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Alternate Modernities? Reservations and Women's Movement in 20th Century India Author(s): Mary E.

John Reviewed work(s): Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 35, No. 43/44 (Oct. 21 - Nov. 3, 2000), pp. 38223829 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4409889 . Accessed: 03/06/2012 11:22
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Alternate Modernities?
Movement Women's Reservations and India 20th Century in

This paper examines the conflict over and opposition to reserved seats during the preindependencedecades of the 20th century and its Constitutionalresolution as critical inputs to the 1990s. The history of reservations in India is also centrally about caste and communalism. Though these issues were sought to be resolved at moments which had a direct bearing on women's rights, we have yet to understandthe implications that these conjunctureshold for feminist politics.
MARY E JOHN of statutory the creation quotasfor specificgroupsin the legislatures, of higher publicservicesand institutions - has repeatedly education emergedas a critical issuein thepoliticalhistoryof 20th has No other India. century policymeasure raised so many fundamentalquestions of Indian andcomposition about thenature of modem society,andhow the structures may promotecitizenshipand governance within it. And yet - even though equality they haveoftenprovokedmajorconflicts and controversiesboth before and after - reservations policieshave independence the kindof informed not produced public debateor serious scholarshipassociated with other development policies. The specificsubjectof this issue of the review of women's studies - reservationsfor women- has to be seen withinthis larger context. Today,majorsectionsof the women's havebeencampaigning movement actively, to instiwithconsiderable publicsupport, forwomenin parliament. tutereservations a radical Thismarks perspective change.of becauseeversince the 1930s,andeven as recently as the 1970s, most women's resisted andtheirsupporters organisations forreserved andopenlyrejected proposals stanceseemsto seats.Thepro-reservation havebeguninthelate 1980swhenthe73rd introduced 33 per and74th Amendments for womenin local selfcentreservations Thishasbeenfolinstitutions. government for a similar demand lowedby thecurrent and state assemprovisionin parliament blies, to the point where increasing seemsto women's representative presence have become somethingof a contempoinstead of simply However, battle-cry. rary

- thatis, T hesubjectof reservations

urgingfor the rapidpassing of the 81st Bill andviewingits repeated Amendment stallingas a defeat at the handsof patriarchalforces, this introductory essay attemptsto open up the issues involvedto debate.Indeed,we mayeven have further of to concedethat,given thecomplexities ourrecenthistory,the bill itself mayonly be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What,then,mightbe the most relevant this question?One ways of approaching obviousanswerwouldbe to learnfromthe experience of other countries. India is hardlyalonein havingfocusedon the low presence of women in legislative and bodies.Securing theparticiparliamentary pation of women in the institutionsof democracy and governance is now an item on the global agenda ' so important the ubiquity much so thatit is acquiring not so long andscope thatwas associated with 'women and development'. ago However, it is interestingto note that, thewomen-in-development unlike debates, this is not a discourseaimedat andabout the third world. Prominentfirst world nationshavehadto contendwithscandalously low levels of women's political and in many of the erstrepresentation, while 'second world' nationsof eastern Europeandthe SovietUnion,the number of women in political institutions has afterthecollapseof precipitously dropped state socialism.There is now a growing on the subject,of which global literature the best knownin India.As our probably own debates expand to accommodate differentpositions and to arbitrate their need conflictingclaims,we will certainly to exploreandlearnfromthe experiences of other countries, different electoral
Anne Phillips' The Politics of Presence is

systems, and new political theories. But to do so effectively we must first get a better handle on our own history. This essay argues, therefore, that we must begin by untangling the multistranded history of reservations, and acknowledge the deep imprint it has left on the political common sense and the conceptual vocabularies that we have inherited. This is not an easy task, for most of this history has been and continues to be invisible to us. It is particularlymarked and marred by the legacy of colonial modernity. Even when shifts and breakthroughs have occurred,as they no doubthave during the course of the women's movement in India, they did not precipitate wholesale or one-sided changes, nor did they ensure that prior assumptions and ways of thinking were discarded, or even that the presuppositions accompanying such shifts were explicitly stated. This makes our contemporary feminist common sense a rich but also a contradictory combination of past and present beliefs and ideologies. where blocked critiques have gone handin-hand with the deepest questioning. Finally, the fact that a subject like reservations carries such a powerful emotive charge, especially among the middle classes, is yet anotherreason why a special effort is needed to uncover the many latent fears and tensions that may be implicated. In this context, two significant moments in thehistoryof the 20th centuryareurgently in need of further investigation: first, the 1920s and 1930s, including especially Ramsay Macdonald's 'CommunalAward' of separate electorates in 1932, Gandhi's famous Poona fast, and the conflicts over reserved seats among women's organisations; and second, the years surrounding


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independence and its ratification, when the new nation state and its Constitution were being shaped. It seems to me that these two periods are critical components of the pre-history of the 1990s and the revival of the demand for reservations for women duringthis decade. In other words, we cannot afford to contextualise the 81st Amendment Bill solely in terms of our prior experience with the 73rd and 74th Amendmentsforreservationsin panchayats and municipalities - a broader canvas spanning the last century is indispensable. Caste and communalism have been central to the history of reservations. Though both these questions came to a crisis and were sought to be resolved at moments which were also critical for the 'women's question', we have yet to understand the consequences of these conjunctures for feminist politics. As we shall see, during the late colonial period, 'women's rights' were invariably posed in opposition to the political claims made by 'untouchables' or 'minorities'. This had a direct impact on how these issues were 'resolved' afterindependence. I would like to argue that, today, the revival of the demand for women's reservations offers us the opportunity to interrogate these colonial and post-independence frames of reference within which we have been organising - and misrecognising - our world. At stake is nothing less than the (as yet largely unexamined) conception of an alternate modernity.

