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‘Equality as Tradition’ and Women’s Reservation in Nagaland

The author is thankful to Dayal Paleri and Pahi Saikia for their kind invitations, and to participants at both these places for their helpful comments. The author also gratefully acknowledges the help of Kevi Theunuo, Martha Theunuo, Moamenla Amer, and Riku Khutso in the preparation of this article.Kham Khan Suan Hausing ( teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.

Drawing on the purported attempts to give 33% reservation to women in Nagaland’s urban local bodies as a test case, an analysis is made of how misleading the presumption and claim of “equality as tradition” could be in a supposedly “egalitarian” Naga society. Patriarchally structured deliberations, consultations and decision-making procedures adopted by the Government of Nagaland and the judiciary have failed to accord equal participation and effective voice to women.

Earlier versions of this article were presented at a distinguished lecture organised by the Students’ Union of University of Hyderabad on 22 February 2017 and at an international conference on Continuities and Discontinuities of Asian Engagement at the Indian Institute Technology, Guwahati, 17–18 October 2013.

One of the most common presumptions about tribal societies in the North East India or elsewhere is their “egalitarianism.” Although it is taken as a given and frequently used as a staple justification to mark out the tribal “others” from inegalitarian caste-Hindu societies in India, egalitarianism as a hallmark of “equality as tradition” of tribal societies sits uneasily with the inegalitarian discourse and unequal treatment meted out to tribal women (Shimray 2002). This becomes glaringly evident in the controversy surrounding attempts by the Nagaland Legislative Assembly (NLA) to give 33% reservation to women in urban local bodies (ULBs) since 2006 when it inserted Section 23A to the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001 by bringing about an amendment to this act.

ULBs, encompassing three municipalities—Dimapur, Kohima and Mokokchung—and 161 town councils in Nagaland, became controversial with this amendment as antagonists—constituted by a melange of frontal Naga tribal bodies like Naga Hoho and Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO)—contend that this amendment amounts to imposition of “alien” rules like “reservation” and “tax” on “land and buildings” which violate the Naga “way of life,” social tradition and customary laws of equal treatment (Amer 2013; Eastern Mirror 2017; GoN 2012; Wouters 2017). These arguments were effectively used to mobilise public opposition to implementation of the amended 2001 act and holding of ULB elections since October 2008. Caving into the pressure of these antagonists, NLA invoked its special plenary power under Article 371(A)2 which protects, inter alia, Naga customary law, land and resources, and passed a resolution on 22 September 2012 exempting the state from Part IX(A) (dealing with municipalities) of the Constitution.

Protagonists of the amended act, the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and the Joint Action Committee for Women Reservation (JACWR), consistently argued for holding of ULB elections and implementing the 33% reservation to bring about women’s empowerment. They contend that NLA’s resolution and the oppositional stand taken by antagonist Naga tribal bodies seek to perpetuate inegalitarian patriarchal societal culture and customary practices (Changkija 2017; Dzuvichu 2011, 2016). Protagonists also considered deeply problematic attempts to invoke Article 371(A) to forestall women’s reservation because “municipalities” are “modern entities” that lie outside the ambit of Naga’s customary laws (Dzuvichu 2016).

Consistent pressure from New Delhi and multilateral aid agencies that increasingly tie up development aid to inclusive democracy at the grass roots, and representations by the protagonists of this act to the Supreme Court led the court to direct the GoN on 20 April 2016 to immediately hold ULB elections. Following this directive, NLA passed a resolution on 22 November 2016 whereby it revoked its September 2012 resolution. In order to pave the way for holding of ULB elections, NLA enacted the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Act on 24 November 2016 and removed two major grounds of opposition by tribal bodies to ULBs, namely (i) Section 121(1)(a) of the 2001 act pertaining to ULBs’ power to impose “tax on lands and buildings,” and (ii) reservation to Scheduled Castes in the state under Sections 23(A) and 23(B) of the act.

However, when GoN fixed ULB elections for 1 February 2017 and initiated the electoral process, frontal Naga tribal bodies vehemently opposed the move and intimidated prospective candidates not to contest elections. Several candidates withdrew their nomination papers as a result. The opposition to ULB elections reached a climax on 1 February 2017 when two of the violent protesters were killed by alleged police firing in Dimapur and the headquarter building of the municipal council in Kohima was razed to the ground. Although the failure of GoN to honour its agreement on 30 January 2017 with the Joint Coordination Committee—the umbrella tribal bodies which frontally opposed ULB elections—to postpone ULB elections for two months and hold wider consultations, provided the immediate spark to this violent protest, a nuanced examination of the opposition to extend 33% reservation to women and hold ULBs accordingly underscores the complexity of the issues and concerns raised by different segments of Naga society.

