Yet another attempt to hold urban body elections in Nagaland has failed.

On March 30, the state election commission cancelled the polls which it had originally notified to be held on May 16. It has been almost two decades since the tribal state last saw urban body elections.

The reason for the hold-up: the state’s all-powerful tribal groups’ resistance to quotas for women in the election, a constitutional requirement. Reservation for women, these groups contend, is inimical to Naga customary laws. “Women’s political culture was never there in traditional Naga society,” they claimed in a recent letter to Chief Minister Nepheiu Rio, objecting to holding elections with reservations.

A contentious topic

The urban local bodies elections have been a lightning rod in Naga politics for years now. In 2017, an attempt to hold them ended in violence, forcing the chief minister of the time, TR Zeliang, to resign.

The bone of contention is a constitutional amendment of 1993 that made it mandatory for 33% of the seats in a municipal body to be reserved for women.

However, when the Nagaland government – then run by the Congress – passed the Municipal and Town Council Act in 2001, laying down the provisions for municipality elections in the state, it made no mention of the reservation requirement.

The state’s first urban body polls, which took place in 2004 according to the Act, did not comply with the constitutional quota mandate.

Back and forth

This led to women’s groups asking for the court’s intervention, arguing that exemptions under Article 371(A) extend only to Acts framed by Parliament, whereas the reservation flows from a constitutional amendment.

Under pressure from the court, the Nagaland Assembly, in 2006, passed an amendment to the Act, paving way for the 33% reservation for women.

Little changed on the ground, though.

The hegemonic influence of the tribal groups in Naga society meant any move to hold elections with reservations could not materialise.

The court steps in – but to little avail

Finally, in 2016, the Supreme Court stepped in, asking the state government to conduct elections with 33% reservations.

Not too long after, Nagaland erupted in violence. The tribal groups took to the streets, claiming that elections with reservations were against Naga customary laws and contravened the special protections guaranteed to them under Article 371(A) of the Constitution.

Once again, the tribal groups would prevail and the elections would be cancelled.

False hope

Yet, this March, when the Nagaland state election commission – prodded by the Supreme Court – announced urban body polls, many believed the impasse would finally end. After all, there had been a series of consultations with the tribal groups over the years and the state seemed to be warming up to the idea of women in politics.

In 2022, Nagaland elected its first-ever woman member to the Rajya Sabha. And barely a week before the election commission’s notification, the state had seen history being made when two women were elected to the Assembly for the first time.

But it turned out to be a mirage.

Back to square one

Days after the announcement, three tribal groups wrote to Chief Minister Rio declaring they would not “allow” reservations in their areas of jurisdiction.

The state government caved in almost immediately. On March 28, the Assembly – a practically Opposition-free space – passed a resolution to repeal the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001 citing “stiff voices of opposition” by the tribal bodies and civil society organisations.

The resolution stated, “The implementation of the Nagaland Municipal Act 2001 has always been fraught with much controversy due to the public perception that the Act runs contrary to the spirit of Article 371-A.”

‘Lack of political will’

The government’s meek surrender has upset Naga women.

The Naga Mothers’ Association, a feminist group that has been at the forefront of the legal battle to implement the quota, pointed out that the government acted unilaterally “without any civil dialogue or consultation with women”.

In a statement expressing its “objection” to the government’s decision, the association took note that the “two women MLAs remained silent during deliberations on this issue in the Assembly session as well as abstaining from objecting or dissenting to the passing of this repeal bill”.

Custom or patriarchy?

Zheviholi Swu, a former legal advisor to the association, said that the state government’s decision was particularly egregious as the matter was sub-judice.

The tribal bodies, for their part, remain steadfast. “Article 371(A) of the Constitution empowers the Nagas to have their own customary practices and traditions but the Municipal Act infringes on those guarantees to Naga people,” said HK Zhimomi, head of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of 16 sub-tribes under the Naga umbrella.

Monalisa Changkija, a well-known journalist and poet from the state, slammed the government. “The government did not have any intention to implement the 33% women’s reservations,” she said “It is because of the government’s lack of political will.”