Early 20th Century Context and Women's Movement

Let me begin, then, with the opening decades of the 20th century, when the question of reservations for women was first articulated in the context of new initiativesby Britishcolonial policy-makers towards their subject population. As we are only beginning to discover, these decades, especially the 1920s and 1930s, were a 'turningpoint', representinga 'new conjuncture' on many interrelatedfronts: For a nationalist movement whose popular base expanded on an unprecedentedscale, for tribals, peasants and workers, for the anti-brahminmovements of the south, for the history of the dalit movement, as well as for the often violent production of communalism.l The British, on their part,were actively involved in negotiating these diverse struggles and growing demands for freedom, through a strategy of devolution of power by stages, with the declared intent of enabling 'the gradual

of self-governing institutions' who was to be the embodimentof the development under a new Indian Constitution.This spiritual of thenation. From the superiority colonialresponse was repletewithcontra- turn of century,nationalists"refusedto dictionsandmanipulations, even make the women's questionan issue of perhaps more so thantheirprioreffortsto justify political negotiation .with the colonial theircivilising missionthrough the regu- state"; womenthe moreover, theygranted lationof social reform.The implications vote without the need for a suffrage of thisfor the-development of movements movement.In otherwords,by containing such as the women's movement were the real historyof the women's question withinthe middleclasshome,thecolonial nothingless than severe. In termsof the historyof the women's (and post-colonial) public sphere was movement,the earlydecadesof the 20th effectivelydegendered. Indeed, Chatterjee mark theacknowledged on the"seeming absence century beginning goes on to remark of a fresh phase in women's organising. of any autonomousstruggle by women "Theeducational of the late themselves for equality and freedom". experiments it is said, Instead of being in public competition 19thand early20th centuries", a 'new with woman' interests with men, distinctions"betweenwomen "produced thatwent beyondthe household" [Forbes in the world outsidethe home"'werefar of becoming moresignificant: Itwasagainst 1996:64].The new demands conceptions uncertain- of excessively'westerised', 'traditional', however,set off major modern, ties about the relationshipbetween so- and'low-class'womenthatthenew norm called 'social' issues- hitherto definedas wasfashioned-themodern womanwhose were tied to promotingfemale education,raisingthe educationand emancipation of the 'scientific' of self-sacrifice, age marriage, encouraging spiritual qualities methodsof childcare,handicraft thus andreligiosity, devotion, produc- benevolence, tionandso on,andasyetundefined domain settingin placea revisedpatriarchy whose of the 'political',especiallypoliticalac- legitimacyrestedpreciselyon being dis1993:131-33; tivityvis-a-visthe state.I believethatthis avowed[Chatterjee emphacomplexandoftenconflictedrelationship sis original].Unfortunately, Chatterjee's betweenthesocialandpolitical,including accountstopswiththe turnof thecentury, thechanging contours of boththeserealms, anddoes not commentat all on the comhasbeendefinitive fortheself-understand- plex evolutionof a women's movement ing of the women'smovement rightup to in the subsequentdecades. the present.Moreover,this relationship Now it is indeedpossibleto findpromidirectly shaped different women's re- nent women who drew from (while also of reservations transforming) the potent ingredientsof sponseswhenthequestion for womenin thelegislatures andcouncils culturalnationalism to become quite exwas posed. embodiments of public politraordinary Historiansof the women's movement tics, andwho enactedthis new womanon have invariablyunderscored the critical, many stages - colonial, nationaland inrole of colonialismand ternational. over-determining SarojiniNaidu was arguably the growingforce of nationalism for ap- one of the mostfamousof them.Already her Congressauproachingwomen's politicisationin the in 1918 she persuaded 20thcentury. The 'paradox', to diencethatgiving womenthe vote would according TanikaSarkar, was thatthe grounding of by no meansinterfere with the 'destinies' publicpoliticalaction(evenrevolutionary of menandwomen,whichwere'separate' terrorist onthepart of somewomen) ones, but unitedby nationalism. Nor can protest was formulated in a "language, imagery it be denied that it was the Britishwho and idiom...steepedin tradition and reli- refusedto grantwomen the rightto,vote as self-conscious alternatives to alien andstandfor electionson the sameterms gion Thisinturn westernnorms". frozewomen's as men,even thoughthisdemand enjoyed wheredomesticor the support of most of the women's revolutionary potential of the time, the HomeRule family relationswere concerned[Sarkar organisations formula- League,the MuslimLeague,and the In1989:241]. ParthaChatterjee's tion of the nationalistresolutionof the dian National Congress, including an women' s question addresses thesameprob- initially opposed Gandhi.In her muchaddressto the All lematic,butthe vantagepointis different. publicisedpresidential Nationalismwas able to successfullyre- IndiaWomen'sConference in Bombayin solve the majorconflicts'produced in the 1930, Sarojini Naidu explained in no wake of social reform during the 19th uncertain termswhy womendid not want woman' preferential a modernr treatment(i e, any form of centuryby producing

