While five states across the country find themselves in the thick of Assembly elections, Nagaland has been on the boil for two weeks now over its elections to municipal bodies. The issue: tribal traditional bodies, exclusively run by men, are opposed to 33 per cent reservation for women in elections to civic bodies that were to be held on February 1. Their argument is that Article 234(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33 per cent reservation for women in local body elections, would “infringe upon Naga traditions and customs”.
The situation has reached such a pass that after two protesters were killed in police firing in Dimapur on January 31, mobs set on fire several government offices in Kohima on the evening of February 2. The elections have now been put off. While over 150 of the 535 candidates — both men and women — have withdrawn their nominations under pressure, the others have been either ex-communicated or boycotted by their respective tribal bodies. The protesters have demanded the resignation of Chief Minister TR Zeliang and his Cabinet members.
The protest was sparked off by a decision of the Nagaland State Assembly, which on November 24, 2016, revoked its earlier resolution of September 22, 2012 that had opposed the 33 per cent quota. While revoking that resolution, Chief Minister Zeliang said that while non-holding of elections had deprived the state of huge development funds from the Centre, it was against the very spirit of the Constitution. Opposing 33 per cent reservation for women in civic bodies, traditional tribal bodies, including the Naga Hoho, say it infringes upon the traditions and customary laws of the state. They have pointed to Article 371(A) of the Constitution, saying Naga customary laws and tradition have been protected under it. One group of tribal leaders has also reportedly claimed that women anyway enjoyed equal rights in Naga society and hence, providing quota or reservation was meaningless.
The ruling NPF government, an ally of the BJP, continues to maintain that 33 per cent reservation for women in civic bodies does not amount to infringing upon any Naga law or tradition since the concept of urban bodies was itself new. “Towns and municipalities are new concepts and have nothing to do with tradition and customary practices of the Nagas,” a government statement issued after a state Cabinet meeting on January 2 had said.
Article 371(A) of the Indian Constitution (Special provision with respect to the State of Nagaland) states, “Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, (a) no Act of Parliament in respect of (i) religious or social practices of the Nagas, (ii) Naga customary law and procedure, (iii) administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, (iv) 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.”
While tribal bodies have always taken resort to Article 317(A) in respect to various socio-economic issues, civic elections in the state have not been held since Article 243(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33 per cent reservation for women in local bodies, came into force in 1993.
For now, the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), which has been spearheading the women’s movement in the state, has adopted a wait-and-watch policy. It had filed a special leave petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court a few years ago seeking reservation under 243(T). Earlier, the NMA had received a favourable judgment from a single-judge bench of the Gauhati High Court in October 2011, but a division bench set it aside in July 2012. The same year, the state Assembly too passed a resolution opposing women’s quota in civic bodies, prompting the women’s body to approach the apex court. The women’s groups have agreed to withdraw their petition, but only after the election process was completed.
“The decision of the state government to hold elections with reservation for women has made the case filed in the Supreme Court infructuous. However, to reciprocate the gesture of the state government and to allay the fears of tribal organisations that the case filed by us in the Supreme Court would infringe on Article 371(A) of the Constitution of India, we have agreed to the appeal of the chief minister to withdraw the SLP, provided the ongoing process of elections to the urban local bodies could be completed as notified by the state government,” Joint Action Committee for Women’s Rights convenor Abeiu Meru and co-convenor Rosemary Dzuvichu recently said.
While the all-male tribal bodies have been opposing women’s reservation in civic bodies, Nagaland has had 25 per cent reservation for women in the village development boards (VDB). It was Section 50 of the Nagaland Village and Area Council Act of 1978 that provided for such a reservation.
Leading Nagaland editor and author Monalisa Changkija said, “In the controversy over 33 per cent reservation for women, the most pertinent aspect hasn’t been discussed yet – the economic connotations inherent in politically empowering women through reservations. Naively assuming that such reservations violate Article 371(A) and would affect Naga culture and customs would be to miss the whole point of the argument against the reservations. The core of the issue – like most other issue – is ownership of land and related resources. Naga culture and customs debar women from land ownership hence our Customary Laws preclude women from inheriting land.”
She also says that Naga society has never held men and women to be equals. “This is reinforced by Naga male-dominated tribal bodies’ recent diktat to ex-communicate anyone who contested the civic elections with 33% women’s reservation. Women’s reservation is necessitated in patriarchal societies for reasons of inequalities that are ubiquitous in Naga society – even if we don’t practice dowry, sati, female foeticide, infanticide and the caste-system.”
That women do not find political space in Nagaland is evident from the fact that no woman has ever made it to the State Legislative Assembly since the state was formed in 1963. Barely a dozen women have contested Assembly elections in these five decades. One woman, Rano M Shaiza, however, managed to win from the lone Lok Sabha constituency of the state. That was in 1977 and she remains the first and only woman to achieve that feat.
In the 2013 Assembly polls, the female voter turn-out in the state stood at 91.22 per cent as against 89.82 per cent for men. However, the sex ratio in Nagaland, according to the 2011 Census, stood at 931, below the national average of 940.