For a state that prides itself as amongst the safest for women, Nagaland’s record in electing them to office is an embarrassment. There has never, in the 53 years since it became a state, been a woman MLA and only one woman, the late Rano Mese Shaiza, has ever made it to Parliament, back in 1977.
Nagaland’s tribal bodies — male-dominated obviously — say it’s not their “culture” to have women in public life. “We respect our mothers and sisters, but as per our customs, we don’t allow them to have political powers,” Vekhosayi Nyekha an activist who is spearheading an anti-reservation movement told Hindustan Times correspondent Utpal Parashar.
Nonsense, says Rosemary Dzuvichu, an adviser to the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), the state’s largest grassroots women’s organisation. “We were very supportive of the Naga movement and played an important part in the peace process.”
Dzuvichu points out that the NMA is only asking for 33% reservation while the rest of the country is already talking about 50%. “Naga women are ready for electoral politics. But the men are unwilling to see that.”
Nagaland enjoys special status under Article 371(A), which ensures “no Act of Parliament shall apply to Nagaland in relation to religious or social practices of the Nagas”. In other words, the 74th Constitutional amendment, under which 33% seats in panchayats and local bodies are reserved for women, has never applied to the state because it apparently goes against Naga custom.
How the urban local bodies qualify as “customary” institutions is anybody’s guess. But in the past 16 years there has been no election to them. The women’s groups insist on reservation. But the tribal bodies remain adamant about not sharing power. Without reservation, women will simply not be given the opportunity to compete.
Why not? Because, says Monalisa Changkija, a poet who is the proprietor, publisher and editor of Nagaland Page, sharing power will give women a voice in how development funds are utilised. In a state that does not allow women to own or inherit land, how will this play out? “Empowering women has an economic connotation. This is what the men fear,” she says.
With neither side willing to concede, the women went to the courts. In 2011, the Kohima bench of the Gauhati high court ruled in favour of reservations — a judgment upheld by a 2016 Supreme Court interim order, directing the state to hold the elections with 33% reservation.
Elections were announced for February 1 and 30 women were set to contest unopposed with another 100 women declaring their intention to fight, says Dzuvichu. Then the protests began.
Two men dead, several more injured, government buildings burnt and an indefinite bandh is what remains. Internet services are down and government has not functioned since the unrest began. The elections are on hold and the tribal bodies want the state government to pressurise the Centre to exempt Nagaland from reservation.
There is also, says Dzuvichu, pressure on the NMA to withdraw the court cases. “I have received death threats and am in hiding,” she tells me on the phone from an undisclosed location.
How does such blatant patriarchy and obvious injustice pass without much comment in a world where every sexist utterance by male politicians sparks social media outrage? In many ways, the tragedy of Nagaland is the fact that this incredibly brave fight for gender justice remains largely ignored by the rest of India, as if somehow Naga women are lesser citizens, less deserving of the rights and aspirations being articulated throughout the country by women fighting triple talaq or for their right to enter temples.
It will be a travesty of our democratic values if Naga women do not get what is guaranteed to women elsewhere in India. It will be a mockery of rule of law if muscle and lumpenism is allowed to prevail. Tradition and custom can never be an excuse to deny citizens their due. If Nagaland is an integral part of India, then the rights available to the rest of us apply there too.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint
The views expressed are personal