Question of Women’s Reservation

It is a truism that despite making significant progress in education, employment and health sectors, women around the world have negligible presence in legislative and executive bodies. Since 1893 when New Zealand extended franchise to women, the entry and presence of women in representative bodies have been incremental (Norris 1996). The British parliament, considered as the mother of modern parliaments, for example, made halting progress as hardly two dozen women found entry as Members of Parliament (MPs) between 1945 and 1983 (Norris 1996: 89). From constituting about 5% in this period, their representation increased to 60 MPs in 1992, accounting for 9.2%, before it eventually reached a high of 32% in 2017 (Norris 1996: 89; IPU 2017). The Scandinavian countries were considered role models in the 1970s and 1980s, yet women barely constituted around 20%–30% of the elected representatives during this period.

The negligible presence of women in representative bodies was somehow rectified since the 1990s when major international aid donors began to link aid with inclusive governance. This arguably sets in what is popularly known as the “fast track” mode of women’s representation in elected bodies even as these donors mandated statutory provisions to secure fixed women’s quotas in these bodies as a necessary condition to extend developmental aid (Bush 2011; Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005; Reynolds 1999). The upshot of this is extensive constitutionally and party-mandated electoral reforms undertaken by aid-dependent developing countries around the world, a phenomenon which had ripple effects on industrially developed democracies as well. Not surprisingly, these countries witnessed increased presence of women in parliaments by introducing the quota system. Some of the glaring beneficiaries of these reforms include Rwanda with 48.8% in 2003, Costa Rica with 35.1% in 2002, Argentina with 34.1% in 2003, South Africa with 32.8% in 2004—all of which introduced the list proportional system of representation to secure greater presence of women in their parliaments (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005: 36). While Costa Rica maintained its 2003 level, Argentina and South Africa have since increased women’s representation to their parliament by over 4% in 2017. Rwanda with 61.3% women in its lower house of parliament is currently the world’s leader in giving representation to women (IPU 2017).

It is being held that increasing presence of women in elected legislative and executive bodies caters to the demands of justice by securing equal participation right to them in the deliberative and decision-making process. Indeed, the question of representation and giving voice to disenfranchised groups like women has engaged modern liberal political thinkers and activists alike for a long time now. Writing almost a century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill underscored the imperative to have intellectual and social diversity in governments by including representatives of both majority and minorities, including women, if they were to be effective and legitimate (Mill 1975; Phillips 1995; Reynolds 1999). Making a forceful plea for enfranchising women, Mill considered that attempts to deny franchise to half of the population and losing their talents represented nothing but an exercise in “nonutilitarian idiocy” (cited in Reynolds 1999: 548). He contended that the “subjection of women” was based on “theory only” and also that the “system of inequality” wherein the “weaker sex” is subordinated to the “stronger” was “never ... the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society” (Mill 1975: 431; compare with Reynolds 1999: 548).

Normatively, women’s presence in elected bodies is considered as a necessary but insufficient condition to cater to the demands of justice as it gives them “equality of opportunity” to participate in democratic deliberations. Studies have shown that the incremental process of giving “equal opportunity” to women to get represented in elective bodies has not been effective in ensuring “equality of outcomes” (Phillips 1995). For one, equal opportunity has not sufficiently led to “mirror” the actually existing social or gender diversity because not many women could effectively compete and win against men, and also because the category “women” is not a monolith but heterogeneous, drawn as it were from different caste, class, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. For another, the roles of ideology, nature of regime and culture, among others, are considered to have important bearings on the “outcomes” of representation.

Empirically, it is found that while states dominated by the left and Green Party are more favourable to extend reservation/quota, the conservative/right dominant states are not favourable. Again, the odds of democratic regimes introducing statutory electoral and party reforms to effectuate women’s representation in democratic regimes is considered to be higher than authoritarian regimes. A cross-country study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2001) also conclusively showed that the societal culture in a state can either impede or give impetus to women’s representation. Despite entailing differential outcomes, there is unanimity among scholars that giving women greater representation enhances legitimacy, diversity and inclusiveness of elective bodies. Studies on increasing representation of women in Scandinavian countries, for example, have shown that it gives impetus to their parliament’s responsiveness towards health, childcare and environmental issues which are traditionally considered to be women friendly (Dahlerup and Friedenvall 2005).

When developing and developed countries, including mainland India,3 made a concerted effort to secure greater presence of women in their legislative and executive bodies, women in Nagaland continued to remain largely invisible in elected public offices. Despite allocating 25% of the seats of Management Committee of Village Development Board for women since 1980,4 not a single woman has ever got elected in the 12 NLA’s elections held so far between 1964 and 2013. This is remarkable given that the average voter turnout of women in the 12 assembly elections during this period stands at 78.3%, which is just 0.2% below the 78.5% turnout of male voters. Interestingly, women have exceeded men’s electoral participation in eight of the 12 assembly elections held so far.5 This is puzzling given that Nagaland is one of the most progressive states of India in terms of key gender indicators.

