJP camaraderie is not. “Ever since Mandal upturned the established social structure, it has been the dream of the upper castes and the corporate sector to have the BJP and Congress establish a closer relationship”, said a journalist now settled in his village home. “Is this the beginning of that process?” if so, the backlash should not surprise us. Indeed, it should be anticipated. A disturbing thought in the context of an unstable neighbourhood.
Yes, globally and among the urban elite the message will go out of India taking a giant leap towards modernity. But the applause will obscure harsh social realities. Only, 70% of Muslims from ages of 6 to 17 are literate, bringing them at par with Dalits. And this is just one of a hundred such examples.
The navigation of the Bill in the Lok Sabha will be watched with interest and concern, depending on the viewers’ social strata.
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