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Gender Equality Remains a Far Cry in Northeast State Assemblies

While Assam had a woman chief minister in 1980, quite a few legislative assemblies of the northeastern states had ended their term without having a single woman MLA.

Many northeastern states have never elected a woman either to the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha or both. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Recently, the Congress government in Mizoram inducted party MLA Lalawmpuii Chawngthu into its council of ministers. Chief minister LalThanhawla might have picked the only woman in the 60-member assembly keeping in mind the large number of female voters in the poll-bound state, but it certainly is a significant milestone in the state’s electoral history, particularly the presence of women in the state ministry.

Chawngthu. Credit: Facebook

Chawngthu, sworn in by governor Nirbhay Sharma on September 23 at Raj Bhavan in Aizawl, is only the second woman in the northeastern state to be named a minister, her elevation coming three decades after the first. In 1987, Lalhlimpui Hmar became a minister in the Laldenga government – the first Mizo woman to be inducted in the maiden ministry formed after Mizoram became India’s 23rd state.

Women in the northeast may be widely thought to be more empowered than their counterparts in many other Indian states. Although true in the family space, this reputation doesn’t quite extend to the political space of the states. Therefore, Chawngthu elevation to the council of ministers is an opportunity to look closely at where all the northeastern states fare in this regard.

While Assam may be the rare exception in the region to have a woman chief minister in Syeda Anuwara Taimur back in 1980, many state legislative assemblies ended their term without having even a single woman MLA.

Out of the total 518 MLAs across the eight northeastern states, only 28 are women.

The status of the northeastern states in the current Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is unimpressive from the gender equity viewpoint. In the northeastern states, women represent only two out of the 25 Lok Sabha seats and two out of the 14 Rajya Sabha seats. Both Lok Sabha members, Bijoya Chakraborty of the BJP and Sushmita Dev of the Congress, and one Rajya Sabha member, Ranee Narah of the Congress, are from Assam, while the other woman Rajya Sabha member from the northeast is Jharna Das of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Tripura – the first in that state’s electoral history.

In fact, many northeastern states have never elected a woman either to the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha or both, such as Tripura (Lok Sabha), Nagaland (Rajya Sabha), Mizoram (both the houses) Manipur (Rajya Sabha; M.C. Mary Kom is a nominated member of the central government) Sikkim (Rajya Sabha) and Arunachal Pradesh (Lok Sabha).

Assam has two women out of 14 Lok Sabha members and one woman among seven Rajya Sabha members.

Tripura has two Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seats. It has never sent a woman to the Lok Sabha. As mentioned earlier, Jharna Das was recently elected to the Rajya Sabha.

Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya have two Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seats each but no woman member.

Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya have one Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seats each and no woman is a member.

This representation looks particularly lopsided when seen from the angle of population. Women in some of the states either outnumber men or are marginally less than men. For instance, in Nagaland, the population of women, as per the 2011 Census, is 1,024,649 while that of men is 953,853. Yet, it has never elected a woman MLA, winning the infamous sobriquet of being the only state in the country to not have a woman legislator ever.

In the last state polls (2013), there were two women candidates and none made it to the assembly. While one was an independent candidate, the other was from the BJP (M. Rakhila Lakiumong from Tuensang constituency). Mokokchung in Nagaland may be one of the most literate districts of the country with over 90% literacy rate of both men and women, yet independent candidate Yangerla – who otherwise had a successful medical career and the first Naga woman to be the state’s health director – couldn’t win the polls.

Earlier this year, the Nagaland government failed to carry out the urban local bodies elections with 33% reservation for women as per a Supreme Court order, indicating the rigidity among most Naga men to restrict the political space only to one gender. The widespread violence in the state claiming that the apex court order violated the special status of the state given under Article 371(A) of the constitution compelled chief minister T.R. Zeliang to step down for a while.

It is particularly appalling to see such resistance against giving women their political space in Nagaland since it elected the state’s first (and only) woman member of parliament back in 1977, even as neighbours like Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh are still to elect a woman MP to the Lok Sabha.

