What is the meaning of gender? Or of justice? Which comes first in Naga society?

As is the case in many nationalist societies around the world, gender justice and rights have for long remained marginal for Nagas. We were told that such issues could wait till the Naga people gained their freedom. In that context, what does it mean to bestow any sort of rights on women in Naga society?

These questions gain relevance in the context of violent opposition to the government’s attempts to implement 33% reservation for women in Urban Local Body elections, which has brought Nagaland to a standstill. Municipal elections have been deferred for years because local tribal bodies believe that insisting on women’s representation in these polls goes against Naga customary law, safeguarded by article 371(A) of the Indian Constitution.

When terms like gender “rights” and “equality” invite extreme resentment from powerful Naga traditional bodies, they become meaningless. And if Naga customary law is seen as the foundation of justice, the exclusion of women from the state’s powerful decision making-bodies negates this.

‘Customary laws’

The Indian state and the male traditional bodies alike are responsible for excluding Naga women from all spheres of representative political processes. Article 371 (A) is a prime example of the patriarchal nature of the Indian Constitution, which bestows on Naga male bodies the full authority and power to interpret customary affairs covering social, religious, and criminal cases.

Article 371(A) is a constitutional provision that purportedly grants special status to Nagaland. However, besides Clause 1, which has four slim lines about protecting Naga customary law, religious and social practices, and land rights, a larger section of this Article defines the power and functions of the governor, who can even lay down qualification and salaries of the regional councils. Therefore, if people argue that all Naga rights since time immemorial as also its future are determined by this Article, the enormous social and political transformation in Naga society is doomed.

The Article does not even define “customary law and procedure” or “social and religious practices” that it purports to uphold. These processes, which were regarded as enabling instruments for Naga people to become citizens of India when the Article was passed in 1963, have today become the basis of violent contestations and debates.

The row over the 33% reservation for women is not the first time that Article 371 (A) has been used as a cloak to defend Naga male privileges. The ongoing coal mining operations and the oil negotiations in Nagaland have rested on multiple interpretations of this constitutional provision. Naga politicians, landowners, village councils, and business families have interpreted the provision to their benefit to mine minerals and not be held accountable for the environmental degradation. The mines are controlled by powerful Naga men, who conduct operations with non-Naga coal traders and agents. They make the constitutional provision work in their favour, by arguing that they are the custodians and rightful owners of the land.

The denial of rights to Naga women by citing Article 371(A) is not new and has nothing to do with upholding the customary law and culture of the Naga people. It is a way to propagate male hegemony and authority in Naga society, cloaked in the language of justice.

This pattern can be seen even in Naga history and its nationalist movement, where only Naga men became martyrs while women were always projected as victims.

A society for all

How can we talk about equality as a foundation when justice, equality and freedom in Naga society have remained the prerogative of the few? Can it be a democratic society when a minority have defined a heroic and masculine militarised past? Today the Naga poor, including orphans, widows, unemployed youth, the elderly and a large section of the disenfranchised public, cannot take part in the debate.

These are inherent contradictions. These are flaws that cannot be corrected simply by including women in the electoral process. Here, it is important to embrace the feminist ideology of what it means to embrace gender equality and justice. Feminist philosopher Angela Davis wisely cautions us that we cannot imagine incorporating women into a misogynist society and dream of justice and equality. Or, for that matter, elect a Black president or a female president and expect racism and patriarchy to vanish. In the Naga context, moving towards equality requires us to move away from patriarchy, economic injustice, racism, homophobia and gender violence.

Protests against women's reservation in Nagaland. Credit: AFP

The position of Naga women

If the Naga movement for self-determination and civil and political rights has meant anything at all, it is a quest for justice.

Justice is not a goal that can be achieved simply by implementing 33% reservation for Naga women alone. The vision of justice that Naga feminists dream about is based on a collective consciousness of a world where male, female and gender queer will march together and build a just society. This longing deeply marks the identity of every Naga woman, who has been subjected to humiliation, shame, and oppression.

This cry and yearning was visible when some women raised their voices in favour of the 33% quota. Instead of understanding how these voices were situated in a history of gender violence and injustice, there were continuous attempts to discredit them. These were interpreted as attempts to shame the society or shame Naga men.