In fact, Nagaland’s child sex ratio of 943 against an all-India average of 914 in 2011 indicates a favourable attitude to gender issue. While its female literacy rate of 76.11% is more than 10 percentage points above the all-India average, a recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) put the state as the “safest” for women recording only “67 incidences of crime against women, which includes 30 cases of rape” (Singh 2015). Such articles can, as Wouters (2017) rightly put it, “conceal more than what they reveal,” especially given that actually existing Naga practices of settling criminal cases by customary law considerably reduced the chance of such cases being reported to the police. The state’s cognisable crime rate per lakh population of 49.5 against the national average of 220.5 is nonetheless significant (Singh 2015). That Naga women have made significant societal and educational progress is evident from the fact that out of the top 59 bureaucrats currently listed in Nagaland from and above the level of secretary, 14 are women.6

The case of Nagaland reaffirms that there is no robust correlation between modernisation and democratisation, a correlation which has been taken as a given by the thesis of “revised modernisation” (Inglehart and Norris 2003 cited in Bush 2011: 108). In other words, higher level of socio-economic and educational development that accompanied modernisation do not necessarily translate into greater democratic participation of women and gender justice in Nagaland. What is also more puzzling about the case of Nagaland is that favourable attitude towards giving reservation to women in ULBs does not actually translate into actual implementation of reservation policy, a fact underlined by an important survey conducted in the three districts of Kohima, Mokokchung and Mon in 2008 under the joint auspices of GoN and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This survey showed an overwhelming support for women’s reservation across gender divide: while 83.38% and 59.74% of rural men and women respectively in the three districts favoured giving 33% reservation for women, an overwhelming section of urban men (88.62%) and women (70.46%) supported this move (GoN 2011: 100).

What then explains the puzzle that increasing electoral participation (voter turnout), socio-economic and educational progress, and favourable attitude to women reservation do not actually translate into women’s empowerment and further the cause of gender justice? In the sections below, I offer a twofold explanation to this puzzle by problematising (i) the patriarchally structured deliberations, consultations and decision-making procedures pertaining to the question of women’s reservation, and (ii) the claim and presumption of “equality as tradition” as the hallmarks of “egalitarian” Naga society.

Patriarchal Procedures

One compelling reason 33% women’s reservation in Nagaland ULBs could never see the light of day is the deeply problematic ways in which patriarchally structured deliberations, consultations and decision-making procedures decide the fate of women’s reservation. The fact that these procedures give undue leverage to men, who also constitute brute political majority in NLA, to determine the outcomes of reservation means that women’s voice and the substantive concerns of women’s empowerment and gender justice are conveniently marginalised at the expense of contingent concerns of land and tax, Naga culture and way of life, law and order, and Nagaland’s exceptional status under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. These procedures also fail the test of procedural fairness and democratic justice, which requires that segments of the society (women) that are being affected by the outcomes of these procedures must have equal participation and effective voice in the deliberation, consultation, and decision-making on the question of women’s reservation (Hausing 2014).

A critical perusal of what I may call the three moments of controversy surrounding women’s reservation in Nagaland ULBs, clearly bears this out. While the initial opposition to the 2006 amendment act from 2008 to 2011 by various tribal bodies exemplifies the first moment of the controversy, the second moment encompasses two waves of consultations held by GoN with various Naga tribal bodies and professional organisations during April–May 2011 and February–March 2012. The third moment of controversy includes the deliberation and decision-making procedures adopted both by the Kohima and Guwahati bench of the Gauhati High Court (GHC) between October 2011 and June 2012, and NLA between December 2009 and September 2012.

Initial Opposition

The first moment of controversy began sometime in the autumn of October 2008 when elections to 16 municipal wards in Mokokchung were due for the first time under the 2006 amended act and no candidate dared to file nomination. The joint meeting of “public” of these wards and four landowner villages falling within Mokokchung’s jurisdiction convened on 13 September 2008 and predominantly attended by men, threatened to “exterminate” any women who contest municipal elections.7 Intimidation as a tactic to pressurise women candidates to withdraw and boycott ULB elections continues in the recent controversy of January–February 2017 when 140 out of the 535 candidates reportedly withdrew their nomination papers following intimidations (Chakravarty 2017). The Mokokchung public was not only against reservation but also vehemently opposed municipality’s power to impose tax on land and building. They considered that reservation and tax are not only alien, they have the propensity to distort and disrupt “Ao’s culture”8 in particular and the Naga way of life in general. A joint representation on 11 August 2008 to GoN by the four landowning village councils on whose land Mokokchung town is located, namely Chuchuyimlang, Khensa, Mokokchung and Ungma, dismissed the need for reservation by contending that reservation “is meant for underprivileged, minority section or untouchable group, etc” (GoN 2012: 1).

Two apex Naga tribal bodies, namely Naga Hoho and ENPO, again exclusively run by men, joined this chorus of opposition on the same pretext, and made a joint representation to GoN on 12 December 2009 asking the latter not to implement the proposed reservations of seats for women.9 Despite the fact that municipal elections in Kohima and Dimapur were due between 19 December 2009 and 9 March 2010 following the expiry of their first tenure, the above opposition was used as a pretext by the state’s cabinet to indefinitely postpone elections in its meeting on 16 December 2009.

