In the Ayodhyakand, as Sri Ram prepares for his exile to the forests, the philosophical guide of the Kingdom of Ayodhya, Devarishi Vashishtha tells Kaikeyi, on Maa Sita preparing for the exile,
Naa gantavyam vanam devya Sita Sheelvarjite| anushthasyati ramasya sita prakritamaasanam ||23|
Aatma hi dara: Sarvesham darsangrahvartinaam | aatmeymiti raamasy paalyishyati medinim || 24 ||
“Oh, the crooked one bereft of all decency (Kaikeyi) Sita will not go to the Forest, The throne presented to Sri Ram should be offered to Sita and she will sit on it, For all the married men, their wives are half of their existence, Similarly Sita is the spirit of Sri Ram, and should govern the state in his absence.”
– Sage Vashishtha, Ayodhyakand, 37th Canto, Valmiki Ramayana
These two Shlokas from the Valmiki Ramayana, which is contemporary account of the times of Bhagwan Sri Ram from thousands of years before Christ is pretty telling in the important role women play in Sanatana society. Much different from the patriarchal societies which would Lynch intelligent women like Hypatia and burn brave women declaring them witches, or the military faiths which would consider women as one-fourth of the men, Indian Santana societies had women sages of Rishikas even in the age when the oldest composition of humanity, Rigvedas were compiled. The darkness descended on a progressive Bharat with invaders coming in from the West.
A few days after the world remembered anti-Hijab protestor Mahsa Amin who was killed by the Islamic State of Iran for not observing stringent Hijab rules, Bharat under PM Narendra Modi sets out to right the wrongs of its days of foreign slavery by bringing in Women’s Reservation Bill in the new Parliament. Just as tributes pour out to the glorious women of Bharat from Devahuti, the daughter of Manu to Lopa Mudra, the learned wife of Sage Agastya who wrote Tamil Grammar, to the Chalukya Queen of Gujarat who gave a bloody nose to Muhammad Gori, to Madam Bhikaeji Cama, the associate of Savarkar and first woman to raise the Tricolour with the slogan of Vande Mataram, to the venerable Durga Bhabhi who became like a mother figure to the revolutionaries; let us look at the modern history, understand the long wait and the tenacious struggle of the women of Bharat to get their rightful place in the highest office of policy making in Bharat. For a Nation named after the son of unwedded mother, Bharat, it has been a long wait for Bharat.
Women started getting engaged in Indian Nationalist movement early on. Annie Besant founded the Home Rule League barely decades away from 1857 war of independence. In 1894, Bibi Harnam Kaur started Sikh Kanya Mahavidyalaya (Sikh Women’s College) in Ferozepur. Sarla Debi Chaudhrani started Hindu Sahayak Sabha, the first Women Organisation in Bharat, in Lahore in 1906. This would grow into a multi-city organisation named Bharat Stree Mahamandal spread across Lahore, Allahabad, Delhi, Karachi, Kanpur, Hazaribagh, Midnapur and Calcutta. This organisation not only worked on Education of women but also stressed on physical training of women in Bharat. Har Devi ran probably the first woman magazine leaning on Nationalism named Bharat Bhagini (Sisters of Bharat). She used this Magazine to raise funds for the trials of Freedom fighters and revolutionaries. In 1932, HariRam, Daughter-in-law of Sir Ganga Ram, also known as father of modern Lahore (he had to move to Bharat during the Partition). Rajkumari Amrit Kaur of the Royal Family of Kapurthala studied in England and coming back Secretary of All India Women’s Conference. In 1947, she was appointed Bharat’s first Minister of Health and having declined funding from the Nehru-led Government on account of scarcity, raised her own funds to set up Bharat’s first AIIMS.
The issue of women participation in politics was first raised in 1917. In 1930, Bharatiya women got the right to vote. In Britain, women got the right to vote in 1918 with Representation of People Act, and in the same year, women also got the right to contest election through Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918. In the US, women got the right to vote in 1919, with an overwhelming support, the Republicans voting 200 to 19 and the Domocrats voting 102 to 69 in favour. Mississippi was the last state to ratify the law in 1984 expanding the ambit of women’s right to vote across all the states of United States.
In Bharat, the women got the right to vote from 1950, as the Constitution came into being building on the history of empowered women. The number of women contestants in Lok Sabha Elections increased from 45 in 1957 to 726 in 2019 Elections. Out of 726 women participating in 2019 polls, 78 were elected, making 14.76 per cent of the win ratio across all contestants. From 22 Representatives in the Parliament of 1951, making up 5 per cent of the total, the progress has been slow. It was only in the year 1996 that the number went in 40s, (it was 43 in 1984, but quickly went back to 29 in 1989 Elections). In 2009, the percentage of women lawmakers breached the double digit mark with 11 per cent, for the first time.
In 1987, a 14-member committee under Margeret Alva formulated steps for increasing the participation of women in policy making structure of Bharat. It was through Constitutional Amendment (Amendment 73 and 74) in December 1992, that 33 per cent of seat reservation for women was regularised in village and urban local body elections by Narsimha Rao Government. Soon after, the United Front Government under HD Devegowda for the first time brought in the bill for Reservation for Women (81st Amendment) in the parliament 1996. The Bill was sent to the select Committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee of CPI. By the time it was tabled in both the houses on December 9, 1996, it was already a lost case. In the year 1998 and 1999, the BJP government of Vajpayee made two attempts to get the bill through but failed due to lack of support from the opposition.
It was caste politics which had been proven to be a potent political tool with Mandal Commission, which engulfed the women’s cause. Nitish Kumar said- Is anyone speaking about OBC women out of the 50 per cent women? The bill lapsed when on November 28, 1997 Congress withdrew support from the Gujral Government and the Government fell. Although not relevant to the current subject, but young readers would find it interesting to note that the Congress withdrew support because the MC Jain Commission investigating the Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi found complicity of DMK in the assassination and Congress demanded the sacking of four of DMK ministers in the United Front Government. Congress under Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the slain ex-PM Late Rajiv Gandhi, is now in alliance with DMK to challenge Narendra Modi for 2024 election.
In 1998, under Vajpayee Government, the bill was presented on July 20, 1998 for the reservation of one-third seats for women. RJD MP, Surendra Prakash Yadav snatched the bill from the hands of the Minister Thambi Durai and tore the copies. In December 1999, the bill was again presented by Law Minister of Vajpayee, Ram Jethmalani (85th Amendment Bill) and was strongly opposed by both Lalu Prasad Yadav of RJD and Mulayam Singh Yadav of Samajvadi Party. Both the Parties are now a part of INDI alliance with the Congress. Vajpayee again tried to bring consensus across the parties in 2003, but his government lost in 2004 and UPA came to power. After a silence for some years, on May 6, 2008, the bill was again brought in by Congress -led UPA Government as 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill. The bill was referred to Standing Committee and after report was given by the committee, the bill was presented on February 20, 2010, six years after BJP-led NDA Government under Vajpayee had last attempted it. The bill was passed in Rajya Sabha but was never brought in the Lower House due to differences among the Congress and her allies. Like many ambitious projects, which will define the fate of the nation, this too had landed in the hands of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring it to fruition. Daughters of Devahuti are looking at him with gratitude, hope and expectation as the Cabinet has approved the Women Reservation Bill.