How can the cry for justice and freedom from the lips of Naga women be read as shameful? Aren’t these moments the very processes that reject gender subjugation? These moments remind us of how Naga women, across tribes, have been compelled to serve the family 24X7, all the while remaining silent.

Crucial choices

Today, as Naga society is at a crossroads, what kind of justice and freedom do we choose? Is it
one that excludes the poor and speaks the language of select Naga individuals, one that includes the rich and their network of families and friends and one that solely sees people through the prism of class, ethnicity, and entitlements?

What kind of change should we call for at this moment?

To begin with, we can demand a Naga democratic system that calls for an end to militarisation, violence, and demand the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The atmosphere of fear and violence, digital censorship and the apathy of state authorities during the ongoing crisis in Nagaland once again underlines the pitfalls of Naga militarisation.

Second, we need to understand the importance of tribal feminism, justice, and the need to conceptualise these terms and processes. Criticism of the national and international coverage of the row over women’s reservation in Nagaland aside, we need to recognise that the issue of gender justice came up as an important point. Naga people have to engage with the national and international community and we cannot afford to push away the disturbing things that journalists said about Naga society.

This issue has made us understand the importance of feminism as an ideology. In particular, Naga women and men who participated in the debates about gender justice feel the need to extend these conversations.

The debates that have emerged through the row over 33% reservation should push us towards a political tradition in Naga society that shakes the foundation of inequality and unjust practices carried out under the cloak of Naga culture. This is the time to create a form of Naga gender justice that becomes the norm and ignites conversations about many more political issues such as racism, discrimination and the rights of tribal migrants in contemporary India.

This is not the time for Naga people to be ashamed because of the crisis. It is a time to reflect and connect, examine our political foundations and build alliances to talk about across the region and beyond. We cannot expect a radical change in Naga society through electoral politics. History stands as a witness.

Even if we implement the 33% reservation, unless the municipal council as a system embraces the principles of gender justice, includes the poor, single mothers, widows, unemployed youth, and speaks for the old and the marginalised from all backgrounds, the moneyed and power-hungry elite will continue to dominate Naga lives.

Credit: PTI

Seeds of change

But in this crisis, a wonderful thing has happened. More Naga men and women than ever before have familiarised themselves with the Nagaland Municipal Act, the Constitution of India – especially Article 371 (A). In every locality, small groups of men and women are sitting together, rebuilding trust and reaffirming their support for gender justice.

Imagine hundreds of such small groups coming together to form a joint common vision for a just Naga society!

The logic of protecting Naga women from the dangers of politics, public office, reservation and several other activities cannot be based on an Indian State-like militarised strategy: to impose a cultural and traditional curfew and incarcerate women within the limits of the four walls.

Lest we forget, here’s a reminder of the logic of the Indian state. For long, Naga people were defined as emotional, childlike and barbaric – who could be tamed only by the guns and bullets of the Indian State. If the same logic is used by the Naga leaders and male tribal bodies to dominate over Naga women, the poor and the marginalised sections of the society, we have successfully adopted the master plan and replaced the vision of a just future with a broken and violent mechanism.

Today, we are yet to hear the name of a Naga woman leading the Indo-Naga ceasefire talks, advising the Naga Hoho – the apex body of tribal organisations –arbitrating at a Naga customary law proceeding on divorce, hearing a property dispute between two brothers, heading the Naga Forum for Reconciliation or leading a Christian church.

Naga people need to recognise that a feminist tribal ideology can achieve a meaningful framework of gender justice and peace. Feminists in women’s movements across the region have shown us the courage and wisdom to create political alliances across class, ethnicities, race, caste, generations, gender stereotypes, and beyond territorial and nationalist boundaries to dream of a new just world based on equality and a habitable future.

As a Naga feminist, I remain hopeful that we are able to resist the money, power and attractions of authority wrapped in patriarchal and traditional cloaks. Such kind of seductions have devoured numerous Naga tribal councils, politicians, leaders, community activists including the church workers.

As Albert Camus, who fought racism and homophobia, once said, “I love my country, but I also love my justice”, I too end this essay by stating that as much as I love my Naga community, I also love my justice – and will continue to join hands with the struggle for gender justice.

Dolly Kikon teaches Anthropology, Development Studies, and Gender at the University of Melbourne.