The Great Naga Divide

Despite Christianity, and a progressive, English-speaking women being allowed poll rights in local bodies by the Supreme Court, Naga men are furious about granting the Constitutional right to their better halves; Swati Deb reports from Kohima.

Nagas are proud of their manliness. The Nagamese sentence “Eimanutohmotaasey (This man is being man in true sense),” would be a usual description for any courageous stand a Naga would take socially and politically. But in the 21st century, is this traditional belief somehow getting complicated in the whole bargain?
In the end the will of the tribal groups seem to prevail in Nagaland. After a fortnight long tussle and manoeuvring, Chief Minister TR Zeliang virtually threw in the towel as he dropped hints about his resignation.
“I am seized of the matter regarding the demands for my stepping down as Chief Minister… In order to ensure smooth transition of office, and in larger interest of the state, I appeal to you to wait for 2-3 more days,” the beleaguered Zeliang wrote in a brief note to KT Villie, convenor of Nagaland Tribes Action Council on February 16.
News of the note spread like wildfire on the social networking sites on a day Zeliang and the state Governor PB Acharya have been summoned to Delhi for consultations.
Nagaland had plunged into turmoil after violence erupted over protests against women’s reservation in urban local bodies’ elections. Is the Naga society on the cusp of a truly transformative change?, asked a local educationist, as he wondered how could tribal sentiment remain so biased against women, despite high rates of English education in the state and also the fact that Christianity had entered into Naga hills way back in 1875.
The Naga Hoho, an organistation of all 18 Naga tribes, had asked the incumbent Naga Peoples Front (NPF)-led state government and Chief Minister Zeliang to “gracefully step down if the leaders have any conscience”.
Another top leader, Naga Hoho’s general secretary M Yhobu said the state government did not “listen” to the voice of the people and has “treacherously” betrayed its own commitments.
The church bodies – generally respected in the state – too initially avoided joining issuewith the man-woman confrontation and the ‘apprehension’ that the Naga rights guaranteed under Art 371 (A) – similar to Jammu and Kashmir- would be violated.
However, the influential Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) finally intervened and ensured a pact between the state Home Minister Y Patton and Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) of the Naga tribes.
There was a pact that elections to civic bodies across 12 towns will be deferred and in the meanwhile, the government will interact more with all stakeholders and try to work out a solution by evolving a consensus. But to the chagrin of many, Zeliang and the state cabinet later overturned the decision of the Home Minister himself and went ahead with elections.
This had aggravated the situation. The subsequent violence and police firing are now part of the history that could be best forgotten.
The protest was to oppose a state government enacted law – upheld by the Supreme Court to reserve seats for women in urban civic bodies. The state was trying to implement a provision of the Indian Constitution which provides a 33 percent reservation for women in local elections.
Tribal groups said that the move would infringe upon the special rights guaranteed to the Nagas as the ‘special provisions’ accorded to Nagaland in the Constitution allowing Naga tribal people to follow their own traditions and customs.
A fully-fledged state since 1963, Nagaland has yet to elect a woman legislator though it did have a woman parliamentarian, Rano Shaiza in the 1970s.
A typical patriarchal society, the Nagas believe that women, though highly educated and English speaking, should not be allowed a free hand in administrative jobs.
Vilie told TSI that the Naga people are not against women contesting elections but they opposed to reserving seats for women, especially invoking a provision of the Indian Constitution. “Once this is done, it will infringe upon the traditional and customary rights of the Naga people. The Indian Constitution today allows a special provision and the Nagas can practice the customary laws, social practices and beliefs of the tribe unless the state legislature changes it by resolution,” he explains.
Vekhosayi Nyekha, another tribal leader who opposed the government’s move, said the special provision was a “hard-earned right”.
Others seem to endorse. “Zeliang has been hobnobbing with BJP and RSS leaders. He forgot the Naga rights and no Naga worth his salt will give up the special rights guaranteed under Article 371 (A).

