While the recent Assembly elections have been the subject of endless chatter in the media, in Nagaland, the question that hangs in the air is: when will we see women governing the state?
Nagaland attained statehood in 1963, but since then, it has not elected a single woman to its Assembly. It has also only ever sent one woman to Parliament – Rano M Shazia, who was elected to the Lok Sabha back in 1977.
This reality pervades through all levels of governance in the state.
Traditional village councils, formalised through the passage of the Nagaland Village Councils Act 1978, have hardly any female representation. And though laws have been enacted providing for 33% reservation of women in municipal and town councils, their implementation has been halted, as a result of which there is not a single woman in these bodies.
What does this say about the status of Naga women?
At first glance, Naga women do not appear oppressed. You meet strong, articulate women, well-known writers, poets, academics and activists.
You also see women doing backbreaking work in the fields, carrying heavy loads of firewood, cooking, cleaning, weaving or selling vegetables and fruits in markets and by the roadside.
Yet, a Naga woman cannot call the field in which she works her own, or lay claim to house she manages or even her kitchen garden. If it is ancestral property, she is not entitled to inherit it.
The only exception is acquired property – parents can gift their daughters land. But after her death, that land will not go to her heirs; it will be returned to her clan.
For the women in Nagaland, then, the battle is two-pronged – for representation in institutions of governance and for the right to inheritance.
In many ways, the fight for representation in self-governing bodies is symptomatic of the larger battle of Naga women against their society's inherently patriarchal traditional structures.
A drop in the ocean
Anungla Aier, principal of the Kohima Science College, said that within the traditional definitions of who is entitled to be on the village council, "there is no space for women, in the social or political realm.”
"When you have a state Assembly of 60 men, how can we expect any of them to take steps to bring women into the picture?” she said.
The village councils predominantly consist of men who are selected by villagers. They have powers to govern many aspects of village development, including the use of development funds. In that regard, they’re quite similar to panchayats. The big difference, though, is that they are not elected bodies (in the way that panchayats are) and they have hardly any women.
Additionally, all villages have Village Development Boards (VDB) and a state law in 1980 stipulated that a quarter of their members should be women. Though this provision has been implemented, the resistance to women entering village councils continues.
In the last few of years, a few village councils, mostly in Dimapur and in Phek district in eastern Nagaland have taken a few women on board. Tokheli Kikon, Chairperson of the Naharbari Village Council, is the first and only woman so far to head a village council.
But these are the exceptions, not yet the norm.
For those have found a place in the village councils, there is the expectation that they can make a difference, even if there are only two women in a council of 30 or more men.
One such woman is 38-year-old Konie-u from Enhulumi village in Phek district. A village with around 250 houses, Enhulumi is perched precariously over the state highway running from Kohima to the eastern part of Nagaland via Chizami. If you go there early in the morning, you will only find men. The women have already left for the fields.
Every morning, Konie-u weaves for some time, then leaves for the fields. That morning, she waited, as did her mother, Khwetsozu-u, who offered us sticky rice and then left for her paddy fields.
Konie-u, from the Chakasang tribe, said that three years back, the women's society in the village pushed for women to be in the village council. They finally succeeded last year. They nominated Konie-u, who has studied up to Class 9, along with another woman.
"In the beginning, when we got into the council, we explained to the men that we are not just here to make and serve tea but that we want to participate in the meetings", said Konie-u.
They told the men that if they want tea, they should tell them early so that it can be made. Even if they wanted lunch, the women would arrange it. But during the meetings, they wanted to be there.
"Already, within a year, men in the council are starting to acknowledge and listen to us and are telling us that our opinion matters," she said.
Can women really make a difference, I ask?
In Konie-u's opinion, they can. She said that if men eat up 75% of the funds, and leave only 25% for the community, women will ensure that at least 75% of the funds are available for the village.
Would she be prepared to stand for the Assembly? Konie-u dismissed the suggestion saying that she is not qualified, and doesn't have the money. But, she said, “I believe that we will have a woman legislator from our constituency. I will campaign and push for her.”
Opposition to laws
This is but a small breach in a male fortress. The larger struggle for representation in municipal councils, which revolves around implementing a law and not on the munificence of some men, is proving far tougher.
The Nagaland Assembly passed the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act in 2006. This provided for 33% reservation of seats for women. But till today, this cannot be implemented because men have argued that this runs counter to customary law. And according to Article 371A of the Constitution, Nagaland is exempt from any law that does not conform to customary laws.
For the last six years, elections to the municipal bodies have not been held, as a result of the ongoing stand-off on the reservation.
A writ petition challenging the state government's refusal to hold municipal elections was filed before the Kohima Bench of the Gauhati High Court on June 26, 2011.
The petitioners, Rosemary Dzuvichu, an academic, and Abeiu Meru of the Naga Mothers' Association argued that as the law guaranteeing representation to women was applicable to Nagaland and did not violate traditional practices, it ought to be implemented. The government, however, put forward various arguments and also claimed that implementing such a law would upset the peace in Nagaland.
In October 2011, the court, presided by a single judge, upheld the petition and directed the government to hold the elections to municipal councils and town councils on or before January 20, 2012.
But before that could happen, the state government filed an appeal before a division bench of the Gauhati High Court. The previous ruling was stayed.
The petitioners then moved a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court in September 2012 and finally got a ruling on April 20 this year. The Supreme Court upheld the single-judge ruling of the Gauhati High Court of October 2011. As a result, the state government and the state election commission must begin the process of holding elections to the urban local bodies. But to date, nothing has happened.
In the absence of municipal elections over the last few years, funds cannot be released for essential urban services, the consequences of which are evident in the sorry state of Nagaland's towns.
Dzuvichu, one of the petitioners, argues: "When reservation exists in the village development boards for more than three decades, all these excuses about customary traditions, or even by educated women on being equal with men and therefore not needing reservation, are based on ignorance of and denial of the plight of the larger group of women who are voiceless, both the rural and urban poor and marginalised."
She said that as petitioners, they have written to the Election Commission of India, to the state election commissioner, the chief minister and the Parliamentary secretary of municipal affairs asking them to hold elections.
“The entry of 82 women councillors in 19 municipal and town councils is an exciting event to watch for someone like me who believes Naga women will be good dynamic partners of our men in this strong patriarchal society,” said Dzuvichu. “It will be a turning point for the future of Naga women.”
The other battleground
With regard to their fight to property rights too, some headway has been made, but there’s a long way to go.
Temsula Ao, writer, professor, and head of the Nagaland State Women's Commission said that a process of discussion to introduce a new law on inheritance has begun.
"We are trying to see if we can figure out an Act for Naga inheritance," said Ao. "At the moment we are not talking about ancestral property. We have decided we will not touch this hornet's nest. We are just talking about acquired property of husband and wife."
The state women's commission has conducted a series of consultations with the apex bodies of each of the tribes of Nagaland. Men from village councils and student bodies as well as gazetted officers were invited to these consultations. Ao believes that this is the best way to take the issue forward.
Women leaders met after these meetings and formulated the main points they wanted to put to their people. These were then taken back to the tribal leaders and their consent was sought in writing. By the middle of May, Ao said that almost 99% of them had accepted the suggestions made.
After further consultations and endorsements, these suggestions will now be sent to the law department. Sikkim and Mizoram already have laws that address women’s right to inherit property. These, Ao suggests, could help in the formulation of the Naga law.
These debates on women's rights do not make it to the so-called national press as conflict and politics dominate the discourse. Yet, for the future of Naga society, caught on the cusp between tradition and modernity, the outcome of these struggles will be crucial.