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India's Upper House Passes Bill to Reserve Parliament Seats for Women

  • Anjana Pasricha

India's upper house of parliament has passed a landmark bill to reserve one third of seats in parliament and state legislatures for women. The bill was passed following unruly protests by several lawmakers who oppose the controversial legislation. The bill will have to be passed by the lower house of parliament and state assemblies before it becomes law.

The chairman of the Upper House of Parliament, Hamid Ansari, announced the passage of the Women's Reservation bill with 186 out of 248 lawmakers voting in favor of it.

Lawmakers from the ruling alliance and opposition benches called it "history in the making."

The first significant step in passing the legislation has taken 14 years. The bill was first introduced in 1996, but it was never voted on due to political opposition from several quarters.

But this time it has been supported by all major political parties, including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata and Communist parties.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a "momentous development" in the long journey of empowering Indian women.

"Our women have faced enormous difficulties even when we talk in terms of the benefits of processes of economic and social development," he said. "Our women face discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination and unequal access to education and healthcare. All these things have to end if India is to realize the full potential."

But passage of the bill still has not been smooth, with two small socialist parties - the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal - disrupting parliament repeatedly to block the bill since it was introduced Monday.

Seven lawmakers from these parties were suspended, but refused to leave the chamber. They were finally taken out by marshals after they continued to shout slogans to drown debate. These parties want the bill to include quotas for lower-caste women and Muslims.

A leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Arun Jaitley called the chaos witnessed in parliament "another kind of history."

"We have seen some of the most shameful incidents of India's parliamentary democracy," said Jaitley.

The bill will now have to be passed by the lower house of parliament and by state assemblies before it becomes law. At the moment, women occupy roughly 10 percent of seats in parliament.

The Congress Party's decision to press ahead with the legislation carries political risks because the two socialist parties who oppose the legislation have threatened to withdraw support from the government. This could reduce the comfortable majority the ruling alliance has in parliament.

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