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Selective amnesia of gender rights activists


What is the mystery behind the self-proclaimed social activists giving a miss to the important development of opposition to women’s reservation in Nagaland civic polls? What is the secret behind the silence?

While the media in Delhi and elsewhere in the country continues to focus on the ongoing Assembly polls in five States and the unfolding of political drama in Chennai, a ‘counter-revolution’ has taken place in far away Kohima, without a whimper being raised. Half the population of Nagaland has been deprived of its constitutional right to equality, and such  a retrograde move has been greeted with deafening silence on the part of the rest of the country!

On Thursday last, Nagaland Governor PB Acharya declared the entire process of elections to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in State as null and void. State Election Commissioner Sentiyanger Imchen, in a notification, said that following the Governor’s decision, the election programme for ULBs, notified on December 21 last year, was now null and void.

Governor Acharya obviously had little choice in this decision, which has far-reaching implications in terms of gender equality in the State and the rest of India. On February 7, the State Cabinet had declared the election process null and void following violent agitation by Naga tribal groups to the ULB elections, which provided for 33 per cent reservations for women.

Incensed by the State Government’s move to provide reservations to women, the agitating Naga tribals had gone on a rampage, vandalised and set ablaze Government offices and vehicles in the capital town. While the State Government cowered, the belligerent Nagas paralysed functioning for over a week. Two persons were allegedly killed in police firing outside the private residence of Chief Minister TR Zeliang in Dimapur on January 31, on polling day eve.

On December 21, last year, the State Election Commission (SEC) had announced elections to the 32 municipal and town council in Nagaland following directives from the State Government. The Nagaland Government’s fiat on municipal polls had come following a ruling by Supreme Court on April 20, 2016, wherein the court had upheld a single judge’s ruling of the Guwahati High Court of October 2011.

The 74th amendment of the Constitution passed in 1993 provides reservation for women in ULBs. However, it was not adopted in Nagaland. It was only in 2006, nearly 13 years after Parliament had amended the Constitution, that the State Assembly passed the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act, which provided for 33 per cent reservation of seats for women. The Act was not implemented as question were raised on the protection of Nagaland’s customary laws under Article 371A of the Constitution.

How valid is the argument used by the Naga Hoho, the body that represents the State’s 16 tribal groups, that reservation violates Article 371A? On the surface it’s a flimsy argument, used to preserve the patriarchal character of the Naga society and to continue with the degrading practice of treating women as second class citizens. Naga culture and traditions preclude women from inheriting land and participating in the decision-making process. There is  merit in the argument that, since municipalities and town councils are not customary institutions, the move to reserve seats in ULBs is not violative of the Constitution.

What happened in Nagaland on the issue of women’s reservation is understandable. Privileged sections seldom cede their hereditary rights easily. But what about the ‘progressive’ brigade and the communists who come out on the streets, even on petty issues involving women, like a college denying rights to a student to wear jeans or enforcing visiting hours on residents in a girls’ hostel?

Where is the media outrage? Recall the recent controversy about Jallikattu.  For days together, TV screens were dominated by animal right activists  and NGO leaders screaming their lungs out to protect the rights of bulls and oppose the re-introduction of the sport. Why such silence now on the part of all those rent-a-cause jhola brigade?

The elections to ULBs in Nagaland were ordered after the women groups in the State had fought and won a protracted legal battle. Even after the State Assembly had passed the 2006 Act, nothing happened. Ultimately the Naga Mothers’’Association moved a petition. In  October 2011, a single judge Bench of the High Court upheld the petition and ordered the Government to hold elections to municipal councils and town councils on or before January 20, 2012.

However, the State Government filed an appeal before a Division Bench of the Guwahati High Court and the previous ruling was stayed. The petitioners, led by Joint Action Committee for Women Reservation, moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court on September 2012, and finally got a ruling on April 20, 2016, wherein the Supreme Court upheld the single judge ruling of the Guwahati High Court of October 2011.

Meanwhile, the State Government passed the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016, which revoked its September 2012 resolution and cleared the way for women reservation in the civic bodies. On January 31 last, the State Government decided to conduct polls in 12 of the 32 municipal bodies in the State following the recent directive from the Guwahati High Court.

However, buckling under pressure and following a violent agitation, the State Government developed cold feet took a U-turn, and surrendered to the male dominated/all-male Naga tribal bodies. Hence, the Governor’s orders, that recently came.

Article 371A of constitution lays down that any meaningful change can come in Nagaland only after it is endorsed by the State Assembly. Can a move to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in ULBs get the required support from the Assembly, given the fact that this 60-member strong House has not seen a single woman MLA till date?

The lone person to represent Nagaland women in politics was the Rano M Shaiza, who was the first and only (so-far) women MP from the State. She was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977 during the post-Emergency Janata Party era.

Nagaland is Christian-dominated, where the church is the most important public institution and dominates the public discourse. The State had virtually zero per cent Christian presence till 1941. But by the 1951 Census, their percentage had moved up to 46.05 per cent; by 2011 Census, to 88 per cent.

What is the mystery behind the self-proclaimed social activists giving a miss to such an important development? Why are they acting deaf?What is the secret behind the silence on such a gender-sensitive issue? Is it the religious demography? Or is it because most NGOs and social organisations and individuals in the country are a facade to promote the hidden agenda of the church? Any answers?

Balbir Punj

(The writer is a former Rajya Sabha MP from BJP and a Delhi-based political and social analyst)

Courtesy: The Pioneer