“When one looks from the outside, it appears that women in Nagaland have a lot of freedom,” said C Kikon, a 37-year-old who works as a business consultant in Dimapur. “They are running businesses and working jobs. But when you go back home, you are denied a voice in the name of tradition. What is this tradition when half of the population cannot speak up or represent the people?”

Kikon was referring to the fierce opposition from tribal groups to reservation for women in urban local bodies that led the Nagaland government to cancel civic polls on March 30.

The elections to the urban local bodies have been thwarted for close to two decades, despite a Supreme Court order, by tribal groups that claim that reservation for women violates their customary laws.

On April 5, the Supreme Court stayed the Nagaland government order, saying that it amounted to contempt of court.

A day later, two powerful tribal organisations lashed out at one of the most respected women’s collectives in the state, the Naga Mothers’ Association.

They denounced the NMA as an “unmandated” organisation and accused it of deliberately diluting and destroying the Naga customary laws and traditions.

The Angami Public Organisation and the Chakhesang Public Organisation in Nagaland wrote to the state government, urging it to isolate the NMA, which has, for years, led a dogged battle for greater political representation of women in the state.

The cancellation, followed by the backlash against the NMA, has struck a raw nerve, with women speaking out against the tribal groups.

“First of all, who are they to say the Naga Mothers’ Association has no mandate?” said Vitono Gugu Haralu, a Dimapur-based 41-year-old social activist and radio jockey. “We have never told men not to do anything. But these organisations have made us feel that women are not important, our opinion doesn’t matter. Neither are we acknowledged, nor are we consulted.”

Haralu said the issue, for her, was not so much the constitutional right of women to reservation, but “the disturbing mindset of men towards Naga women”.

In a piece written for the Nagaland Page newspaper, poet-journalist Monalisa Changkija questioned the targeting of the NMA as “Public Enemy Number 1”. “The Supreme Court stay order was an embarrassment for the state government…Now someone has to pay for it, and who better than the NMA?”

The mothers of Nagaland

The Naga Mothers’ Association began in 1984 in Kohima as an organisation that fought social evils like alcoholism. But it soon took on a bigger role.

In 1994, when a violent insurgency was at its peak in Nagaland, matched by a brutal response from the Indian state, the NMA’s famous “Shed No More Blood” campaign was a crucial intervention.

Nagaland is home to India’s oldest militant movement, which began as a demand for an independent, sovereign ethnic homeland for the Nagas.

The NMA went on to become a voice for peace in the region. In 1997, it played an active role in convincing the National Socialists Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction) to sign a ceasefire with the Centre in 1997.

“The Naga Mothers’ Association has been around almost as long as the state,” said a 42-year-old government employee from Kohima, who requested not to be named.

She described the statements against the group as ways to discourage women from participating in any decision-making process. “These statements issued by so-called tribal bodies are a threat to women organisations like the NMA and prominent women in the society,” she said.

The NMA group has also led the demand for women’s reservation in urban local bodies.

According to sociologist Toshimenla Jamir, the Naga Mothers’ Association is the “only autonomous women’s body in the state that is actively fighting for the implementation of the reservation at the civic polls”.

Said Jamir: “All other tribal women organizations have been cowed into silence by their respective tribal hohos.” Each tribe in Nagaland has its own apex body or hoho.

The tribal bodies hold immense influence over Naga society and identity politics, and influence decision-making of the state government.

In 2011, the NMA approached the Gauhati High Court to push for women’s reservation, reportedly on the advice of chief minister Neiphio Rio.

The court ruled in the group’s favour, directing the state to reserve a third of seats in urban local bodies for women.

But the next year, the state government passed a resolution invoking special protections under Article 371(A) of the Constitution, which effectively exempted Nagaland from implementing the quota.

The NMA then approached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of a quota in 2016.

In January 2017, Chief Minister TR Zeliang gave a written assurance that the elections would be held as scheduled.

Assured that the fight had been won, Rosemary Dzuvichu, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, and Abeiu Meru, NMA president, withdrew as petitioners from the case.

But the attempt to hold polls led to in violence, forcing Zeliang to resign. The government declared the poll process null and void.

After the riots, four tribal women groups – Angami Women Organisation, Chakhesang Mothers Association, Sumi Totimi Hoho and Lotha Eloi Hoho – “were forced to disassociate from NMA” allegedly by the tribal bodies.

The lack of political representation

Earlier this year, Nagaland made history by electing two women legislators – a first for a state, where women have struggled to find a space in the political sphere.

In March, when the election commission announced elections to the urban body polls with 33% reservation, it seemed another barrier would come down.

But that was not to be, as tribal groups vetoed the proposal, forcing the assembly to repeal the law – the Municipal and Town Council Act, 2001 – that mandated reservation. The elections were put off again.

“What we are witnessing is a systematic strategy to silence the voices of Naga women and stopping them from demanding their due constitutional rights,” said Jamir, who teaches sociology in Nagaland University. “They are being combated and countered using another constitutional provision, Article 371(A).”

She said that reservation for women in the civic polls would “address two crucial necessities – women’s representation in governance, and feminine leadership at the local, civic level.”

A journalist from Dimapur, who did not want to be named, pointed out that the voices speaking out in NMA’s favour are few. “There is fear and apprehension. No party has come out in their support,” they said.

“The NMA is facing the force of patriarchy at its highest,” said Dzuvichu, expressing her disappointment at the reaction of the tribal groups.“Naga women are equal citizens and have the right to associate, the right to articulate on issues and policies that concern us all.”