As the confrontation in Nagaland over women’s rights (specifically constitutional reservations for women participating in local body elections) escalates, between those insisting on ‘protecting’ male-dominant traditions and others pressing for reform and an active role for women in elections, we tend to forget that it’s not an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ confrontation or simply patriarchy versus women’s empowerment, but a combination of many factors that are being overlooked in an effort to simplify issues.
We need to be cognisant of the following:
- Elections to 32 municipal and town councils in the state were notified after a gap of more than 12 years
- The provision of 33% reservation for women in urban local bodies (ULBs) was staunchly opposed by various male-dominated tribal bodies and ‘civil society organisations’, who said that it infringed on article 371A of the constitution which provides special rights to Nagaland and protected its customary rights and traditions (without defining the latter)
- Article 371A says that no Act of parliament will apply to Nagaland unless passed by the state legislature; after many delays, much debate, a lot of hesitation and turnabouts, the state government of T.R. Zeliang approved the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments applying to local bodies, which included the proviso for 33% reservation for women. Opposition to this triggered demands for withdrawal, boycotts and other intimidation of women contestants as well as threats of ex-communication, which are totally unacceptable. There were firings on protesters in which three persons were killed, public buildings torched in Kohima, the state capital, and curfew clamped on both Kohima and Dimapur, its commercial hub. Women leaders are moving about with security guards, a sad day.
- For the first time, at least in Nagaland, article 371A is being interpreted by ‘pro-tradition groups’ as conflicting with the constitutional provisions empowering women
- A consequence of the agitation is a growing demand seeking the resignation of the chief minister and of MLAs; those issuing the call include male-run tribal organisations
- Both sides (the traditionalists and non-traditionalists) are using the constitution to buttress their respective positions
- But the state government seems to be in a funk and hastily passed a cabinet resolution which seeks the exemption of Nagaland from the constitutional provision of implementing ULB elections – a classic copout if there was one. Essentially, it amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater and the Centre must not acquiesce but use whatever good offices and the little goodwill that it has among the Nagas to stitch up an agreement based on trust, equality and consensus, without compromising on the constitutional assertion of equality of all. If it can’t do this, then it needs to find people who are respected among the Nagas and who can play a role, with government backing, in bridging the differences.
There also appears to be a major common thread running through the commentaries of prominent scholars, writers and others on the current imbroglio. On the surface, this may appear as unconnected with the reservation issue. But it is critical to understand the heart of the complexity in the state and among the Nagas. This relates to the trust deficit with New Delhi and the latter’s complete opacity with regard to the so-called ‘Framework Agreement’ with the NSCN (I-M) of August 3, 2015. Till date, neither signing party has made this ‘accord’ public to allay fears and suspicions, not just of the Nagas but of many others in the region, especially in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, where there have always exited concerns over territory and borders in the light of the NSCN’s assertions on a larger territorial space. So a deep sense of frustration has been building up in Nagaland – the contestation over women’s legal rights, asserted through the Supreme Court, gave space for this anxiety to overflow in an extremely negative way.
I wonder if the thinking must have gone something like this: “We don’t know anything about this agreement which is 18 months old, we don’t trust this lot of politicians and now they’re thrusting this Indian constitutional provision down our throats without discussion”, despite the fact that this had been consistently opposed by the male bodies including the overall alliance of Naga tribes called the Hoho (all male representatives) since 2004. The trigger for the violence was the government’s own turnaround from an agreement to keep the elections in abeyance two days before the polls were to be held. This was forced by a high court order insisting on the elections on February 1. As a result of the turmoil, the elections were cancelled and have just been declared null and void. Fresh dates have not been announced.
Prominent Nagas say that women’s groups have failed to understand the larger issues, although one influential tribal group has acknowledged that men have not accepted women as equal partners. A case in point is the fact that customs lays down that Naga women do not inherit ancestral property.