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for thiswould nomination or reservation), amount to an admissionof women's 'inThiswas why she was no femiferiority'. nist.Women'staskwas nothingless than the 'spiritual reform of the world'[AIWC limited even nationalism Thus, 1930:21]. the scope of women's transformative Onanother occasionsheevoked potential. tiers, wars, races, many things make for combines.The division- butwomanhood areone,andthetime queenandthepeasant shouldknow hascomewheneverywoman her own divinity"[Reddi 1964:124]. But if a figurelike Sarojini Naiducould of colonialsubjection turnthe experience into a romantic projectof femininespiritualism and humanism,in one and the same breathdismissingfeminism in the nameof women'sglobalunity,thiscannot whobecameactive be saidformanyothers in settingup women's organisations and women's issues. For some of promoting these women who were drawn towards underthechangof socialreform agendas and turbulent decadesof the ing politically 20thcentury, thequestion of political rights, engagementwith the colonial state, the demandfor the franchiseandthe contentious issue of reservedseats were not so Itmaybe worth recalling easily'resolved'. thatthe firstdemand for women'srightto vote (presentedto Montague in 1917) appearsto have been something of an The initialdeputaaccidental by-product: tion by Margaret Cousins,(an Irishfeminist andsecretary of the Women'sIndian with the backing Associationin Madras), of D K Karveand the senateof Poona's Indian Women'sUniversity, wasforcompulsoryfree primaryeducationfor both girls andboys. It was only when she was informed thatthe termsof the MontagueChelmsford enquirywere strictly'political', meant to initiate a constitutional of self-government, thatsheclaims process to have linkedthe demandfor education to the need for Indianwomen'sfranchise [Reddi 1956; Pearson 1989:201-02]. SarojiniNaidu led a separatedelegation on the thatwomenbe included demanding sametermsas men in any politicalsettlement for India. Unlike SarojiniNaidu, Muthulakshmi Reddy's relationshipto the question of reservedseats was quite different.Born into a devadasifamily, she was educated and becametrainedas a medicaldoctor. In 1926 her name was submittedby the Women's IndianAssociation(WIA) for nominationto the Madras Legislative
WS-24 3824 "the indivisibility of womanhood - fron-

Council (which, along with Bombay in 1921, was the first to extend the franchise to women on the same terms as men, i e, subject to property and income criteria). With some reluctanceshe agreed, only, she said, to use politics to advance her sisters' cause. Muthulakshmi Reddy's own descriptions and explanations of her work as a legislator were multi-voiced: Accounts of women's inferiority, their lack of economic independenceandinheritancerights, the need for marriagelaw reform,abolition of the devadasi system, and so on, required reservations "to represent the women's point of view". As mistresses of the home, moreover, women were ideal administrators of the municipality. At the same time she voiced her feelings against separate electoral rolls for women - "we do not want to form a separate caste" she said, for "men and women rise and fall together". Moreover, in a situation where a majority of educated women were not would qualified to vote, separateelectorates enfranchise conservative women 'not conversant with the moving world' [Reddi 1930:155-61]. She also questioned men of the depressed and backward classes and minorities, her "Adi-Dravidabrothersand Mohammedans",who stressed more upon othergrievances thanthe education of their girls (p 123). Indeed, the "backwardness of Hindu women" was much worse, she asserted, than the condition of backward class or minority men (p 155). In one of the first extensive studies of the Indian women's movement, Jana Everett has tried to account for such differences amongst women in their relation to politics and reservations by referring to the 'uplift' and 'equal rights' factions among women's organisations [Everett 1979]. This is not the place to enter into a detailed account of the mixed fortunes of different women's delegations before the British government, and the responses of British colonialists and feminists.2 Clearly there were deep differences and conflicts even within women's organisations such as the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), established in 1926, which became the most influential national women's organisation in the next decade. Geraldine Forbes has pointed out how "one by one, women who had previously supportednominationandreserved seats [such as MuthulakshmiReddy] added their voices to the demand for "equality and no privileges" and "a fair field and no favour". The official stance of the three major women's organisations in 1932

against any 'privileges' notwithstanding, "there was a great deal of support for special electorates and nominated seats," especially from provincial assemblies and localbodies [Forbes 1996:107-08]. Any account of the growing pressure on women to drop their demands for reserved seats must make space for the extraordinary relationship of Gandhi with women and the women's movement. Much has been written about Gandhi's surprised discovery of women's remarkable potential as public political actors, especially during the civil disobedience campaigns, and his subsequent conversion to the cause of women. It was men, he said, who needed to learn from the Indian woman's supreme powers of self-sacrifice. This aspect of Gandhi has been the subject of both celebrationand critique. It is, I think, less wellknown that Gandhi's intense personal relationships with women were the conduit for turning demands for reservations or special electorates into signs of antinationalist betrayal.His influence was also paramountfor how women's organisations approached communalism and untouchability, as we shall see. ParthaChatterjee's claim, then, that for nationalism the colonial public sphere must be degendered, undergoes a subtle, but highly significant transformationwith Gandhi. At the height of political nationalism, the public glorification of femininity became the very ground for persuading women of the illegitimacy of their demands. When the next FranchiseCommittee was set up at the close of the Second Round Table Conference to tour India and collect opinions in 1932, a memorandumfrom the all-Indiawomen's organisations- the WIA, AIWC and National Council of Indian Women (NCIW) reiterated their demand "for the Universal Adult Franchise - irrespective of any propertyor literacy qualification, and with no expedients such as nomination and reservations of seats". When their demands were not met, (once again British opinion claimed that the majorityof Indianwomen were 'not ready', that implementing the franchise across the country would be 'impractical', even though theirown recommendationssought to engineer an improvement in the male/ female vote ratio from 20:1 to 5:1), women's organisations agreed to work out some sort of transitional compromise. It is surely significant that while they opposed many of the colonial recommendations such as the wifehood qualification, their compromise included the restriction

