In the run-up to the municipal elections slated on February 1, students and tribal body members burnt down several government institutions in Kohima, Nagaland, and issued threats of ex-communication and action against candidates who refused to withdraw their candidature. Their grouse was against Chief Minister’s TR Zeliang government for implementing women’s reservation in 33% of the wards that were going into urban local body elections after nearly a decade. When Dimapur came under siege that month, Tokheli Kikon, the Naga People’s Front candidate, said she hired close to 300 men to guard her home. The 59-year-old Village Council chairperson had to fortify her residence in Naharbari from possible arson or attack by violent protesters.

The announcement of the municipal polls came as a victory after a long, hard struggle put up by members of the Naga Mothers’ Association. In 2011, NMA members Rosemary Dzuvichu and Abeiu Meru had filed a petition in the Gauhati High Court for the implementation of the Nagaland Municipal Council Act 2001. After much back and forth, they finally secured an interim order from the Supreme Court in April 2016. The government announced the polling dates by December. However, after two youth protesters in Dimapur died in police firing a month later, Zeliang was forced to call the Urban Local Bodies elections null and void and step down from his role.

Despite the ominous threats of action against her, Kikon remained steadfast in her candidature, especially since her party and the office bearers of her tribe’s hohos, Lotha and Sumi (that she originally belongs to) supported her. Her best friend, Madam Keri, an Angami candidate standing from ward number 23, wasn’t as lucky – the apex body of her tribe, the Angami Public Organisation, had taken a staunch stand against reservation, and threatened to excommunicate all the candidates who did not withdraw their nomination.

“She was kidnapped from her place and forced to sign her candidature withdrawal, doubly pressured by her husband, who threatened to divorce her,” said Kikon.

To an unsuspecting observer, Nagaland may appear to have covered their bases with a woman being elected as Village Council Chairperson (Kikon), Village Development Board Secretary, Suniho Zhimomi of Xukhepu, Zunheboto and Member of Parliament Rano M Shazia. But these women are exceptions to the norm. More than representation, Dzuvichu pointed out, the traditional male bodies were threatened by women in decision-making bodies. “With 85 wards reserved, you are going to have 85 women coming in and out of that, one third will be chairpersons,” she said. “This was the key opposition of the male bodies, of women handling funds as chairpersons.”

Tokheli Kikon.

Reservation Vs. nomination

The issue of women’s reservation came up first in 2005, when Khetoli Chishi filed a public interest litigation in the Gauhati High Court to insert the reservation clause in the Nagaland Municipal Act 2001. Before this, the NMA and the Naga Hoho had shared dreams of Naga tribal unity and a peaceful political solution.

Formed in 1984 by 16 women tribal hohos in Nagaland, the NMA worked alongside respective tribal hoho bodies until all the major tribes formed an umbrella apex body, the Naga Hoho, ten years later. Under the slogan of “Shed no more blood”, they worked on peace resolutions and reconciliation between warring tribes and underground factions.

In Kohima, Chuba Ozukum, the president of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of the Nagas, said that the civil society was not against women’s empowerment and has never restricted women from entering politics. But given their customary laws, reservation may not be realistic, he argued. “You are talking about 33 per cent reservation but if we go for nomination, it may even cross that figure,” he said. “Once we give women voting rights which they did not have before, they can even become chairperson. We can start with this.”

The Nagas are fiercely protective of Article 371A of the Indian Constitution, which exempts the state from following Indian laws unless passed by their legislative assembly. The ongoing talks for the framework agreement in the Naga peace accord reportedly states greater devolution of powers, a demand that the Isak-Muivah-led National Socialist Council of Nagaland has pushed since 2003.

“When 243T article was enshrined in the Constitution of India, the Nagaland MP or the state government should have raised the issue in parliament. It was a failure on our part,” Ozukum added. In the current framework, women’s reservation acquired legal grounding under 371A after the legislative assembly brought Nagaland back within the purview of Part IXA of the Indian Constitution in a resolution passed in November 2016.

Akokla Pongen Lucy.

Not all women candidates are necessarily closed to the idea of nomination. Akokla Pongen Lucy said she was comfortable as long as it came with voting rights, because fundamentally Naga customary laws stood in conflict with reservation for women. “In the olden days, as per our customary law, womenfolk were entrusted to look after the family and children,” said the 52-year-old, who contested from ward number 12 in Dimapur. “They would not be permitted in the decision-making bodies or even allowed to attend the meetings.”

But for women in more rural districts, the possibility of participating in elections truly appeared only after the reservation of wards. “Women have always wanted to participate in the field of politics but they were never given the chance,” said Vekrolu Khamo, who works as the general secretary of Phek Town Women’s Welfare Society. “Before this, we never thought we’d even get nomination.”

