Nagaland’s civic poll conundrum: Reservation and property tax
The state hasn't held urban polls since 2004 after protests. SC ordered polls with 33% women's reservation on May 16, but concerns over special status remain.
KOHIMA: The freshly-returned Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government headed by chief minister Neiphiu Rio may well be Opposition less in the House, but it is facing its first big hurdle after its formation in the upcoming urban local bodies (ULB) elections slated for May 16.
These have not been held in the state for almost two decades due to issues surrounding quotas for women and, a less discussed but significant matter of payment of property tax.
The last civic body poll was held in 2004. Matters came to a head between the state and the Supreme Court, which stayed the state election commission (SEC)'s notification cancelling the election scheduled for next month, and issued notices to the government for striking down its own municipal act. On April 17, it issued notices to chief minister Rio, state chief secretary and tribal leaders for repealing the Nagaland Municipal Act 2001 and violating an undertaking given to the court to conduct the ULB polls with 33% reservation for women. The Nagaland Legislative Assembly had repealed the act on March 29 after facing strong opposition to local body polls by various organisations.
The government is now caught between a rock and a hard place. If the local body polls are conducted, it faces the wrath of tribal and civil society organisations; on the other hand, it faces contempt of court if the polls are not held. The state has seen a history of boycott and violence in connection with ULB elections. In 2017, two lives were lost in a ULB poll-related violence which further resulted in burning down of government offices in the heart of capital Kohima.
A special provision, and anxiety of its dilution
Nagaland is a state created out of a political agreement with a special provision under Article 371A inserted in the Constitution of India which provides that no act of Parliament in respect 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, and 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. This casts a special responsibility on the state’s legislators to make policy and decisions that do not offend the rights of the people.
Leading Naga tribal bodies and civil society organisations have long opposed ULB polls under the Nagaland Municipal Act 2001 on the contention that the act was copied from another state’s and certain clauses were in contravention to Article 371A of the Constitution. In particular, their contention went, the act contained clauses that empowered municipalities to levy tax on land and buildings and this does not sit well with the people, who argue that the state has a unique landholding system where land is owned by the communities and indigenous tribes.
The crux of the argument is that Article 371A covers the entire state without classification on rural or urban areas, therefore, if the Naga people are to pay tax to the government irrespective of urban or rural areas,it implies that the land belongs to the government, which defeats the constitutional provision that ensures absolute ownership of the people over their land.
A senior bureaucrat who did not wish to be named told HT that the 2001 municipal law was hurriedly adopted by the then lawmakers without taking into account the repercussions it will have in the social fabric of Naga society. “Without visualising, we started accepting any policy that the government of India introduced. This was all done to get funds. The people at the helm of power should admit their mistake of adopting and passing the Act,” he said. The issue could be traced back to 1989-90 when the Centre changed the funding pattern for special states, including Nagaland, which earlier used to receive special grant-in-aid from the Centre from the time of statehood, he added.
Is the 33% women’s reservation issue connected?
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) seeking 33% reservation for women in civic bodies.
Last Monday, the apex court asked the Centre to make its stand clear whether the constitutional scheme of one-third reservation for women in municipal and town council elections can be violated by the Nagaland government by repealing the 2001 law. The court observed that though the state had resorted to the special provision/exemption under Article 371A, it has not been able to demonstrate that there are social, religious or customary practices of the Naga community which precludes women from participating in elections.
Though traditionally Naga women were not included in decision-making bodies, the society is no longer averse to the idea of women’s leadership which is evident in the recent election of two women legislators to the state assembly for the first time in the state’s 60-year history.
There is no direct relation between quota for women and taxation on land and buildings but an indirect correlation is drawn to the ULB issue wherein, in the traditional Naga society, women are not entitled to inherit land (ancestral), hence any issue or decision over land are considered outside the purview of women. This reasoning appears prejudiced as the quota being sought is for urban townships, however, litigations initiated by women over the years fighting for 33% reservation of seats in ULB elections has resulted in the matter being caught in the vortex of a larger political issue.
That said, there is more to the ULB issue than meets the eye. Although the state has its own protective laws particularly on land ownership, there is no clear definition of who a Naga is. Time and again there have been debates and speculations in various platforms on issues surrounding this as there are different categories of people living in the state, including non-Nagas married to Naga women who acquire land in the wife’s name and settled in the state, then there are those who have adopted the Naga wife’s family name; Naga families fostering and adopting non-Naga children etc. There appears to be a considerable fear of allowing non-Nagas getting involved in the ULBs who would then have the ultimate say in the urban settlements. Towards this, the state government’s proposed Registry of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland (RIIN) , if put in place, would solve more than half of the prevailing problems.