Consulting More Men

In order to break this impasse, GoN, under the auspices of the Department of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs, held two waves of consultations with various Naga tribal bodies and professional organisations during April–May 2011 and February–March 2012 which mark the second moment of controversy surrounding women’s reservation in ULBs. In the first wave, GoN held consultation in seven places beginning from Mokokchung, the heart of the controversy, on 11 April 2011 and ended at Peren on 2 May 2011.10 These consultations by far involved the widest spectrum of Naga societies by engaging overwhelming number of male-dominated and women’s organisations across all major Naga tribes, and professional bodies.11 Unlike the first, the second wave of consultative meetings exclusively involved male-centric tribal bodies and village councils and conspicuously failed to consult a single women’s organisation.12

Indeed, in the first wave of consultations, women were not given equal participation and effective voice as they were outnumbered by male-dominated tribal and professional bodies. The deliberation was dominated by men as 64 of the total 81 speakers or slightly over 79% who gave their considered opinion were men, and women with 17 speakers accounted for about 20.9%.13 Interestingly, except one woman representative who could not express her opinion pending the official stand of the women’s wing of her tribe on the issue,14 all 16 women participants were in favour of reservation. Mindful of the “gender bias” and unequal circumstances which diminished the electoral chance of women if they openly compete against their male counterparts, a woman participant poignantly remarked, “If women are allowed to contest in election, they may not win and all the seats will be dominated by male.”15 Giving 33% reservation was therefore seen as a sine qua non for realising not only their constitutional rights but also to “promote gender equality and empower women to minimise ‘gender-gaps and gender-divide.’”16

Among male participants, 45 were against a women quota either in the form of reservation or nomination. While 13 out of the 19 male participants, who supported the quota for women, favoured nomination ranging from 20% to 50%, six men clearly favoured extending it to 33% women. While male supporters of women’s reservation and nomination of seats gracefully accepted the indubitable fact that gender bias and gender discrimination exist within Naga societies, antagonists categorically denied this and argued that reservation not only does not match but also distorts Naga culture and customs.17 Antagonists also considered it premature and hasty18 to implement reservation in the absence of cadastral survey of land and lack of consensus across Naga societies.

Another compelling reason why Naga tribal bodies vehemently opposed holding of ULB elections remains imminent imposition of “tax on land and building” as one participant unambiguously stated during the first consultative meeting at Mokokchung: “unless section 120(1) of the Act is kept in cold storage/omitted, we will not comply or cooperate for holding of municipal election in Mokokchung area.”19 In their overweening attempt to underscore the principles of equality and non-discrimination as the hallmarks of Naga customary practices and culture, they also foreground the unwritten patriarchal cultural code which discourages active participation of women in the public space. One member has, by reference to a Spanish proverb, sought to reinforce this code: “Sat (d)[sic] is the home where the hen crows and the cock remain silent.”20

As the matter remained inconclusive and women bodies increasingly saw in NLA’s indefinite postponement of ULB elections a deliberate attempt to deny justice to women, the NMA, represented by Rosemary Dzuvichu and Abieu Meru, took the matter to the Kohima bench of the GHC between the first and second wave of consultations. Heard as a civil suit on 14 October 2011 by a single-judge bench of Justice A K Goswami, the judgment was promptly delivered on 21 October 2011.

Judicial Proceedings

As the controversy entered its third moment with this case, there were remarkable twists in arguments presented by GoN, pressurised and unduly influenced as it were by patriarchal tribal bodies, before the Kohima bench in October 2011 and subsequently before GHC in June–July 2012. Under this rubric, the audacious claim of equality and non-discrimination gave way to concerns that reservations would not only “destroy the very fabric of the Naga society”21 but also “divide the society and weaken the strong administration of the Naga way of life”22 when GoN represented its case before the Kohima bench. Subsequently, the special powers of NLA under Article 371(A) of the Constitution was invoked by GoN before the high court to trump women’s reservation. Interestingly, both the benches limited their hearing and decision-making (judgments) on these set of contingent concerns and shelved the substantive concerns of women’s empowerment and gender justice in the process. Sidelining the substantive concerns and making the court and Naga public preoccupied with contingent concerns not only help entrench patriarchal interest in the power structure but also perpetuate gender injustice.

Indeed, the respondents representing GoN maintained before the Kohima bench that the state cabinet decided to indefinitely postpone elections because of “the need to maintain harmony in the society” given “the delicate situation in the state and the on-going reconciliation and peace process” (GHC 2011: 9), contingent concerns which were never raised in the first wave of consultations. They also maintained that since a committee of secretaries constituted by Gon to examine the “shortcomings” of the 2001 act is yet to give its report, the state could not hold elections in time. However, the court was not convinced by this and was willing at the most to accept only a “tenuous link,” if at all it exists, between “issue of reservation of seats for women ... and the ongoing peace process in the state” (GHC 2011: 21). Contending that there were no “exceptional circumstances or special, emergent and unforeseen circumstances” that prevented the state from holding elections, it directed GoN to immediately initiate the electoral process and hold elections by 20 January 2012 (GHC 2011: 21–24).

