Nagaland needs to honestly discuss 33% Reservation for Women

Inotoli Zhimomi looks beyond the patriarchal politicking in #Nagaland

Let us revisit the 33% reservation for women in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and what it means and could have meant for the Nagas.

I understand that the 33% seat reservation for women in ULBs is the provision of the Indian Constitution under Part IX A. Its main aim is to create a ‘leg up’ for women’s participation in the decision-making processes in urban and local bodies across all states in India. In other words, it is an affirmative action that creates space for women to have access to formal political participation.

The Global Context of Affirmative Action:

Widely practised around the world, affirmative action initiatives such as the 33% reservation are an effort to remedy existing practices that may have caused disadvantage to certain groups. The aim is to strengthen society by engendering inclusivity. Affirmative actions are usually implemented by setting goals and targets toward a desired outcome. Their core purpose is to redress inequality and achieve a more equal distribution of power and opportunity to those deemed disadvantaged. Governments commonly adopt such measures. Increasingly they are also being implemented by corporations and other social institutions to redress a lack of diversity, be it of race, gender or to counter other forms of discrimination. For example, Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden adopted a voluntary female reservation in the 1970s to promote women as political representatives and policy makers. As the gender gap narrows, the measures are abandoned. Suffice to say, affirmative actions are only a temporary measure and not meant to be permanent.

Internationally, in 979 by the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) provided a basis to hold countries responsible for discrimination against women within their jurisdiction. Known as the International Bill of Women’s Rights, it is the foremost instrument in promoting corrective measures for the states to adopt. Signatory states to the convention are required to adopt affirmative action that addresses and eliminates any forms of inherently discriminatory practices against women in the name of culture and traditions. The state parties are then expected to submit reports on the progress of their efforts to combat gender-based violence and discrimination.

Unfortunately while India is one of the 189 State parties to the convention and which it ratified as of 1993, it is not a signatory to the Optional Protocol of CEDAW, which allows individuals to lodge complaints to be heard by the CEDAW Committee. Furthermore, India had also maintained its reservation to Article 5 (a) of the convention, which relates to changing discriminatory social and cultural patterns, as well as Article 16 (1) and (2), which relate to rights within the family and compulsory registration of marriages.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the directives of the CEDAW have implemented by Indian courts. In one case, that of Githa Hariharan in 1999, the Supreme Court of India favoured a mother of a Hindu minor by nominating her as the child’s legal guardian during the lifetime of the father. The Court in its decision, gave due respect to the message of CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration which directs all State Parties to take appropriate measures to prevent discrimination in all forms against women.

Naga Context:

To some extent India has been seen globally as proactive in affirmative action through its constitutional provisions even before CEDAW. As far back as 1950, India put in place positive discriminatory measures to uplift disadvantaged groups. Not foreign to the Nagas, some of the most notable initiatives are the provisions of ‘scheduled tribes’ and ‘scheduled castes’ quotas. These provisions, typical of affirmative action, were proposed for 10 years initially to alleviate the opportunity gap between mainstream Indians and those of us classified as ‘scheduled castes’ and ‘scheduled tribes’. As the 10-year terms keep rolling over, Nagas amongst other beneficiaries have been enjoying this affirmative action for decades now. Nagas for that matter have also been enjoying the constitutional affirmative discrimination under Art 371(A) where our traditions and cultural practices are protected without interference of the central government. So much so that it has almost created a monster-like ego for the patriarchs of the Naga society, and with dire and detrimental consequences for Naga women particularly in their quest for political participation in Naga society.

 Implementing the 33% reservation does not reflect a negative aspect of Naga culture, therefore, it should not be seen as a punitive measure against Naga cultural practices.

On the eve of the 33% reservation for women in ULBs, we Nagas as a community appear to be highly confused and to be making contradictory claims. One of the most common claims has been that the dispute is not about the 33% reservation as such. Opposition to the 33% reservation has been marshalled on the basis that the initiative is an Indian ‘colonial law’ imposed on the Nagas infringing on our culture and traditions. This is a very selective approach and misleading by those responsible male bodies. If we follow such a claim, then by the same principle we should not have accepted the statehood of Nagaland and should have refused to participate in the state politics let alone in ULBs which are none other than creations of an Indian system. The Konyaks got the point when they stated that they rejected the ULB system in the first place because it is against our traditional system. Putting aside the merits of that approach, at least such a stand is not double standard.

