NSA organises panel talk on 33% women reservation

New Delhi, February 1 (MExN): The Naga Scholars Association (NSA) organised a panel talk and discussion on ‘33% Women Reservation in Urban Local Bodies of Nagaland’ on January 29 at Nagaland House, New Delhi.


Dr. Zuchamo Yanthan, President, NSA in his welcome note stressed on NSA’s continued engagement on issues that concerns Nagas. The recent issue on 33% women reservation in Urban Local Bodies in Nagaland, he said, calls for scholarly attention in terms of open and free scholarly debate and discussion, informed a press release received here.


The panelists – Moaniken, Kekhrie Yhome, Avitoli G Zhimo, Sangke Konyak, Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton, Walunir and James Pochury – came from diverse background, expertise, experience and perspective.


Lovitoli Jimo, the Chair-moderator of the panel talk and Vice President of NSA grounded the talk within the current debate in Nagaland on the question of 33% women reservation vis-à-vis Naga customary laws and Article 371A of the constitution.


She emphasized on the need to engage with the popular opinion that “reservation for women in ‘egalitarian’ Naga society is unjustified and the archaic notion that women reservation is a step towards ‘gender equity’ in a predominantly patriarchal Naga society,” the release said. Another point of consideration, she said, is the argument of the Government of Nagaland on making decision “aimed at protecting and preserving the sanctity of Article 371A and thereby avoiding any interpretation of Article 371A by the Court for wrong reasons.”


Jimo opined that feminism is not just a movement but a philosophy and analysis of society by using ‘gender’ as a category within the praxis of ‘difference’ and ‘experience’ to recognise inequality between gender, class, race, age etc. She added that this gender difference and inequality should be recognised in order to respect, co-exist and strive together for a just society. She drew the attention of the panel towards Naga feminism often labeled as ‘the problem’ and the need to understand Naga feminism in the context of Naga women’s experiential reality of inherently unequal society. Jimo also called the critical attention in the context of colonial patriarchy where “Naga patriarchy is valorised as ‘egalitarian’ as compared to Hindu patriarchy, which is otherwise ridden with hierarchy and inequality based on the caste system.” This, she maintained, enables Naga patriarchy to disregard the inequalities of Naga society. She thus said that there is an urgent need to look at the issues not as it appears to be but to look deeper at the complexities of the issues and have a critically engaged discussion.


The first panelist Moaniken opined that urban local bodies in Nagaland is a creation of the Nagaland State Legislature by enacting the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001 (Amendment 2006). Thus, the provision nowhere touches the traditional set up of the society concerning Naga women. “Our Naga society is in a juncture where we need to preserve and protect our traditional values and practices on one hand and on the other bring in development by embracing modern methods of governance where we see women contributions at par with men,” he stated. However, he cautioned that “while we are open to modernity, we should be very careful not to infringe upon the Naga traditional values and rights protected under Article 371A of the Indian Constitution.” If enactments/laws (including the Nagaland Municipal Act) infringes upon the rights protected under Article 371A, then such law should be amended/modified appropriately before implementing them, he stressed.


Kekhrie Yhome surmised that the “role” and “identity” of man and woman is a social and cultural construct and is not natural. Pointing out how patriarchal authority always nostalgically invokes customs to assert a losing continuity and an eroding tradition, he said the same is not true for promoting radical changes. Customary laws, Yhome asserted, have no basis if it fails to progress with the very culture it seeks to address. While debunking the claim that Naga society is traditionally egalitarian and women exist in perfect-equal harmony with men as “a delusional utopian thought infected by petty-bourgeosie morality,” Yhome highlighted that there is no communism of the sexes, which are visible in male-exclusive rituals (Sekrenyi), labor, nomenclatures, care-giving, lores and narratives, etc. He further noted that ideas are important; they are values and they define personal, social, and cultural values, including political practices. “Ideas determine how public discourse is shaped or how the political elites define themselves and the objectives they pursue and how they choose to act. The abuse of the idea that Article 371A is a sacrosanct and monolithic legal possibility is seen as the core of public confusion and unrest today. While there is an attempt to interpret Article 371A as a safeguard of customary rights, there is also the parallel politics of Kohima Smart City and the need for urban developmental funds that is directing the interpretation of what is customary law,” Yhome stated. He substantiated by narrating how central projects under Kohima Mission City Development Fund and BSUP (JNNURM) between 2006-07 have chiefly precipitated the course of the present conflicts over reservation issue. Interpretation, he maintained, is not a legal instrument. Likewise, Municipal Act and Article 371A cannot, in the first place, co-exist since it contradicts each other, for example, on land-ownership, he added.


