As a document, the Constitution lays the legal foundations for a country’s governance and formulates the institutions tasked with implementing the principles enshrined in it. For India, these institutions are the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. With the legislature being empowered to make the laws, the judiciary tasked with adjudication and the executive being duty-bound to ensure implementation, the three are meant to safeguard and actualise the founding document’s core tenets.
Seventy-one years have passed since India adopted its Constitution, guaranteeing equality to all its citizens, including its largest minority population — women. This was a radical step undertaken by the framers, considering that most supposedly liberal democracies had refused to guarantee universal suffrage at that time.
What is also important is that the framers didn’t just confine themselves to providing women with a guarantee of formal equality, but through Article 15(3) that reads: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children” — also opened avenues for the State to take steps towards promoting substantive equality. This was a crucial provision as it implied that the framers realised that Article 15 alone wasn’t enough, and that special provisions were required to ensure that women are able to exercise their right to equality.
Have we been able to achieve these targets?
The legislative branch, made up of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha account for only 103 female Members of Parliament (MPs) out of 795 sitting MPs. This is approximately 13% representation. This raises the question as to whether, we as a country are truly committed to equal representation especially when the foremost representative body in our democracy provides barely any representation to the country’s largest minority?
Unfortunately, this lack of representation isn’t limited to the legislature but rather spreads to the judiciary as well, where female judges account for 6% of the Supreme Court and 11.5% and 27.6% in the high courts and the lower judiciary respectively. These figures are also indicative of successive decreases in women’s representation with each rung of the judicial hierarchy. This is disheartening considering the fact that the institution that was envisioned to protect the principles of the Constitution has failed to ensure them.
In terms of representation in the police, female personnel account for 7.28% (State of Policing Report, 2019) of the country’s police force. This is striking when we consider the fact that it is required by law for female uniformed personnel to be present when escorting/arresting a female accused. Considering the serious lack of female representation, how has the police been able to comply with this law? And in the off chance that it has failed to follow procedure, would that not be a violation of the accused’s right to dignity and liberty?
It was BR Ambedkar who stated that a Constitution was only as good as the individuals who implemented it. Thus, a modern democratic nation-state must aspire to develop institutions that enshrine within themselves constitutional values as originally conceptualised in their foundation. The failure of these institutions to provide equitable representation to women, continues to serve as a stark reminder of what poor implementation can do to a fantastic document. Two decades into this century, India must put behind itself the regressive ghosts of its past that continue to haunt its institutions. As the country looks to move towards a more just and equitable future, it must begin by reforming its institutions to represent more accurately some of its most important stakeholders.
Reshma Arif Khan is a lawyer and secretary of The Guild For Service
The views expressed are personal