On October 23, the government’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks landed in Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub, to talk to various stakeholders. These included six Naga rebel outfits and a range of representatives from civil society. Yet, a meeting that was supposed to make the peace process more inclusive did not include women.

According to Rosemary Dzuvichu, an advisor to the women’s collective Naga Mothers Association, the absence of women in the talks “is an indication of where we are as a society”. She added, “It is for an outsider to see and take note.”

On October 11, another consultation had taken place in the state. It was attended by representatives from various tribal organisations and the Naga Mothers Association. They were to discuss the subject of reservation for women in urban local body elections – as mandated by the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001, through a 2006 amendment, in keeping with a 1992 constitutional amendment.

But the meeting ended in a stalemate. “Nothing happened, both sides stuck to their stands like before,” said Abeiu Meru, president of the Naga Mothers Association.

The meeting between the Centre's interlocutor for the Naga peace talks and stakeholders from the state in Dimapur on October 23 was an all-male affair.

The reservation question

In the 53 years since it became an Indian state, Nagaland has only seen one woman member of Parlaiment, Rano M Shaiza, who was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977. Only a few women have contested elections at any level. When the Naga Mothers Association tried to change that, it met with fierce resistance from the state’s powerful tribal groups, comprised wholly of men.

In January, violence erupted in Nagaland as the tribal bodies protested the state government’s decision to conduct urban local body elections and reserve 33% of seats for women. The groups claimed the move disrupted tribal customary laws that are protected under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. The protests led to a political churn and TR Zeliang stepped down as chief minister in February. The civic polls – which have not taken place in 13 years because of the opposition by tribal bodies – were put on the backburner yet again, and the matter of the women’s quota sidelined.

In August, the state government set up a six-member committee to review the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001. It said the panel would consult all concerned parties and submit its report within three months. The committee sat down with the two sides for the first time on October 11.

“They again started talking about Article 371(A),” said Meru. “Again, one more sub-committee, comprising both men and women, has been formed.”

‘We just want our constitutional rights”

The Naga Mothers Association and other advocates of the women’s quota have contended that the 74th amendment of the Constitution, which provides for 33% reservation for women in municipalities, supersedes Article 371(A). They have argued that exemptions under Article 371(A) extend only to Acts framed by Parliament, whereas the reservation flows from a constitutional amendment.

“On April 20, there was a consultation on Article 371(A) by former parliamentarians of Nagaland and legal experts,” said Meru. “And they also unanimously said that it [reservations] had nothing to do with Article 371(A). I think some people who are opposing us understand this, but they just do not want to accept. We are not asking [for] something that other women in the country are not getting. We just want our constitutional rights.”

Abeiu Meru, president of the Naga Mothers Association, says women in Nagaland just want their constitutional right.

For years now, the Naga Mothers Association has been fighting a legal battle to implement reservations for women. In 2011, several of its leaders formed the Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation. In April 2016, the Supreme Court admitted a special leave petition filed by the committee, challenging the constitutionality of a 2012 resolution by the Nagaland Assembly exempting the state from reservations. The court ordered that elections be held, with one-third of the seats reserved for women, and the government agreed. However, as protests by tribal bodies against the women’s quota turned violent, the Naga Mothers Association withdrew its name from the petition.

However, Rosemary Dzuvichu pointed out that the matter may still be sub-judice as the human rights organisation People’s Union for Civil Liberties impleaded itself as a party to the case after the withdrawal of the Naga Mothers Association.

‘Reservation… if the menfolk are willing’

On the other side of the debate, tribal leaders insist there is no consensus among legal experts on the Naga Mothers Association’s claim that the constitutional amendment supersedes Article 371(A). “There are different interpretations by different lawyers,” said Chuba Ozukum, head of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of 16 Naga tribal groups. “We need more time to discuss, we have to all sit down, men, women and legal experts.”

It is not just legality that this side draws its argument from – tribal leaders contend that reservations are out of sync with Naga society. “Reservation is a system in Indian society,” said Ozukum.

Supo Jamir, convener of the Joint Coordination Committee against the women’s quota, agreed. “Reservation means women are inferior to men,” Jamir said. “But as far as Nagas are concerned, there is no difference between men and women.”

What then explains the lack of women in mainstream Naga politics? According to Jamir, it is simply a “lack of interest”. But he added that it was unfair to say there were no Naga women politicians. “Rano M Shaiza was a woman,” he pointed out. “We keep the door open for Naga women. If anyone wants to contest they can, but politics depends on interest.”

Ozukum, however, admitted that there was a problem when it came to adequate representation of women in elected positions in Nagaland. “I fully agree, so we can begin with nomination,” he suggested. “Then, if the menfolk are willing, we can go for reservations.” Nomination would entail political parties or elected ward members recommending names.

But Meru said nomination was no solution. “If a particular party nominates me, I have to toe their line,” she said. “What is the point? That is not real democracy.” She also refuted Jamir’s claim that Naga women are not interested in politics, insisting that it is lack of resources and not lack of interest that has kept them away. “We do not have the money, we have no property rights, how will we contest elections?” she asked.

Supo Jamir contends that reservation would imply that women are inferior to men, and that Naga society treats both equally.

All photographs by Arunabh Saikia.