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areas.This to urban of women'sfranchise statement wasbecause,as theirwritten put to the it, they attached "equalimportance quality as well as the quantity of the anurban votewouldensure woman's vote"; and well-organised "a more independent at the vote - factorsof vital importance. thusenabling"theedujuncture"; present of Indiato coordinate catedwomanhood lines"[AIWC thewoman's voteontheright At thesametime,opposition 1933-34:18]. was reiterated to any kindof reservation - 'meritand meritalone' was to be the criterion,even if it meant fewer seats. Thosevoicesthatbelievedspecialelectorseats would enablea ates and nominated and amelioration of truerrepresentation the social problemsfacing women were soughtto be wonover,oraccusedof being disloyal. we cansee how Onone level, therefore, choice in favour these women'sstrategic of formalpoliticalequalitywas not unrelatedto their own social, educational Thesupreme advancement. andindividual was that of course, they thereby irony, naturalised their own representative claims to speakfor all of Indianwomanhood, while professinga languageof no privileges or favours. Moreover, their official oppositionto nominationsand reservedseats did not stop them from of womenin the the presence demanding andprovincial central district, legislatures, andotherlocal bodies,indeed, municipal affectorcommittees on anycommissions fromtheLeague ing womenandchildren, of Nations to the CensorBoard [AIWC as GailPearson 1934-35:70,187].Finally, has pointedout, "thevery method- reserved seats - by which women were acceptedas partof the Indianparliamentaryculture(underthe termsof the Govof IndiaAct of 1935) was first ernment vehemently opposedby those nationalist women whom it was later to benefit" [Pearson1989:199]. It wouldbe a majormistake,however, to isolate women's protestsagainst the and special electoridea of reservations theirresolution theBritish ates,from against Award' of 1932, as it was 'Communal known,whichsoughtto provideseparate seatsto Muslims, electorates andreserved and SikhsandAnglo-Indians, Christians, forthedepressed made'special' provisions classes. Thoughpledged not to get involved in partypoliticsandstay focussed on mattersrelatingto women's status, figureswithinthe AIWCwere prominent able to condemn the awardby interweav-

ing their conception of the 'best' system of representation with the theme of the unity of all women: As RajkumariAmrit Kaur put it, "there is no question as to the reality of unity amongst us women. We want to send our best women and our best men to the councils - therefore we do not want the canker of communalism amongst us. Once we are divided into sects and communities all will be lost..." [AIWC 1932-33:51]. Seconding the resolution, Aruna Asaf Ali referred to the 'evil of separatism'. "We women must do our uttermostto see that our country is not left to the mercies of job hunters. The legislaturesmust be filled with those who really feel thatthe country's interestsstandabove personal or communal considerations" (p 53). Other members, however, raised questions and objections. Begum Sakina Mayuzada opposed the resolution, saying that desiring the good of one's community did not imply she wished harm on others, and K B Firozuddinraisedthe problemthat Muslim women representatives might be prevented from competing under a system of joint electorates due to their comparative educational backwardness. But these views were brushed aside as creating barriersand 'artificial communal hedges', which would only lead to being told yet again that 'we are unfit for self-government'. A separate resolution was passed condemning the practice of untouchability, calling on women to work wholeheartedly for its abolition and for the equal admittance of the so-called untouchables in public spaces and institutions. Gandhi's fast was referred to in the subsequent discussion as having brought "this disgrace to Hinduism and the Hindu community" finally into prominence all across the country (p 60). Women's organisationsthus insisted that they were untouched by communalism, in spite of clear expressions of disagreement. As far as possible, declarations of dissent were not recordedby the AIWC Franchise Committee, even when it came from such importantfigures as Begum Shah Nawaz. 'Minority' opinions were regarded as since "ithadbeen numericallyunimportant, decided thatonly the majorityvote counted" [Forbes 1979: 15]. But, as Forbes goes on to add, members of these organisations had always known that Muslim women were in a minority. Maitrayee Chaudhuri has also perceptively commented on the opposed perceptions of communal representation for different women: While the unity of women and the nation were en-

dangered by communal electorates in the dominantdiscourses, it was the very settlement of the communal question thatwould ensure the safety of the'nation in the notes of Muslim women members [Chaudhuri 1993:157].

Communalism, Minorities and Majorities

The host of issues thrown up in the name of the Communal Award need much more examination than either women's organisations appear to have been capable of at the time or that feminist historians have provided since. In the space of this paper, it is only possible to mention some of the more important aspects, beginning with the very construction of the notion of 'communalism' itself. Right into the 20th century, liberal nationalists envisioned the future India as being made up of discrete religious communities, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and so on (whatever the problems attached to-such a vision, and parallel efforts to demarcate boundaries between 'social' and 'political' domains). They even publicly.espoused the role of separate electorates. However, from the 1920s, and not only because of the series of Hindu-Muslim riots in many parts of the country during that decade, the meaning of 'communalism' changed dramatically and came to be conceptualised in zero-sum terms, in a relation of opposition to a much narrower definition of nationalism. Nationalism now claimed to stand above and outside the primordial pulls of religious community or caste [Pandey 1990:235], loyalty to country had to exceed that of any sectarian attachments (whose public political place thereforehad to be diminished), until, finally, any reference to communities, was not just synonymous with religious community, but with all that was pernicious in the British policy of 'divide and rule'. Understandings such as these were clearly dominant in organisati6ns like the AIWC. Much of this must be familiar and commonplace. But there is anotherdimension to communalism whose contours and strategies are far less clear, in spite of its obviousness anddemocraticstrucapparent ture - this is the language of minoritism and majoritarianism,which evolved sideby-side with the demands of a new 'purified' nationalism. Its lasting effects cannot be underestimated,especially if we are to make meaningful links between the establishment of organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS in the WS-25

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1920s, the aggressive construction of the 'Hindu community' as a beleaguered, fragile majority in their own homeland, growing fears among Muslims that they were now condemned to being a minority in need of protection, having lost out in modem opportunities and advancement, and the complex politics attached to caste. Prominent nationalwomen's organisations' own naturalisationsof the 'Hindu', in the context of claiming the space of a united women's movement, in fact contributedto the creation of a 'secular-Hindu' movement, and the minoritisation of other groups. Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru juggled between the 'untenability', in his view, of a communal system of political representation, and claims that the Congress must make it "the business of the state to give favoured treatment to minority and backward communities." This was in 1930. Even though the constituent assembly as late as August 28, 1947 (after Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan) sought to ratify the special rights of minorities, which explicitly included reservations of seats in the central and provincial legislatures, a principle of representation in the cabinet, and a due share in the services, by the time the question was re-opened in 1949 after the horrorsof the partition violence had subsided, it did not take much to dismantle and drop them altogether. The distress and ambiguity of the moment was such that it was even possible to radically undermine the political relevance of notions such as minorities and majorities in a secular independent state making a breakwith the colonial past. However, it was not as though these terms were abandoned. Nehru, for example, continued to use them, along with the asymmetry of political power that the majority/minoritydyad implied, when he declared that any demand for safeguards by minorities betrayed a lack of trust in the majority, while also advising the majority not to ride roughshod over the minorities. Already in 1947, when the objectives resolution of the constituent assembly had resolved to provide adequate safeguards for 'minorities, backward and tribalareas, depressed and other backward classes', the term 'minority' was dropped, and 'class' was said to be sufficiently inclusive. As a result of the efforts of B R Ambedkar,the phrase which finally found its way into Article 16(4) of the Constitution of India was 'any backward class of citizens'. Ambedkar himself appears to WS-26