After having secured permission to further postpone the elections till 30 April 2012, GoN made an announcement for municipal elections with due provision for reservation of seats for women on 14 March 2012. But this announcement was met with opposition, several representations were made by Naga Hoho, ENPO and several tribal bodies to this effect (GHC 2012: 8). They contended that reservation of seats for women is unsuitable and “would disintegrate the Naga society and strong administration of the Naga way of life” (GHC 2012: 30), and this must be done away with “to obviate the possibility of disharmony and mistrust in the Naga society” (GHC 2012: 48). Bowing to increasing public pressure, NLA invoked the special powers it enjoys under Article 371(A) of the Constitution and passed a resolution on 22 March 2012 to constitute a select committee “to examine whether the State should be exempted from Part IXA of the Constitution of India” and to report back to it in six months (GHC 2012: 26). It resolved to suspend electoral process till the committee submitted its report. When GoN approached the Kohima bench of GHC to postpone elections the latter declined on 27 April 2012 by contending that the matter cannot be reopened as it had been “elaborately dealt with” in an earlier judgment (GHC 2012: 27).

GoN then filed a writ petition to the Guwahati bench. The matter was heard by a two-judge bench of Justices Amitava Roy and P K Musahary on 27 June 2012 and the judgment was delivered on 31 July 2012 (GHC 2012: 3). Noting that “the emphatic opinion opposing reservation did have resonating undertones of strong disapproval and resentment in some prominent quarters” (GHC 2012: 48), the court did not find any “want of bonafide or actuation by oblique objectives” of NLA when it resolved to constitute a select committee to “survey whether Part IXA would be applicable” to the state (GHC 2012: 57). Based on this premise, the bench allowed the writ appeal to postpone elections till the select committee submits its report.

Meanwhile, the seven-member select committee of NLA headed by T R Zeliang after “thorough deliberation” was of “the strong opinion that Part IX(A) of the Constitution of India contravenes the provisions of the Article 371(A),” recommended the NLA not to implement Part IX(A) and asked NLA to pass a resolution to frame its “own laws for conduct of Municipal and Town Council Act” (Sagar 2012). On the basis of this “strong opinion,” NLA accepted the recommendation and passed a resolution to this effect on 22 September 2012 exempting Nagaland from Part IX(A).

Not surprisingly, NMA brought the matter to the Supreme Court in the winter of 2012. After sitting over the case for over four years, the Supreme Court admitted the special leave petition of NMA on 20 April 2016 and directed GoN to hold ULB elections. In order to pave the way for ULB elections, NLA revoked its 22 September 2012 resolution on 22 November 2016 and cleared two major stumbling blocks on 24 December 2016 by enacting the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Act which omitted reference to municipalities powers to impose tax on land and building (Section 121(1)(a)) and removed reservation for Scheduled Castes. These overtures however could not satisfy various Naga tribal bodies. They demanded wider consultations and deliberations. When these demands were not met and elections sought to be held on 1 February 2017, violent protests erupted in various parts of Nagaland, which again forestalled ULB elections.

Land and Taxation

In hindsight, the relationship between municipalities, land and tax are indubitably complex and sensitive. Writing in the wake of the recent controversy, scholars like Charles Chasie (2017) and Jelle J P Wouters (2017) contended that it is not opposition to women’s reservation per se, but rather a broader opposition to allow modern institutions like ULBs to encroach on Nagas’ land and resources, the pivot around which Naga’s idea of sovereignty revolves, that lies at the heart of this controversy. Wouters (2017: 21) elegantly put it:

For A Z Phizo, who captained the Naga National Council (NNC) into its struggle for independence, the idea of sovereignty itself was always less about state, courts, and a Weberian monopoly on violence, but crucially hinged on Nagas’ unconditional ownership over their land and its resources, cattle and other possessions, and communitarian ethics.

Contending that land and tax are central to the Naga nationalist imagination and political project which is best encapsulated in the vernacular axiom, “Ura Uvie” (our land is ours), this perspective holds that tax is an “abhorrent issue” which drove the Nagas to rise against the British in 1879 and which continues to sustain the Naga nationalist and resistance movement against the colonial and postcolonial state (Chasie 2017). Given the sensitivity of the issue, the onus is on the genius of the Naga to deliberate and decide on ways and means of overcoming the controversy (Wouters 2017).

