October 08, 2023
Between History and Histrionics, the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam

Indu Agnihotri

The fact that there is a glaring contrast between promise and reality remains persistent in the very vocabulary in which this historic legislation is couched.

FOLLOWING the success of Chandrayaan-3 – a feat achieved by a joint effort of the country’s lead scientists, including a significant number of women, which opened up to millions of Indians hopes of a walk on the moon – the Modi government now promises the same to women of the country in the shape of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam.

Except that there is a big difference. The first was and is an irreversible reality. The second is a mirage, which promises reservation – with too many ifs and buts – predicating its implementation with and upon the conduct and completion of both a delimitation exercise and a census.

The scenes outside the Indian parliament after the passage of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023 by the Rajya Sabha on September 21, 2023, marked a sharp contrast with the visuals of women wrestlers being dragged on the streets a short distance away on May 28, 2023 on our screens, while the new building of the parliament was being inaugurated.

For those tracking the experiences of women in India, the irony could not have been more stark – with one promising a greater role in the strengthening of democracy in India and the other symbolising the stark denial of even the right to seek justice for crimes against women.

Together with the horrifying visuals of atrocities on women in Manipur, these offer a glimpse of what life for women in independent India involves: a dystopian reality which stands in sharp contrast with a promised land of democracy, freedom and equality. Indeed, the two signify the everyday experiences of women and their aspiration for a life as equal citizens.

The fact that this contrast remains persistent and glaring is encapsulated in the very vocabulary in which this historic legislation is couched.

The underlying premises of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam – as the Bill is now being referred to – seeks to invoke and recreate a ‘nationalist’ imaginary, based on the adulation of women, in the face of shocking details of the marginalisation and brutal violence that women in India are routinely subjected to and which official data testifies to.

Not surprisingly, the language in which the Statement of Objectives to this Bill is framed is very distinctly embedded in the politics of the present political dispensation, with mandatory references to Amrit Kaal and the spirit of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayas.’

There is mention of the government’s emphasis on the “Ease of Living, especially of women, through various initiatives including (Ujjwala) Yojana, access to toilets under (Swachh) Bharat Mission, financial inclusion through the Mudra Yojna etc.”

It is recognised that the “true empowerment of women will require greater participation of women in the decision-making process as they bring different perspectives and enrich the quality of legislative debates and decision-making.”

As significant as the additions to the statement are the deletions from it.

The 2008 Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill acknowledged that “the issue of the empowerment of women has been raised in different fora in the country from time to time. Political empowerment of women is rightly perceived as a powerful and indispensable tool for eliminating gender inequality and discrimination.”

Noting that for the government this was a commitment made in the National Common Minimum Programme, “the aforesaid idea followed by debate amongst the political parties and in intellectuals has paved the way in getting the insight in the matter.” There is a reference to delays due to “lack of consensus” amongst the political parties. Lastly it records that the Bill is being placed “in fulfillment of the people’s mandate”.

The shift in language and approach is quite discernible. One speaks from above, to enact the will of the government and its decisions. It proclaims its beneficence which manifests itself through the schemes launched. The other acknowledges a public discourse, the need to eliminate gender inequality and discrimination and to locate the intervention in initiatives taken by the people and their mandate.

Interestingly, clause 5 (1) in the present Bill says that it “shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first census taken after commencement of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment Act, 2023) have been published and shall cease to have effect on expiration of a period of fifteen years from such commencement.” This is most perplexing. It is not known if such a practice existed earlier, wherein the implementation of an Act is held in abeyance and is concomitant/linked to other actions and exercises to be conducted by the government, which are not bound by a time frame stated in the legislation. This may take anything from 10-15 years.

Interestingly, this goes against the grain of PM Modi’s own statement made in 2021, when he spelt out his vision of Amrit Kaal where, addressing the nation on Independence Day in 2021, he proclaimed that:

“Amrit Kaal is of 25 years. But we don’t have to wait for long to achieve our goals. We have to start now. We don’t have a moment to lose. This is the right time. Our country also has to change and we as citizens have to change ourselves too. We also have to adapt ourselves to the changing era.”

Apparently, the rules of Amrit Kaal are to be applied differently when it comes to the exercise of women’s rights.

This should by no means lead us to undermine the significance of the legislation that has been passed. As the experience of the working of the 73rd and 74th Amendments over the last three decades has shown, the impact of legislative changes cannot be fathomed from a distance.

