The year is 1996. There are just 40 women members in India's 543-member Lok Sabha and the need to address gender-based injustice is becoming more and more central to the political discourse. In this environment, socialist and Janata Dal leader from Mumbai, Pramila Dandavate, tabled The Constitution (81st) Amendment Bill, demanding 33% reservation for women in the Parliament and state legislatures.
The Bill providing 33% reservation for women, finally got passed 27 years later in the form of The Constitution (128th) Amendment) Bill 2023 or the Nari Shakti Vandan Abhiniyam. It was passed in the Rajya Sabha on the night of 21 September 2023 and the Lok Sabha a day earlier, during the special Parliament session.
The Bill is rooted in the efforts started by Pramila Dandavate and many other pioneering women like Geeta Mukherjee, Mrinal Gore, Susheela Gopalan and Dr Ranjana Kumari, (the Director, Centre for Social Research).
The current women’s reservation Bill is also more or less the same as the one that was tabled in 1996. The only major difference being that in the new one — Article 334 states that it will only come into effect after delimitation is done which further depends on the census that is yet to be conducted.
'She Walked So We Could Run'
Born on 27, August, 1928 in Malvan Taluka of Konkan, Maharashtra, Pramila began navigating through politics at an early age. Having after enrolled herself in the women’s wing of the RSS, she quit soon as she realised that their "ideology was too narrow.”
Her attitude, she said, was changing towards society. She said, "I was deeply drawn towards the downtrodden,” as quoted in this India Today piece of 1978.
About this time, she was also drawn towards Madhu Dandavate (former Union Finance Minister) and Janata Dal leader, who was then a journalist. Shortly after, she joined the Rashtriya Sevak Dal, a rival body of the RSS. "I feel that this organisation moulded my personality to a great extent," she said in the interview.
She was part of the Dal’s cultural wing, and gravitated towards dance, singing and painting.
She attended the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai and then the Hillcraft College, UK for Adult Education Course under UNESCO Scholarship, 1965-66.
An ardent follower of the social reformers such as Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule and Hamid Dalwai, Pramila was closely involved in Jayprakrash Narayan's movement against the Emergency. She worked with the Socialist Party in the capacity of Joint Secretary as well, the party later merged with the Janata Party.
Politics and companionship brought Pramila and Madhu close and they got married on 22 October, 1953.
Meanwhile, Pramila’s fight continued. Along with Mrinal Gore and Ahilya Rangnekar, she protested in the ‘rolling pin marches’ against price-rise.
In 1971, her husband was elected to the Lok Sabha and she looked after the Konkan constituency while he stayed in Delhi. Then, her foray into the Parliament took place in 1980, when she was elected from Mumbai North Central to the Lok Sabha.
Pramila and Gore were able to reach out across party lines and work together to bring about amendments in the Anti-dowry and Sati Prevention Acts.
Arrested, Jailed Many Times, Still Never Gave Up the Fight
Her belief in Jayaprakash Narayan's Total Revolution led to her being imprisoned during the Emergency.
She was arrested seven times for participating in Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, Land liberation Movement, Anti Price-rise Protests and Malvan Port Facilities Agitation.
She was jailed under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) for 18 months at Yerwada during the Emergency as well.
Both Pramila and Madhu were jailed. They wrote poignant letters about their choices, family and freedom and in one of them, Pramila replied to him:
“No matter how eager I might be to meet you, you know I cannot compromise my principles for any kind of personal gain. And if you were to think otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to bear it." (Quoted by Gyan Prakash in his book, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point)
In 1976, Pramila established the Mahila Dakshata Samiti in Delhi. Various branches of the same came up in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
Along with Jamila Verghese and Dr Kumari, she also wrote and edited Widows, Abandoned and Destitute Women in India (1989). Even through her personal and collective political fight for women’s justice, she never held back.
It is said that once she even disrupted a meeting being addressed by Indira Gandhi and shouted slogans like - “People want ration, not bhashan,' recalled her close associate Mrinal Gore to The Times of India.
In 1989, during VP Singh’s government, through a letter, she demanded 33% reservation for women in the Parliament and Vidhan Sabha. It is said that she started writing charters for women's rights since the 1970s.
She also became a founding member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and remained member of its National Council and of the National Executive Committee for many years.
Being frank about the shortcomings of the Janata Party, even when Madhu Dandavate was the cabinet minister, Pramila told India Today, “The party has lost ground because of bad public relations. The public display of its internal power struggles is nauseating. I feel that the party is not functioning as a link between the people and the Government."
During the Shah Bano controversy, Pramila had even sheltered Bano in her home for a while. Uday, her only son wrote in 'Janata Weekly', “My mother wanted justice not only for Muslim women but for all women. She organised a nationwide movement for an anti-dowry law and campaigned relentlessly until her own private member bill turned into a law.”
The Women’s Bill That Didn’t Make It
After Pramila had tabled the Bill, it is said that there was enthusiasm in the House of People. While leaders of Left parties demanded immediate passage of the Bill, speakers belonging to other parties raised a number of points and there was no unanimity on the subject.
Hence, a parliamentary committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee was formed, which included Mamata Banerjee, Meira Kumar, Sumitra Mahajan, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Hannan Mollah, among others.
Pramila, Mukherjee, along with others visited different parts of the country to assess the ground realities and draft a plan for their cause.
According to their Bill, a seat was only to be reserved once, as this way women’s reservation would have been executed once in all the seats in three elections. The current Bill states that rotation will only take effect after each subsequent exercise of delimitation has been done.
Mukherjee had examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations, five of which were included in the 2008 Bill. Some of these were (i) reservation for a period of 15 years; (ii) including sub-reservation for Anglo Indians; (iii) including reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha (or less than three seats for SCs/STs).
Back then, Samajwadi Party argued that the quota of reservation should be reduced from 33% to 20 or below, adding that there must be a sub-quota for OBC women and minorities.
In May 1997, there was a discussion on the Bill and Opposition from the ruling coalition itself. The Bill fell through after the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha.
Pramila Dandavate passed away on 31 December, 2001.
“My mother was committed to social justice. She was particularly vigilant on matters related to women’s rights. On these two issues, she did not let electoral politics get in the way of her activism,” her son Uday wrote in Janata Weekly.
If there’s one thing that Pramila’s story tells us is that a woman’s representation in the Parliament, though a huge feat, doesn’t suffice alone. One’s ideology and vision has to be towards working for the historically marginalised groups.
It makes one wonder — If Pramila were alive today, would she think the fight for women's reservation is now complete? Or would she question the absence of OBC quotas and the delay in caste census? Her politics suggest she would have. As India's women wait for a few more years for reservation in legislative bodies, the pioneer of this mission hardly got a mention in Parliament or in the media.