Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.

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