naga mothers stand firm in hostile terrain

IF one were to write about women in the North-east, the result would have to involve their personal struggles, fight against state harassment and their contribution to society and family. In recent years, it has also come to be about their contributions in sports, education and initiating NGOs or self-help groups, development and women empowerment.

Their rights, however limited these might be to the social, cultural, economic, indigenous and traditional spheres, serve to justify why they are fondly referred to as the “backbone” of society.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, there is not a single woman in the local governing bodies or in the Nagaland assembly. The same is true of  Mizoram. Assam and Tripura have a few women members while Manipur — well known for the Nupi lan (women’s war), Ema keithel (mothers’ market), the nude protest for withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the iconic Irom Sharmila — has only three women in the 10th Assembly. There are no women representatives in local governing bodies such as district councils in the  tribal areas.

Last year the Naga Mothers’ Association filed a writ petition before the Kohima bench of Gauhati High Court seeking direction to the Nagaland government, the State Election Commission and the Urban Commissioner to immediately hold elections to municipal and town councils throughout Nagaland with one-third of the seats reserved for women in accordance with Article 243 T (3) and Section 23A of the Nagaland Municipal (first amendment) Act, 2006.

The petitioner sought that the cabinet decision to indefinitely postpone the elections to the municipal and town councils – which were scheduled to be held in January or February 2010 — be set aside and quashed.

In October 2011, the court of Justices Goswami and Indira Shah directed the State Election Commission to hold civic polls on or before January 2012. It pronounced that “the reasons cited in the cabinet decision does not amount to exceptional circumstances for postponement of election and cannot be sustained”. It also noted that a notice for fresh election before the expiry of the term was issued by a notification on November 2009. The state government had also earmarked 82 wards to be reserved for women.

Objecting to this judgment, state officials subsequently filed an affidavit and petitioned for an extension to implement the court order. Both the cabinet decision (at a meeting in December 2009) and the stand adopted by state officials (petitioner of the affidavit in opposition) on the representations and memorandum received from tribal apex bodies like the Naga Hoho, Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation maintained that if elections were held (and if women were to contest) it would lead to a law and order situation. They cited a fragile environment amid the ongoing reconciliation and peace process between the Centre and underground groups. They also mentioned that the committee to review the Municipal Act had not submitted its report.

The objection further noted that in 2008, when an attempt was made to conduct municipal elections in Mokokchung with 33 per cent reservations for women, there was stiff opposition from the general public, NGOs and civil society, resulting in the exercise being called off.

Officials also submitted that the NMA had no locus standi to file an application in the court, citing that it was an unregistered body. The state, they added, had no objection to the candidature of the petitioners or mothers, therefore no legal right violation arose.

The petition for extension of time was rejected and a deadline was set for April 2012. It is not clear when the polls will be held and Naga women leaders and the NMA are shuttling between Guwahati and Kohima to attend court hearings. The 5 June sitting was adjourned till 18 June and thereafter to 28 June, the excuse being that the judges handling the case were unwell.

In October 2010, chief minister Neiphiu Rio was quoted as having told the court that traditionally women did not have “any role in public governance in Naga society”. Given these modern times, his remark came across as backward, even primitive, but in the present context he went on to state that reservations for women could not be done away with “as long as the Nagas want to have municipal bodies”.

Last month, an NMA statement claimed that women were not grabbing anyone’s share but claiming their rights as per the Constitution and law. The release said the “Municipal Act is not a violation of customary law”.

Shuttling between her daily schedule of teaching at Nagaland University, handling domestic chores, taking up numerous cases concerning women — domestic violence, rape, empowerment programmmes for Naga women — petitioner and NMA advisor Rosemary Dzuvichu said over the phone that “we will fight till we win”.

Delhi-based lawyer and NMA counsel Jayshree Satpute said that one of the main reasons for the objection to the electoral process and, subsequently, reservation for women was on the customary/traditional ground. The elections were not conducted because of stiff opposition from tribal apex bodies and civil society in Nagaland. Why? Obviously these bodies, which  had only male members, were not willing to welcome women into their perceived traditional domain — political space.

As things stand, “fighting” seems to be the “chorus” for women in the North-east. But the battle for power by Naga women in the public space is not going to be easy in such hostile terrain.