The Act, if and when implemented, shall prove to be a catalyst to generate a social dynamic which would address the aspirational effervescence of young women in India today, while also being in confrontation with the forces committed to maintaining the status quo and resisting social change.

That may truly be a moment of battle lines being re-drawn, with interesting challenges to assumed identities, be they of gender, caste, class, region, religion or ethnicity; patriarchal bargains struck to protect vested interests; or, for that matter, ideological divides.

For, much as the ruling classes and their proxies have sought to control and command the legislative process, the people of India have continued to embrace the idea of democracy as envisaged by those who fought against imperialism while confronting the communal forces which sought to weaken the struggle to shake off colonial rule in India.

The women of India, who fought at all levels to make freedom a reality, continue to contest ideologies which seek to frame their struggles in the language of ‘divine’ narratives which camouflage the harsh reality of their lives, reiterating their commitment to the principles of equality, while recognising the urgent need to incorporate diversity and inclusivity.

These are times when truth needs to speak to power, a realisation that women have come to over more than a hundred years of organised struggle.

The promise of implementation in or after 2026 is a bogey and at best a distraction. There is no logic in placing in the passage of the Bill at the present juncture if it is clear that it will be implemented after 2026, unless it is intended to send a double-edged signal, one to women to say that their interests are being kept in mind, while at the same time sending another signal to pacify a section of legislators who may stand to lose their seats.

This is more than a ‘patriarchal bargain’. It is aimed at addressing challenges to the divisive and anti-developmental agenda being pursued in present times.

The ruling party since 2014 has had a sufficient majority to pass the Bill on its own strength, as it has done in the case of several other legislations, despite visible opposition, as seen in the case of the farm laws and the labour codes.

At the same time, while a constitutional amendment to grant 33 per cent reservation to women in the legislatures is a big step towards overcoming hurdles in women’s participation in these legislatures, it is known that a law can only pave the way. It cannot ensure that societal prejudices which block the path to women enjoying equality and the rights that the constitution guarantees are removed.

Further, there are different levels of structural as well as socio-economic factors which perpetuate inequalities in our country, including on account of caste, class, region, religion and ethnicity. These are reflected in discriminatory attitudes and exclusionary features on a daily basis.

A Constitutional Amendment Act putting in place 33 per cent reservation for women in the legislatures will act as an enabling clause along the lines of affirmative action and should be welcomed with that in mind. It shall hopefully initiate dynamism to further the democratic process and women’s participation/representation. It can act as a trigger for social change, along with other efforts to ensure equality and social justice.

For this, it needs to be followed up with other measures which ensure the wider participation of those most marginalised. The measure of success achieved in this will depend on the pace at which contemporary society embraces the objectives inherent in the idea of India, as envisaged by the makers of India’s constitution.

In present circumstances, this would also entail confronting fundamentalist and divisive agendas, ideologies that are inimical to the notion of women’s equality.

Legislations passed by the ruling party, such as the farm laws and the labour codes, have impacted them directly and it is important that women find a voice in decision-making and debates with regard to the direction of public policy.

Clearly, the pattern of growth and policies adopted are adversely impacting the mass of women. Data with respect to women’s work participation and crimes against women is disturbing, to say the least.

It is imperative that a larger community of women is drawn into processes of decision making to enable them to explore new opportunities for work in a fast-growing economy, going beyond traditional stereotypes of women’s work and roles.

The crisis represented by a combination of high GDP accompanied by jobless growth plays itself out in the lives of women in very specific ways.

The increasing burden of unpaid work, together with increasing violence on an everyday basis, poses special challenges which require the strengthening of democratic processes to allow for debates to strategise on these critical aspects.

While women alone do not represent women, it is imperative that they be party to significant deliberations on developmental policies which directly impact their lives. For that reason, they have to ensure that democratic processes and their participation in these are strengthened.

With all its caveats and complexities, the latest amendment – if and when implemented – promises to complicate the story of India’s growth, which poses more challenges to the mass of people and to women, who mostly remain concentrated at the bottom, despite assertions with regard to the divine status accorded to women in Indian society and tradition.

It is incumbent upon those who are committed to the strengthening of democracy in India that these debates continue, even as legislative measures are put in place to ensure fuller participation of women as citizens.

Courtesy: The Wire

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