Guwahati: Nagaland’s social parameters indicate that women hold an important place in the state’s society, more so than in places where patriarchy is perceived to rule the roost. Take for example a parameter as simple as the female literacy rate — Nagaland’s 76.11 per cent mark is far better than the national average of 64.6 percent, and does not lag too far behind the literacy rate for men, which is 82.75 per cent. Several women’s rights organisations — including the Naga Mothers’ Association, a prominent civil society body — continue to wield considerable power in the state.
Which is why it may come as a surprise that the state has never had a female member of the Legislative Assembly since its formation in 1963, and only last week, got its second female parliamentarian, in the form of Phangnon Konyak.
Konyak, the Nagaland BJP’s Mahila Morcha president, was elected to the Rajya Sabha unopposed, after MLAs of the Naga People’s Front failed to come to a consensus over the nomination of their intended candidate. Konyak is the first woman from Nagaland to enter the Upper House; the other woman MP from the state was Rano M. Shaiza, a United Democratic Party leader, who contested and won the Lok Sabha elections in 1977.
Speaking to ThePrint, Konyak acknowledged that there was an issue of voters’ mindset before, but that has started changing of late.
“There were very good women candidates, but people were not forthcoming to women in leadership. In the past few years, however, this has changed and people are open to the idea of women leaders,” Konyak said.
“They (the people) have never seen a woman leader, but the time is now (for women leaders) and the time has come,” she added.
No political representation
According to data from Ashoka University’s Trivedi Center for Political Data, a total of 21 female candidates have contested in eight of the 21 assembly and by-elections held in Nagaland since the formation of the state.
The last assembly elections, in 2018, saw the highest participation of women in any state poll in Nagaland’s history. But the number stood at just five of the 196 candidates.
Three of the five women candidates ended up losing their deposits, which means they were unable to secure even one-sixth of the votes in their constituencies. The other two also lost, but not quite so dismally.
Of the 21 women candidates who have contested assembly elections in the state over the years, 13 have lost their deposits, and none have won.
The poor track record of women candidates has made it difficult for them to even get tickets for elections.
“Political parties don’t want to give ticket to women candidates because of their low winnability,” said John Sema, professor at Nagaland University’s Department of Political Science.
What’s even more surprising is that “women themselves do not vote for female candidates,” said Dr K. Kalito Chishi, associate professor at the Zunheboto Government College.
It’s not just at the assembly and parliamentary levels that women’s representation has been dismal; they have also found it difficult to make a breakthrough in the elections for the state’s more than 1,200 village councils.
Till date, only one woman has been elected as chairperson of any village council in Nagaland — Tokheli Kikon of the Naharbari village council in Dimapur in 2005 — who went on to repeat the feat.
Urban local body elections
The issue of women’s representation has played out strongly in the case of urban local body elections. In fact, it was the 2017 ULB elections in the state that brought the issue of women’s participation in electoral politics to the centre stage.
The government had made necessary amendments to the Nagaland Municipal and Town Council Act in 2006, guaranteeing 33 per cent reservation for women in civic bodies, under the 74th Constitutional Amendment. It took about two years for the state government to identify the reserved wards, but elections here were withheld.
Several Naga women organisations, including the Naga Mothers’ Association, then formed the Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation (JACWR) in the period between 2009 and 2010, when tenures of the town councils and municipalities and town councils were up and elections were due.
The NMA petitioned the Gauhati High Court in 2011, seeking the holding of the urban local body elections, and the Kohima Bench of the court ruled in their favour.
What happened between 2011 and 2017
In October 2011, the high court directed the government to hold the elections. Following this, the Nagaland government filed an appeal before a division bench of the Gauhati High Court, which again stayed the previous ruling. Then in 2012, the Nagaland assembly adopted a resolution rejecting women’s reservation in ULBs, saying it would be in contravention of Article 371 (A) with provisions that accord protections to the religious and social practises of the Nagas and the Naga customary law and procedure.
The JACWR then moved the Supreme Court that year. The apex court in 2016 upheld the Gauhati High Court ruling, following which the Nagaland government passed the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016.
In 2017, ahead of the ULB polls, Naga tribal groups vehemently protested against the reservation for women, claiming it to be in contravention of Article 371 (A). Two people were also allegedly killed in the police firing in the ensuing violence. According to reports, the situation became so hostile that members of the NMA started receiving threats to dissolve the JACWR, which eventually did happen the same year.
The 2017 ULB election process was eventually declared null and void, and then-chief minister T.R. Zeliang of the Naga People’s Front was forced to step down over the reservation issue.
In October 2021, the Nagaland government formed a committee headed by the chief secretary to review the Municipality Act and the issue of women’s reservation. Earlier this month, after consultations with various civil society organisations, church, tribal bodies and political parties, the government gave a go-ahead for ULB polls with 33 per cent reservation.
The Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) on Urban Local Bodies, which consists of several tribal bodies, has however demanded a review of the Municipal Act again.
The JCC said at a consultative meeting with 16 apex tribal hohos (bodies) and civil society organisations last Friday that the resolution taken by the government had not been satisfactory or conclusive as it claimed that all the stakeholders had not be taken into confidence.
“If women come out, that will enhance participation, as it will enhance the political consciousness. But the tribals fear that if women’s reservation is given, male candidates will not have space,” Sema said. He also highlighted the need for good quality women candidates.
Women’s entry into the political space has been inhibited right at the grassroot level in Nagaland, where customary and traditional tribal organisations play a crucial role. At their centre are customary laws of various Naga tribes that are protected under Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.
For instance, women’s right to ownership of land in the state remains restricted, as they cannot inherit ancestral property.
Renowned scholar Dolly Kikon wrote in an article in 2017 said that “these functions have given immense power to the male tribal councils and associations in Nagaland”.
“At the grassroot level, women aren’t given membership in the village development board and representation is nominal. They just aren’t given any space,” Chishi said.
Sano Vamuzo, adviser to the Naga Mothers’ Association, however, said customary laws cannot be solely blamed for the lack of women’s representation in politics.
“In the Naga society, there are no strict rules against the participation of women. In the end, it’s mainly because of men’s ignorance that it is taking a long time for this to improve,” she said.
The NMA is a prominent civil society organisation in the state that was formed in 1984. Initially focusing on issues like alcohol and drug abuse, which were big at the time, the NMA has also run campaigns for peace in the state and, at times, intervened between the armed forces and the militant groups. More recently, the NMA has been working towards increasing the participation of women in politics.
H.K. Zhimomi, president of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of Naga tribes in the state, said, “practically, there is no such law that woman cannot be equated with man except in terms of heredity”. He, however, blamed women for the lack of representation in politics.
“In practice, there is no discrimination against women, but they don’t come out. It was the women who feel that only men should participate in elections,” he said.
What is interesting is that there is little gender gap in student unions, which are an important part of politics in the Northeast.
In fact, Phangnon Konyak’s political career also started with the Konyak Students’ Union, where she first served as the women coordinator and later as an adviser. “Once you’re doing this, you can’t be immune to politics. I actively campaigned for some candidates but never joined a party,” she said.
That changed in 2017, when the 44 year-old joined the BJP.
“In student unions, we see that women office bearers are at par with men folk, but coming to the political front, this changes,” Chishi said, saying money power is the reason why.
“The economic situation of women is improving and there is more entrepreneurship led by women now. But traditionally, we have seen women don’t possess the kind of monetary strength of their own that helps in the elections,” she added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)