Background – Nehru once said, “Let the people develop according to their own intellect“, as a reference to allow the tribes of North-East region and especially the “Naga tribe” the autonomy to chart their own course of life and have their own customary laws. This reflected in the constitutional provisions as well. However, the below case is a classic example of how “too much autonomy without any caveats can be bad“. Under the guise of customary law, the Naga tribes are resisting the affirmative action by the state and surprisingly enough the state machinery had wielded in to the pressure.
One of the success stories of affirmative action in India has been the implementation of reservation of seats in local body elections for women, to the order of 33% or more. The importance of democratizing the public sphere by inclusive participation of women in a largely male-dominated society cannot be stressed enough.
In rural areas the quota has helped improve local governance, enhancing outcomes in delivery of civic services related to drinking water supply, sanitation and irrigation, among others. In urban local bodies, the visible impact has been more quantitative in terms of representation rather than qualitative, with success being linked to emphasis on gender sensitisation by civil society and political parties.
It is therefore unfortunate that the Nagaland government, after initial steadfastness to hold the long-delayed urban local body polls on February 1, declared the elections as “null and void” after some tribal bodies, opposed to reservations for women, sought to disrupt the process. Rather than bowing to this pressure, the State government led by the Nagaland People’s Front should have enforced the rule of law. That a substantial number of towns participated in the elections despite a bandh called by the tribal bodies reflects public support for affirmative action as mandated by the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.
Article 371A of the Constitution secures a special status for Nagaland. But as the civil society groups striving for reservation have argued, urban local bodies are not part of traditional Naga society, and ULBs are constitutional bodies to which customary Naga laws cannot be applied.
The conduct of the long-delayed elections was achieved after a protracted legal struggle led by women’s groups. Arguments against women’s reservation invoking Naga customs have been consistently quashed by the courts, ultimately paving the way for elections to be announced for February 1.
The State government later submitted to pressure exerted by the Naga Hoho, an apex group of 16 tribal groups, which smelled blood and sought Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang’s resignation. The State government then wrote to the Centre seeking exemption for Nagaland from Part IXA of the Constitution — which is clearly untenable.
The Centre, meanwhile, sees Nagaland merely through the lens of the still- pending peace accord with some insurgent groups. This milieu has emboldened patriarchal forces to assert themselves and deny women their constitutionally guaranteed rights of representation in local bodies. Civil society and women’s groups now have their work cut out in realising their just demand for electoral representation. Denial of women’s rights cannot be a measure of the State’s autonomy.