Women’s Reservations

The Women’s Reservation Bill has, justly, invited much interest and celebration. The passionate supporters and opponents are legion, but I’ve struggled hard to find a nuanced perspective on the entire matter, until I read Pratap B Mehta’s op-ed in the Express (here).

I think the op-ed is spot on, and captures what may distress people – who strongly support women’s rights and empowerment – about the Bill. I liked this para in particular:

“The third issue is a normative one. We know that in terms of how power operates in society the idea that we are free and equal as individuals is a fiction. All kinds of hierarchies of gender, caste and class characterise the operations of power, and in a healthy polity these need to be redressed. Affirmative action is often necessary in this context. But Indian politics has been dangerously close to enshrining other normative propositions that are dangerous for democracy. The first is the equation of identity with reason, where the assumption is policies track the identities of those who promulgate them. This is often true as a matter of fact, but legitimating it into an organising principle is detrimental to the idea of public reason. It needs to be asked whether it befits a free society to restrict the choice of candidates available to particular constituencies based on particular identity. While it could be argued that de facto this choice is restricted for a whole host of reasons anyway, there is still a great deal of difference between a de facto reality and a dejure acceptance of a principle that it should be restricted.”

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  • Dear Madhav,

    Thank you for posting this link.
    On the merits of the piece however, I'm surprised by your choice of this article as a stand-out article on women's reservations. While I won't pick bones with the author's argument in this comment, since it will be unfair to ask you to defend something which you haven't written, I can't but be intrigued by why your struggles to find a good article lead you to this one.
    I think that there are two key issues in the women's reservation bill-issues of principle and policy. While the author does a commendable job in pointing out possible flaws in the policy aspects of the bill (how will it operate, which constituencies it will cover etc.) I think there is an unfortunate mis-characterisation of the principled issue. This, I believe is whether as a society, we feel that more women in Parliament, than is currently the status quo is a good thing, both instrumentally and non-instrumentally. Instrumentally because it will lead to certain forms of women's empowerment and non-instrumentally because substantive equality is a principle that we as a society cherish.
    In the paragraph that you extracted for special mention, Dr. Mehta in the first part correctly states that overt and covert inequalities operate in Indian society. However he suggests that a normative proposition which the women's reservation bill and Indian politics in general has come close to espousing is equating identity with reason. And this for some reasons flows against the idea of public reason. Now I don't know what understanding of public reason he uses, but if a common Rawlsian understanding is used there is nothing inherent in privileging certain identities as the basis for representation being inimical to public reason. For example, the mere fact that a woman representative pushes through a policy for say, more public toilets for females in her constituency, does not mean that the policy cannot be justified on the basis of grounds acceptable to citizens generally. My argument is hence twofold- the women's reservation bill does not equate identity with reason; insofar as it privileges a certain identity as a basis for representation it is not inherently opposed to public reason. If there's something that I've missed which makes this paragraph especially important do let me know. The remaining points that Dr. Mehta makes is about quotas, which is the policy aspect of how greater women's representation in Parliament can be secured, and I believe that it makes a great deal of sense to question quotas not only in this case, but it being generally offered as a one stop solution to most problems facing the Indian polity.
    I'm a great fan of Dr. Mehta's articles and I think he makes several pertinent points, not readily apparent in public discourse. But in this piece he skirts the principled issue which makes your choice of this article as a nuanced perspective on women's reservation, a trifle intriguing.

  • Excellent piece. While the point about equating identity with reason is well taken, is their a legitimate symbolic good that comes out of such measure(s)? Are circumstances where identity is THE reason for election, and policies take a backseat even in the minds of voters necessarily bad?

  • I think PBM has unduly restricted the idea of public reason. I do not think that public and private reason are necessarily fixed categories. they are fluid categories, and particular reasons may at some point operate as public reasons and at some point operate as private reasons. The real question that I think PBM has avoided is whether reasons of identity should operate as public reason. should reasons of identity be reasons that are acceptable to all? We know atleast certain types of religious and community-based reasons are (Article 29). So the question must be what is so special about these types of reasons that disqualify them for the domain of public reason. The answer is not automatic as PBM seems to think.

  • In India, we have accepted quotas as the primary means of achieving substantive equality – despite little evidence of their efficacy – and this Bill is no exception. Still, it's probably the least objectionable of all the existing quota laws.

    It's interesting that no one is seeking a creamy layer-style exclusion in the Bill. Shouldn't women who (say) already have family in Parliament, be ineligible for reservation?

    One point emphasised by Mrs G in her interviews immediately after the Bill was passed by the RS was that political parties were hesitant to give tickets to women contenders, for a variety of reasons. A law requiring parties to give one third of their tickets to women [see the PRS Legislative Brief for examples] may have been a better alternative to this Bill.

  • thats a nice perspective.. yes,but in the current scenario, almost all the seats are reserved for the men – de facto. What would be the de jure justification of that? Social imbalance cannot be condoned using precedent as a reason.

  • I think Prasan has hit the nail on the head. PBM shares liberalism’s discomfort with 'identity politics', which according to me further dilutes the distinction between 'public' and 'private'. Consequently, in a liberal democratic paradigm, ‘private’ identity based ‘political’ representation somewhere goes against the premises of its ideology. Therefore, I’ll be skeptical about judging the veracity of narrative representation and participation in creation of ‘national experience’ through this paradigm. Nevertheless, I do share my reservations about how much this measure will be true to its aim. If inclusion is the objective of the amendment, non-inclusion of other identities within women does not enrich the discourse, but continues to maintain its bias. Some of the inherent contradictions are in fact brought out by PBM in his latest article here http://www.indianexpress.com/news/our-wonderful-quotocracy/590788/0

  • Perhaps Mohsin has taken my point too far. I think Liberalism does not necessarily find it itself uncomfortable with the idea of "identity politics." I meant to make a more limited point, that while I agree with the fact that "identity" cannot be an organizing principle (thanks for this point to a friend) of our polity, I disagree that reasons of identity are not principles involved in a democracy at all. It is trite that one needs to be circumspect about the fact of whether justice is truly the "first virtue" of social institutions. Of course, social institutions may have other virtues as well. And we need to enter into substantive argument about which virtues win out. I was only uncomfortable with PBM piece because he dismissed reasons of identity as being "detrimental" to the idea of public reason. He would need an argument to prove that. And hence I pointed to the need for such an argument (given a prima facie acceptance of such reasons in the constitution).