This perspective captured the Naga public mood very well, a point put in sharp focus by the editorial column of Eastern Mirror, one of the influential newspapers of Nagaland, on 27 January 2017. Provocatively titled, “Why Every Naga Should Object to the Nagaland Municipal Elections,” the column was agitated at the prospect of imposing 15% tax on the actual value of land and property, which it considered tantamount to paying income tax. This, it avers, not only violates the protection given to Nagaland in relation to income tax, but also entails the possibility of rendering the Naga “a homeless refugee” in the land of his ancestors as ULBs have the power to seize and auction off land or property if the owner could not pay up his tax. Considering that GoN has omitted ULBs’ power to impose tax and given that the contingent concerns that ULBs have bearings on land and tax can be addressed and resolved by simplifying the tax and complex bureaucratic procedure it entails, it would be “illogical and unfair” as Abieu Meru23 argued since the initial days of the controversy, to perpetually deny the right of the modern state to impose tax and use it as a ruse to deny empowerment and justice to women.

Although there is no institutional rules which prevent women from entry into NLA and ULBs, it is a particular understanding of Nagas’ culture and way of life which continues to impose gridlock on women’s empowerment in Nagaland. As Monalisa Changkija lamented, “it is the patriarchal structure, the patriarchal mindset”24 that prevented women from entry into NLA and ULBs. I shall now examine how equality and non-discrimination which have been claimed as the hallmarks of Naga culture and way of life sit uneasily with the actually existing gender inequality and inegalitarian discourse in Naga society.

Revisiting ‘Equality as Tradition’

After conducting an intensive field study of the Konyaks in the Naga Hills over eight decades ago, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf (2004: 96), one of the most well-known ethnographers on the Nagas, underscored what has now become a quintessential description of “egalitarianism” of the Naga in particular, and that of tribal societies in general, in the following words:

The spirit of camaraderie and equality which prevails between the young girls and boys colours [also] the relations between husband and wife. A girl who enjoyed for years almost complete independence and was used to be courted by a number of youths, is not likely to turn into a meek wife, and whoever watches the Konyaks at work, in their houses and at feasts realises that there is an essential equality of men and women.

Furer-Haimendorf (2004: 96) went on further to note that

Many women in more civilised parts of India may well envy the women of the Naga Hills their high status and their free and happy life; and if you measure the cultural level of a people by the social position and personal freedom of its women, you will think twice before looking down on the Nagas as “savages.”

Indeed, most ethnographic studies on the Nagas and other tribal societies in North East India or elsewhere are eloquent in their encomium about the equality, freedom and non-discrimination enjoyed by tribal women in their social, cultural and religious affairs. Egalitarianism and non-discrimination are almost taken as givens and are often used as a yardstick to mark out the tribal others from inegalitarian and discriminatory caste-Hindu society. These have been pervasively internalised so much so that U A Shimray (2002), the late Naga scholar, even wrote an article titled, “Equality as Tradition: Women’s Role in Naga Society.” Although Shimray admitted that the Nagas by tradition follow patriarchal social norms, he contended that the idea of man dominating over nature and women is a “white man’s beliefs system” which is “alien to Nagas” (Shimray 2002: 376). He underscored the important traditional roles Naga women play in peace-making, in running the economy by engaging in economically productive works like weaving and in sustaining a culture of self-reliance and self-independence (Shimray 2002: 376–77). Nagas, he averred, have equal rights in social, cultural and religious matters. On this premise, Shimray (2002: 376) went on to the extent of claiming that “Naga society is casteless and classless” as “the rigid hierarchical structure as in Hindu society, based on caste and class is non-existent.”

On close examination, however, the claims of egalitarianism, freedom and non-discrimination as the hallmarks of Nagas’ egalitarianism sit uneasily with the emerging class division and persistent sexual division of labour, which continue to relegate Naga and other tribal women to subordinated positions in society (Hausing 2015). In analysing the status of women in tribal society the distinction drawn by Virginius Xaxa (2004: 348) between role and position of women on the one hand, and status understood in terms of their prestige and honour on the other hand, is helpful. While Verrier Elwin (1961: 104) noted the important role Naga women played in the jhum fields and in the village councils in “equal terms” with their male counterparts, J H Hutton (1921: 183), was particularly struck by the freedom of choice that Sema women have in selecting their life partner. The important role and freedom of choice exercised by women ensured that they are treated well and occupy high position both at home and in the society. Women’s freedom of choice could however be circumscribed, say among segments of the Konyaks and Angami tribes where marriage was traditionally arranged (Kelhou 1998; Zehol and Zehol 1998). While polygamy and the ability to develop illicit relations after marriage were valorised as instances of “male prowess” among segments of the Angami tribe, infidelity among married women invited cruel punishment such as the chopping off of “the tip of the nose” (Kelhou 1998: 56–57). Given this, the diverse social and customary practices among different Naga tribes need to be borne in mind while examining the role and status of women in Naga society.

Again on close scrutiny, women across the 14 recognised Naga tribes in Nagaland have unequal rights and access to property, in relation to their male counterparts as customary laws governing this continue to impose severe restrictions as they are entitled to inherit only acquired property and not inherited property (Zehol 1998; GoN 2009). Women did not have equal right to the selection and allocation of jhum sites of the village which are still the exclusive preserve of men, although they played very important role in performing rituals like tsiakrii, liede and ki kenyii, which are respectively associated with inaugurating jhum field works, harvest and sanctification of the harvest in Angami society (Kelhou 1998: 57–58).

