Whatever happened to Nagaland?
You know that Nagaland burnt. But why did it?
Nagaland, in fact, has not held muncipal elections since 2004, which was also the only time it has held these elections in the state. The state assembly, to be sure, had passed a resolution opposing this quota in 2012. On November 2016, it revoked this resolution. The Supreme Court, petitioned by the NMA, ordered the government to hold the election by April of this year.
This time around, however, the T.R. Zeliang government decided to hold the polls after the cabinet gave the go ahead on August 10. The cabinet meeting was held in response to an interim Supreme Court order in an ongoing case filed by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) seeking a directive from the apex court to the state government to implement the 33% reservation for women in the ULBs, like in other states.
Pushed to the brink by mounting protests from tribal and students’ organizations, the government called a truce on 30 January by announcing a two-month postponement of elections. It reversed the decision the next day, again urged by courts. Crowds erupted. Two youngsters died in police firing in Dimapur, the commercial hub. On 1 February, elections were held in 12 of the 32 urban councils. The very next day these were annulled after Dimapur, Kohima, the capital, witnessed widespread protests and rioting. The demand grew for Zeliang and his council of ministers to quit. That took till 19 February.
Two things to ask from this: what is the NMA, and who exactly is opposing this move?
Like before, the protest against the state government’s move has been spearheaded by Naga HoHo, an apex body of all the 18 Naga tribes, along with Lotha HoHo and Sumi HoHo. After the August 10 cabinet decision, these bodies decided to boycott the elections and called a state-wide bandh from January 26 till the day of voting. There have been reports in the local media about various tribal bodies under Naga HoHo putting pressure on many candidates to withdraw their nominations, which opened on January 3, with some groups even excommunicating candidates for not opting out of the polls.
The people opposing it have also expressed their views:
“In Naga society, a woman is not equal to a man. We give women all respect but they cannot make decisions. Even in our village councils, women speak only if they are invited to give their opinion to the men. Giving women equality will destabilise our society and our ancient customs,” says Hokiye Sema, president of the Central Naga Tribal Council.
Another young man, Matthew Yhoma, a stocky and rubicund 28-year-old, is a government employee in the rural affairs department and a father of two young children.
“For us, affirmative action is actually an insult given the high standing and respect that Naga women already enjoy. They don’t need special policies. Nagaland is not like other parts of India. We have no custom of dowry, no female foeticide. Boys and girls are equally loved,” he says. “The only women demanding change are spinsters and divorced women. Other women accept our system in which decision making is done by men.Women can only take kitchen decisions. We take the big ones.”
It’s not as if the state is big on women empowerment either.
For a state that prides itself as amongst the safest for women, Nagaland’s record in electing them to office is an embarrassment. There has never, in the 53 years since it became a state, been a woman MLA and only one woman, the late Rano Mese Shaiza, has ever made it to Parliament, back in 1977.
The Naga Mothers Association, on the other hand, is an incredible example of what happens when women come together, as you can see in this profile piece. While they have fought militancy and drugs and saved the lives of countless youth across the state, here, they have had to step back a bit; the Naga Mothers Association has responded to criticism on its role by withdrawing its petition in the Supreme Court.
On what basis are the people protesting the law? It’s actually backed by another law, the Article 371A of the Constitution, a special provision recognising the different practices of the community and the state.
Article 371 A of the Constitution confers special rights on the state of Nagaland and protects the religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, and administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law.
On this, leading Nagaland editor and author Monalisa Changkija said:
“Naively assuming that such reservations violate Article 371(A) and would affect Naga culture and customs would be to miss the whole point of the argument against the reservations. The core of the issue – like most other issue – is ownership of land and related resources. Naga culture and customs debar women from land ownership hence our Customary Laws preclude women from inheriting land. This is reinforced by Naga male-dominated tribal bodies’ recent diktat to ex-communicate anyone who contested the civic elections with 33% women’s reservation.”
P olitics, however, cannot be ignored for its role in the entire drama. For starters, there is no opposition in the state assembly. There are 60 seats. All the members occupying these seats have formed a coalition, Democratic Alliance of Nagaland. But wait, it gets better:
NPF had 46 MLAs, of whom eight switched en masse from Congress in 2015, in a 60-member house. NPF leads the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government with four BJP MLAs—of whom three switched from the Nationalist Congress Party in 2014, the year after assembly elections were last held—and a lone member of Janata Dal (United).
The rest include 1 from the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party; the Sharad Pawar edition), and 8 independents.
On the side, the chief ministership has also been highly coveted. Enter Mr. Neiphiu Rio.
Mr. Rio has served the office of Chief Minister for 3 consecutive terms: 2003-08, 2008-13 and 2013-14, as a member of the Naga People’s Front. In the same year, he stepped down and contested for the one Lok Sabha seat from Nagaland; he won. Simultaneously, the office of the CM was occupied by Mr. TR Zeliang. Rumors however, say that Mr. Rio wanted to then have a Cabinet post, which did not happen. Then:
In May 2016, Rio was suspended from the NPF for ‘anti-party activities’; specifically, scheming to become chief minister again, at the expense of Zeliang. That was a significant setback, but when the Nagaland Tribes Action Committee (NTAC) and Joint Coordination Committee shut down the entire state before the February 1 urban local bodies polls, Rio knew he had his chance. The NTAC announced that it would not relent until Zeliang stepped down; it was probably not a coincidence that a key member of the group was closely associated with Rio.
In fact, they even picked up some tips from Tamil Nadu!
Though on February 16, the political turmoil in Nagaland looked towards a possible solution with 39 NPF legislators in the 60-member assembly extending support to 81-year-old Surhozelie to be their consensus candidate for the next chief minister, the game changed yet again. As many as 49 legislators – 41 of whom are from the NPF – turned rebel and moved into a resort in Kaziranga, Assam. The rebels demanded that former chief minister and the lone MP from the state, Neiphu Rio, be their leader instead. This brought out the role of Rio, long suspected by political observers in the state, in these developments.
Finally, after sustained protests did manage to get Mr. Zeliang to resign, the government chose 81-year old Dr. Shurhozelie Liezietsu to become the next Chief Minister of Nagaland, on February 22.