The tribal bodies’ protest against reservation for women in local municipalities in Nagaland must not be allowed to settle the argument
All-male tribal bodies have been against the 33% reservation for women in urban local bodies (ULBs) in Nagaland right from the time the Nagaland government enacted the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act in 2006, on the grounds that reservation for women in ULBs would violate Article 371(A) of the Constitution and infringe on Naga culture, traditions and customary laws. Faced with vehement opposition, the Nagaland government did not conduct elections to civic bodies for over 10 years.
Spearheaded by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), Naga women filed a writ petition challenging the State government’s refusal to hold municipal elections before the Kohima Bench of the Gauhati High Court on June 26, 2011. In October 2011, a single-judge bench of the court upheld the Naga women’s petition and directed the government to hold elections to municipal councils and town councils on or before January 20, 2012. But before the deadline, the Nagaland government filed an appeal before a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court, which stayed the previous ruling. One of the arguments put forward by the Nagaland government was the claim that implementing such a law would ‘upset the peace’ in Nagaland. On September 22, 2012, the Nagaland State Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting women’s reservation in ULBs on the ground that it infringes on the social and customary practices of the Nagas, which Article 371(A) safeguards.
The Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation (JACWR) then moved a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court in September 2012. On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the single-judge ruling of the Gauhati High Court of October 2011. So, the Nagaland government enacted the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016, which revoked the September 2012 resolution, paving the way for women’s reservation in ULBs. Early in January, the State government announced that elections to the ULBs would be held on February 1.
The tribal bodies protested loudly as soon as the elections were announced and threatened candidates who intended to file nominations that they would be ex-communicated from their respective tribes. Coming under pressure, some candidates didn’t file nominations and some others withdrew their papers. Those who refused to withdraw from the fray were ex-communicated, ranging from 10 to 30 years.
Through all this, the State government remained a silent spectator and failed to assert the rule of law, especially because these tribal bodies are not traditional institutions recognised by Article 371(A). The ULBs too are not traditional Naga institutions but constitutional bodies under Part IX of the Constitution over which Naga traditional bodies have no mandate.
When the State government refused to call off the elections, the tribal bodies announced a bandh from January 28 to February 1. They enforced the bandh across Nagaland although elections took place in several places on February 1. Clearly, some towns did not agree with these tribal bodies.
Meanwhile, on January 31, two persons were killed in Dimapur, the commercial capital of the State. Things soon took an ugly turn, and the Nagaland government declared the elections ‘null and void’. Since then, tribal bodies have begun clamouring for more, seeking the resignation of the Chief Minister, no less. Though life is limping back to normal, there is still a bandh on government offices and a restriction on movement of government vehicles.
But it must be said that even before the bandh call, the focus had started shifting from women’s reservation to issues of taxes and land ownership contained in the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016.
What is even more alarming, and preposterous, is that the Nagaland government has decided to write to the Centre demanding that Nagaland be exempted from Part IX A of the Constitution. “If the State Government and all the stakeholders cannot arrive at an amicable resolution of this issue at the earliest, the best option appears to be to seek exemption of Nagaland from Part IX A of the Constitution, which contains a mandatory provision under Article 243T for 33% women reservation in ULBs, which will put to rest the issue and avoid further misunderstanding among the people,” the Chief Minister’s office explained in a release.
Clearly, to rescue itself, the Nagaland government is doing a Pontius Pilate by washing its hands of the reservation issue and sacrificing the rights of Naga women at the altar of Naga males’ primeval tribal ego. If Nagaland is exempted from the purview of Part IX of the Constitution, Naga women will have absolutely no hope of entering into and participating in decision-making bodies.
Reservation for women is necessary in patriarchal societies like Naga society, for instance, where there is a historical culture of inequalities even though Nagas don’t practise sati, female foeticide and infanticide, and do not believe in dowry or the caste system. But Naga customs, culture and traditions preclude women from inheriting land and participating in the decision-making process, which is exactly what Article 371(A) protects.
The other deeply worrying issue is that because the government at the Centre appears to be misinformed about ground realities in Nagaland, it is possible that the State government’s claim that the reservation issue may ‘upset the peace’ in the state could cloud its judgment.
Undeniably, the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Naga women now depend on the Centre, as much as on the gender sensitised public of India.