Geeta Mukherjee-Architect of the Women’s Reservation Bill

Introduction
A modest self-effacing personality but with a steely resolve to fight for the rights of women and the toiling people of India, Geeta Mukherjee, CPI M.P. from Panskura, West Bengal, remained active till the last day of her life. She was a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1967 to 1977, winning the Panskura Purba Assembly seat 4 times in a row. She was elected a Member of Parliament for 7 terms, and remained active in parliamentary struggles for a period of 33 long years.




Though she was a staunch Communist, she was admired and revered by all, even cutting across Party lines. No one could point a finger at her as she discharged her duties in the West Bengal Assembly and the Parliament of India as an honest, committed and modest peoples’ representative.
Geeta Mukherjee’s role in the drafting of the Women’s Reservation Bill and her inputs in the Joint Select Committee of Parliament were exemplary. In fact, she was the main architect of the Bill. She was also an active campaigner for the Bill and had resolved to get it passed in her lifetime. But unfortunately, that was not to be. Yet, the day her dream is fulfilled will be a turning point in the history of the Women’s Movement.

Mukherjee and The Women’s Bill
Geeta Mukherjee was Chairperson of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on the Women's Reservation Bill since 1996 (providing for the reservation of one-third of the total number of seats in State Assemblies and Parliament for women). During the 1996 elections to the Eleventh Lok Sabha, all major political parties had declared in their election manifestoes that they would get a Bill passed so as to introduce 33% reservation for women in Parliament and the State Assemblies. The Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced for the first time on the 4th of September, 1996 by the United Front (Deve Gowda) Government. It was placed as the 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill. Then it was referred to a Joint Select Parliamentary Committee chaired by the late Geeta Mukherjee and with 31 members from both houses of Parliament. The Joint Select Committee received 102 memoranda from different organizations and Women’s groups and Associations. It also heard many eminent social workers and representatives of Women’s Organizations, and presented its report to the Eleventh Lok Sabha on the 9th of December 1996, in a record period of 3 months. Leaders of the NFIW recounted how many women had sent memoranda signed in blood. This had really moved Geetadi.
She said she was determined to see the Bill reach its logical conclusion. But her dream could not be fulfilled and the struggle for getting it passed got severely diluted through disruptions by the Social Justice Camp of the RJD, the JD(U), the JD(Secular) and the Samajwadi Party, that made a demand for a quota within quota. She dependend on the Left, Congress and BJP to build a majority, but was extremely disappointed to find them backtracking, using the lack of consensus as a pretext. Although she was equally committed to other issues, her main preoccupation had become ensuring passage of
the Women's Reservation Bill. She had even turned down an offer for a ministerial berth in the I.K. Gujral government on the ground that she wanted to concentrate fully on the Bill. She had strived to carry everyone along with her, including those who wanted a separate quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In 1997, in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, Geeta Mukherjee said, “Sir, I would like to inform the House that the hon. Speaker had given us a word of honour that on the 29th July 1997, the `Women's Reservation Bill' would be there in the List of Business.” All through the Monsoon Session Geeta Mukherjee lobbied for the passage of the Eighty First Constitutional Amendment Bill, which had been placed lowest in the List of Business. On 14 August, 1997, the last day of the Monsoon Session, she had an opportunity to occupy the Chair, being on the panel of presiding officers who conduct the business of the House in the absence of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. All of a sudden, Geeta Mukherjee, as soon as she had occupied the chair, declared that the Women’s Reservation Bill would be taken up for discussion. But unfortunately, the Bill had been placed as item number 24 in the List, meaning that it would not be taken up at all on that day. She was reminded by Ram Naik (BJP) that proceedings of the House would have to be conducted according to rules. After Geeta Mukherjee it was Mr. Nitish Kumar’s turn to be in the Chair. Again, Geeta Mukherjee demanded discussion on the Women’s Bill. Nitish Kumar promised to give her an opportunity after business under Rule 377 was over. But after that it was time for the Private Members’ Bills, and Nitish said he could not do anything. That is when she appealed to women members to stage a walkout in protest, but few women members were present. She finally walked out of the House with five other Left and Congress women MPs. Sushma Swaraj (BJP) chose not to join and slipped out quietly. “We walk out in protest of the Eighty-First Constitution (Amendment) Bill not being taken up”, they declared. It was 3.46 p.m. Mr. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, M.P. from Howrah also left the house in support.
Geeta Mukherjee campaigned in all the states of the country for the Women’s Bill. Speaking to journalists after facing defeat in the Parliament, she said,
“Even when my husband died, I was brave. But today, I’ve been reduced to tears.Due to her strong political convictions and ideological commitment, Geeta Mukherjee was respected by all, across party lines, but the Bill evaded consensus.
Geeta Mukherjee had in her Report of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament, expressed her objections to sub-reservation or quota within 33% quota, where she argued that there was no precedent or move for (general) OBC reservation in Legislative bodies or Panchayats and that the problem could be solved without reservation if OBC women could be put up in OBC-dominated constituencies (Geeta Mukherjee Committee Report, 1997).
It has been a long struggle since 1996………..

