Unpacking reservation: The Naga gender equity question
As the countdown to the final hearing on the Nagaland Municipal election matter and the women reservation issue has begun, it is interesting to understand and unpack the reservations on the Reservation for women issue, which has drawn flak from so many quarters and organizations, but encouraged Naga women to understand the legalities of their rights much more ,than when they first began the movement for their constitutional rights.
This is also to break the notion that women have never had a presence in town committees in Nagaland. Much before the Nagaland Municipal Act , there were women nominated by the Government into the town committees, with one of them,Miss Abeiu Khezhie, even elected to be the capital Kohima’s first Vice Chairman, by her own colleagues of the Town Committee and effectively finishing her tenure. Today she heads the NMA and is a petitioner to the said case. When the Nagaland Municipal Act was passed without any reservation, a Naga lady challenged the Act in the Gauhati High Court in 2005, seeking reservation for women be included in the Act, as per the 74th Amendment.The State counsel pleaded that the Government would be amending the said Act, with reservation, and the case was disposed. The Nagaland Municipal Act First Amendment Bill, with the inclusion of women reservation, was then scrutinized by a Select Committee of the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, placed for approval in the august house and passed by the sixty member Legislative Assembly and became an Act, much to the elation of political observers among Naga women, who saw this step ,as a break away from traditional selections and nominations, based on undemocratic norms. Though the Act was passed ,there was no move on the part of the government to either identify reserved wards or implement the Act. Therefore, representations were submitted by women leaders and finally, two years after the reservation for women was passed, the 82 wards reserved for women were identified, in altogether 19 Municipalities and Town Councils, but elections for these reserved wards were withheld. When tenures of the respective Town Councils and Municipalities came to its end , by 2009/2010, Naga women organizations formed the Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation ,after a series of deliberations of all major women organizations, including the State Women Commission. The Naga Mothers Association, the Eastern Naga Women organization. Watsu Mundang, Naga Women Hoho Dimapur and the Tenyimia Women Organization met the then Chief Minister Mr.N.Rio,in June 2011, and gave the State Government a one month deadline to hold the long overdue election and implement the law on women reservation. By then, a decision was already taken by the women leaders that, if Government failed to do so and hold elections, we would seek intervention of the Court. The Court hearings on the case filed by the two petitioners representing the JACWR from the Naga Mothers Association was an experience in itself, as hundreds of Naga women swarmed the premises of the High Court ,Kohima in the search for justice. The judgement of the Hon’ble Court directing the state to hold municipal elections with reservation was ignored for successive months under one excuse or the other and then the Government approached the division bench at Guwahati. Tribe women leaders from different organizations attended the successive hearings in Guwahati , including the one where the Advocate General portrayed the Nagas, as blood thirsty people and predicted bloodshed, if the law was implemented. On the Division Bench vacating the single judge order and awaiting another Assembly Select Committee to review the Act again, and with the Assembly passing the resolution, that Nagaland should be exempted from Part IX A of the Constitution, the JACWR had already approached the Supreme Court with a Special Leave Petition, in anticipation of such a violation of women’s rights. Subsequently, in the hearing in the Supreme Court, the Advocate General insisted that we had not made the Speaker of the Assembly, a respondent , therefore an additional petition had to be filed by us, to ensure the Speaker of the NLA was made a respondent on the passage of the Assembly Resolution. And hence , the two petitions of Naga women, awaiting the final hearing and verdict.Over the years, many have misunderstood this legal debate of women reservation . While some have lobbied that this legal case is just being initiated by few women, who do not love their brothers enough or their spouses, and want to only create confusion in the minds of the public and refuse to accept the fact, that this movement for women’s constitutional right is supported by mass based women organizations of all tribes. Others seem to think, that this legal case is about Assembly constituencies and would like to support us, as they see their wives and sisters, step into their shoes. The question of reservation for women in Nagaland’s municipal councils is for the Municipal First Amendment Act to be implemented and not a movement for reservation, in the state assembly constituencies.
Reservation for women is a mechanism tested and successful all over the world for bringing gender equity, particularly in decision making bodies. Reservation, unlike the reservation for backward tribes etc in Nagaland, is not going to be forever. Many countries have tested reservation for not more than two or three tenures and found it was adequate training for women to manage to step into electoral contests and decision processes. Closer home, Tripura has implemented 50% women reservation in Municipalities. Assam proposes to increase to 50%.Mizoram has successfully completed the first tenure of women reservation and started the second tenure. Arunachal has 33% reservation in all Panchayats and has trained more than three thousand representatives in decision making processes as panchayat elected members. In Nagaland , since 1980,there is reservation for women in the village working system, with the implementation of the VDB Model Rules (1980) in force. Today, in Nagaland ,more than one thousand two hundred Naga villages follow the VDB Model rules of 25% reservation of seats for women in all VDBs, and surprisingly since the beginning of this concept in 1980,no village council has objected to this 25%women reservation of seats or the 25% reserved funds .Therefore, serious questions arise on the opposition to reservation of seats for women in towns, for keeping our towns clean, and that too even, from village councils, if court documents are perused. The Mokokchung episode is often cited as an example to opposition to reservation for women, but the paradox is evident in the fact that all these villages from Mokokchung district, also follow the VDB model rules of 25% reservation for women members and reservation of funds for women and there are success stories emanating from most villages of good utilization of development funds by the women of their share of funds and till date, there has been no cases of objection to women reservation in these village councils all across the state. The present ruling government has projected its sensitivity on the issue by offering the women a negotiating space for nominations. However, the last meeting of the JACWR indicated that Naga women would rather see the outcome of the legal case, rather than rush into nominations of favouritism and party politics. Interestingly, objections to women reservation has ranged from “you may find some women in Kohima and Dimapur, but not other places”, “how will women handle administration of towns?”, “It is difficult for women to go for elections because there will be too much of divorces when they have to camp, like our politicians do and stay away from their husbands”, to the ridiculous “Where will you find so many women?”.Most tend to ignore the vital fact that Nagaland has a women literacy rate above 71% and definitely every town has literate, active women who will prove an asset to their towns. Secondly, this movement has shown us, there is so much of discriminatory attitude and ignorance about our brothers and sisters living in the border lines of the state, that we jump from hazy definations to the outright absurd, notions. Despite the opposition, many women, both young and old are awaiting the judgement with bated breath , as well as Naga men. Even women who have followed certain political party mantras are keeping their eyes on contesting from wards identified for women. Political observers and women’s issues experts in the country and beyond, are watching the Naga women’s fight for legal justice , with consternation and perplexities of a society that prides itself as being democratic and in the very same breath, proves to the whole world, we are not. Only the next few weeks will tell , where we are headed to. The Naga debate continues and the verdict of the Supreme Court will be a landmark in legal history whether women’s constitutional rights will have precedence over the notion that customs do not permit women into authority and therefore women have no right to have reserved seats to clean our towns, because they do not own land, traditionally, as some have argued, and partner the men in larger numbers to make our towns and cities, smarter and cleaner. And till then, those of us who have dared to append our name as petitioners, will continue to be labeled and defamed as bad women, as traitors of customary tradition, of our brothers and their traditional seats in towns, and upsetting the whole notion and grandeur of Article 371 (A) .However, this landmark case will be a call for redefining the meaning of Naga democracy and questions of gender equity within the society.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org