Even in the symbolic realm which invests prestige and honour in individuals, Naga society continues to be marked by deeply entrenched patriarchal norms and values. The feast of merit, for example, could be performed only by a male who attained enormous affluence (determined by accumulation of slaves, animals, grains, and property) and prowess in war, considered to be the valorisation of the highest symbolic virtue, of bestowing prestige and honour in Naga society. The symbolic sacralisation of two stone monoliths—the bigger one for the husband and the smaller one for the wife—to commemorate the feast of merit has a subtle symbolic value: it highlights unequal status and prestige that women occupy in Naga society.25

Although the advent of Christianity abolished the feast of merit principally because of its opposition to invocation of spirit and alcoholic indulgence associated with the rituals, Christianity also brought with it what Moamenla Amer (2013) in a different context calls a new pattern of “gendered socialisation” in the church and Naga public sphere constituted by the educated middle class. In this context, the role of Christianity can be both liberating and constraining. While Christianity liberates both men and women in ways that enable them to have equal access to education and the new public sphere, it reproduces social conservatism and entrenched patriarchal norms and values.

The unmistakable influence of St Paul’s teaching of women church members of Corinth to be “submissive” and “not to speak in the church” on faithful Naga women Christians is evident in the gendered socialisation, a point that resonated in the invocation of the Spanish proverb that I have already alluded to earlier.26 While St Paul’s teaching had particular traction for the Corinthian women in the first century CE because of the widespread debasement in morality, his teaching was taken out of the leaf by Christian Naga women in particular and Naga society in general so much so that no woman has ever been elected as an executive member of the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, the largest conglomerations of churches in Nagaland since its inception in 1937.

That an unwritten gender and cultural code is imprinted into church practices is evident from the fact that women’s “public” engagements continue to be largely confined within the “Ladies Department” of the churches in Nagaland, again affirming the entrenched sexual division of labour in the church. In common church congregations and social ceremonies while men would continue to play the more “prestigious” role of the main speaker/preacher, women continue to be given subordinated and decoratory roles like singing solos and dancing, performing prayers (opening and closing ceremonies), members of the choirs, and so on. These practices underscore the subordination and discrimination of Naga women in the church and society.

Research has highlighted the traditional role played by Naga women in conflict-mediation and peace-making (Dzuvichu 2011; Manchanda 2001). From a situation where “women’s voices were often silenced in the midst of war and chaos” (Vamuzo 2011: 141) and where they were largely seen as victims of armed conflicts and domestic violence, Naga women have begun to play important “agency” roles by mediating between warring armed factions—state and non-state actors—and forging peace. The stellar role of NMA in setting up a peace team under the banner of “shed no more blood” in October 1994 and their continued involvement in the Naga reconciliation process are noteworthy (Banerjee 2000; Dzuvichu 2011; Vamuzo 2011: 139–41). Despite playing a helpful role in setting up the peace agenda during the various ceasefire negotiations between GoI and NSCN-IM, women’s groups do not have effective voice in the official high table of peace-talks between GoI and NSCN–IM. The fact that the Framework Agreement entered into by GoI and NSCN–IM in August 2015 was not revealed to any Naga tribal organisations, including women’s groups, is also a telling testament to this and the subordinated peace-making role that women play in Naga society.


The controversy surrounding the purported attempts to extend 33% reservation to women in Nagaland ULBs have thrown up unsettled and complex issues of land, tax, and the question of women’s reservation. While these issues are unmistakably interrelated and contingent, the failure to jettison each of these complex issues and address them separately on the merit of their case have important bearings on the question of women’s empowerment and gender justice in Nagaland. Given that NLA, the custodian of this special autonomy, could make inapplicable a progressive law like 33% reservation for women in ULBs under the cover of Article 371A is of particular concern, as no woman has ever got elected to NLA since its inception in 1964. The patriarchal procedures adopted by GoN in the deliberations, consultations and decision-making of extending 33% reservation of ULB seats to women in Nagaland was particularly unhelpful as it resulted in the entrenchment of patriarchal norms and values. These procedures and the GHC’s judgment shelved the substantive questions of women’s empowerment and justice by leveraging contingent concerns of law and order, distortion and disruption of Naga culture and way of life.

What is more disconcerting is the violent boycott of ULBs elections by tribal bodies on 1 February 2017 even after GoN addressed their concerns and grievances. This controversy reinforces the fact that behind the tall claims of equality as tradition, freedom and non-discrimination of Naga women, lies a deeply entrenched inegalitarian gender discourse and social conservatism which continues to impose cultural barriers to women’s reservation and the cause of justice. It also brought to sharp focus one of the great dilemmas confronting the grant of territorial autonomy to minorities around the world—the protection of autonomy of minority groups. It is about time that Naga tribal bodies and GoN seriously heard the increasingly strident voice of women’s empowerment by reflecting and learning from the insights of liberal nationalists that territorial autonomy is defensible so long as it promotes democracy and justice within and across its constituents, including women and minority tribes/communities (Kymlicka 1995). The fact that increasing voter turnout and support for women’s reservation did not result in women’s entry into NLA and making ULBs work would continue to be a sore spot in the tall claim and presumption of “equality as tradition” in Naga society.