Meanwhile, Avitoli G Zhimo spoke on customary laws, its characteristics and workings in the society. She said that customary laws evolved out of customs, and became part of moral and social values. It was not formulated by any organized law making body through a formal procedure nor are they codified in the form of written document. “Thus, by its very nature, customary laws favour men and marginalise women; the guardians of customary laws being men, and conflict resolutions being confined to the male domain,” she maintained. Drawing attention to the fact that customary laws are not free from outside forces, Avitoli stated that customary law has never been “pristine” but it has always changed with time. She elaborated on this by stressing on the changes that customary laws went through as society encountered Christianity, colonialism and globalisation. Zhimo particularly referred to the office of the Dobashis and Gaonburas, whose responsibility changed from being interpreters and village chief/ headmen to that of rural police. The workings of village council also takes on works which are not traditional in nature such as development works, sanitation etc, she added. “Unless women are able to take part in policy making processes, women development is incomplete and in keeping pace with the changing times, there is a need to internalize women’s participation within the ambit of customary laws,” she asserted.


Sangke Konyak put forth that “the problem is in the concept”, meaning the Nagas need to change their established mindset. She talked of how change comes with a price and how people have to compromise, bringing in the example of how Nagas have moved away from wearing mekhalas and loin clothes to the kind of dresses they wear today. “However, wearing western clothes alone doesn’t define modernism. We are transitioning and we must be able to accept the evolution of change in our society. Until now, there has been no issue with 25% reservation in the rural area where women share their rights but why is the label ‘33% reservation’ in the Urban Local Bodies suddenly a topic of discussion?” she asked. “Why is there no voice for greater issues in our land? But, a voice against the fundamental rights of women?” She opined that Nagas must “take the risk of being open to change.”


Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton took on the chauvinistic attitude of the Hohos and the rationale behind the need for reservation. She pointed to the “weak argument” of the Hohos against the 33% women reservation, and their “lack to provide a direct link between 33% reservation and the supposed sacrilege that it unleashes on the integrity of article 371A.” She also drew attention to the condescending and patronising attitude of the various Hoho leaders with regard to place of a woman – particularly with the statements of Hoho leaders asking women why they want to get involved in ‘dirty politics’ when they are already excelling in everything else. She asked why Hohos have a problem with women in urban local bodies. Patton asserted that customary law system denies the place and participation of women. As a result women have no voice. She added that the fight for 33% women reservation is about bridging the gap between men and women, and not about privilege. 33% women reservation, she stated, was needed to uplift the position of women just like ST/SC reservation is needed in order to uplift the disadvantaged and marginalised classes.


Walunir espoused 33% women reservation within the understanding that “men and women are similar but different physiologically and mentally but yet the structure of human society and discourses are built upon the constitution of male.” He said that human society has almost equal demographic distribution of both sexes and it requires equal contribution from both sexes for betterment of humanity and “man alone is inadequate to run the affairs of society in modern contexts”. In his opinion, Nagas have evolved out of many customary practices and there is a continued need for evolution of Naga customary laws and procedures without necessarily attempting to ‘dismantle’ the same. Talking about ‘Naga Feminism’, he stressed upon the need for the “unified centralized voice of Naga women” to move towards multiplicity of perspectives by allowing diverging standpoints to constructively seep into the ‘movement’.


James Pochury talked on the premise of participatory democracy so that power is shared between elected representatives and the electors. This can be ensured with a “bottom up process from the level of Clan in villages, with women representatives on board, through amendment to our customary laws, that otherwise restrict women in decision making spaces.” James held that “reservations should not be viewed as sympathetic act of service but as an affirmative action for social justice, gender equity and equality”. He further said the way forward is to “push for a legislation that will ensure participatory democracy in the true letter and spirit of Naga democratic socialism” followed by “facilitation of processes in the respective villages and upwards to the tribal councils/Hohos to amend the customary social practices to have one woman and one man represent their own clans in the Village Councils”. This can be pushed upwards with a resolution to legislate an Act that spells out clear mechanisms for the village traditional body to extend its powers to the Town and Municipal Councils and thereby build an organic and structural link between traditional village bodies and ULB representatives, he added.


According to the release, there was a unanimous agreement on women reservation on different grounds of arguments. The house also discussed on how politics at different levels in Nagaland dilute the question of women reservation and participation. The talk and discussion gave out that there is scope for consultation and dialogue in relation to archaic procedures within traditional as well as democratic systems to accommodate newer processes for a better inclusive society.