have used 'community', 'caste' and 'class' in the course of his deliberations more or less interchangeably. But overall, the tenor of these debates was such that the rights of minorities had to be encapsulated as primarily cultural and religious, not political.3

like theWIA was, for manyyears,positively disposed towardsreservedseatsfor women. Gandhi's fast 'against untouchability' on September 20; 1932 following the announcement of the Ramsay MacDonald award a month before, was notjust widely reported in the journal of the WIA (significantly named Stree Dharma) but draQuestion of Caste matically broke their own demand for If this is how relations between reser- reserved seats and nominations. Right up vations and minorities were played out to Gandhi's fast, the WIA maintained that from the time of the Communal Award to although adult franchise was the real the framing of the new Indianconstitution, answer, "for a transition period it suggests what 'aboutcaste? How, in particular,did the reservation of 20 per cent of the seats questions of reservations and caste im- in the new and enlarged legislatures and pinge on the women's movement? These proposes that they be voted for by propormay well be the hardest questions of any tional representation by the newly elected that this paper hopes to open up for further members of council from a panel of names discussion. It appears fairly certain that sent forward by the officially recognised Gandhi'scampaignsagainstuntouchability associations of women" [cited in Forbes during the 1920s played the most direct 1979:14]. and immediate role in shaping women's But, as Forbes goes on to state, "this was organisations' views on caste. These were the last time such a possibility [by the the very years that saw the emergence of WIA] was entertained." This meant that non-brahmin and dalit movements in women's self-sacrifice of their interests, different regions of the country, especially as proof of their devotion to Gandhi, was in the southern, central and western re- achieved by a less visible denial - the gions of the sub-continent. These move- political rights to representation of the ments were making their presence felt in 'untouchables' or 'depressed classes'. Indeed, it is not even clear to what extent existing working-class and peasant organisations;through'reformist'struggles they were even awarejust how such political of improvement as much as more 'radical' rights were in fact being articulated, and claims to cultural autonomy from upper especially of Ambedkar's own demands caste society; and significantly as a politi- and representationsto the British. By 1930, cal force, by demanding representationin Ambedkarstated thatthe depressed people education, administration as well as on whom he represented needed political legislative bodies. In the .case of the power, which could only be gained within princely state of Mysore, for instance, the framework of an independent India. historical developments brought together His demand at the First Round Table Muslims, Christiansand castes such as the Conference was for a unitary state, adult vokkaligas and lingayats undera common suffrage, and reserved seats and special 'non-brahmin' banner as far back as 1874 safeguards for untouchables. Historians of in a bid to breakthe monopoly of brahmins the dalit movement like Gail Omvedt have in the'Mysore government services. The asked themselves why, of all things, the first Backward Classes Committee of its Second Conference and the Ramsay kind was appointed in 1918 as a result of MacDonald award of separate electorates this political awakening amongst groups should have developed specifically into who were able to give voice to their lack Gandhi's opposition to Ambedkar,and not of presence and representative power in to the other minorities, the federal power the administrative system [Thimmaiah accorded to the princely states, or, for that 1996]. The self-respect movement in matter, to any of the other interest groups Madras included critiques of caste and - landlords, commerce and industry, unigender in their attacks on brahmin and versities and labour- who were all granted upper caste dominance [Geeta and special representative rightsundertheterms of the award. "Of all the participants in Rajadurai 1997; Anandhi 199?]. In this context, the effects of Gandhi's the first conference, Ambedkar's position campaigns against untouchability on (adult suffrage and reserved seats) was women's organisations are disturbing. actually closest to the nationalist one" Having also been instrumentalin nominat- [Omvedt 1994:169]. "Those who speak of political rights of ing Muthulakshmi Reddy to the Madras legislative council, a women's organisation untouchables do not know how Indian


