Nagaland is in a state of complete chaos and disorder at this moment. The people of Dimapur and Kohima have been caught amidst indefinite bandhs and protests since January 26. The tribal representative bodies in the state are protesting the State Government’s decision to have 33% reservation of seats for women in the Urban Local Body elections. These elections, which have been due 16 years, were scheduled to take place on February 1. However, the State Government decided to postpone these elections in view of the mass boycott and protests.
The Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) has been fighting for women’s reservation in the local bodies in court for years, and in 2016, the Supreme Court finally passed an interim order seeking a directive from the apex court to the state government to allow for women’s reservations in the ULBs, as in other states. CM T.R. Zeliang’s government decided to hold the polls after it received an approval from the cabinet on August 10.
On February 2, the protests took a violent turn as a mob went on a rampage, setting the Old Secretariat building on fire and vandalizing Government vehicles. Clashes between the mob and the police resulted in the death of two protesters and left several others injured. Five additional companies of Assam Rifles had to be deployed to tackle the uproar in the state. Moreover, there is no inter-state movement of vehicles via Dimapur, and the state’s lone railway station is stranded. SMS and internet services have remained suspended since January 30.
The protests are being led by Naga HoHo, Lotha HoHo and Sumi HoHo – 3 Naga tribal bodies that represent more than 18 Naga tribes. They argue that reservations for women are against their customary tribal beliefs and that the Naga society is allowed to follow its own customary rules and laws, as guaranteed by Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.
Nagaland has never seen a woman MLA, and those women who are standing for the polls are under immense pressure to withdraw owing to threats of excommunication. Women are abstaining from coming out in large numbers in support of the reservations fearing increased chaos and tensions. The protesters are also demanding the resignation of the Chief Minister over his refusal to withdraw his decision on the reservation for women.
This patriarchal side of Naga people may come as surprise to some, considering the popular narrative of gender discrimination being almost absent from the north-east tribal societies. People commonly believe that women in the north-east enjoy greater freedom than the women in other parts of the country, based on the assumption that tribal societies are egalitarian and non-orthodox in nature. However, a closer look debunks these myths and reveals the deep-rootedness of patriarchy in the north-eastern society.
A report titled Enquiry into the status of women in Nagaland, published by the North East Network, a women’s rights organization, echoes the stories of 132 rural women belonging to six different Naga tribes and throws light on the patriarchal laws and customary beliefs of these tribes. One of the examples given in the report is of the customs of the Ao tribe. As per the report, an Ao woman can neither become a member of the traditional tribe/clan/village council nor inherit ancestral land, owing to her ‘physical weakness’. According to the customary laws of the Chakhesang Nagas, when a married woman is caught in adultery, she is must leave her husband’s house with only her clothes she is wearing, and pay a fine depending on the gravity of the situation. Whereas, if a married man brings his lover and creates disharmony in the family, he will have to give his wife half his property acquired during his marriage life.
Although tribal customary laws are unwritten and uncodified, these oppressive customary practices have emerged as a result of the patriarchal interpretation of these laws by men. Organizations like Naga Mothers’ Association and Naga Womens’ Union have been seeking reform in such regressive and orthodox beliefs/practices, but there has been little progress on that front. Women are actively kept out of the customary bodies and hence, have no say in the decisions affecting the tribe.
However, the question of the hour is if these violent protests are solely driven by patriarchy.
Bandhs and protests (non-violent) are as commonplace in Nagaland as the conflicts of interest between the State and the tribal groups. The groups protested the polls for another reason – taxes levied by the town councils. Speaking to The Wire, Naga Hoho president Chuba Ozukum argued, “The people are asking why should we pay taxes to the council when the land belongs to us. Unlike other states, the Nagaland government doesn’t own any land, land in the state is a private entity.”
Moreover, people have been unhappy with state Government for several reasons; poor public services, rampant corruption, failure to avail development funds granted by the centre to name a few. Moreover, any interference by the Centre is met with immediate aversion it has constantly neglected the issues of the Naga people. It further created more friction by extending the draconian Armed Forces Special Act (AFSPA) in the state by six months.
Women are treated as mere bargaining chips in the struggle for power between the State and the tribal leaders and are the biggest victims to the resulting antagonism. They face oppression at the hands of both parties, have no place to voice their concerns. Hence, these elections are extremely crucial for the empowerment of Naga women because it finally provides an opportunity for them to bring their issues to the forefront.
However, the arm-twisting of the state through violent protests, the hegemony of patriarchal tribal bodies and the perpetuation of the orthodox customary practices pose a massive threat to the quest for Naga women’s political freedom and the larger struggle for gender equity. But what brings hope amidst the chaos, is the spirit of the women standing in these elections. Despite all the threats, they remain to stand firm on their decision to contest, challenging the leaders of the patriarchal traditional system.