THE resignation of the Nagaland Chief Minister DR Zeliang is a fallout of the anti-reservation violence in the state. The government, in the wake of rioting, arson and large-scale intimidation of women candidates by male-dominated "civil society groups" and traditional institutions, had walked away from upholding its position as a government of all the people of the state. Once elected, a party represents all shades of opinion, of all diverse communities and religions. Its duty is to uphold the law.
What the Nagaland government had sought to do, by passing a cabinet resolution that absolved it from the responsibility of holding any local urban body elections, given the upsurge of anger over the issue, amounts to nothing short of dereliction of duty.
The state government is demanding nothing short of abrogation of a particular part of the Constitutional framework simply because this clause does not does not suit it. Or perhaps because it is incapable of carrying out the Constitutional mandate enshrined in both this clause and another one: the one that all cabinet ministers of the government took when they assumed office, that they would do right by all manner of people, without fear or favour. The latter means that there cannot be bias on the basis of gender, caste, creed or language. Has the state government lived up to this pledge?
The Zeliang government made this demand of the Centre, perhaps, because it had egg on its face for its total failure to deal with mob rioting and arson in its own state headquarters, apart from the abysmal failure to continue negotiating dialogue between women's rights groups and the male-dominated bodies opposing the demand for reservations in the electoral process. An earlier agreement between Zeliang and those opposing the state government's plan for implementing the reservations (the accord called for a three-month pause to enable further dialogue) fell through when a court ruling insisted upon the implementation of reservations during the elections scheduled for February 1.
Bound by law to implement the court's order, the government cancelled the elections when riots broke out, police firing took place in which, tragically, two persons were killed. Buildings and property were attacked, curfew was imposed, candidates were intimidated and threatened with boycotts (as they had been over a period of weeks, forcing many women to withdraw). All this over the assertion by some groups that the concept of women's reservations infringed on Naga "traditional rights". Those rights, mentioned in Article 371 A of the Constitution, which is the core of the demands by agitators, have not been codified or explained further. There is scope for ambiguity and misinterpretation. Article 371A should not be tampered with but it must be seen in the ambit of the entire Constitution. It cannot supersede other rights such as equality of all before the law. Does it mean that one group's rights are greater than those of others? That traditional rights protect the rights of men but not of women? There is another question: do traditional rights surely apply to what are recognisable and accepted as traditional bodies, but not to creatures of the Constitution or a colonial legacy? Municipal bodies are by no means a traditional system. They are barely a few decades old. Even the Naga Hoho, once a conglomeration of leaders of the 16 Naga tribes in the state, is a body set up in 1994 and weakened by a split that created a parallel body to fight against the demands of the women for representation. The Constitutional clauses under which the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), the key organisation which led the fight for the 33 per cent reservation in the Local Urban Bodies, was asserting its right to reservation were Constitutional Amendments Articles 73 and 74 of the Panchayat Raj and Urban Local Bodies, passed by Parliament in 1993. The NMA has been a leader in making peace between Naga armed factions, leading campaigns against drinking, drugs and the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act as well as campaigning for justice and peace. Their fight for the right to contest elections to the urban local bodies was fought over six years at the High Court and Supreme Court level, which vindicated their stand.
But there are many other issues which have come into the melting pot — of public anger against political arbitrariness and corruption, of efforts to displace Zeliang by his opponents, including a former Chief Minister. There's frustration over the intangibility of the Naga peace process which has dragged on for 20 years and resulted in a "framework agreement'" in 2015 which is still a secret. Women have been increasingly robust in articulating their views and mobilising support, although they continue to face pressure at every level. Official statistics stress that violence and sexual crimes against women are growing, not diminishing, these past years and sociologists say that some of this is grounded in feudal attitudes. We are not discussing here traditional Naga practices which bar women from inheritance or that there has not been a single women legislator of the state Assembly since 1963 when Nagaland came into being. The only woman to get to Parliament was Rano Shaiza, niece of the pro-independence leader AZ Phizo, who was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977. It is interesting that both those contesting the reservation as well as those supporting it are invoking different parts of the Constitution. This is especially significant for it shows how far Nagaland and the Nagas have come since the first shots against the "Idea of India" were fired in the Naga hills in the 1950s. Both sides are engaging with this very "Idea of India" which was resisted for over 60 years with the help of armed force as well as peaceful resistance.
This is truly encouraging even as what has evolved in the past weeks has been discouraging. This is why the Centre must unequivocally declare its position and reject, with absolute clarity of mind and commitment to the sanctity of the Constitution, without fear or favour. There must be none of the labyrinthine methods which have characterised its two decades of incomplete negotiations in the Naga peace process.
We believe that both sides need to continue to negotiate a process with transparency, dignity and peacefully. The central government and those from civil society groups across the country, at different levels, should be prepared to help in that process. The effort must be create goodwill and not generate ill-will.
The writer is Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The views expressed are personal.
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