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declaredGandhi inthelegislatures, employment, society is constructed" preferential treatment. to the minoritiescommittee."So far as and preferential (Interestingly thelistingfrom1935wastoremain hinduismis concerned,separateelector- enough, it." more or less stable in the post-indepenateswouldsimplyvivisectanddisrupt Indeed,Gandhiwent dence period,with only minoradditions [Sitaramayya:909]. if the Untouch- after that.) on, it wouldbe preferable of theschedules for ables convertedto Islam or Christianity. Aftertheratification An adequate answerfor Gandhi'sexclu- specific castes and tribesin the constituwith Ambedkarmust tion, the numerous pre-independence sive confrontation account for theuniqueconstruc- strugglesand coalitionsin the names of therefore classes or communities', tionsof the 'Hindu',notjust for explicitly the 'backward Hinduorganisations, but withinthe Con- 'non-brahmins', 'depressedclasses' and a majorchange,to regressitself.A complexmix of the politics so on, underwent of numberswhich requiredproof of the emergeas the so-called 'otherbackward numericalsupremacyof Hindus at any classes' in the languageof the state. As cost; an inabilityto look upon untouch- the name suggests, this was a residual thosegroups ability as anything more than a social category,meantto designate fromthescheduled castesandscheda 'blight'thatuppercastes must (apart problem, of uledtribes)whowerenevertheless andGandhi's own reconception in need purify; as of special treatment. Hinduism andreformed caste relations an 'indivisiblefamily', one for which he Constitutional Resolution of wasreadyto laydownhis life - all of these Women's Question mightgo some way towardsrecognising In comparison to the trajectories of the why thepoliticsof castewas so especially threatening. political rights of minorities,backward In any event, after a four-dayfast, a classes andthe 'untouchables', the direchad to be reached and tion taken the women's by compromise rights from the PoonaPact was signed,involvinga two- 1930sto 1950,wassignificantly different. tier system of voting between untouch- We havealready seenhow theCommunal ables and a generalelectorate.By 1935, Award not only fundamentally affected of India Act was women'sorganisations' when the Government of understanding of thenotion caste andcommunalism, butstiffenedthe finalised,thedistinctcareers of thedepressed classes(whichcontinued resolveof manyto holdonto 'equalrights' to be the preferred term of the British), at any cost. In the yearsleadingup to and of 'backwardness' which followingtheGovernment of IndiaAct of political concepts and 1935, women's organisations wereevolvingin Mysorearid were sucMadras; as cessively betrayed. thepivotalquestion of 'untouchability' Thefirstto do so were a unique disability and form of social the British,who refusedto provideany of fundamental exclusion,came togetherwhen the need declaration rightsor nonto drawup a 'schedule'or list of castes discriminationon the basis of sex for was required for 'special'electoralrepre- holdingpublicofficeinthe 1935act.Some As a number of commentators modifications sentation. weremaderegarding qualihave pointed out, the selection of the ficationsfor votingin different provinces, 'scheduled castes'astheycametobecalled, (wifehood remaining primary), which withoutthe benefitof a conno- expandedmale and female electoratesto proceeded tativedefinition,since no single criterion 43 per cent and 9 per cent respectively. couldbe foundthatworkedfor the whole Forty-one reserved seatsfor womenwere communities. In country. Even though leaders like allocated amongdifferent Ambedkar keptthe focus of untouchabil- the next elections of 1937, a total of 56 entered thelegislatures, ity on thosewho sufferfromthecontempt womencandidates and aversion of higher caste Hindus, out of which only 10 came fromgeneral of economicbackwardness and seatsandfive werenominations. Women's questions lack of education were also drawnupon, organisationsthereforefelt specifically If it wasGandhi especiallyforregionsof thenorthandeast betrayed by theCongress: 1984].By the time the Consti- who had been the most vociferousadvo[Galanter tutionwas ratifiedin 1950, the principle cateagainstreserved seatsfor women,the that was appliedcame to rest on groups Congress now had little room for any whichhadhistorically sufferedbothhos- women candidatesotherthanthose who tile discrimination anddisadvantage, and were staunchpartyworkersin anycase. for whom,threekindsof preference were Finally,for all theireffortsto enlargethe envisaged: specialelectoral representation numberof women voters,"therewas no
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between the necessary corollary politicisation of women and the actual advancement of their cause" [Nair 1996:140]. Eleven women were nominated to the constituent assembly to participate in its deliberations on the ultimate finalisation of the Constitution. According to Vina Mazumdar,"thereis little doubt that it was the willing and spontaneous participation of women in the civil disobedience movements ratherthanthe radicalideas of sexual equality that finally tilted the balance in favour of political equality between the sexes in the Congress Party and later in the constituent assembly" [Mazumdar 1979:xvi]. As she notes, the 'constitution fathers' never debated the issue, nor did they realise the social and political implications of what they were granting. Partha Chatterjee, as we have seen, has argued that the question was settled much earlier, on the grounds of 'cultural' not 'political' nationalism, which enabled middle class 'modem' women's entry into the public sphere by domesticating the nationalist project within the home. I have been suggesting that the issue of women's rights was much more complicated than either of these two views indicate. Conflicts over the relationship between 'social' issues and the abstract language of political rights 'irrespective of caste, creed, race or sex' took concrete form in the protractedproblem of reserved seats. Women's organisations were caught in contradictoryproclamationsof the 'unity of all women', the sameness of their condition, and so on, even as they effectively 'reserved' for themselves - urban, educated, modem and progressive - the right to represent Indian womanhood. These claims to unity had to be maintained, moreover, in the face of the loss of Muslim women's membership, and the effective disavowal of distinct political rights to the 'untouchables'. The constituent assembly was not the place, however, where women members discussed any of these contradictions. On the contrary, they appeared eager to declare their opposition to any special privileges in the form of reservations. Thus Renuka Ray referred to the Government of India Act of 1935, where. "the social backwardness of women had been sought to be exploited in the same manner as the backwardness of so many sections in this country by those who wanted to deny its freedom" [CAD 1947:668]. Reservations prevented women from standing from WS-27 3827

generalconstituencies, andconstituted "an impediment to our growth and an insult to our very intelligence and capacity" (p 669). It is worth noting that this intervention took place 'spontaneously', so to say, in the context of a discussion over requests for the modification of territorial representation for the remote and sparsely populated hill tribes of Assam. Vallabhai Patel took full advantage of the situation, regretting, as he put it, that men had not yet come up to the standard of women: "Let us hope that nothing will be provided in this Constitution which would make exception in favour of men [in a situation] where women object [to similar exceptions being made in their favour]" (p 674). The pattern whereby 'communal' or 'minority' rights were counterposed to women's rights took many forms during these years. It emerged in the Constituent Assembly Minorities Sub-committee in 1949 when 'freedom of religious propaganda and practice' was seen to conflict with 'social reform' for women. It took an interestingly different form in what became the very first constitutional amendment. Champaka Dorairajan, a young brahminwoman, petitioned the High Court of Madrasin 1951 claiming that her fundamental right (to pursue a medical education) was being denied by the Madras system of proportional 'communal' reservations in higher education. Now it might seem that these two examples disprove my arguments: After all, though the Madras Court struck down the system of reservations of the Madras government as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court subsequently ordered the incorporation of Clause 15(4) concerning special provisions "for the advancement of any socially or educationally backward class of citizens" into the Constitution. In the Minorities Sub-Committeei though the othermembersinitiallyagreedto Rajkumari Amrit Kaur's suggestion that religious freedom be limited to religious worship, in the end both the terms 'practice' and 'propagation' were retained, with the proviso that this did not preclude social reform [Roshni 1941:150-61]. In my view, however, cases like these helped to cement concepts undergirding the very nature of caste (i e, backwardness) and minorities (i e, religion), and to pit these concepts in opposition to the claims of modern womanhood. More thantwo decades later in 1974, the Committeeon the Statusof Women rejected WS-28

