Five women are standing for elections in Nagaland this year. This figure, which work out to 2.56% of the total number of candidates standing for elections this year, is an all-time high for the state. Two of the women are from the National People’s Party, one from the newly formed Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, one from the Bharatiya Janata Party and one is contesting as an Independent. Nagaland’s grand old regional party, the Naga People’s Front, which has ruled the state for 15 years, will not field any women candidates.

Since Nagaland was formed in 1963, only 19 women, including this year’s candidates, have stood for assembly elections. None has ever won.

The state’s only women representative in Parliament died in 2015. Rano M Shaiza, niece of the Naga separatist leader AZ Phizo, was the first woman to become president of the United Democratic Party, an older incarnation of the Naga People’s Front. She won elections to the Lok Sabha in 1977.

After Shaiza, Nagaland has had few women politicians. It is a curious anomaly in a state where women fought alongside men in rebel armies, played a part in the peace process, went to work long before their counterparts in other states and are highly organised in influential civil society organisations.

Seven sisters

Of course, Nagaland is not alone in its poor showing for women. The national average for women in state assemblies is a paltry 9%. Of the five states that went to polls last year, Uttar Pradesh saw 446 women candidates out of more than 4,800; Punjab saw 81 out of 1,145; Uttarakhand 58 out of 637; Goa 18 out of 250 and Manipur 11 out of 266. This means the first three states hovered around 9% and Goa was around 7%.

In spite of these low figures across the country last year, some states in the North East do not compare badly. Assam and Tripura are not too far behind, with over 8% women candidates in their last assembly elections. Neither is Meghalaya, which will see nearly 9% women candidates in the polls on February 27. But Arunachal Pradesh, with 3.8% women candidates in 2014, Mizoram, with 4.2% in 2013, and Manipur, with 4% in 2017, are stragglers. Nagaland, which climbed up from 1.06% in 2013 to 2.5% this year, still finishes last.

In the 1960s, the number of women candidates in Assam and Nagaland was roughly the same, but now the difference is stark.

Graphics: Anand Katakam

The reservation debate

The question of political representation for women in Nagaland suddenly blew up last year. When the government tried to hold urban local body elections with 33% reservation for women, it led to violent agitations and a political churn that resulted in the chief minister resigning. Some women withdrew their candidature under pressure while others faced the threat of excommunication if they refused to pull out.

Much of the resistance came from the hohos, or tribal bodies. They claimed to be opposed to all reservation rather than just the representation of women in legislative bodies. First, they argued, reservations interfered with Naga customary laws and the protections guaranteed to the state under Article 371 (A). Under this provision, no law affecting Naga customary laws would be applicable to Nagaland unless ratified by the state assembly. The clause for reservation flows from Article 243T of the Constitution. If women were simply nominated by customary bodies, they claimed, the number of candidates could even cross 33%. Second, tribal leaders said, egalitarian Naga societies did not need reservations like the patriarchal communities of mainland India.

According to social scientist Walter Fernandes, the backlash to reservation stemmed partly from the fact that government had not held consultations first. Nagas, who have fought for their independence for decades, are fiercely protective of their identity, especially vis-a-vis the Indian state. Through the decades of conflict, the state had imposed on Naga society in many ways, with a centralised administration and with the army, Fernandes argued. Reservation for women was seen as yet another imposition from the Centre, a form of top-down modernity foisted on a society still attached to its traditions.

Whose customs?

But why so few women in assembly elections, where there are no quotas that might be objectionable? Naga women activists and social scientists argue that, despite the protestations of tribal bodies, their society remains deeply patriarchal. Even in Naga histories about the struggle for independence, they point out, men are martyrs while women are victims.

Indeed, one of the arguments put forward by tribal bodies last year simply objected to women sitting on legislative councils. It would disrupt the traditional division of responsibilities in Naga society, they argued. Though each Naga tribe has different customary laws, broadly speaking, women are in charge of production while men have political power.

The framework which protects these customary laws in the Indian state has also been questioned. Article 371(A) only gives Naga male bodies the power to interpret customary affairs, anthropologist Dolly Kikon argues. The invocation of Article 371(A) to protect male privilege is not new, she says.

These gender imbalances are perhaps replicated in electoral processes, which have been adapted to Nagaland’s unique political context. Who contests is often decided by customary bodies such as village councils, as are voting choices. Given the circumstances, women in Nagaland have a tough fight ahead.