The Nagaland government’s decision to defer elections to urban local bodies shows that it remains in thrall to the state’s powerful tribal bodies. These influential male-dominated groups fomented unrest over the state government’s decision to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in civic bodies, slated to go to the polls in the first week of February. The Naga Hoho, the body that represents the state’s 16 tribal groups, contends that the reservation violates the safeguards to the tribal customary laws provided by the Constitution’s Article 371A. But women’s rights groups in the state argue that since municipalities and town councils are not customary institutions, women should be entitled to the reservations in these urban local bodies mandated by the 74th amendment to the Constitution. In the run-up to the elections, the state government had affirmed its commitment to this constitutional provision. But by backing off in the face of violence incited by tribal groups, the Nagaland government has shown its lack of resolve to fulfill its constitutional obligation to gender justice.
This volte-face could have been foretold. Nagaland delayed the adoption of the 74th amendment by 13 years because the state government did not want to upset the tribal groups. In 2011, women’s groups challenged the state government’s refusal to hold elections to urban local bodies in the Gauhati High Court. In its response, the Nagaland government said it had received representations that opposed the reservation of seats for women “on grounds that it was against Naga customs”. The court found the state government’s arguments “flimsy” and directed it to hold elections. The Nagaland government, however, managed a stay against the order in the Supreme Court. In April 2016, however, the apex court vacated the stay order.
That the state government has unresistingly pandered to the anxieties of the tribal groups says something about its inability to stand above the contradictions of Nagaland’s society. At 76.69 per cent, women’s literacy in Nagaland is far above the national average. Naga women work in fields, excel in business, and as academics and professionals. But customary laws prevent them from claiming rights to land or inheriting ancestral property. Since Rano Mese Shaiza was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977, no Naga woman has made it to Parliament. The Nagaland state assembly has never had a woman member. It is unfortunate that another chance to resolve these contradictions has been lost.