Sept 1996

Women’s Reservation Bill introduced and referred to Joint Select Committee of
Parliament

Nov 1996

Women’s organizations submit joint memo to Joint Select Committee

May 1997

Women’s organizations submit joint memo to national political parties

August 1997

Geeta Mukherjee walks out of House in protest of the Bill not being taken up for discussion, along with 5 women MPs

July 1998

Joint women’s protest at Parliament to press for passage of Bill

July 1998

National Commission of Women condemns manhandling of women protestors and demands that there be no dilution of Bill

Aug 1998

Joint delegation of women’s organizations meets PM Vajpayee

Aug 1998

Joint march and dharna to Parliament and demand to list the Bill for discussion and
passage

Nov 1998

Women’s Charter for 12th Lok Sabha Elections demand passage of Bill by political parties

Dec 1998

Joint Convention at Delhi – “Voices of all communities for 33% Reservation for Women”

March 1999

International Women’s Day jointly observed with the main demand for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill

April 2000

Joint Memo to the Chief Election Commissioner to withdraw proposal for reservation for women in party lists as an alternative to the Bill

Dec 2000

Joint delegation to Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi to protest against his calling a
meeting of political parties to discuss the diversionary proposal to amend the People’s Representation Act to ensure one third representation of women in lists of candidates of political parties

March 2003

Joint memorandum to Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sushma Swaraj to demand that the Bill is put to vote rather than discuss alternative proposals in all party meeting

April 2003

Joint appeal to leaders of political parties to support passage of Bill on the 10th anniversary of the 73rd and 74th Amendments giving 33% reservation to women in local self-government bodies.

April 2004

Joint election statement issued to vote NDA government out of Parliament. One of the reasons cited was betrayal of women on the Reservation Bill

May 2004

Joint appeal to Congress President Sonia Gandhi to demand inclusion of the assurance to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Common Minimum Programme

May 2005

Joint delegation to PM Manmohan Singh to ask for placing Bill for discussion

May 2006

Joint delegation meets PM Manmohan Singh once again to demand introduction of Bill for discussion

May 2006

Joint delegation to meet Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav requesting him to intervene positively in favour of the Bill


2nd August 2006
An amended version of the original Bill was placed in 2008. This Bill had had a chequered history. Similar Bills were introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999 – all of which lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas. The Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee had examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations, five of which were included in the 2008 Bill. 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); (iv) including reservation for the Delhi assembly; and (v) changing “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”.
Two of the recommendations were not incorporated in the 2008 Bill. The first was for reserving seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils. The second was for sub-reservation for OBC women after the Constitution extended reservation to OBCs.