Rano M. Shaiza. Credit: Wikipedia

Rano M. Shaiza, niece of the Naga leader A.Z. Phizo, was elected to the sixth Lok Sabha after defeating the then chief minister Hokishe Sema. She will also be remembered for creating a record of sorts by being the first woman president of a political party – the United Democratic Party (UDP).

Meghalaya is another northeastern state to have more women than men. As per the last census, there are 1,492,668 women against 1,471,339 men. It may be a matriarchal state and women may enjoy many rights that their counterparts elsewhere in the country don’t, but when it comes to women taking a lead in political representation, it has a lot of distance to cover. Only in 2008 did it send a woman Lok Sabha member, Agatha Sangma. It saw its first woman Rajya Saha member in Wansuk Syiem in 2013.

However, in Meghalaya, three women ministers – Roshan Warjri, Deborah Marak and Ampareen Lyngdoh – are in the present council of ministers. Also, for the first time, the number of women in the 60-member house has risen to five.

The present Arunachal Pradesh assembly only has two women out of 60 members. Five others lost the last assembly polls. The two MLAs, Karya Bagang and Gum Tayeng – both of whom won for the second time – got elected in Congress tickets and later jumped to the BJP along with other Congress MLAs to form the Pema Khandu-led BJP government. The present Pema Khandu government has no woman minister. The state saw the first woman minister in 1984 when Komoli Mosang was sworn in to the council of ministers and given the industries portfolio. Since then, only a handful of women, mostly wives of influential politicians such as Yari Dulom and Mekup Dolo (it is a common trend seen in most northeastern states when it comes to women MLAs and ministers) have made it to council of ministers.

Arunachal Pradesh got its first woman MLA (Sibo Kal) in 1978 (nominated) when it was a union territory. Nyari Welly became the first woman MLA after it became a state in 1980. Though the state has more women voters than men (3,77,272 against 3,75,898 men), it is also yet to send a woman to the Lok Sabha. Omen Deori remains the first and only woman to be nominated to Rajya Sabha in 1984.

In Manipur, the population of women may be just a few thousands less than men (1,417,2091 against 1,4,38,586 as per 2011 census), but the present number of women MLAs stands at a dismal two in the 60-member house. Altogether, ten women out of 266 candidates were in the fray when the last assembly polls were held in March this year, even when the state has more women voters than men (9,68,312 against 9,25, 413 men).

While Akoijam Mirabai Devi was the only woman minister in the former Congress government, the present BJP-led government also has Nemcha Kipgin as the only woman in the council of ministers. After gaining statehood in 1972, it had to wait 18 years to see a woman in the assembly when Hangmila Shaiza got elected in 1990 (from the Janata Party).

Though two women – Kim Gangte and Indira Onam – contested the last Lok Sabha polls, they failed to make it to the parliament. Kim Gangte was the first woman from the state to make it to the parliament as a CPI(M) member in 1998. No Manipuri woman was sent by any party to the Rajya Sabha till 2016 when M.C. Mary Kom was picked by the Narendra Modi government as one of the 12 nominated members for her boxing prowess which somewhat helped dilute that record.

In Tripura, 82.73% of women are literate. The population of women is 1,799,541 against 1,874,376 men, but the present house has only five MLAs for the first time, and just one woman minister in Bijita Nath.

Basana Chakraborty was the first woman MLA of Tripura who also joined the first ministry led by Sukhomoy Sengupta as the state’s first woman cabinet minister.

While it has just managed to nominate its first woman Rajya Sabha member, no woman from Tripura has ever been elected to the Lok Sabha.

Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling may be considered an able ruler by many, but his Sikkim Democratic Front – ruling the state since 1994 – is yet to nominate a woman to the Rajya Sabha. Dil Kumari Bhandari was the first and only woman Lok Sabha member from Sikkim. The present government has one woman minister – Tulsi Devi Rai. The 32-member assembly has three women MLAs.

Among all the eight states, Assam may have the lowest literacy rate of women at 67.27% but has so far given them the most space in the political arena. However, the last assembly had 14 MLAs, 11.1% in the 126-member house, which has now lessened to 6.35%. The Sarbananda Sonowal government has only one woman minister – Pramila Rani Brahma. The last government had one woman cabinet minister, Ajanta Neog, and two junior ministers – Bismita Gogoi and Sumitra Patir.