to by majorityvote the recommendation reintroduce Indiareserinto independent vationsfor women in legislativebodies. Amongstthe many shockingdiscoveries

to recognise the divergent post-independence trajectoriesof 'gender', 'caste', and 'community'. The post-independence women's movement, reborn in the 1970s, of their report Towards Equality were the has come a long way from its early 20th of women century struggles, and from successive decliningtrendsin the number of political efforts to 'resolve' the women's question. legislatorsand the reluctance partiesto sponsorwomen - in the very Even if old debates on modernity, tradiwake of freedomand the universalfran- tion, and the westerness of feminism have chise. The,tendencyto make a case in not disappeared, it is now clear that gender favourof women'srightsin opposition to oppression is not merely a relic of tradition notions of backwardnessand minority butfully modern,andthatpatriarchal power groupsis visibleevenhere:Thusthe 'note is manifested in multiple contemporary in support of women's forms, both public and private.Women are of dissent'(written andLotika no longer considered to be victims of reservations) byVinaMazumdar Sarkar beginsby recallingtheirown mis- tradition, past centuries of oppression, or placedpriorcriticismsof "thesystem of the ruses of colonial subjection. Feminism reservations for scheduled castes and is visible and enduring; it is a viable, if asa legacyof thecolonial. problematic, part of our present. scheduled tribes, backward- However, the careers of caste and comperiod,whichinstitutionalised nessof certain sectionsof ourpopulation" munity have been far more confused: They 1979:363].Againstthe argu- are 'still' with us, it is so often said, implying [Mazumdar mentthata systemof specialrepresenta- thereby that they are the product of a pretenden- colonial or colonial past. Their very legititionmight"precipitate fissiparous cies", they cited the views of one of the macy as active sites of contemporary Sirsikar: "women arenotmarginal struggle is frequently in question. In the experts, to societyas the minority groupmightbe. case of caste for instance, the heavy They are not a dispensablepart of the emphasis on the historical past and backsociety."and "wouldnot create what is wardness of caste discrimination, which feared by the critics, isolated pockets" was to be rectified by compensatory policies, might help us understandthe peculiar (p 365-66). place, or rather non-place, of caste in the Questions for the Present national imagination following indepenThe 1990s, as we all know, were wa- dence. The preferential programmes and tershedyearsin India'shistory,a time of policies aimed at the scheduled castes and iransition, when the nation state we scheduled tribes were never premised on wassubjected to unprece- the recognition of injustice in the present.4 took for granted dented pressures from without and Backward class commissions were within.This has been the decade of the regionalised, unable to carry out their of the economy, the anti- assigned tasks meaningfully, stymied by liberalisation Mandalagitation againstthe extensionof the negative attitudes of the state, the reservations to theotherbackward classes, hostility of academiaandthe nationalpress. and the emergenceof lower caste parties Preferential policies have therefore had to such as the Bahujan SamajPartyand the struggle in a climate which swiftly turned This wasalsothedecade them into exceptions to the rule of equalSamajwadi Party. of the BabriMasjidand ity, inimical to the national interest. Most of the demolition theensuingriots,andtherisetodominance difficult of all, upper caste domination of a Bharatiya JanataParty-led coalition became invisible in a 'casteless' ethos. in powerat the centre.It There was practically no support for conthatis currently is in this contextthat the 81st Women's stitutionally sanctioned reservations even Bill forone-third Reservation reservations from left and democratic organisations, an for womenwas firsttabledin parliament attitude that has undergone some change in 1996,andwas soonmired in theconflict only after Mandal. Till very recently, this over the demandfor special quotas for has been part of the common sense of the womenof the otherbackward classes and women's movement as well. Similar probminorities. lems have held back our understandingof The resurgenceof caste and minority the post-colonial marginalisation of miissues withina 'women'sissue' seems to noritiesandconsolidation of secular-Hindu takeus rightbackto thepre-independence dominance. Five That is why I believe that the revival of years,but with one vital difference:

decadesafterindependence, we areforced reservationsfor .womenin the 1990s -


Economicand PoliticalWeekly October28, 2000

afterMandal, Ayodhyaand globalisation Committee at Hyderabad Central University, - offers us the chance to conceive of Manasa women's organisation in Bangalore, in Paris - and to alternate This is nothingless and Danielle Haase-Dubosc modernities. Tejaswini Niranjana, for all their cooperation to link - ratherthan and interest in revising the panel presentations thanan opportunity to rightsbased for publication in this Review of Women's women's rights oppose on caste, class or minoritystatus in the Studies. I am grateful to the Indian Association contextof a commondemocratic of Women's Studiesandthe Centrefor Women's broader To recognisecaste andcommu- Development Studies for their support, and struggle. to Maithreyi Krishnaraj, KrishnaRaj nalism asmodem forms of inequality (rather especially and the editorialteamat the EPWfor all theirhelp thanas symbolsof our 'backwardness'),. and patience.] we mustintegrate themwith questionsof classandgender, our 1 For furtherdetails on this period, see Sarkar thereby transforming 1983, Pandey 1990, and Omvedt 1994. of all of them. This also 2 There understanding are a number of studies that dwell on meansthatwe haveto re-examine the last differentphasesin thedevelopmentof women's 50 yearsof independence, andfocusmuch organisationsand theirbattlefor the franchise. These include Everett 1979, Forbes 1979, morecarefullyon the social composition Forbes 1996, Chaudhuri 1993, Kumar 1993, of the dominant elites, especiallyamong Nair 1996, Pearson 1989, Sinha 1999. the so-called middle classes and within 3 See various volumes of the Constituent the women'smovement. As GailOmvedt AssemblyDebates.Fordifferentinterpretations put it recently,these classes have been on the loss of political rights to the minorities themselvesin an 'informasee Ansari 1999, and Bajpai 2000. Though reproducing
tional vacuum' (The Hindu, March 25,

