Nagaland Boils over Women Rights

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The Incident: The elections for urban local bodies in Nagaland—slated to be held on 1 February—were postponed in the light of violent protests.

The Issue: Tribal traditional bodies, exclusively run by men, are opposed to 33 per cent reservation for women in elections to civic bodies.

The Argument:  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”.

 

Backgrounder:

1992: The Constitution amended to provide 33% reservation for women in municipalities.

1993: Article 243(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33 per cent reservation for women in local bodies, came into force.

2001: Nagaland passed its Municipal and Town Council Act but didn’t include the reservation provision

2004: Nagaland held ULB polls without providing the mandatory right to women.

2005: The Gauhati high court, acting on a petition, directed Nagalandto include women reservation; The state government amended its municipal Act and included the provision.

2009: Even after this, the state government couldn’t conduct fresh elections to ULBs due to opposition from tribal bodies.

2011: Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) received a favourable judgment from a single-judge bench of the Gauhati High Court.

July 2012: A division bench set asides the 2011 single bench judgment.

Sep 2012: Nagaland Assembly Resolution opposed 33 per cent quota.

Nov 2016: Assembly revoked its resolution of September 2012.

 

What followed: The tribal bodies protested loudly as soon as the elections were announced and threatened candidates who intended to file nominations that they would be ex-communicated from their respective tribes. 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. Coming under pressure, some candidates didn’t file nominations and some others withdrew their papers. Those who refused to withdraw from the fray were ex-communicated, ranging from 10 to 30 years.

When the State government refused to call off the elections, the tribal bodies announced a bandh from January 28 to February 1. They enforced the bandh across Nagaland although elections took place in several places on February 1.

Meanwhile, on January 31, two persons were killed in Dimapur, the commercial capital of the State. Things soon took an ugly turn, and the Nagaland government declared the elections ‘null and void’.

But even before the bandh call, the focus had started shifting from women’s reservation to issues of taxes and land ownership contained in the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016.

The Other Side: The 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. 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.

What next? The Nagaland government has decided to write to the Centre demanding that Nagaland be exempted from Part IX A of the Constitution.  If  Nagaland is exempted from the purview of Part IX of the Constitution, Naga women will have absolutely no hope of entering into and participating in decision-making bodies.

Reservation for women is necessary in patriarchal societies like Naga society, for instance, where there is a historical culture of inequalities even though Nagas don’t practise sati, female foeticide and infanticide, and do not believe in dowry or the caste system. But Naga customs, culture and traditions preclude women from inheriting land and participating in the decision-making process, which is exactly what Article 371(A) protects.

P.S.: 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.

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.”

Previous Year Questions on similar lines:

Q. Recent directives from Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas are perceived by the `Nagas’ as a threat to override the exceptional status enjoyed by the State. Discuss in light of Article 371A of the Indian Constitution. (GS 2, 2013)

By Amit Bhardwaj

Engineer by training | Educationist at heart | Indulgences? Reading, Quizzing and Teaching.