Around the world, tradition often opposes equality. But when it comes to the question of gender equality, such situations can become volatile. That’s what happened in India’s Nagaland this February, when protests relating to women’s political participation killed two people. The conflict has also led the government of this eastern federal state to play a game of political musical chairs.
Nagaland, one of the eight northeastern Indian states, is mainly composed by ‘Naga tribes’ – a term coined by British anthropologists but which refers to various indigenous populations – who inhabited a large territory there before India’s independence. There are at present 17 Naga tribes in Nagaland, with distinct languages and customs.
The political violence erupted prior to municipal elections, when women’s organisations, under the leadership of the Naga Mother’s Association (NMA), demanded the application of Indian law 243(T) of India’s Constitution, which states that 33% of seats should be reserved for women within local political bodies.
Their demand was vehemently rejected, and male politicians invoked “tribal traditions” as their main argument. The conflict spurred deadly street protests in which mobs attacked offices, and shops were destroyed in the main cities.
This situation contradicts a popular perception of gender equality in the Naga society. Naga women are often depicted as educated, hardworking and independent, and are admired for their enterprising spirit.
But the traditional law of the Naga society clearly distinguishes gender roles and gendered responsibilities. For instance, women are in charge of domestic issues, such as family and its related issues, while man deals with society, including village administration and councils.
Men have dominated the political space since the beginning of the 20th century, when the troubled history between Nagaland and India began.
Local consciousness of a distinct social identity emerged as part of a patriarchal discourse after the ‘Naga Club’ was formed in 1918. Young boys from different Naga tribes met in different educational institutions and hostels, and they together constructed a common “Naga” identity.
Women were largely absent during the rise of Naga nationalist movements, as, per the traditional fabrics of Naga society, any issues of social or political importance are the domain of men.
Indeed, the NMA also played a major role in the negotiations – the latest leading to a 2015 ceasefire – but were conveniently excluded from the negotiating table with the Indian States. It, apparently, was a “dialogue of men”.
Women saw some hope in 2006, as the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act granted “33% reservations to Naga women in local bodies”, according to the Eastern Mirror. Since then, the NMA and others have been fighting to implement the law. Their efforts paid off when, last year, the Indian Supreme Court granted their petition.
The February 2017 elections could have changed history for Naga women.
Instead, confronted with violent civil unrest, the present Naga’s People Front (NPF) government had to defer the elections. The strong opposition came from traditional tribal bodies, including the Naga Hoho groups (an apex body of 16 Naga tribal groups) and a higher authority, the Naga Council Dimapur (which is accepted as a indigenous and customary body, representing all the Naga tribes).
These groups assert that granting women seats in local bodies would not only dilute the traditions of Naga society but also be “unconstitutional”. They refer to the Article 371(A) of India’s Constitution which says that “no Act of Parliament” should apply to the State of Nagaland when regarding religious, political, social or law practices of the Nagas.
Tribal political bodies perceive both the February elections, which were pushed by a government allied to the central government, and the municipal institution itself as possible interference with tribal customary law. That is why, under pressure, over 150 candidates out of 535 have withdrawn their nominations.
The events surrounding have snowballed to create a volatile situation where traditions, modernity and gender equality are at the crossroads. Some fear the electoral situation will lead to more impositions by India’s central government, which the Naga see as arrogant and dangerous.
Already, under pressure from local groups, several Naga women groups have severed ties with their lead women’s organisation pushing for the 33% quota, the Naga Mothers Association. Whether the authorities go ahead with the gender reservation or not, Naga women may now find themselves in a lose-lose situation.