On July 14, 1998, Gita Mukherjee came on Rediff Chat to answer a volley of questions and confusions regarding the Women’s Reservation Bill. She openly said that the Bill was being opposed because male MPs were feeling insecure about their own seats. She said that the reasons being cited by them are actually a façade. When asked why she was so stuck with the percentage of 33, whereas many were supporting a more practical number-15 or 18 percent, so that the Bill could be passed smoothly, Geeta Mukherjee was sure that 33% was the right percentage, since it had been experimented with in the Panchayats, with great results. Women representatives, according to many official and unofficial reports, were doing much better than their male counterparts. According to her, if there were to be 33% reservation in Assemblies and in the Parliament 1000-1100 women would be elected. She said that in a vast country like India, were there not so many able women to come into the Legislative Assemblies and Parliament? The most debatable question which had been raised by Sharad Yadav-that of the upper class, upper caste ‘parkati mahilayen’, i.e., the bob-haired women dominating the Parliament and Assemblies in case the Bill were to be passed, Gita Mukherjee answered with great alacrity, “but our experience is different. For example, if this one third reservation is passed, in many states there are seats which are OBC-dominated. In those states, naturally all the parties will try to put OBC women candidates. So where are the bal katis in these states? And moreover, Parliament as it stands now, is mostly men. In our Lok Sabha women's percentage this time is less than 7 per cent (1998). In that case, all the men who have been elected --were they all from the upper classes? Secondly, all that is said about women, do the men come around with a towel around them (i.e., are they all from the lower class)? Therefore, why this fear about women?”
She had been feeling frustrated because the Congress was backtracking. She said on Rediff Chat, “It is a million-dollar question (whether the Bill would be passed) now because in my utter frustration I am hearing that even such parties who never questioned 33 per cent are now thinking of agreeing to 15 to 18 per cent. For example, though it has not yet been spelt out by the Congress, the way they have backtracked by raising the question of OBCs -- which they never brought earlier -- seems to me ominous. If that be so, then it will be difficult to pass the bill, because with the BJP, Congress and the Left together it would have been very easy to pass the bill. Some other MPs belonging to RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal)and TMC (Trinamool Congress) also had assured that they would support the original bill. Therefore, a two third majority was almost guaranteed.”


Family background and Political Career
Geeta Mukherjee went to a school in Jessore, which is now part of Bangladesh. She was born on 8 January, 1924 as Geeta Roy Choudhary in a middle-class family, in Calcutta. Her father, Prafulla Kumar Roychowdhury, was a Rai Bahadur, a title given to him by the British. As a student, Geeta Mukherjee had joined the Bengal Provincial Students Federation (BPSF) in 1939, when she was barely 15 years old and was made the Secretary of the All-India Students Federation in 1947, at the age of 23, remaining in that capacity up to 1951. Geeta was a student of Bengali literature and got her graduate degree from the Ashutosh College in Calcutta. In 1942, she had joined the Communist Party of India, and married Biswanath Mukherjee, who was already an established communist student leader. Geeta Mukherjee first came into the limelight during the 1945 postal workers' strike.
On July 29, 1945 she addressed a huge rally, where she was the only woman student speaker. By 1946 she had become a member of the CPI State Committee at the early age of 22.
When the Communist Party was banned in 1948, Geeta and Biswanath Mukherjee were detained without trial for six months in the Presidency Jail, Calcutta. She was well known for her active role in the student, peasant and women's movements. For the students of the 1960s, especially women students she stood as a role model. woman secretariat member of any Indian communist party. Her role was not limited to that of a Party leader. She became She remained with the CPI after the Communist Party split in 1964. Geeta Mukherjee was elected to the National Council of the party in 1978 and to its National Executive in 1981. She was elected one of the national secretaries of the CPI at the 17th Congress of the party held in Chennai in 1998. She thus became the first a successful member of the West Bengal Assembly and a Parliamentarian who was respected for her commitment to the common people of India. She was elected to the West Bengal Assembly, in 1967, 1968, 1971 and 1972, from Panskura Purba constituency, twice defeating the Congress, once defeating the Bangla Congress and once the Forward Bloc. In 1978, she was elected to the Lok Sabha from Panskura and continued to represent that constituency since then. She had defeated the Indian National Congress for 5 consecutive terms and the Trinamool Congress for 2 terms.
Geeta Mukherjee always felt that the voice of the voiceless must reverberate in the so-called citadels of Parliamentary Democracy, so that the false promises of corrupt leaders could be exposed to the hilt. So, she kept asking the mass organizations of the party to keep her posted on the issues and developments in different areas so that she could raise them in Parliament. But before raising any question, she ensured that she had a thorough understanding of the subject. She would read and go into all the details and even talk to cadres so that she was well-prepared to convince other Parliamentarians too.