Brief history of contention
The Nagaland Municipal Act of 2001 was enacted in 2002. Despite the requirement under the Constitution (Part IXA), Article 243T — which was inserted by the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act 1992 to ensure that a minimum of one-third of the total number of seats to be filled by direct elections in every municipality shall be reserved for women; and seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a municipality — this did not happen in the 2004 ULB elections. In 2005, a woman candidate approached the Gauhati high court against the state government for not notifying seats reserved for women.
The following year, the state assembly incorporated a new section into the Municipal Act providing 33% reservation of seats for women in the ULBs and reservation of office of the chairpersons in the ULBs. However, the ULB elections could not take place in the following years (2008 and 2009) due to stiff opposition from various quarters towards the provision of reservation of seats.
In 2011, representatives of a women’s group called Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation (JACWR) filed a writ petition against the state government’s decision to withhold civic body election in the Kohima bench of the Gauhati HC. The court directed the state government to hold elections implementing 33% reservation of seats for women by January 2012. But opposition from tribal and civil society organisations meant that the ULB elections, though notified, were once again postponed.
In the same year (2012), the state assembly passed a resolution under Article 371A to exempt Nagaland from the application of Article 243T. However, the women’s panel in 2014 filed a special leave petition against the assembly resolution in the Supreme Court — two years later, it revoked the resolution, bringing women’s reservation back. It also removed provisions relating to property tax (tax on land and building) from the state municipal act — all references and operative provisions relating to tax on land and buildings in the act were deemed to be “omitted”.
The state government then notified the ULB polls with 33% reservation for women to be held in early 2017, and with assurance from the then chief minister TR Zeliang to conduct the polls as scheduled amid protests from civil and tribe organisations, the JACWR withdrew their case in January 2017. The government’s decision to go ahead with the polls despite opposition from organisations erupted in violent protests, loss of lives and successive bandhs including movement of government vehicles and locking down of government offices by protesters. Subsequently, the government called off the elections and Zeliang stepped down as CM.
This year, after the SEC notified the ULB poll schedule, eight apex tribal hohos (organisations) of the Angami, Ao, Lotha, Chakhesang, Sumi, Pochury, Rengma and Zeliang communities have demanded that the municipal law be rewritten. They have objected to the usage of ambiguous words “omission/omitted” and have asked that it be substituted with the word “deletion/deleted”.
While not entirely opposing the application of 33% quota for women in ULB elections, the organisations demanded that the state government guaranteed that women reservation did not infringe Article 371A and suggested that the duration of the application of 33% reservation should not exceed more than two tenures. They have, however, opposed the concept of reservation of the office of the chairperson for women and termed it a deprivation provision to rightful candidates.
“The office of the chairperson by reservation or by rotation should be totally revoked/annulled so that the elected members can elect the rightful candidate who is a Scheduled Tribe Indigenous Inhabitant of Nagaland to the office of the chairperson from among themselves, be it man or woman, democratically,” the hohos argued.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organization (ENPO) representing seven tribes — Konyak, Chang, Phom, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimkhiung and Tikhir — from six eastern districts have also taken the stand to disallow the local body polls unless the 2001 municipal law, which it said has a “serious negative impact” on Article 371A, was repealed.
Different tribe organisations which are mainly male-dominated, have now called out the influential Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) questioning the credibility of the leaders of the association and alleging them of trying to dilute and destroy the Naga customary laws and traditions. Two JACWR petitioners of both the 2011 and 2014 cases, seeking women reservation in ULBs, are officials of NMA.
The organisations alleged that the present NMA leaders are “un-mandated” as they no longer enjoy the support and mandate of Naga tribal women bodies. Several tribal women organisations have withdrawn their association with the NMA during the 2017 ULB issue.
Against this backdrop on April 12, the NMA wrote to the governor stating that it is a bonafide women organisation founded in 1984 and exists working for peace, women’s issues and social issues. It clarified that NMA has no connection with the PUCL who are the petitioners of the ongoing litigation in the apex court.
“The NMA has no written record of tinkering and experimenting with the customary laws and traditions of our people. As women and mothers, we have great respect for the rich culture and traditions of Nagas and welcome any public policy that empowers women and protect women’s rights which are for the good of everyone in the Naga society,” NMA president Abei-ü Meru and general secretary Lochumbeni Humtsoe stated.
They also asserted that NMA membership is open to individual women and tribe women bodies, and while tribe units of Angami, Chakhesang, Sumi and Lotha have been “forced to disassociate from NMA” during the riots of 2017, the organisation continues till date with four tribe women bodies along with individuals from various tribes. At least three of the four remaining tribe’s apex bodies have since then asked their women units to stay away from NMA.
Meanwhile, Ao Senden, the apex organisation of one of the major tribes has made it clear that Nagaland is a tribal state that was created under unique political circumstances and with special political considerations. “As such, we invite the leaders of PUCL and other elitist individuals sitting in their ivory towers to come and spend some time in Nagaland and get themselves educated about the culture, traditions and customary practices of the Nagas, before getting entangled in fruitless litigation,” a statement from the organisation stated.