In the name of the “customary”

Vizokhole Ltu on custom & patriarchy in her #Nagaland

The current political crisis in Nagaland, chiefly orchestrated by tribal bodies who opposed implementation of reservations for women in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), raises troubling questions about customary laws and women empowerment. The long overdue provision of the reservation bill, passed in 2006, had been on the sideline owing to opposition from powerful traditional institutions, such as the Naga Hoho. The opposition has finally flared onto the streets, with men threatening to disrupt government activities, and intimidating candidates who intend to file their nomination. Some of the Hohos have even excommunicated community members who did not assent to their dictates. What does this opposition tell us about customary laws and traditional institutions which exercise enormous power in Nagaland? Is it still possible to imagine customary laws as embodying possibilities for progressive politics?

I was in Kohima when the Angami Youth Organisation (AYO) and Angami Public Organisation (APO) took to the streets to oppose the reservation. The organisation had instructed all Angami villages to send volunteers, who would march to the offices where nominations were being accepted, so as to prevent candidates from filing their nomination. I wanted to go into the town to see what was going on, but only volunteers were allowed in the street. So the next day, I volunteered to be a bandh enforcer. Many of the young men were carrying bamboo sticks. When I asked them what those bamboo sticks were meant for, some of them told me that it was meant to beat women who intended to file their nomination. In reaction, the men around them giggled. What troubled me most was that some of them even uttered that if women do not fall in line, “We know of other means to make them obey”. This ‘other means’ clearly referred to the threat for using sexual or physical violence.

By the time I left Nagaland in January 2017, other organisations had joined the protests, some tribal bodies had begun to serve quit notices to individuals. The Angami wing of Naga Mothers Association was forced to server ties with the Association. Very quickly, other tribal bodies that initially supported the reservation and had allowed candidates to file nomination began to withdraw their support. There were in fact reports of protestors vandalising houses of candidates who filed nominations. And then Dimapur erupted into flames, with men blocking roads and burning properties. The protesting men, who ostensibly were exercising their democratic rights, transformed themselves into mobs – burning, vandalising and issuing threats. This quick transformation of Naga men into a mob throws up interesting question: what does this tendency to transform themselves into a mob tell us?

I am aware that lots of accumulated anger against government officials and public figures are suddenly finding their way into these protests. But I would insist that we read these oppositions for what they seek to represent: to prevent women from asserting their democratic rights. For instance, why is it that corruption in public life is bearable and that women’s entry into politics is intolerable? As such we need to ask troubling questions about politics in Nagaland: why are these Naga men repulsed by such progressive politics?

What is at stake?

Curiously, some of the utterances made by leaders of the organisations which opposed the reservation are that they are not against reservation for women. While some state that they are against infringement of customary rights, which is protected by the Indian constitution, others declare that Naga women are already equal, and therefore do not need reservation. In fact, some are of the opinion that the bill would only benefit women from the privileged strata of the society. The bill would only help female relatives of current politicians to enter public offices. This, in their view, defeats the very purpose of the Act. One wonders, how conveniently they forget that even in the current dispensation, politicians field their sons, nephews, uncles, and countless male relatives from various constituencies. Nobody seems to complain about such practices, unless it involves female relatives.

There are others, such as Dr. Vihusa Seleyi, President of the Angami Public Organisation (APO), who harps on democratic consent by invoking the name of the people. In his view, “the Naga Mothers Association has dragged the matter to the Supreme Court without discussing it with the people. So this has causes resentment”. However, it was the opposition to the implementation of reservations from such tribal bodies which compelled NMA to take up legal course and approach the court. What is important here is: who constitutes the people? What is this idea of people or public?

 

In contemporary Naga society, the tribal apex bodies claim to represent the Naga people. Some of them would go to the extent of citing the success of the bandhs as having the endorsement of Naga public. It should be noted here that the AYO had directed every Angami living in Kohima town, in every municipal ward to send volunteers. The AYO had also directed the Northern Angami Youth Organization (NAYO), Southern Angami Youth Organization (SAYO) and Western Angami Youth Organization (WAYO) to depute volunteers from the Angami villages with requisite numbers allotted to all the Angami villages in accordance with the size of the population. The organisation threatened that if any range or village should fail to show up with requisite strength, they would be held accountable. It is this threat of reprisal which militates against their claim to represent the people or the general public.

