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

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