2000). To concentrate solely on poverty anddisadvantage, as we havebeendoing so far, is no longerenough. even if thedemand for 'quoMoreover, tas withinquotas'hadneverbeen raised, a feministperspective on the questionof 'reservations forwomen'todaywouldhave to takeaccount of subjugated ordominated This is we urgently 4 where patriarchies. need what we do not yet have: a better of the diverse patriarchal 5 understanding forces which condition women's life andtheirability chances,theirambitions, to represent women's and men's experiences politicallyin ways that'we' cannot to know.The growingeconomic presume and social disparities thatare a hallmark of liberalisation shouldalso alertus to the in contemporary reality that patriarchy society is neithera single monolithnor a set of discreteunconnected enclaves,but a complexarticulation of unequal rather, patriarchies. Any progressive-democratic debateon the Women'sReservation Bill thatwishesto learnfromthe legacyof the 20thcentury mustengagewiththisreality as fully as possible. SiT1

Bajpai's extendeddiscussion of the competing conceptions of backwardness and minority rights is instructive,I am not convinced of the overallframeof herargument thatthe historical creation of Pakistanhad little to do with the weakeningof minorityrights.Also the ideathat notions of backwardness were upheld by 'dominant'sectionsof the Assemblyoverstates thecase,especiallywhenwe considertheoverall aversion to caste by precisely these dominant sections. DiscussionswithSatishDeshpandehavehelped clarify the importanceof this issue for me. The 'Alternate Women's Reservation Bill' prepared by theForumforDemocraticReforms and widely publicisedby MadhuKishwarwas circulatedafter this paperwas drafted.For all its claims to have improved on the 81st AmendmentBill , it displays a not very wellhidden resentment that women even need reservations.While the freedom movement is laudedforhavingbrought'outstanding women' into politics, the emergence of OBC partiesis in fact squarelyblamedfor having"blockedthe participationof women at key entry points". Even more disturbingis the cavalier mode in which 'resentment' towards reservations for SCs and STs is discussed. Whatever the limitations of the 81st Amendment Bill, one is hardput to figuringout how this constitutes an advancement.


[Thispaperis a revisedversionof the introduction to the PlenaryPanel 'ReservationsPolicies and the Women's Movement' at the IX National Conference on Women's Studies, 'Women's on PublicPolicy',January 8-11, 2000, Perspectives in Hyderabad.I am grateful to Janaki Nair and Vasanti Raman for her comments on an earlier draft. Many thanks are due to the other five participants in the panel - Bhagwan Das (advocate and human rights activist), Nivedita Menon, student members,of the Joint Action

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Mahajan and D L Sheth (eds), Minority Identities and the Nation, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Bajpai, Rochana (2000): 'ConstituentAssembly Debates and MinorityRights', Economicand Political Weekly, May 27. Chaudhuri,Maitrayee (1993): Indian Women's Movement: ReformandRevival,Radiant,New Delhi. Chatterjee, Partha (1994): The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Constituent Assembly Debates: Official Report (CAD), (1946-50), various volumes, Delhi. andSocial Change Everett,JanaM (1979): Women in India, St Martin's Press, New York. Forbes, Geraldine(1979): 'Votes for Women' in Vina Mazumdar (ed), Symbols of Power: Women in a Changing Society I, Allied Publishers;New Delhi. - (1996): Womenin Modern India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Galanter, Marc (1984): Competing Equalities: LawandtheBackward ClassesinIndia,Oxford University Press, Delhi. Geeta, V and S V Rajadurai(1997): Towardsa Non-Brahmin Millennium: FromlyotheeThass to Periyar, Samya, Calcutta. Kumar, Radha (1993): A History of Doing: An IllustratedHistoryofMovementsforWomen's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990, Kali for Women, New Delhi. Mazumdar, Vina (1979): 'Editor's Note' in Symbols of Power: Women in a Changing Society I, Allied Publishers, New Delhi. Nair, Janaki(1996): Womenand Law in Colonial India:A Social History,Kali for Women,New Delhi. Omvedt, Gail (1994): Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in ColonialIndia,Sage, New Delhi. Pandey, Gyanendra(1990): The Constructionof Communalism in ColonialNorthIndia,Oxford University Press, Delhi. Pearson, Gail (1989): 'Reserved Seats - Women and the Vote in Bombay' in J Krishnamurthy (ed), Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work and the State, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Reddi, Muthulakshmi (1930): My Experiencesas a Legislator, Current Thought Press, Triplicane, Madras. - (1956) (ed): Mrs Margaret Cousins and her Work in India, Adyar, Women's Indian Association. - (1964): Autobiography: A Pioneer Woman Legislator, Madras. Sarkar,Sumit (1983): ModernIndia, 1885-1947, Macmillan, Delhi. Sarkar, Tanika (1989): 'Politics and Women in Bengal - The Conditions and Meaning of Participation' in J Krishnamurthy (ed), Womenin ColonialIndia:Essays on Survival, Workand the State, Oxford UniversityPress, Delhi. Sinha, Mrinalini (1999): 'Suffragism and Internationalism: The Enfranchisement of Britishand IndianWomen UnderAn Imperial State',TheIndianEconomicandSocialHistory Review, 36, 4. Pattabhi B: TheHistoryof the Indian Sitaramayya, National Congress 1835-1935.


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