Tribal bodies dominated by men, protesting against a 33 percent reservation for women to participate in public office, have brought parts of Nagaland to a standstill.
Nagaland, in North-East India, is the only state where there has been sustained opposition to the 33 per cent reservation for women to participate in public office, a policy which has been implemented across India. An urban local bodies election was scheduled to take place on February 1 and would have been the first to implement the reservation. However it was met with violent protests that shut down educational institutions, public offices and shops across the state. The election has been indefinitely postponed, but due to the struggles of Naga women the issue has been kept in the limelight.
Since 2006, when the first Amendment of the Nagaland Municipal Act was enacted, tribal bodies dominated by men have consistently opposed the affirmative action policy passed by the government of India. After these initial protests, the momentum for the opposition to 33% did not subside. Opposition grew over the years as tribal bodies and cultural associations threatened people with dire consequences if they came out to support the affirmative action.
When the state government of Nagaland decided to go ahead with the 2017 Municipal election and implement the 33% reservation for women, male tribal bodies spearheaded a series of protests. In the beginning church elders and civil society leaders were called upon to broker a temporary peace. It was agreed that the government would defer the elections and tribal organisations would call off their opposition campaign. However, the administration allowed the elections to take place in certain districts that were not opposed to the reservation. This led to a call for a return to the streets by the male protestors.
On 5 March 2017, the Central Nagaland Tribal Council (CNTB) issued an order to “restrain” youth and women who were speaking up for 33% reservation. State security forces killed three male protesters who were attending public meetings organised by male tribal bodies. During the weeks to come, mobs organised by tribal associations burnt down public property. In an attempt to quell the unrest, the government resorted to censorship of social media and internet. The protesters blamed the government of Nagaland for failing to consult ‘the people’, in other words, the male tribal bodies and authorities. Condemning the government of Nagaland for being ‘anti-Naga people’ and disrespecting customary practices and culture, the violent protests intensified. As a result, the urban local bodies’ election was postponed indefinitely and the Chief Minister of Nagaland, Mr. T.R. Zeliang was forced to step down and hand over power to his colleague Dr. Shurhozelie Leizitsu.
Some normality has been restored after the decision to postpone the 33 per cent reservation for women indefinitely. Yet, the situation remains uncertain as public workers do not have offices to return to. Many government buildings were burnt down by the protesters and equipment such as pollution toolkits, documents, and furniture destroyed.
The opposition to affirmative action has opened up serious concerns and debates about gender justice in Naga society. Nagaland, with a population of 1.9 million, has managed its own civil and legal affairs since its inception as a federal unit within the Republic of India in 1963. Customary courts and traditional tribal organisations have functioned as the administrative and moral authorities in the state. Although there is a Legislative Assembly where members are elected through the Indian electoral system every five years, the traditional courts and organisations enjoy a degree of influence that is unprecedented and cannot be found in other states within the country. A provision within the Constitution of India, known as Article 371 (A) guarantees protection of Naga culture and customs, land ownership, including preservation of local social and religious practices.
These functions have given immense power to the male tribal councils and associations in Nagaland. However, their rise to power also needs to be understood against the backdrop of the armed conflict between Naga national groups fighting the government of India since 1947 for their right to a sovereign homeland. Given the long conflict, state organs and public offices in Nagaland are defunct, and Naga society is extremely militarised. Leaders who are heads of parliamentary political parties and hold important positions are accused of corruption and of instrumentalising the conflict for their political gains. Given the political instability, the tribal organisations have emerged as a powerful public forum. As in other indigenous societies around the world, these bodies were revered in the past and Naga culture and customs were propagated as practices handed down ‘since time immemorial’.
The iteration of Naga culture as pure and unique has come to be contested in the ongoing debate about women’s rights. Advocates of the 33 per cent reservation, such as women and youth organisations, and male and female individual voices, have argued against the notion of a static and masculine Naga culture. They have argued that customary laws and practices that continue to exclude women cannot be held as instruments of justice. The male-dominated tribal bodies exclude women’s participation, although Naga women hold important positions as administrators, doctors, engineers, academics, and are successful entrepreneurs. It is significant that none of these positions are within the ambit of Naga traditional institutions. Therefore, the processes of negotiating for women’s rights in Naga society are regarded as a demand outside the traditional customary set-up. On this logic, Naga women’s assertions for gender justice have been tagged as ‘anti-Naga’ move.
There is an anxiety and fear that sharing traditional decision-making platforms with women will ruin Naga society. Journalist Amrit Dhillon reported these sentiments when she spoke to Naga male protesters. In her piece titled ‘Nagaland, where men are on strike until women go back to the kitchen’, she quoted Mr. Hokiye Sema who said, "In Naga society a women is not equal to man. We give women respect but they cannot make decisions. Even in our village councils, women speak only if they are invited to give their opinion to the men. Giving women equality will destabilise our society and our ancient customs." Speaking to Dhillon, another Naga male protester, Mr Vekhosayi Nyekha, the co-convener of the Joint Co-ordination Committee (JCC) said, "Naga women work at home and in the fields. Men go to war. Men make the decisions. That’s Naga culture for centuries and we won’t allow anyone to destroy our culture". Despite the powers arrayed against them, Eyingbeni, a Naga feminist theologian who supports the quota for women said, "I believe all the chaos is related with (sic) 33% reservation…I cringe at womenfolk joining the bandh (strike) in their Sunday best...all the more the reason to reserve seats for them. We will keep hope burning for women".
In order to demand the implementation of the quota, a signature campaign was launched online in February. Situating the history of excluding Naga women in political decision making bodies, the campaign stated, "Nagaland state parliament has only one female (only a fill-in of her husband’s seat who passed away in the midterm). This is 54 years of exclusive men’s club!! It’s time for women’s political voice to be heard in Nagaland." The appeal and campaign was sent to the office of the Prime Minister of India and various government bodies, Naga traditional councils, and international organisations. An important part of the campaign appealed for a citizen inquiry to look into the destruction of property and loss of life during the protests, and to initiate a debate on gender justice in the state.
It is important to reiterate that the struggle for gender justice is not spearheaded by women alone. Male and female supporters of the 33 per cent reservation have encountered Naga men and women who believe that tribal authority and power should rest with Naga men alone. Under such circumstances, as cultural and political organisations look to the central government of India to intervene and resolve the crisis, it is becoming clear that the battle is closer to home. Unless debates and dialogues for gender justice and Naga women’s experiences of patriarchy, violence, and everyday humiliation are recognised, the movement for gender justice will remain a fragmented one. As Naga feminist activist Inotoli Zhimomi notes, "Implementing the 33% reservation does not reflect negative aspect of Naga culture, therefore, it should not be seen as a punitive measure against Naga cultural practices. On [the] contrary, if there is anything negative it is the rejection of such affirmative action. It is the denial of the patriarchy that defines Naga society."