Therefore, it is important that one reads this opposition for what they represent. The argument that this Act is against Article 371(A) of Indian constitution is flawed. For one cannot defend customary law by upholding the same constitution which embodies gender equality. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to defend customary rights, but only as a creative force and not as site for regressive politics. In my opinion, these institutions are characterised by their unwillingness to reflect on why their opposition silences discriminatory norms and practices existing in Naga society. As such what is at stake here is the established levers of power, be it for formation of state government, or the upholding of male privileges in everyday life.

To a certain extent, female entry into politics insults male egos, who have been preaching about non-existent of gender equality to the outside world. Supposedly, the idea of giving equal status to women in public life can actually inflict an inferiority complex on men, especially in society where women are considered subordinate.

The illusion of Equality

For a long time, Naga women have been presented as equal to men. Ironically, the protest to oppose their reservation exposes the myth of that equality. This inequality is nowhere more visible than in property relations. For instances, only men can inherit ancestral property, and women do not have any say in management of that property. This has been the site of one of most unjust practice in Naga society. It is women who worked on this land; it is their labour to which modern Naga men owe their education and control over modern political institutions. Control over property and political power are co-determined.

We need to keep in mind that, the first generation of educated Naga men were sent to boarding schools, while women laboured in paddy fields. My own mother bemoans her lack of education (by the way all her male siblings were sent to schools). As a kid she wanted to attend school, and even promised her parents that she would do well. But unfortunately, her parents were in no position to send all their children to school. So, as was customary, the men attended school and women worked with their parents to support the family economy. This trend is still prevalent, especially in rural areas, and in different form: men are send to good private schools while female children are send to government school, which typically are of lower expenses and provide education of a lower quality.

My mother still goes to the fields, almost every day, despite her children’s admonition. The fields are the product of her labour, and yet she has no right over it except some acquired land, which my parents bought after marriage. It is injustices of this nature which have translated into the creation modern political institutions as privileged bastions of men. The demand for women reservation in democratic bodies, therefore, is simultaneously a demand challenging norms and practices which perpetuates gendered discriminations. Seen from this position, the concern of the tribal bodies that the central government is using legislative instruments to override the protection of the Nagas offered by Article 371 (A) seems to be unconvincing.

Other Voices

In the cacophony of regressive and misogynistic utterances one is heartened to come across a restrained analysis of the issue. For example, Moa Jamir is calling out to the custodians of customary laws by pointing out how men everywhere have tried to block women empowerment. The strategies and languages used by these men sounded so similar to the ones now being employed in Nagaland (The Morung Express, 12 February, 2017). Jamir had earlier written that “culture is not simply reliving the past and reducing it to a static entity. It should evolve pragmatically in tune with time. Falling back on culture and tradition to justify a recognised deficiency is simply untenable. The contradiction and dichotomy of this argument is conspicuous if we compare our present society to time past realities” (9 March 2016, Morung Express).

Khekiye Sema opines that the traditional custom or customary ‘law’ of our past is not only redundant but undesirable in the spheres of mankind’s common pursuit for happiness and progress. Our present circumstance therefore logically dictates the need for changes in our customary laws (6 January 2017, Morung Express). Monalisa Changkija claims that time for equality has come, and that neither the traditional institutions nor the modern institutions have any moral authority to continue to exclude women (The Indian Express, 7 February 2017). The struggle for reservations of women has also garnered solidarity outside Nagaland. A large group of Indian feminists and organisation have released a solidarity statement (Raiot, 13 February, 2017).

Within Nagaland, especially among young people, there is a quiet groundswell of support for women reservation. When the protest against reservation begun, I had been following the discussion on social media and whatsapp. Of course, there are those young men, with their regressive views, who are the loudest even here. Their opposition to the reservation is usually because, in their views, women are premature to partake in decision making, or that it is an open field where both women and men should fight equally. But there are other voices, both men and women, who believe that the existing social structure is highly discriminatory, and that without reservation it is almost impossible for women to take part in decision making. Yet these voices are seldom heard, primarily because of the draconian directives passed by the tribal bodies.

When the bandh was called by the AYO in Kohima, I came across this post by a Naga woman on Facebook: “It’s hilarious that the volunteers will go wearing traditional dress made by women to protest against women reservation, and then come home to eat food made by women again. Ha ha ha wonderful man.”

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Raiot

Vizokhole Ltu Written by:

Integrated-M. Phil/PhD, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)

2 Comments

  1. Dixita Deka
    February 20, 2017
    Reply

    Moved by this powerful writing. Nothing feels more right than women standing for women’s rights.

  2. K.Joseph Zeliang
    February 20, 2017
    Reply

    I am moved by your powerful writ up. We all depend on women folks for everything but sadly man took due advantage in every dicision making. Respect for women in our society still need to learn by all man.

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