Panchayats, Seat Reservations and the Women's Question in India: A Historical Trajectory
In 1992 the Panchayati Raj Bill passed through the Indian parliament with little fanfare and without serious debate. The bill allocated federal funding to small village governing bodies known as panchayats and reserved one third of the elected positions for women. Similar reservations were designated for scheduled castes and tribes. Although reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were enshrined in India’s constitution, the 73rd amendment was the first instance of official reservations for women within the Indian government. On the surface, the passage of the 73rd amendment is a bit of a political puzzle. Rural women in India are vastly less educated and less empowered than their urban peers and there was little agitation by rural women or the women’s movement to get representation in panchayat bodies. Thus the political elite installed quotas in the absence of an organized movement devoted to this goal with little debate or press coverage. In contrast, the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would institute similar reservations for women in parliament, was incredibly controversial. I believe the puzzle of the 73rd amendment can be solved, or at least clarified, by examining two parallel trends in Indian history- the view of women as a separate category and the symbolic importance of panchayat bodies. By examining the ongoing view of women as a separate constituency within Indian politics and society, the reservations in the 73rd amendment become clearer- women did not have to agitate for reservations with the panchayat raj because the assumption of women as a separate constituency was already in place. The original roadblock to women’s seat reservations was not their status as a separate group but a reaction against the idea of seat reservations as a communal form that undermined the ideal of a united and independent India. As the nation solidified, seat reservations changed, becoming less tied to identity and more tied to community “backwardness” or needs. From before independence, Panchayats were heavily involved in the cultural creation and self perception of India. They were seen as a remnant of India’s high pre-colonial past and, as such, were given incredible importance by leaders envisioning India’s government. Panchayats special status as non-Western bodies made them a unique place in which women could be given rights without the specter of western feminism, and thus without controversy. The economic crisis of the 1990s, which forced India to open up to the world as never before, was an especially apt time for the passage of such an amendment because it was a way for India to reassert its autonomy against outside cultural threats.