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For better representation

For better representation
In a significant development, Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang announced on Sunday night that he had decided to resign from his office. Protesting tribal groups have been asking for Zeliang's resignation since his government decided to reserve 33% seats for women in elections to Urban Local Bodies. The ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) chose Naga People's Front (NPF) president Shurhozelie Liezietsu as the next Chief Minister of Nagaland. In an unfortunate volte face, the Nagaland government decided to back down from their decision to hold elections to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) with 33% reservations for women. The Naga People's Front, which is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, made an about turn after their decision was met with violent backlash from tribal groups earlier this month. The protestors believe that 33% reservation for women in ULBs is against their customary law and violates special rights guaranteed to Nagaland state under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. The Naga Mothers' Association (NMA), which has been at the forefront of greater representation for women, argues that Article 243(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33% women's reservation in municipal bodies, applies to Nagaland as well. It is indeed a fact that no woman has ever held a seat in the State Assembly in over five decades of Nagaland's existence as a state.

The state has only sent one woman to Parliament and that was way back in 1977. What is particularly strange about the protests against reservations in ULBs is that a provision already exists for 25% reservation for women in village development boards. In a recent column for a leading national daily, leading Nagaland editor and author Monalisa Changkija said: "In the controversy over 33 per cent reservation for women, the most pertinent aspect hasn't been discussed yet – the economic connotations inherent in politically empowering women through reservations. Naively assuming that such reservations violate Article 371(A) and would affect Naga culture and customs would be to miss the whole point of the argument against the reservations. The core of the issue – like most other issues – is ownership of land and related resources. Naga culture and customs debar women from land ownership hence our Customary Laws preclude women from inheriting

The protestors believe that 33% reservation for women in ULBs is against their customary law and violates special rights guaranteed to Nagaland state under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. The Naga Mothers' Association (NMA), which has been at the forefront of greater representation for women, argues that Article 243(T) of the Constitution, which provides for 33% women's reservation in municipal bodies, applies to Nagaland as well. It is indeed a fact that no woman has ever held a seat in the State Assembly in over five decades of Nagaland's existence as a state. The state has only sent one woman to Parliament and that was way back in 1977. What is particularly strange about the protests against reservations in ULBs is that a provision already exists for 25% reservation for women in village development boards. In a recent column for a leading national daily, leading Nagaland editor and author Monalisa Changkija said: "In the controversy over 33 per cent reservation for women, the most pertinent aspect hasn't been discussed yet – the economic connotations inherent in politically empowering women through reservations. Naively assuming that such reservations violate Article 371(A) and would affect Naga culture and customs would be to miss the whole point of the argument against the reservations. The core of the issue – like most other issues – is ownership of land and related resources. Naga culture and customs debar women from land ownership hence our Customary Laws preclude women from inheriting land."

In a desperate bid to quell protests, Zeilang had sought the Centre's help to pass an ordinance, which would bail them out of this tricky situation. The ordinance would exempt the state from the provision of Part IX-A of the Constitution related to municipalities and ULBs and their composition. It is a pity that the State government has decided to forsake the women of Nagaland, who have long fought for greater representation in municipal bodies in the face of a deeply patriarchal Naga society. Arguments posed by protesting Naga groups against reservation for women stand on the fragile ground. Reservation was envisioned as a model of social justice for communities that have been subject to past discrimination. It is indeed naïve to assume that reservations violate Article 371 (A) and would adversely affect Naga culture.

In a society rooted in patriarchy, reservation for women in decision-making bodies and processes would indeed serve the purpose of social justice. Nonetheless, it is also imperative to note that on issues of gender rights, provisions under Indian law and community-specific doctrine have clashed many times. Hotly-contested debates on temple entry for women, uniform civil code, and triple talaq are the most prominent examples of how these battle lines are drawn. Nagaland, however, holds a special place. The state suffers from a long-running insurgency and has a special relationship with the Union of India enshrined in the Constitution. Allied with the State's unique culture and traditions, the public debate on women's reservation takes another dimension.

Even a progressive piece of legislation from the Indian mainland can be misunderstood as a conspiracy by New Delhi to meddle in the political affairs of the Naga people. Nonetheless, laws governing tribal societies must also evolve. It is imperative to recognise the importance of preserving customary law or tribal jurisprudence. However, a mechanism for these practices to evolve must exist, whereby they are also in consonance with international human rights standards or fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution. Gender justice and equality are elements that must be respected.
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