INTERVIEW A bridge for caste, gender divides
By Santwana Bhattacharya
NEW DELHI - Happy to have overcome two decades of electoral drought in the
northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Congress party in a
symbolic gesture of thanks has put its most prominent leader from the
underprivileged Dalit caste, Meira Kumar, in the speaker's chair.
By doing so it managed to give the Lok Sabha (Lower House of parliament) its
first woman presiding officer. The rather charming and soft-spoken Kumar, 64,
is the very antithesis of the aggressive Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati
- the other face of Dalit empowerment in India.
It is to counter Mayawati's growing political clout that the Congress decided
to project Kumar, who was the union minister
of social justice and empowerment in the last government. For those who point
to Kumar's privileged upbringing in the heart of New Delhi's powerful political
circles as legendary Dalit leader Babu Jagjivan Ram's daughter, she has a sharp
response: "In India, the caste tag and the circumstance of one's birth can
never be overcome."
She, however, candidly admits that she is a beneficiary of India's version of
affirmative action, thanks to which she could study at Delhi University and
could later join the Indian Foreign Service. She left the service to join
politics in 1985.
More than anything else, her elevation to the speaker's chair has brought focus
back to the much-debated Women's Reservation Bill, which seeks to reserve a
third of the Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats for women. (See Political carrots
for India's women, Asia Times Online, June 9)
In this interview, Meira Kumar shares her thoughts on the problems faced by the
speaker of the previous house - the 14th Lok Sabha - which lost nearly 450
hours of work to disruptions caused by members, amounting to an estimated loss
of US$1.22 million in public money.
Santwana Bhattacharya: Your election as speaker is being termed
as historic as well as symbolic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced you
to the nation as "the first woman and the first Dalit to occupy the
constitutional post". How do you see it yourself? Is it a culmination of a
political career or just another milestone?
Meira Kumar: I don't look at it either as a milestone or a
culmination of my political career. I see it as a job which I have to do
impartially and to the best of my ability. But, I agree, the symbolism of the
election cannot be ignored. It does send a positive message and it will have an
effect on the way a certain section of our society [the Dalit] is seen. I also
think that a woman could become a speaker because the country has progressed
much in the last one decade. We have so many women members in the present
house, 58 [out of 545]. It is not a small number.
SB: You really think your election was possible because of social
MK: There has been a gradual change in our society which has
helped women in getting a better deal. Society is coming to accept women in
high positions. I think this process of acceptance earned from the society is
very important for the empowerment of women, especially the weaker sections.
SB: Don't you think there is a dichotomy in the system, at one
level we have women in high positions in politics and institutions, on the
other we have atrocities of the worst kind - female feticide [aborting female
fetuses], skewed male/female ratios and the dowry [money demanded by the
groom's family during wedding] deaths?
MK: Dowry, I feel, is the core problem. That is what leads to the
other crimes against women ... At the class level, there is a yawning gap
between the haves and the have-nots in our society. The benefits of economic
progress have not percolated to a large section of the society. Women who come
from the lower rungs of society - the schedule castes and schedule tribes [in
India] - have been largely left out. They are yet to get the fruits of either
social or economic progress. This is the area on which we need to do more work.
So that the marginalized too feel empowered and enjoy equal opportunity. This
is our main challenge. My election hopefully would bring the political focus on
the backward communities. But, we would also need specific legislative support.
SB: How do you see your role as a speaker helping their cause?
MK: The role of the speaker is cut out. There is not much scope
for policy intervention. My primary job is to run the house so that issues of
concern and legislation can be properly debated. I also feel, issues of
national importance should be discussed above politics. But for that to happen
there has to be a conducive atmosphere in the house where healthy discussions
can take place without disruptions.
SB: Are you planning some action to make members more
MK: I will be holding meetings with all the political parties.
Besides, accountability of the executive has to be there. If the house does not
function, if there are constant disruptions [by members], who will the
executive report to? Who will question the executive's decisions, policies and
actions. For the democracy to function properly, smooth and uninterrupted
running of the legislature is of paramount importance.
SB: It is being said that you've had a privileged life far away
from the grinding poverty and the backward development of your hometown [in
Sasaram of Bihar]?
MK: The media are mixing up two things, the social and the
economic. Poverty is, indeed, a bane. But, in India, caste is the biggest
handicap. When I sit on the speaker's chair that is what is on everyone's mind
- "She is a Dalit"! I need not say it, it is imprinted in everyone's mind. That
is the context in which I exist. As long as the caste system survives, those
who are in the lower rung the Indian society will continue to remain there.
SB: But do you really see yourself as a Dalit, in the true sense
of the term?
MK: We've to bring India to a point where the circumstance of
one's birth is no longer important. Until that time, your identity is not
complete unless you spell out your caste name. There is no escape from the
caste identity. It is something that you can never, ever overcome. You have to
face it and live with it, to understand its implications. The caste labels
still get a lot of prominence in this country.
SB: It is said that like your father, you are anti-Ambedkar [B R
Ambedkar is the most famous Dalit icon, and wrote the Indian constitution]?
MK: I do not think I should comment on a political issue. As the
speaker, I have to be neutral. I can no longer speak my mind on this. It would
not be proper. The speaker cannot and should not take a political line.
SB: The main opposition party [the Bharatiya Janata Party] is
saying that you should resign from the Congress party to ensure impartiality in
your role as the speaker. Your predecessor went against his own party to uphold
the supremacy of the chair.
MK: It is neither mandatory nor necessary. The Indian
constitution makes no such demand. I am committed to being free, fair and
SB: Will you see to it that the 33% Women's Reservation Bill is
passed by the house you are presiding over?
MK: Oh yes! The bill has come to occupy the center stage again.
The president [Pratibha Patil] in her speech [to the joint session of
parliament] mentioned it. There are 58 women members of parliament in the
present house - the largest since 1952 - to push for it. I would, naturally,
like empowerment of women. But the weaker sections too have to be empowered.
SB: Last session, the women's quota bill got derailed after
demands were made for further reservation for Dalit and backward class women.
Are you supportive of this? Do you think seats should be reserved for women
from the Dalit and the lower castes?
MK:The bill is with the Upper House. It is with a committee of
the Upper House. Let me see the actual position first, then I can comment.
There are differences of opinion on the bill, which have to be sorted out and a
consensus has to evolve. That is how the bill can be passed. The parties have
to sit together to take an unanimous decision.
SB: Finally, what is your message to the members of the 15th Lok
MK: That we should utilize all the time available to us, without
wasting a second. We have to convince the people that we sincere in our
efforts. But I am also in favor of increasing the time of Lok Sabha sittings.
Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on
politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on
electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.