Communities can’t veto women’s reservation

A basic minimum on gender rights should be non-negotiable even in a state with special privileges like Nagaland


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The elections for urban local bodies in Nagaland—slated to be held on 1 February—have been postponed in the light of violent protests against the provision of 33% reservation for women. The local elections have been due for more than 16 years now. In September 2012, the Nagaland state assembly had passed a resolution opposing the quota for women. However, this resolution was revoked by the assembly in November 2016, clearing the way for the elections to be held. The assembly and the T.R. Zeliang government were responding to an interim order by the Supreme Court in a petition filed by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA).

The NMA argues that article 243(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33% women’s reservation in municipal bodies, applies to Nagaland as well. The opposite view—spearheaded by Naga Hoho, the apex body of Naga tribes—contends that article 371(A) gives precedence to Nagaland’s customary traditions and laws over the laws passed by Parliament. Moreover, the male-dominated tribal bodies assert that Naga society offers equal opportunity to their females obviating the need for any kind of affirmative action.

In reality, no woman has ever been elected to the state assembly in over 53 years of Nagaland’s existence as a state. It has sent a sole woman representative—late Rano M. Shaiza in 1977—to Parliament. The village development boards in the state, on the other hand, do have 25% seats reserved for women. But most of the tribal bodies which act as the custodians of tribal culture and traditions are dominated by men. As a result, the property and inheritance rights are highly skewed against women. This is also a system developed over the years to keep property from being taken outside the community in the eventuality of a woman deciding to marry outside the tribe.

Given the way the arguments are stacked, the first issue at stake here is the writ of the Constitution and the Supreme Court against the power of local customs and traditions. The right of Naga Hoho to speak for local customs can indeed be challenged, but focusing on merely that aspect provides a convenient excuse for not taking the difficult issue head on. As far as gender rights go, Indian laws and community-specific orthodoxies have gone against each other a number of times. The perennial debate on uniform civil code and the recent controversies over the rights of women to enter certain religious places are the best examples.

These debates are just a bit more complex in a state like Nagaland due to its unique history, tribal status, a special relationship with the Union of India enshrined in the Constitution, and the fact of it being riven by India’s longest running insurgency. Even a progressive Indian law can quickly be reduced to a conspiracy by New Delhi to dilute Naga nationalism.

The contest is not confined to the issue of gender rights. It was, for instance in Tamil Nadu, animal rights pitted against local traditions in the recent Jallikattu controversy. One-size-fits-all policies designed in New Delhi without accounting for local and varied granularities have indeed been problematic. But equally, the argument for autonomy has also been misused by communities to perpetuate their own internal inequities. This has certainly been the case for gender rights. A uniform civil code guaranteeing a basic minimum on gender rights is imperative and should be non-negotiable.

The second issue here is one of reservations. Even if the goal of women’s empowerment is a worthy one, is the policy of reservations the right means to get to it? This matter was vociferously debated when the United Progressive Alliance government had introduced a constitutional amendment to institute 33% reservation for women in the legislatures. While some members of Parliament had raised excellent points both in support and opposition of that bill, a few had shown their worst behaviour, forcing the use of marshals to evict them from the house.

The under-representation of women in Indian legislatures is a fact: among 193 countries ranked by Inter-Parliamentary Union, India’s lower house stands at a poor 145 (behind neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) in terms of women’s representation. But the means to address it can be many. One of the prominent alternatives suggested to reservations in legislatures was reservations in tickets distributed by political parties. But this is not foolproof either as political parties might distribute tickets to women from seats which they don’t expect to win.

Another objection to reservations is that women’s empowerment cannot take place by women winning elections against other women. But the outcomes in local body elections—which provide for women’s reservations—show that women are now steadily eating into the unreserved seats as well. Reservations for women are also less prone to creating entrenched political economies which tend to convert public goods into club goods for a handful.

A former French minister, Françoise Giroud, had once said that women will be men’s equals only if incompetent women could hold important jobs just like men did. Taking the cue, men in Nagaland should concede and the state government shouldn’t.

Should the Nagaland government press for local elections with women’s reservations intact? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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