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance contributor

The Statesman June 25,2012

Tribal fear of unique ID number

TRIPURA hit the headlines in April for doing well in implementing the Unique Identification of India Authority project, whereas other North-east states continue to lag behind, or are just not interested. Mizoram, for example, has refused to participate on religious grounds.

Also known as Aadhar, which means “support” or “foundation”, the project involves a unique 12-digit number being issued to an individual after collecting his/her demographics and biometric information – a photograph, fingerprints of all 10 digits and iris prints for storage in a centralised database.

The concept emerged in 2006 as a solution to the rampant corruption exposed in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Public Distribution System and was mainly directed at families below the poverty line. Proposed by the Union ministry for information technology, the hi-tech information database was meant to cut wastage and dispense with leakages in the delivery mechanism for various public sector services.

The government also aims to support and ensure the proper functioning of the system and also achieve substantial economy in subsidy outgo. According to the Uid authority’s vision, the effort is also to create more accessibility to the banking system, which is very low in many rural states, particularly in the North-east.

The ambitious project is estimated to cost Rs 45,000 crore and the Union finance minister had to sanction an additional Rs 1,758 crore. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the project would soon become a main channel for citizens to access a wide variety of budget benefits.

 Last year the project faced a setback when the Union home ministry raised security concerns regarding its enrolment techniques. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance had also rejected the Bill, slamming its high costs, lack of privacy safeguards and absence of a clear purpose. Social activists opposed it on the grounds of false claims, violation of privacy and civil liberties, functionality lapses, misuse of data, inappropriate technology and unjustifiable cost.

Till April 2011, there were only a few hundred enrolments in Assam and Mizoram. According to the Uidai director-general, “Ninety per cent of Tripura’s population has been covered under the project while the national average stands at 16 per cent.”

The reaction in Mizoram was quite “unique”; thousands of families refused to enroll, their refusal (by mostly smaller Christian sects) resulting from a belief based on the prophesy in Chapter 13, Verse 17 of the Book of Revelations in the Bible which says “... so that no man might buy or sell, unless he had the mark which is the name of the Beast or the number of his name”. The number is believed to be 666, thus drawing a parallel with the Uidai, which stipulates that no one can buy or sell property without the Unique ID number.

Officials went to the extent of warning Mizos of the dire consequences that would involve a fine of Rs 1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years and also deprivation of benefits from social schemes if they dared disobey. Locals were equally adamant, claiming that they had the right to follow their faith and were not afraid. The synod of the largest Presbyterian Church directed its congregation to cooperate with the enumerators and also condemned those who were issuing booklets about the “Number of the Beast” to terrify its members.

Similar reactions were observed in Manipur’s Churachandpur district, where enumerators had to labour to convince villagers. Even though the opposition here was not as strong as in Mizoram, people were rather indifferent. The convincing was mostly done with the help and intervention of the village chief. It was mostly a door-to-door campaign for enumerators.

Beside religious beliefs and ignorance, many tribal sects in the North-east were apprehensive, some even doubting the identity number as the very concept of an identity (based on indigenuity, tradition, customs, culture, oral history) which is quite in contrast with the ongoing enrolment process.

This process requires proof of documents, from a birth certificate to proof of name, address and relationship with one’s family. The list has a total of 18 supported documents for name and photograph proof, 33 documents for name and address proof, eight documents for relationship proof with the head of one’s family and four documents for proof of date of birth.

The project has left everyone a tad confused since the Aadhar scheme was supposed to be a rural entity, its target being BPL families, social scheme beneficiaries and those in areas with a low banking system. But proof of all documents listed seems to be urban-centric – Pan card, passport, driving licence.

A technological venture, the project focuses on identification and authentication for the opening of bank accounts, facilitating electronic transactions of money, enabling smooth payments for social schemes and a variety of other benefits such as micro-credit, micro-insurance, micro-pensions, micro-mutual funds, etc. Enumerators in the remote corners of the Manipur’s hill areas went about their job with cans of petrol and generators, due to the unavailability of electricity. Their job would suffer a setback during the monsoon due to bad roads.

But with so many controversies and such ambiguity surrounding it, one wonders if the hyped ID card scheme will serve the rural population, as is claimed. What of those without computers and electricity, whether a tribal farmer or a commoner, who would have this “unique” identity card thrust upon them even as they have little wherewithal, never mind money in a bank and, therefore, no financial transactions to conduct? No wonder fear of the “number” lingers at the very core of tribal identity.

The writer is a freelance contributor
The Statesman, May 28,2012