Nagaland to Hold Urban Local Body Polls With 33% Reservation for Women

The decision has drawn the ire of powerful tribal bodies, who have called for a state-wide bandh in response.

New Delhi: The long overdue urban local body (ULB) elections in Nagaland are slated for February 1, but it has caused some unrest in the state along predictable lines.

The powerful tribal bodies in the state have yet again posed stiff opposition to the elections on one primary count – 33% reservation of seats for women.

In 2012, these bodies had pushed the state assembly to pass a resolution not to hold the ULB polls – due for over 16 years now – with reservation for women candidates even though an amendment to that effect was made in 2006 to the Municipality Act 2001. This time around, however, the T.R. Zeliang government decided to hold the polls after the cabinet gave the go ahead on August 10.

The cabinet meeting was held in response to an interim Supreme Court order in an ongoing case filed by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) seeking a directive from the apex court to the state government to implement the 33% reservation for women in the ULBs, like in other states.

The court asked the state government to hold the polls by April this year. Soon after it, Zeliang told local reporters, “The Joint Action Committee of NMA has been fighting for women’s reservation in the court. So whatever be the judgement, we felt why not we implement the provision for it in the amendment made to the Municipality Act.”

Although the Nagaland assembly has never had a woman MLA, the state government in November 2015 introduced and later passed the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016. It revoked the 2012 assembly resolution, thus clearing the roadblock to reservation of seats for women.

Like before, the protest against the state government’s move has been spearheaded by Naga HoHo, an apex body of all the 18 Naga tribes, along with Lotha HoHo and Sumi HoHo. After the August 10 cabinet decision, these bodies decided to boycott the elections and called a state-wide bandh from January 26 till the day of voting.

There have been reports in the local media about various tribal bodies under Naga HoHo putting pressure on many candidates to withdraw their nominations, which opened on January 3, with some groups even excommunicating candidates for not opting out of the polls. Such incidents led the state election commission to extend the last date of filing nominations in at least six municipality and town councils.

Speaking to The Wire from state capital Kohima on January 28, Naga Hoho president Chuba Ozukum said, “We had a meeting with the chief minister on January 25 and decided not to go ahead with our bandh call from January 26 onwards as planned because he said he needed some time to consult his cabinet members about the issue. However, on January 27, we got to know that the government had decided to go ahead with the polls with 33% reservation for women candidates. We had a meeting in Kohima till late night and decided to boycott the polls and begin our bandh from January 28 onwards.”

He said, “We have been urging the state government not to go ahead with the reservation in these elections because we strongly feel that it doesn’t go with the special rules that the Naga society follows. We are allowed to follow our customary rules and laws by Article 371 (A) of the constitution. So we are different from other states and need not follow a certain rule simply because the other states are doing it.”

However, women activists and supporters of the government’s move felt these tribal bodies controlled by men didn’t want women to be a part of political decision making, like they do in customary bodies.

“It is a six-year-long legal battle for our constitutional rights culminating in the interim order of the SC. With that order and the state government’s decision to go ahead with the elections, we are prepared for it but the opposing tribal bodies constituted of men don’t want the customary practice of not having women in political decision making to be changed by the entry of women,” NMA advisor and well-known women’s rights activist from Nagaland Rosemary Dzuvichu told this correspondent.

She brushed aside the Naga HoHo contention that the women’s reservation would infringe on customary laws saying, “Urban local bodies are modern entities and have nothing to do with traditional customary laws.” A stand the state government has also taken.

On being asked about depriving women their rights, Ozukum countered, “It is not that we are opposed to women’s political rights but all we are saying is that let the state cabinet frame its own laws and rules, and not just copy them from other states as the Naga society has always been allowed to follow its own laws by the constitution. We have suggested to the government that let women be nominated to the municipal council bodies after mutual consultation and have voting rights. After they gain membership of these civic bodies, they can also contest for the position of chairperson. We are even agreeable to have 40% of such nominated women members.”

The village council bodies in the state have 25% reservation for women. However, Dzuvichu pointed out, “It is not as per the Panchayati Raj system.” In 2009, the union cabinet approved 50% reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj institutions with many states implementing it since then.

Although village council elections have been taking place regularly in Nagaland, only one ULB election has been held till now due to opposition from the tribal bodies. The term of the first ULB ended between December 2009 and March 2010. The ongoing Supreme Court case was another cause for why the polls were not held.

Pointing to the benefits of holding ULB elections, Zeliang recently told reporters, “The state has not been able to avail the development funds granted by the centre due to it. It is a great loss to the people; the funds can be used to develop various facilities for them.”

The tribal bodies are opposed to the polls on yet another count – paying taxes to the town councils. “The people are asking why should we pay taxes to the council when the land belongs to us. Unlike other states, the Nagaland government doesn’t own any land, land in the state is a private entity,” argued Ozukum.

The state government’s decision to hold the ULB polls with 33% reservation for women candidates has also been backed by the Centre. State governor P.B. Acharya conveyed this to the state government long before it decided to hold the polls.

In a press note released by Raj Bhavan on January 12, the governor appealed to all stakeholders to cooperate with the authorities for the smooth conduct of the polls. He said, “Although equality of the sexes is enshrined in the Indian constitution, it is not a social reality. Therefore, vigorous affirmative action was needed to improve the condition of women. Giving 33 per cent reservation to women will not only empower women but change the social structure of India in many ways.”

Meanwhile, despite the boycott, as per local media reports, as many as 452 candidates, many of whom are women, have filed their nominations for the upcoming elections to the 32 ULBs, including three municipal and 29 town councils spread across Nagaland’s 11 districts.