Will anti-women quota stir in Nagaland affect BJP’s plan for a uniform civil code?5 min read . Updated: 07 Feb 2017, 02:20 AM IST
Can women demand political representation if, under customary law, only men are entitled to run institutions of governance? That's what the Naga women's fight is all about
New Delhi: It is the same old story again. This time coming from the north-eastern state of Nagaland, where women are supposedly empowered and safe. All the social indices and National Crime Records Bureau reports present a rosy picture of Nagaland. But the recent incidents across the state make the statistics look like numbers that don’t quite reflect the social realities.
Can women demand political representation if, under customary law, only men are entitled to run institutions of governance? This is the summary of the fight going on in Nagaland where women say they are entitled to 33% reservation in urban local bodies as is the case in the rest of the country. The Naga Hoho, the apex body representing 16 main tribal groups, and others opposing, insist that the provision of 33% reservation for women violates Article 371A of the Constitution, according to which no Act of Parliament will apply to Nagaland if it goes against customary laws. They argue that they are not against women’s representation in these bodies but against them standing for elections. They prefer to nominate women rather than have them stand for elections.
The arguments of those who oppose the reservation are on the same lines as those presented by the Muslim men and women who oppose the abolition of the practice of triple talaq.
One says customary laws are sacred, the other says personal laws are sacrosanct. Both cases have cleaved the respective societies into two: those who believe in personal and customary laws being sacrosanct, and those who believe times have changed and there is a need to adapt to the change.
Resistance to such an extent from Nagaland to protect its customary laws, even when it comes to an issue like women’s political participation, is particularly significant at a time when the ruling party, the BJP, is vouching for a uniform civil code (UCC).
In November last year, a group of 14 Naga tribal bodies and civil rights organizations met to discuss the UCC, and strongly opposed any such move by the Central government, saying that if enacted, the UCC will have a serious impact on religious and customary laws of Nagas and so, Nagaland should be exempted from the proposed code.
As the violence within the state is growing, the stories of struggles of women within Nagaland are coming out. Not a single woman has been elected to the assembly in the state’s more than 50-year-old history. The first legislative assembly election was held in 1964 and till the last election in March 2013, only 15 women candidates contested through the years.
The only time when Nagaland elected a woman legislator was during the 1977 Lok Sabha elections in which Rano M. Shaiza won. In the 2013 elections, there were two women contestants but both of them lost.
To be sure, political parties have women wings, but they are not recruited to run for elective offices.
“(Of the) Women who have contested in the elections, majority of the candidates were independent candidates. This highlights the reluctance of the political parties in Nagaland to sponsor Women as candidates in the election. Without the backing of major political parties, chances of winning is doubtful," according to a 2014 paper published in the International Research Journal of Social Sciences.
This fight for 33 % reservation might have made headlines, but this isn’t the only fight Naga women are fighting. Naga women are not allowed in the traditional village councils, they have no land rights, no property rights and no inheritance rights—so much so that if a man who doesn’t have a son, dies, the property and land will be inherited by a male relative who may be five or six cousins away in family line. Women are generally not allowed to participate in fighting or hunting, and can’t participate in debates of public interest, or accept honors or titles.
A recent study by the grassroots organization North East Network (NEN) of women from various Naga tribes, found that they continue to be discriminated against under tribal customary laws. ‘Enquiry into the status of women in Nagaland’, a 192-page report brought out by the Nagaland chapter of the NEN, brings out the voices of 132 such rural women belonging to three of the 11 districts of the state. The status of these women, who belong to six (out of 16 major tribes) Naga tribes, was documented between January 2014 and March 2016.
The study highlighted that “on consideration of a woman’s physical weakness, an Ao Naga (a tribe) woman suffers from disqualification in the following ways: She can’t become a member of Putu Menden (traditional village/clan/tribal council which is the highest decision making body in Ao society).
She can’t become the patir/putie (village councillor) though she may be the oldest person in the village. She is debarred from performing religious rites and sacrifices. An Ao woman also can’t inherit landed property. After the father dies, even the mother has to seek the son’s permission to cut firewood from his land.
A November 2016 piece in The Wire quoted Monisha Behal, chairperson of the NEN, saying, “The customary laws of Chakhesang Nagas state that when a married woman is caught for adultery, she is forced to leave her husband’s house with only the clothes she is wearing, with a fine imposed on her depending on the gravity of the situation. But if a married man brings his lover home and creates disharmony in the family, he doesn’t need to leave, but will have to give his wife half the property acquired during his married life."
Patriarchy manifests itself in various forms. Naga women run commercial establishments, work in offices, teach in universities; are seen working in local markets, or campaigning against social ills like alcohol abuse, their role in the family is considerably recognized, compared to the counterparts in the rest of the country, but as a 2016 piece in a local Nagaland newspaper, Morung Express (http://morungexpress.com/women-reservation-nagaland/) pointed out, “women’s role is consciously and subconsciously assigned to the private sphere, not in the public realm."
So far, two young boys have been killed in the violence. The elections have now been put off, and the protestors are seeking the resignation of the state chief minister. Maintaining that this reservation infringes upon the traditions and customary laws of the state, one group of tribal leaders has also claimed that women anyway enjoyed equal rights in Naga society and hence, providing quota or reservation was meaningless.
Unlike Muslim women, whose rights got the attention of the ruling party BJP, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi came forward saying “in the country, lives of Muslim women cannot be allowed to be ruined by triple talaq", as of now, the political commitment is seen in trying to control the situation and not as much for the rights of these Naga women.