Nagaland Issue: Status of Women and Opposition to 33% Reservation
Nagaland saw torching of dozens of government buildings by tribal organizations in February, 2017. The protest was against the 33% reservation for women in urban local body elections. The result was that state government was forced to cancel the polls. But then, the agitators started demanding that chief minister should resign. This monograph covers topics related to this issue.
Status of Women in Naga Tribal Societies
There is a paradox regarding position of women in tribal societies of Nagaland and it must be seen in the light of their social status vis-à-vis political status. As far as social status of women in Nagaland tribes is concerned, the women in Naga tribes enjoy higher respect, safety and security. This is evident from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, which say that women in Nagaland are safest in the country with only 67 crimes registered against women. Further, the practices like dowry, sati, female foeticide and infanticide are not common in Naga tribes. The social status of women in Nagaland is such high that it has given a false conception of “matriarchy” in the state in rest of India. The state has high female literacy rates, high enrolment of women in higher education, and women are well represented in the government jobs.
But crucially, women do not have inheritance rights over property and are extraordinarily poorly represented in decision-making.
However, as far as political status is concerned, there is an underlying gender bias and inequality with respect to political participation of the women. One example – the first Assembly election in Nagaland was held in 1964 and till date, no woman had won any MLA seat. This says a lot. We note here that Tribal societies of Nagaland are patriarchal in nature, characterised by male dominated tribal bodies. In such a society, opposition to women’s participation in decision-making is a centuries old practice. Customary laws of Nagaland debar women from inheriting land. Thus, the current political status of women in Nagaland can be summarized as follows.
- Traditionally, women have no say in the village councils.
- The constitution of India provides for adult franchise and equal voting rights to all adults. Via this provision, the Naga women were eligible to vote in MLA elections. But as far as their traditional institutions and village government was concerned, the old order remained intact.
- However, still there are some provisions such as the local laws provide mandatory inclusion of women in village development boards. The women’s participation in these institutions remains of passive nature as of now.
It is generally claimed that the patriarchal society and age-old customary laws and culture have hindered the empowerment of women in the Naga society.
Article 371(A) and Naga Women
Article 371(A) of the Constitution protects the social, cultural and customary practices of the Nagas. This law says 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, 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. However, there is a contradiction because Article 371(A) contradicts Article 243(D) that guarantees reservations for women.
Opposition to 33% reservation
The most important reason behind the opposition is the economic connotations inherent in politically empowering women through reservations. There is a fear that if women are allowed to function in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) then they would finally have a say in how resources are used and shared in towns, which can then easily spill over to the villages. The assumption is that the political powers give way for economic powers and this will disrupt the status quo of the patriarchal society which has successively marginalised women politically and economically for centuries.
Being denied the right to inherit lands, the Naga women have taken to education and are excelling in the public and private spheres academically, intellectually and to some extent economically. This has frightened the male members of the society who still expects women to be subservient and dependent on them. According to some estimates, more than 50% government employees of Nagaland are women.
Response of the state government
It must be highlighted that the tribal bodies like Naga Hoho are not Naga traditional institutions. Instead, the Naga village parliaments are the true traditional Naga institutions recognised by the colonial British government and the Indian government to act as custodians of Naga culture, traditions and customary laws under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. So it is totally unfortunate that Nagaland government is heeding to the voices of NGOs and civil society bodies at the cost of the constitutional mandate in the name of culture and tradition.
It is condemnable that the state government has failed miserably in stemming the violent protests against women’s reservation. Equally condemnable is the failure to maintain the rule of law by the inefficient civil and police bureaucratic machinery of the state.
- At present, the elections have been deferred owing to protest against women’s reservation. Given the existing situation, it is likely that the women’s reservations to ULBs will never be passed in the assembly.
- Naga tribal bodies are seeking amendments to various parts of Part IX-A of the Constitution.
- The issue has also brought to fore the law and order condition and weak infrastructure in India’s north east.
Way Forward: Should Customary Law be changed?
Customary law must bend to basic rights of women. Not all customary law which are mostly codified in the colonial era can fit the aspirations of 21st century Naga women. Since its first elections held in 1964, not even a single women has been elected to the state assembly. Half the population of the state cannot be kept out of democratic representation in the name of customary laws and traditions. It is time for Nagaland to amend customary law to end women’s subordination.