The Naga leadership in both traditional bodies and state politics must stop this cheap political scheme through their selective take on our history. As befits their own personal gain, this is misleading the public and grooming community members especially the young male into a culture of violence and mob mentality, wherein reasons are painted as ‘western’ or as ‘outsiders’ views’ and as culturally inappropriate. Naga men in positions cannot have it both ways. The privileged ‘custodians’ of Naga cultures and the politicians cannot continue to be both thieves at night and hold the public office in the day, expecting respect. Please excuse my lack of imagination for not coming up with any better name for those who feast on public funds for their own personal gain.

Now we can see parliament is back in action and state election is not far off. What next for 33% reservation and ULBs election? Could the public dare to hope the next set of politicians most of whom have survived the latest power struggle at the expense of Naga women’s rights to return their focus to women’s empowerment? Or is it more realistic to expect the new lot to be busy in ceremonies of self-regard and self-congratulation, praying to their gods of injustice, thanking those divinities for leading them to the thrones they now occupy?

‘However hard they try to deny that this issue isn’t about reservation and try to divert the issue to taxation and interpretation of Constitution, the truth is they can’t stand to see a woman holding political power. Patriarchy is deeply rooted in our Naga society. Things got to change. Our women need some freedom.’ (A Naga fellow via digital forum)

As for the tribal bodies, should Nagas and Naga women wonder what your next effort will be in meddling with any attempt to address gender-based violence and repression in Naga society? What purpose does it serve in holding on to this claim of a ‘time immemorial’ code of traditions which you fail to explain? Are your daughters, wives and mothers less human than yourselves and your sons? If that is the tradition you are proud of, then the public shaming is just beginning. After all, Nagas are no longer living in isolation. Increasing number of Naga women will speak out and speak openly and no one can stop that anymore. Personally as a Naga patriotic woman, after more than 53 years of Naga political history of statehood, the waiting is over for me. This history indicates to me and to other Naga women who believe in the national cause, that the Naga self-determination struggle has nothing much to offer in terms of freedom from gender-based violence and oppression. The three histories namely traditional system, state and the self-determination are inseparably linked. We all know who heads those bodies. So joining other Naga Women’s voices, I too say, ‘enough is enough’. In this crisis, both the government of India and the supporters of the Naga male traditional bodies have used the issues of Naga women to score their own political points. For decades, Naga women have been excluded from active decision making processes and platform. While decisions of the Naga national significance that affects women are made by male bodies in the absence of Naga women. It is time for these male bodies to be very clear. Naga women are not political footballs for Naga male bodies and the Indian Government to score points. Period!

It is time for men holding power in decision-making platforms to rethink and act responsibly. If you have the privilege of holding public spaces you also have the responsibility and obligation to serve the best interests of the community. You cannot be wanting just privilege without responsibility. Privileges can be used responsibly and for the greater good for all. You can choose to open up to learning and to embracing changes that sometimes challenges the norms. Here you are presented with the great opportunity for you all to change the course of our history that is to address some aspects of our customary practices and contribute towards a society that can truly be said to be – not just by an empty claim – an egalitarian one.

Change is Inevitable: The Power of Ordinary People  

‘However hard they try to deny that this issue isn’t about reservation and try to divert the issue to taxation and interpretation of Constitution, the truth is they can’t stand to see a woman holding political power. Patriarchy is deeply rooted in our Naga society. Things got to change. Our women need some freedom.’ (A Naga fellow via digital forum)

I strongly believe that the 33% reservation presents an opportunity for our community as a whole. Let us not be taken in by the simple comforts of false and confusing claims such as:

  • The implementation of the 33% will damage our culture and traditions
  • Nagas can resolve the issue of women’s participation internally without adopting ‘outsider’s law’
  • Naga women are always treated well and protected by men so what more do we need
  • Naga society has an egalitarian system and does not need affirmative action
  • The NMA is misleading other Naga women
  • 33% reservation and those in support of it are anti the self-determination movement
  • We women can contest and win in our own merit
  • There are more complications than just 33% reservation so it is too hard to implement

Yes I understand the fear and apprehension in the face of change particularly when it demands of us a major shift of mind. As we all know, Nagas are not new to major changes. Religiously, we were once animistic. Now we are 99% Christian for better or worse. We have survived a violent history of torture, killing and oppression from the colonising Indian administration. Socially and culturally, we have moved rapidly from loincloths to the most fashionable attire that there is, for those who can afford it of course. Educationally, we have progressed rapidly, achieving Indian national awards even as the first and second generations to become literate. The 33% reservation is just one more hill to climb on the road of change. It is a historical opportunity that invites us to reconsider and remedy the gender-based injustice that we have taken to be a norm for so long.

We need to re-examine our own voices when we say ‘Naga men had always respected us and protected us’ what does this mean in today’s world?