The patriarchal passage of land inheritance in Naga customary law itself poses a practical barrier for women to contest in elections with men on an equal footing. While Kikon is willing to contest without reservation, she said that the land owning system doesn’t make it easy for women to aspire to enter politics. “Men are ready to sell off their land to do something for themselves but the family is not as relenting to do that for women.”

Price of excommunication

Early this year, along with the Chakhesang Public Organisation, the apex body of the Chakhesang tribe, the Ao Union and Ao Senden issued warnings of excommunication and later implemented it on those who disobeyed their orders. While most tribal hohos excommunicate for an average period of seven to 10 years, excommunication from the Ao tribe, among the most educated Nagas who occupy the top government posts, extends to 30 years.

Pongen Lucy had to pay a fine to be pardoned off for disobeying orders, after Council leaders from her village stepped in to negotiate with the Ao Union. “The Ao Senden cannot directly expel me from the Ao community,” she explained. “It is only the elected leaders in my village [in Mokokchung district] who can expel me.” The vice president of the women’s wing of the Naga People’s Front, Pongen Lucy served as the State Mahila President for the Bharatiya Janata Party before the second government formation of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, with the BJP and Janata Dal. Party candidates were caught in a double bind – on the one hand, there was pressure from the tribal hohos to withdraw and on the other hand, the ruling party government didn’t want them to give up.

While the Central Nagaland Tribal Council was instrumental in leading the agitation against women’s reservation during the urban local body elections, 58-year-old Hukheli T Wotsa said the Sumi community didn’t bother her much. As an independent candidate from ward number 9 in Dimapur, she did not withdraw until the very end, out of fear that the NPF candidates would gain an undue advantage if the elections happened.

“People who issued threats did it to candidates of their own tribes,” said the homemaker, who has been a social worker for the last 25 years. “Two Sumi people came and asked me to withdraw but I told them that as long as others are standing, so am I.”

Fear of banishment

In Phek district, eight candidates (including three women from Naga People’s Front) were threatened with excommunication from the Chakhesang Public Organisation. After the candidates failed to withdraw on the last date, January 17, protesters targeted their residences, leaving the homes of two women candidates completely vandalised. The residence of another woman candidate was saved by a close shave.

“My son still has nightmares about when the mob totally destroyed our house,” said Veduhulu, a candidate who works with the Phek Area Mothers’ Association. “We had to live apart from our husbands and children and take refuge in Kohima for almost three months.”

In Phek town, the candidates said the Chakhesang Public Organisation was misguided by the notion that women’s reservation will supersede Article 371A.

The eight candidates agreed to withdraw from the elections, but were held back by their party leaders who detained them in Kohima, said a candidate who did not want to be identified. This angered the Chakhesang Public Organisation, which issued letters to each of the eight candidates banishing them from the Chakhesang region in the Phek district with effect from January 17.

(Far left) Veduhulu.

Calling the youth protesters “defenders of the community’s decision”, CPO President Kekwengulo Lea told over the phone: “They were CPO volunteers who were monitoring the situation. Sometimes when the mob gathers, we find it difficult to control them. But there was no such instruction from our side to damage or become violent.”

On April 1, with the intervention of the Chakhesang Baptist Church Council, the matter was resolved after the candidates apologised for violating the orders and promised to follow the community’s wishes.

Chakhesang Public Organisation's letter to Veduhulu

Women’s role in the political solution

In the hope of the Naga political solution nearing, the political climate in Nagaland today is rife with uncertainty, which includes the fate of the Assembly Elections due in March 2018. While none of the Naga National groups took a stand during the municipal elections, the women candidates said they had their moral support.

“Back then, they called us women a ‘shield’ but during the elections they kept quiet,” Wotsa said. “They supported us, but they didn’t voice their support.”

Despite the isolation they suffered, Naga women are quick to repose their faith in prioritising the political solution, even though it comes with no definitive promise of reservation.

Naga Mothers’ Association has been negotiating with the NSCN-IM on including top women cadre at the table, Dzuvichu said. “We have submitted a written memorandum stressing that women empowerment and an equal share in decision-making must be part of any solution. We made it very clear that it is time to include women.”

However, when the Indian government interlocutor held talks with 6 Naga National Political Groups and civil society in Dimapur on October 23, not a single woman was present. With the upcoming elections in mind, the same government passed a resolution in the assembly to revoke last year’s resolution on the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2006. Criticising the move, Dzuvichu says that the government has forgotten 50% of the state population.

“In the complex situation now of a political solution, peace cannot be sustained without respect for women’s rights,” she said. Meanwhile, the matter continues to remain sub judice, with the case petitioned by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in the Supreme Court.

Hukheli T Wotsa.