Nagaland is torn between conflicting impulses. After years of legal battles fought by women’s groups, the state government passed a resolution providing for 33% reservation for women. Tribal groups opposed this, claiming reservations were inimical to Naga society and disrupted tribal customary laws, protected under Article 371(A) of the Constitution.

Polls scheduled for February 1 were disrupted after tribal groups went on protest. When two protestors were killed in police firing, tensions came to a head. On February 2, seething crowds surrounded government buildings, setting them on fire.

Walter Fernandes, senior fellow at the North Eastern Social Research Council in Guwahati, helps explain the circumstances leading to this violence as he speaks on the interface between tradition and modernity, between formal laws imposed by the state and customary laws followed by local communities, between tribal groups dominated by men and women’s groups fighting to join political processes in their society.

Reservations for women in municipal bodies have been opposed by tribal groups who feel they disrupt customary laws. But why do you think the protests are so intense?
I tend to believe there are political forces involved. Even violence seems to have been organised by these forces, though I am not sure which ones.

But there are two issues here. One is the assertion of customary law in the name of men, and it looks like it has been internalised by women. Nagaland has not elected women to any political post, apart from Rano M Shaiza in the 1970s. A few contested in the last Lok Sabha elections, but they lost. Because voting happens on a planned consensus, whole villages or clans will decide which way to vote.

Second, this is an interface between tradition and modernity. Only in this case, modernity has been seen as an imposition from above. Nagas consider customary laws a non-negotiable part of their identity. Nagaland was the first state to be granted protections for customary law under Article 371 (A).

In 2012, the state assembly passed a resolution barring reservations, then in 2016, it reversed it. Suddenly the state decided to go to the high court and the court said go ahead with elections. The way this has been handled has created polarisation at two levels – between men’s groups [the tribal hohos] and women’s groups, and between the men’s groups and the government.

There should have been a dialogue. It was a mistake to go against the Nagaland Baptist Church Council’s suggestion to have a two-month break before elections and hold discussions in the meantime. That would have made a consensus possible and would probably have kept the forces that caused violence out of the scene.

Tribal groups have said that reservations would disrupt the division of responsibilities between men and women in Naga society. How are these responsibilities divided, and doesn’t each Naga tribe function according to its own set of customary laws?
There are separate customary laws for each tribe but there are also certain commonalities. Broadly speaking, women are in charge of family and production, men are in charge of society. Traditionally, women have many roles, but politics is a man’s role. They are in charge of administration and form village councils.

Some tribes have accepted the head of the local women’s association as a member of the village council. But I have not heard of any tribe where a woman is the head of the village council.

Of course, women are active in Naga society today. They have taken a big step beyond the family. The belief that politics is a man’s role has been challenged by civil society.

Naga tribal groups have said that reservation for women may be needed for Indian communities in the mainland, but it is not needed for Naga society – that women can compete without quotas. How far do you think this is true?
They perceive their society as egalitarian, and even some women say the same thing. They point out the fact that they do not need property rights, for example. But that is mainly to prevent land going away from the community if a woman marries an outsider. When it comes to politics, they have a long way to go and the process has to continue. But forcing the elections without a consensus has made it difficult. That dialogue has to be restarted.

The Naga nationalist movement constructed Naga identity in a certain way. How much did women participate in the construction of that identity?
Naga national identity was constructed by men. It began with the Naga Club [formed in 1918], which consisted of men, predominantly men educated by missionaries. They educated boys from different tribes. While the primary schools were in the village, boys had to be taken to a different place for high school. It was the high schools and hostels that brought together boys from different tribes. That created a common Naga identity. So it was initially developed by men, though women came in later.

When did women start entering the public sphere?
The height of the nationalist movement in the 1970s coincided with the growth of church-run high schools in the southern Angami area, which was also a stronghold of the movement. A political atmosphere for change came together with education. As young men went underground in the freedom movement, women got involved in the day to day running of their society.

A result of it is that until recently, two thirds of all graduates and undergraduates in the Southern Angami area Nagaland were women. But most of the government jobs went to men because the State continued to perceive men alone as bread winners.

It happened in other areas in varying degrees, though men continued to rule society. But women began to get involved in the public sphere. They also resisted it when the state imposed modernity from above without their internalizing it.

Women are vocal and highly organised in Naga civil society today, but why has this not translated into political participation?
One part of tradition was modernised through education but not the other. It takes a process, but that process has not gone beyond a certain level.

There has been an erosion of equality, not just by Naga tribal groups but also by the state. During the ceasefire between the government and Naga militants in the 1990s, women’s groups got very active in supporting negotiations and the peace process. But the government turned it into a dialogue between itself and Naga militants, a dialogue of men. Even in the keeping of peace, the state used the military, ignoring social processes. That is a major obstacle to peace and to social change.

The state imposed on Naga society in various ways, with its centralised administration, with the army, with no dialogue with the civil society. In this context of polarisation, protecting the customary law under Article 371 (A) became a compromise between the two. If you want to change that, there has to be a process.

Some tribes, like the Angamis, had slowly come to accept reservation. But the elections came as a law, imposed by the Centre. They are not ready to accept such an imposition. Some political forces seem to be using this situation to their own advantage. That has to change and a dialogue has to be restarted.