Implementing the 33% reservation does not reflect a negative aspect of Naga culture, therefore, it should not be seen as a punitive measure against Naga cultural practices. On contrary, if there is anything negative it is the rejection of such affirmative action. It is the denial of the patriarchy that defines Naga society. It is the rejection of positive steps toward an inclusive social structure. And it is the refusal to reflect on our own history. To make the futile claim that 33% reservation is the imposition of a colonialist Indian rule is to avoid our own responsibility to look critically into our own cultural practices and correct our own wrongs.

For Our Consideration:

As we collectively ponder further in days and months ahead, there are three important things we need to consider for our understanding in order to arrive at some resolution. The first one is that Nagaland as a state is a legal entity with obligations to serve the common good. The 33% reservation stands out as one of those common good requiring the State to fulfil its obligation. This obligation has now been reinforced further by the courts’ rulings.

Secondly and very importantly, we as citizens, we have both rights and responsibilities towards each other. As a society, we have a communal responsibility to call out injustice and to advocate for the rights for those who are disadvantaged. The issue of gender-based discrimination against Naga women’s political participation calls both men and women those who uphold the common good to put aside our differences and to stand together for justice. In that holding state accountable for their legal responsibility to implement the 33% reservation for women in ULBs through setting the date for the impending election. This will assist in addressing the issue of gender-based injustice that had existed in Naga society for so long.

Thirdly, it is fundamentally crucial that Naga women find our own voice. Not the voices of the patriarchy that we are so conditioned and unexamined. We need to re-examine our own voices when we say ‘Naga men had always respected us and protected us’ what does this mean in today’s world? Or for some who claims, ‘I can go for election independent of 33% reservation because I can’. Re-examining is needed not because they are not true. But because those claims deflect the core value of the actual issue which is historical and structural gender-based injustice that is discriminatory in nature towards Naga women. I have no doubt that there are many capable Naga women who can context and possibly win election at any level of politics. The matter of reservation isn’t however, about the capacity or incapacity of Naga women. It is about as said elsewhere, addressing the structural and systemic injustice that Naga women had been subjected to for decades in the name of the culture and traditions. So in finding our own voices, we need to recognise it is important that we don’t speak in vacuum without historical context in which this matter stands crucial for all Naga women. Naga women need to realise that active political participation is our right. It is ours to claim. Whether within international conventions or the domestic constitution, the legal framework does not spontaneously award rights upon women or any group. The legal framework is there to set the ground on which women can claim these rights in the appropriate forum. In other words, women as rights holders can actively seek from the state recognition and redress so that our rights are not infringed. In that way, NMA has done the right thing in its petition for the 33% reservation against the Nagaland State Government to various legal national legal courts. We must however be reminded that Naga women’s rights cannot depend alone on what NMA does or does not do. In addition to what the NMA has done, we can all collectively seek gender-based justice within the given framework of human rights if the state fails in its obligations.

In our history, the biggest elephant in the room is the absence of women politicians in the Nagaland parliament over the last 53 or more years, with one exception. The current obstacles are nothing but a confirmation of the patriarchal structure that precludes women from such a platform. In giving a chance to 33% reservation the Nagaland state is simply fulfilling its legal obligation to act on what is due to women through constitutional provision and subsequent court rulings. For those traditional bodies that are fearful of such an initiative, we will only be showing goodwill and our commitment to make a step forward. It will show that we are a society that is committed to equality and respect for women. It will also show Nagas in a positive light globally as a people who, despite our initial failings, were willing to swallow our collective pride for the common good. Because for a society like Nagas, the 33% reservation for women in ULBs is something Nagas cannot afford to overlook no matter what justifications one may make. Nagas still have time to correct the wrongs we have made. If we only allow ourselves collectively to engage in an honest discussion of gender-based injustice in Nagaland, and rather than descending once again into dirty game of kicking political goals for the establishment.

Let me finish with a short piece of wisdom from my late father, who was a chief. A group of women sought his assistance in the face of opposition to their recommendations for women’s rights to be included within the village council laws. To the surprise of the women and myself, Dad replied thus: ‘Why do you seek men’s permission to have your own rules? They are your rights. You should regulate them and carry them out’. For me this story touches on the most fundamental aspect of women’s rights: that Naga women really do not need permission from Naga men to claim and enact their rights. Naga women, let’s not be afraid to reason together and to stand own ground with our own voices. Then only can we stop the political game that the Naga men play using Naga women’s issues to kick their own political score.

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Inotoli Zhimomi Written by:

Inotoli Zhimomi works at the Brotherhood of Saint Lawrence in Melbourne.

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