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Indian parliament debates pro-women bill

By Harmeet Shah Singh CNN
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India women's bill uproar
  • In upper house, Congress, Hindu nationalist opposition and Communists back bill
  • Two regional parties opposing legislation announce withdrawal from Gandhi's coalition
  • Women make up just 11 percent of the members of the lower house

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- Indian lawmakers began debating a landmark bill aimed at reserving one-third of the seats in the federal parliament and in state assemblies for women.

The debate Tuesday comes a day after regional politicians opposed to the contentious legislation stalled its passage.

In the upper house of the Indian Parliament, the country's governing Congress party, the main Hindu nationalist opposition party, and the Communists support what is commonly referred to as the women's reservation bill.

Tuesday's discussion began after the upper house -- called the Rajya Sabha -- suspended several slogan-shouting members for the rest of the current session as they tried to block proceedings over the legislation.

"Let me say on the behalf of my party that we unequivocally support the women's reservation bill," Arun Jaitley, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the Rajya Sabha.

But the party headed by a powerful low-caste woman leader, Mayawati, recorded its opposition to the legislation in its present form, alleging it fell short of giving due representation to women, especially from disadvantaged and religious minority groups.

An aide of Mayawati, who is chief minister of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, sought amendments to the bill on his leader's behalf.

For India's ruling Congress Party, headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the decision to push the bill now -- it was introduced 15 years ago -- is not without political cost.

Two regional parties vociferously opposed to the legislation have announced they are withdrawing from Gandhi's ruling coalition. They are demanding a sub-quota for women from India's most backward and Muslim communities.

Lawmakers from the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal forced several adjournments of the chamber on Monday and tried again Tuesday.

Let me say on the behalf of my party that we unequivocally support the women's reservation bill
--Arun Jaitley, BJP leader

On Monday, International Women's Day, their leaders marched on India's sandstone Parliament building alongside party members in protest.

Political analysts said the small but fierce opposition to the bill is a sign of a duel between the country's regional and national politicians.

"This opposition is about regional politicians trying to preserve their regional monopolies," said Zoya Hasan, a professor of political science at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

There was no immediate risk to the ruling coalition, but it did lose more than two dozen supporting lawmakers in the lower house with the two parties pulling out.

"This leaves the government on a razor-thin majority," Hasan said.

The country has a female president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who in 2007 became the first woman elected to the post. The leader of the opposition in the lower house, Sushma Swaraj, and the speaker of the lower house, Meira Kumar, are also women, as is Congress leader Gandhi.

But women make up just 11 percent of the members of the lower house, or the Lok Sabha, of the Indian parliament.

In rural India, though, they constitute about 40 percent of all elected heads of village councils.

On Saturday Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed greater female representation in the country's democratic process.

"As we approach the International Women's Day, let me once again reaffirm our government's commitment to all-round social, economic and political empowerment of our women, whatever effort and resources the task might take," he said.

Half of India's female population cannot read or write, authorities say. The South Asian nation of more than 1.1 billion people also has a skewed gender ratio, with 933 women for every 1,000 men.

If the women's bill is approved by the upper house, the legislation goes to the lower chamber. If it is approved there, a presidential assent would turn it into law.

India holds its next general election in 2014, but many state elections will be held before then.