A State Since 1963, Nagaland Has Yet To Elect A Woman Legislator, Though It Did Have A Woman MP, Ra No Shaiza, Way Back In The 1970s

This was not a gift from the government of India,” said a Naga legislator who pushed the move to replace Zeliang as CM. The Angami Public Organisation and some other tribal bodies offered that “instead of reservation” the women could be nominated to the urban bodies. This was rejected by the Naga Mothers Association, the pro-rights campaigners. “When Kohima erupted in flames and historic buildings were burnt to ashes, it was a painful sight” lamented a retired government servant Neibulo Kath.
Two people were killed when a mob allegedly tried to storm into the Chief Minister’s private residence at 4th Mile area of Dimapur. On the night of February 2, Kohima’s historic town committee hall was gutted.
It goes without saying that the all-male tribal bodies have been against the 33 per cent quota for women in either legislative or urban local bodies. In 1996, the apex Naga Students’ Federation had written to Geeta Mukherjee, senior CPI leader, when she was heading the Rajya Sabha Select Committee on Women’s Reservation Bill saying guaranteeing 33 per cent reservation for women in state legislature would be an infringement on Naga traditional affairs.
In 1997, gauging the mood, an unanimous resolution was passed by the state assembly during the stint of Congress regime under veteran leader SC Jamir. The then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Z Lohe had moved the resolution opposing the 33 per cent quota for women in state legislature and no Naga politician dared to oppose it.
This issue was revived again in Nagaland polity after the Nagaland Municipal First Amendment Act was enacted in 2006. Trying to ‘dismiss’ the Act right at its birth – notwithstanding support for the same by the influential Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), the male-dominated tribal bodies said the new law “would violate Article 371 (A) of the Constitution”.
But Naga women activists who favoured the reservation law – with their argument – dismissed the apprehensions saying municipal bodies are meant for civic amenities, drainage and cleanliness. “We will have nothing to do with political rights of the Nagas vide Article 371 (A),” said Rose Meery, a pro-quota activist.
Another activist, Hukheli waxed eloquently: “Men respect us but when it comes to 33 per cent reservation, they opposed. That’s the short story. The long story is Naga women struggle is not understood per se. We Naga women did not want to rule over men”.
The Naga politicians predictably did not dare to burn their fingers and thus did not execute the law. Hence, no civic body elections were conducted in since 2006 over the last 10 years. Things would have continued normally – as they say had not the NMA sought intervention of the court.
In October 2011, a single judge bench of the Guwahati High Court upheld the petition from the NMA and directed the state government to conduct civic body elections.
However, the state assembly on September 22, 2012 adopted a resolution rejecting the provisions of women’s reservation in urban local body elections in Nagaland. There was also a stay on the one-member bench judge order, till the matter finally reached the Supreme Court.
On April 20, 2016, the apex court gave a historic ruling in favour of Naga women and thus the state government was forced to enact the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016. Subsequently in January 2017, the TR Zeliang ministry announced that elections would be held on February 1.
It was just the beginning of the larger battle. Women candidates started getting threats from tribal bodies. Some even withdrew nominations under duress. Women groups have complained separately that many a times the state government remained a mute spectator and nothing was done to protect the candidates. “Those who refused to withdraw from the fray were excommunicated by various tribal bodies, ranging between 10 to 30 years. The government still did not move.
“This only showed that things could deteriorate further,” says a district Congress worker.
Ultimately, there is need to look at various issues. As pointed out by many, the root cause may be more political as the battle cry ultimately led for creation of ground for Chief Minister Zeliang’s ouster.
Nagas are in a transitional world in more ways than one. Hence, by simply tackling any one of the problems, total normalcy and true progressive and tolerant society, as one understands by the terms, cannot be restored.
Rather, the problems ought to be grasped in their entirety and lasting solutions worked out with a deeper sense of reality and giving  respect to the local sentiments — than it has been attempted so far.
There is need to understand that none other than the Supreme Court of India after long six years decided on the case and gave Naga women’s rights to constitutional provisions.
Despite Christianity and overwhelming influence of English education, the Nagas too have remained confined to the world known in many other parts of India – ‘men’s world’. But time has changed. Women are coming forward for their political emancipation.
That’s vital because in principle Naga women have rejected the suggestion from various tribal groups that they could ‘nominate’ even 40-50 per cent of women to urban local bodies. The big picture message is by rejecting such a ‘favour’ – the Naga women make a fundamental political statement. Getting elected to urban local bodies is their right, they insist.
The pro-quota and anti-quota divide is here to stay, and despite possibilities of political changes in the state, the real crux of the battle is far from over.
A Chief Minister may get replaced. This is just cosmetic. The country as a whole and the government of India must be sensitive to the ground realities – more earnestly than it has been in recent times.
Like in many other parts of India, politics is the root of all problems in Nagaland too. The protest over women’s quota and subsequent heart burns were no exceptions. Elections are due in the state in March 2018 along with Meghalaya and Tripura.
But the political turmoil that erupted following protests over attempts to reserve seats for women in local government bodies is also linked to political one-upmanship between state Zeliang and the state’s lone Lok Sabha MP Neiphio Rio, the illustrious predecessor of Zeliang.
The Chief Minister himself said the ‘protests’ were also being orchestrated to serve the vested interests of stakeholders. The outbursts were also being linked to attempts being made to “rehabilitate” Rio back into the state politics.
“Rio, a powerful leader in his own right and a former Chief Minister had moved to Delhi as MP in 2014, but probably he still finds the grass greener back home in the backyards of Nagaland politics,” said a source in the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF).
NPF was founded by Rio after he left Congress in 2002 and merged his splinter group with the regional outfit Nagaland Democratic Party in the state.
But ever since Rio’s move to Delhi, Zeliang and a party veteran, Shurhozelie, also NPF president, have strengthened their grip in the party. Rio has been gradually isolated and he has also been suspended by the NPF leadership last year for alleged anti-party activities – a charge that the Lok Sabha MP has denied vehemently.
Recently, in view of the political turmoil in the state, four NPF MLAs have appealed to NPF President Shurhozelie to revoke the suspension orders on Neiphiu Rio. The appeal was made by legislators KropolVitsu, Noke Wangnao, CM Chang and Namri Chang, who also described Rio “as the tallest and most acceptable leader of the Nagas”. The decision has not be made yet.