To break the impasse, the collective wisdom of the Nagas needs to seriously think of means and ways to promote democracy and justice where women are given equal participation and voice. In the meantime, Naga women’s groups need to make course-correction by forging more effective networks and linkages across the social and political divide in Naga society to fructify their demand.


1 This number has since increased to 19.

2 NLA, by passing a “resolution” under Article 371A(1), can make inapplicable any law made by the Parliament in matters pertaining to, inter alia, Naga’s “religious or social practices,” “customary law and procedure,” “ownership and transfer of land and its resources.”

3 The Constitution of India [Seventy-third (1993) and Seventy-fourth Amendment (1994)] Acts mandated 33% women reservation respectively in panchayats (rural) and municipalities (urban) bodies.

4 This was made vide Clause 4(b) of the Village Development Board Rules, 1980 framed under Section 50(1) of the Nagaland Village and Area Council Act, 1978.

5 Based on my calculations from Election Commission of India’s data.

6 Accessed online at on 26 July 2017.

7 The meeting was exclusively attended by male members of the wards and villages. See Nagaland Post, “Mokokchung Village Firm on Boycotting MMC Polls,” Kohima, 15 September 2008.

8 Ao is the largest tribe in Mokokchung.

9 GHC (2011:3). The Municipal and Town Council Forum of Nagaland also subsequently joined this opposition.

10 The seven consultative meetings were held in (i) Mokokchung Municipal Conference Hall (11 April 2011), (ii) Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Conference Hall, Kohima (18 April 2011), (iii) Wokha DC Conference Hall (20 April 2011), (iv) Tseminyu ADC Conference Hall (20 April 2011), (v) Mon DC Conference Hall (27 March 2011), (vi) Zunheboto DC Conference Hall (29 April 2011), and (vii) Peren Town Hall (2 May 2011).

11 Town-specific Chamber of Commerce and various public organisations attended these consultations.

12 The second wave of consultations were held at Kohima (29 February 2012), Jalukie (5 March 2012), Kiphire (7 March 2012), Oking, Wokha (12 March 2012), Oking, Zunheboto (13 March 2012), Kohima (14 March 2012) and Kohima (with Naga Hoho and ENPO on 16 March 2012).

13 My calculation were based on GoN (2012): Background note.

14 The woman in question is Tohoni H Kiba, Cultural Secretary of the Sumi Totimi Hoho. She intimated the inability of Sumi Women’s Organisation to take its official stand on reservation at the DC Conference Hall, Zunheboto, 29 April 2011.

15 Yhunsenle Khing, women member of the Tseminyu Town Council, ADC Conference Hall, Tseminyu, 20 April 2011.

16 The quotation is from the speech of Medovino Phizo, President, Angami Women’s Organisation at DC Conference Hall, Kohima, 18 April 2011.

17 See the intervention of Sovenyi, President, Chakhesang People’s Organisation at DC Conference Hall, Kohima, 18 April 2011, GoN (2012). Also see Ao Sendan’s resolution on 2 November 2010.

18 Zukeya Woch, member, Rengma Hoho at ADC Conference Hall, Tseminyu, 20 April 2011.

19 Intervention of Puryabang, Secretary, Land Owners Union of four Naga villages of Chuchuyimlang, Khensa, Mokokchung, and Ungma at Mokokchung Municipal Conference Hall, 11 April 2011.

20 Quotation reproduced in the original. The proverb was cited by R Ezung, Central Executive Committee member of the Nagaland People’s Front at DC Conference Hall, Wokha, 20 April 2011. See GoN (2012).

21 View of the Kohima Village Council consulted by GoN at Kohima on 29 February 2012.

22 The unanimous resolution taken by 48 participants consulted by GoN at Kiphire Town, 7 March 2012.

23 Personal interview with Abieu Meru, President, Naga Mothers’ Association, Kohima, 24 June 2012.

24 Personal interview with T Monalisa Changkija, Editor, Nagaland Page, Dimapur, 13 June 2012.

25 See Furer-Haemendorf’s (1976: 16-24) discussion of the “feast of merit” to understand this nuance.

26 Saint Paul wrote the epistles to Corinthians when he was in Ephesa during 53–55 CE. Not surprisingly, the same message which urged women to be submissive to their husband, the symbolic head of the family, was relayed to Ephesians as well. See the first epistle to Corinthians Chapter 14, verses 34–35 in the Bible, and Ephesians 5: 22–23.


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Updated On : 13th Nov, 2017


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