A complex battle
Charles Chasie, a prominent independent researcher and writer, says that the Naga system should be called patrilineal rather than patriarchal. But I think he was missing the point. The women’s groups, in this case the Naga Mothers’ Association, which has been at the forefront of the struggle seeking the right to contest elections, is at least as much about the attitude of Naga groups as about the law.
Chasie wrote recently, “Today, things have changed and Naga women must be included in decision-making. If we do not include the women, we will not only exclude half the population. This will be to our cost. But the women too must be clear about their role in society and not be affected by happenings elsewhere or try to implement those ideas here without proper reflection.” He said that the Naga tribe associations were prepared to accommodate women up to 40-50% of the bodies, but then said that these women would need to be nominated.
Chasie, who is an old friend, went on (and this is the part that I completely disagree with for it is contradictory to the concept of a functional democracy), “Nomination would also ensure women’s presence as they would be ‘uncontested’. They would have avoided the problems associated with elections, including financial costs and enmities always involved in electioneering. They could also choose women of ability they know and place them where these women could make a difference, with more representation than they were asking!”
“Why did the women leaders refuse? It would seem that the women leaders were more interested in making a political statement instead of having women’s welfare in their minds,” he added.
I don’t think that is so: the Supreme Court took six years to rule on the case, upholding Naga women’s rights to constitutional provisions. I doubt if the highest court in the land was interested in merely making a political statement but asserting the democratic rights of people under the laws of the land, of which the fount is the constitution. There was enough time for tribal and civil society organisations, including women’s groups, to develop conversations on the need for change within society instead of opting for a head-on confrontation.
Monalisa Changkija, the editor of the Nagaland Page and a resolute pro-rights campaigner on this issue, is quite acerbic in her editorials: “’Women’s reservation is necessitated in patriarchal societies for the historical fact of the practiced culture of inequalities ubiquitous in Naga society ~ even if we don’t practice dowry, sati, female foeticide and infanticide and the caste-system”. In a later editorial, “Clearly, here the problem is denial of the culture, customs and traditions of patriarchy and misogyny in Naga society, unfortunately even by some Naga women. Why is it that only Naga men believe that they alone can form organizations and appropriate for themselves the right to be the custodians of Naga culture, customs and traditions? What gives the right to all-male tribal organizations to demand women’s organizations of various tribes to disband or disassociate from the Naga Mothers’ Associations? What makes Naga men believe that they have the right to dictate Naga women? It is the patriarchal culture. The other factor has makes Naga men take an even more strident position, as witnessed recently, is the fear of Naga women’s ascendency to political and economic power ~ after all, especially in the past three decades, Naga women have been scaling heights no Naga men has scaled before. This is a threat perception …”
As a result of this confrontation, the Naga Hoho has split, with at least two other groups claiming to represent Naga tribal interests, the women’s movement has been damaged and the process of asserting equality under the law has been stalled. Chasie and other say that the name of the Nagas as standing for honour, equality and dignity has been tarnished.
It is significant that Naga groups, which once contested the constitution and the very concept of India and their accession to it with arms, are now using this foundational document to contest each other’s views of rights as enshrined therein. We cannot forget that the constitution is an amalgam of many parts. Whether wisdom lies in quoting John Donne’s eternal lines, “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent” or not, no part of the constitution can be seen as unconnected to other segments.
The section on fundamental rights make it absolutely clear – all must be treated equally and have the right to hold office and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste, sex etc. It is no accident that the visionaries who founded of the republic gave this chapter their highest priority.
It is in this light that the confrontation must be resolved. Many of us have friends, as I have said elsewhere, on either side of this unnecessary and tragic divide. There are many prominent figures in Nagaland who can help calm the tension and enable a mutually-agreed mediation. Their friends are prepared to help in this process.
The government of India must stand firm on this fundamental issue. It cannot be seen to waver for the sake of political gain – it has already lost much goodwill as a result of its silence of the hastily bundled together ‘framework’, signed in a public space, hailed as historic but which still remains a secret document.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Views expressed are personal.