Struggle For Women’s Rights
Geeta Mukherjee was part of several struggles, including those for the cause of women beedi workers. She adopted strong positions on gender issues, and Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women ( NFIW), the women's wing of the CPI, said that on the dowry issue, Geeta Mukherjee was keen to see CPI cadres practicing what they preached. Geeta Mukherjee was elected Vice-President, National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW); worked as a Secretariat Member, Women`s International Democratic Federation, Berlin in 1958; became an Executive Member of NFIW in 1965.She became a Member of the National Commission for Women in 1988. In 1996. In 1998 she became a Member of the Joint Committee on the Empowerment of Women and its Sub-Committee on Appraisal of Criminal Laws relating to Women. After the Maya Tyagi case in Baghpat in 1980, Geeta Mukherjee, Aziza Imam and Kanak Mukherjee had visited Baghpat along with the home minister. They had written a formal letter to him, demanding a judicial inquiry into the incident, which was followed by a furore in the Parliament; later a judicial inquiry was ordered by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh on 2nd July.
As an MP, Geeta Mukherjee, along with Malini Bhattacharya and Sarla Maheshwari had also put in a note of dissent with the Joint Select Committee against some of the provisions in the 1994 PNDT (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Bill, which were being opposed by women’s organizations; they had demanded that only Government clinics be permitted to conduct pre-natal tests and all ultrasound machines and other equipment used for Sex Determination Tests be registered.


A Versatile Leader
Geeta Mukherjee had a multi-faceted personality. She participated in the Freedom Struggle and was imprisoned several times for participation in mass movements during the pre-independence and post-independence periods. She was associated with the C.P.I. as a student since 1939; was General Secretary, Bengal Provincial Students ‘Federation from 1947 to 1951; was a Member, National Commission on Rural Labour in 1986; a Member of the National Children`s Board in 1990; a Member of the Press Council of India and a Member, Court of Visva Bharati from 1998 to 1999. She also served as Member of the Committee on Public Undertakings, Member of the Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and as Member of the Joint Committee on Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 1980. She was also Chairperson, Joint Committee on Offices of Profit. She also remained a Member of the Panel of Chairpersons of the Lok Sabha for several terms.


True to her Ideology and a Diehard Optimist
Geeta Mukherjee's life was an open book since there were no contradictions in what she spoke and what she believed. She was a diehard optimist; she was a person with great humility, simplicity and strong ideological conviction. Her colleagues recall that despite the split in the Communist Party in 1964, the political upheavals in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Geeta Mukherjee's commitment to the people's democratic revolution remained undiluted.
She was a believer in international brotherhood of the toiling people and visited several countries like Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Germany, U.A.E., U.K., U.S.A., former U.S.S.R., etc.


Writing for Children
Geeta Mukherjee’s childlike innocence made her think about children. She even wrote some books for children. Bharat Upakatha (Folktales of India) and Chotoder Rabindranath (Tagore for Children) are two of them. She was also the author of The Atit Katha Kao She translated in Bengali Bruno Apitz's classic Naked Among Wolves. She loved poetry and used to read and recite Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore.


Adieu, Geetadi
Geeta Mukherjee, 76, suffered a massive heart attack on March 4rd, 2000, just as she was preparing to leave for Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh for a Party programme. On March 3rd, a day before she passed away, Geeta Mukherjee vehemently protested on the floor of the House against the Bihar Governor's decision to invite the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to form the government in the State. She condemned the action as "undemocratic".
“A passionate and compassionate political activist, as described by President K.R. Narayanan, Geeta Mukherjee has left a void not only in the communist movement but also in the women's and other democratic movements in the country.” Close friends recalled that though she was unwell, she wanted to attend Parliament in the wake of the developments in Bihar and the controversy over the Gujarat government's decision to allow its employees to take part in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Glowing tributes were paid to Geetadi as she was fondly remembered. The then Prime Minister, Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “Mrs. Mukherjee embodied determination and dedication. She was a shining example of women's empowerment. Her life shall remain an inspiration for future generations, especially women”. The CPI national council said ``in the death of Geeta Mukherjee the country has lost an ardent champion of the toiling masses particularly the women.” And in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu, said, “Ms. Mukherjee had been in the forefront fighting for the cause of the empowerment of women and reservations for them in Parliament and State legislatures.” Comrades in the Party said that she had undergone a heart surgery in 1990, but that had never deterred her from her tireless endeavor to serve the cause of the common people.

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