The violent outburst which claimed two lives and damaged government buildings may be recent, but opposition to elections to urban local bodies (ULB) with 33% reservation for women isn’t a new issue in Nagaland.
The Constitution was amended in 1992 to provide 33% reservation for women in municipalities. But Nagaland, which passed its Municipal and Town Council Act in 2001, didn’t include the provision and held ULB polls in 2004 without providing that mandatory right to women.
Only after the Gauhati high court, acting on a petition, directed Nagaland in 2005 to include women reservation, the state government amended its municipal Act and included the provision.
Even after this, the state government couldn’t conduct fresh elections to ULBs in 2009 due to opposition from tribal bodies.
Irked by the developments, women groups led by Naga Mothers Association (NMA) filed a writ petition in the high court seeking intervention.
In October 2011, a single bench of the court directed the state government to hold ULB polls with reservation by January 20, 2012.
Instead of complying, the government appealed to a division bench, which set aside the previous order in July 2012.
This was followed by a resolution passed in Nagaland assembly in September 2012, which concluded Article 243T of Part IXA of the Constitution (which deals with women reservation in municipalities) is not applicable to the state as it infringed on Article 371A.
Nagaland enjoys special status under Article 371A which provides for protection of “religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, ownership and transfer of land and resources”.
The Panchayati Raj (73rd and 74th Amendment) Act passed in 1992 empowers women to hold office in local governance bodies by giving them 33% reservation.The PR Act, however, keeps the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram out of its purview, ostensibly because these states had vibrant traditional institutions. The Article 371(A) of the Indian Constitution, which was incorporated through the 13th Amendment Act, guarantees special status to the Nagas. It says no law passed by parliament will prevail in Nagaland unless ratified by the Nagaland State Legislature.
Taken aback by the developments, women groups under the banner of joint action committee for women rights (JACWR) filed a special leave petition (SLP) in Supreme Court against both the division bench order of Gauhati high court and the Nagaland assembly resolution.
In April last year, the apex court admitted the petition, which contended that 74th amendment of the Constitution, which provided for 33% reservation to women in municipalities, supersedes Article 371A and stayed the division bench’s order.
What followed next was a series of discussions last year between the state government and JACWR with the former “offering” women the option of nomination to municipal bodies with voting rights in place of reservation. Expectedly, women groups refused and insisted on elections with reservation.
The Naga Peoples Front-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government of TR Zeliang also held series of talks with male-dominated traditional organizations of the 16 major tribes “to invite necessary suggestions” in relation to the municipal Act, including women’s reservation.
But while the tribal bodies suggested removal of provisions like taxation for land and buildings and reservation of seats for scheduled castes---both of which were accepted by amending the Act---they refused to accept reservation for women in ULBs.
Amid speculations that the Supreme Court while hearing the SLP may “give adverse ruling and interpretations of Article 371A”, tribal bodies tried unsuccessfully to convince NMA and JACWR again to withdraw the petition, or accept nomination to ULBs with voting rights.
In order to “pre-empt” the SC where the SLP was pending, Zeliang’s government decided last month to go ahead with elections to ULBs on February 1. “The government intention was solely to protect the Article 371A,” said a government statement.
Amid growing opposition to the polls, the state government signed a church-mediated deal with the Joint Coordination Committee of tribal bodies on January 30 to postpone the election by two months so that the latter could “educate and (have) dialogue with different tribal bodies”.
But in a sudden about-turn in less than 24 hours, the state government decided to go ahead with polling in 12 of the 32 ULBs on the scheduled date and postpone polling for two months in seven places where there was apprehension of law and order problem due to opposition to women’s reservation.
The move, which came after a Gauhati high court directive asking the state government to go ahead with the polls on February 1, resulted in anger spilling out into the streets---two youths were killed in police firing in Dimapur on January 31 and protesters burnt down two dozen government buildings in Kohima two days later.
The developments forced the state government to declare the ULB polls null and void and also decide on requesting the Centre to exempt Nagaland from the provisions of Part IXA in line with Part IX (which exempts Nagaland from reserving seats for women in ‘panchayat’ bodies).
Meanwhile the demand for Zeliang’s resignation is growing shriller. Tribal bodies seeking his removal had given him a deadline till Friday (Feb 10) to quit. They have also shut down government machinery in Kohima and other important towns.
The chief minister, who enjoys the support of nearly all legislators in the 60-member assembly, has refused to bow down to the demands.
Following the announcement of the ULB polls, women groups had disbanded the JACWR and submitted a withdrawal petition of their SLP in Supreme Court.
Several tribal bodies are now blaming NMA for the recent deaths and destructions, leading women groups to wonder how much longer they will have to wait to get what is rightfully provided for them in the Constitution.