India at 70: In Nagaland’s men-only politics, one woman is shaking up the system
Rosemary Dzuvichu has made her presence felt in local administration in Kohima. And as president of the Kohima District Mahila Congress, she had drafted the party’s first manifesto on women.Updated: Aug 11, 2017 09:04 IST
India is days away from celebrating its 70th Independence Day: A remarkable journey for a large and diverse nation with a flourishing democracy that accords its citizens powerful social and economic freedoms.
Independence has helped people and communities to smash barriers of caste, class, gender, ability and faith and achieve their dreams. But structures of oppression persist, and many people languish in islands of darkness where freedoms are few and choices absent.
HT brings you stories from across our nation, of hope, courage and perseverance in “free India” that reflect the actual promise of independence, and of isolation, hate and despair that stalk the “unfree India” among our midst.
In Part 1, read about the inspiring journey of a Muslim woman boxer and the challenges of a Naga woman fighting for her rights. Here is the Naga woman’s story:
Rosemary Dzuvichu wears many hats. She teaches literature at Nagaland University, is adviser to the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), an apex body of women in the state, and is associated with organisations that take up human rights issues and political empowerment.
She has made her presence felt in local administration in Kohima. And as president of the Kohima District Mahila Congress, she had drafted the party’s first manifesto on women.
Yet, she remains the exception. For, the norm in Nagaland remains of women not having a role in public life.
Making a mark
The rigidly patriarchal Naga society told Dzuvichu early in life that men call all the shots and that a Naga woman, whatever her ambition, has to weave, wash clothes, cook and do all other household chores. And, womanhood means raising a family.
Having grown up in a militarised set-up – her family lived close to an army camp in Kohima – and getting used to clashes between security forces and Naga underground groups, Dzuvichu developed a rebellious streak. She attributes her fighting spirit to her grandmother Zeliezhu, one of the first women leaders of the underground Naga National Council, and her mother Alhouu, who got into traditional apex tribal bodies that were male bastions.
“My exposure to other cultures and education beyond the confines of the state let me see positive progress elsewhere,” Dzuvichu told HT at her residence in Kohima’s High School Colony.
She spearheaded a fight to improve the Nagaland University system and filed public interest litigations on health, education and other social issues. But activism took a toll on her marriage. “My divorce steeled me into standing up for women’s rights,” she said.
Battle for representation
Nagaland has more women voters than men, and the 2011 census said women constitute 55.75% of the state’s population. But the state has had no woman MLA with Rano M Shaiza having been the only MP (Lok Sabha) from 1977-1980.
Less than a decade ago, Dzuvichu and the NMA decided it was high time women in Nagaland – like everywhere else in India – got 33% reservation in urban local bodies. Patriarchs opposed the idea, citing customary laws of Naga tribes. Reservation, they feared, could alter social equations and said women, who don’t have property rights, are not supposed to be in administrative or leadership roles.
The NMA went to court in 2011 seeking a directive to immediately hold civic body polls with 33% seats reserved. The polls were to be held in January-February 2010 but were indefinitely postponed by the state cabinet that predicted trouble.
The contention of NGOs such as Naga Hoho, the apex tribal body, was that women’s quota was a violation of Article 371(A) that guarantees special status to Nagaland and preservation of customary laws. Citing such objections, the government challenged the high court’s decision.
The Supreme Court finally stepped in, and in April 2016 ordered the Nagaland government to hold polls across 32 municipal and town councils with a third of the seats reserved for women. The government too conceded that stalling elections in the past 10 years hurt development.
But the government’s move to hold the polls in January-February this year sparked violence and forced TR Zeliang to quit as chief minister. “The intimidation and damage of property belonging to women was shameful. It was all the more frustrating because having women in local bodies is nothing new; we already had women in town councils in the 1980s,” Dzuvichu said.
The old, yet new, battle
“To many outsiders, Naga society seems very attractive. Women are seen as liberated, but the reality is that we struggle with so many confinements, be it patriarchy, customary laws, social practices, diktats from the community. But these have made our women stronger and bolder over the years,” she said.
Dzuvichu feels the mindset in Nagaland has to change in an era when even the most rigid of nations are moving towards greater gender equality. “It took World War I for women in England to enjoy voting rights, and American suffragists were imprisoned and beaten up by police. We have not had to fight for voting rights, but we will continue for our right to be public representatives in constitutional bodies,” she said.