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Giving Women Their Due

Jyoti Malhotra (India) / 18 March 2010

When a TV journalist last week asked Ejaz Ali, Member of Parliament (MP) from the Janata Dal (United) party in the Rajya Sabha, India’s House of Elders, why he had torn up a copy of the Women’s Reservation Bill that lay on Chairman Hamid Ansari’s table, or attempted to rip out the mike in front of him, the man just shrugged his shoulders.

“How can you ask me that,” he countered, “after all, so many people have done the same thing before.”

By the evening of that day, Ejaz Ali and six other Members of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha had become infamous throughout the country as the Unruly Seven. At least they were honest about their felt opposition to the women’s bill, slated to forever alter the character of Indian politics. Unlike several other male MPs in the major political parties, the ruling Congress as well as the chief opposition, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, who have sought to undercut the respective leaderships by stoking dissent from within, both Yadav and Ali decided they would deal with opposition in the best way they knew : Violence.

It was interesting to note, in fact, when the Bill was being put to vote in India’s Parliament last week, all the opposition was led by men hailing from the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, whose socio-economic indicators can compete with the abysmal standard of living that prevails in sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, not one person from the south of the Vindhyas, from the states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, resisted the passage of the Bill, one of the most revolutionary legislations of our times. That’s because southern India has been far more used to the idea of social empowerment, in light of the revolutions undertaken by Periyar EV Ramasamy against the enslavement of women as well as the eradication of caste in the early half of the last century, which in turn paved the way for the rise of the anti-Brahmin Dravida parties.

As for Kerala, whose egalitarian tradition was first conceived and promoted by the Travancore royals a hundred years ago and underlined by EMS Namboodiripad’s Communist government (the first such elected government in the world) in 1957, literacy levels are among the highest in the country, birth rates are low and political awareness is acute. In contrast, the absence of social reform movements in the Hindi heartland has led to what is popularly known as the “third class railway compartment” mode of behaviour. Meaning, once you’ve managed to get into the railway carriage, you don’t want to allow anybody else in. North Indian political personalities like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav have been able to change the colour and character of India’s politics for the last 20 years by insisting that the backward castes, to which they belong, must get a substantial share of jobs and seats in educational institutions.

The churning that is taking place in India today will overhaul Indian politics at least for the next few decades to come. Ironically, most major political parties are led by women – Sonia Gandhi heads the Congress, Mayawati heads the Bahujan Samaj Party, Jayalalithaa heads the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Sushma Swaraj is the BJP leader of the opposition in the lower house of Parliament – but all of them have refused to share power with women on the ground. With 59 women MPs in the lower house at present (out of 545), this is the highest number of women that have ever been elected in independent India.

Still, there’s a final irony to the 108th amendment to the Constitution being brought about by the Women’s Bill. Considering Sonia Gandhi talks about the fact that it is a fulfillment of her husband, Rajiv’s dream, a simple flashback, achieved with the help of Google.com, brings back memories of the aging Shah Bano, summarily thrown out of her marital home in 1986, after her husband repeated the ‘talaq’ word three times.

Shah Bano was told to go and live with her parents or failing that, ask the local ‘wakf’ board to provide for her. She did none of the above, went to the courts instead, demanding that the husband pay her a small maintenance.

The Shah Bano case became the litmus test of the secular Rajiv Gandhi government. He had come to power, in the aftermath of the assassination of his mother in December 1984, with a whopping 405 seats for the Congress party in Parliament. The young pilot-turned-politician could do no wrong, he was the herald of a new India.

It took the 62-year-old Shah Bano, the mother of five children, to convert the granite-like ground beneath Rajiv’s feet, the high, moral ground as it were, into a slip-sliding political marsh, where every step he took was loaded with the stink of regressive opinion. Gandhi fell for it. Shah Bano was thrown to the mercy of the Muslim personal law in India. The state abandoned her.

If the Women’s Reservation Bill, being powered by Sonia Gandhi today, is soon going to make history, then it will surely finally rest Shah Bano’s soul, once so wronged by her husband, in peace.

Jyoti Malhotra is a renowned Indian journalist and commentator. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

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