“We do not want to rule over men”

How do you underline the genesis of the problem vis-s-vis opposition to women’s quota among Nagas as the Naga society has been generally broadminded and progressive?
Men respect us but when it comes to 33 per cent reservation, they are opposed. That’s the short story. The long story is Naga women’s struggle is not understood clearly. We Naga women did not want to rule over men. We want to work for ourselves and our future.

What really sparked off the major confrontation on the streets? Did the government do enough to prevent things escalate?
True. One factor that triggered the problem is the government’s turnaround from an agreement. The pact was signed by the state Home Minister, but what made Chief Minister Zeliang and the state cabinet overturn that decision remains a puzzle.

But is not the argument a fallacy that women’s reservation in civic bodies could jeopardise Article 371 (A) of the Constitution and result in the surrender of some hard earned Naga rights?
It is a baseless argument. Civic bodies or urban local bodies do not deal with politics in the bigger sense. They are essentially about sanitation and drainage.

The root cause is patriarchal traditions. Naga men also believe that they have the right to dictate Naga women. What gives the right to all-male tribal organisations to demand women’s organisations of various tribes to disassociate from the Naga Mothers’ Associations?
The Supreme Court took about six years to decide on the case and in the end upheld the Naga women’s rights to constitutional provisions. The law is very clear. All are equal and have the right to hold office and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sex, religion or caste. So why this discrimination?