We the Naga people are sitting over a very controversial and complex issue of 33% Women Reservation which basically throws up two equally important fundamental subjects that we have no choice but to try and sensibly address: (1). The rights of women representation in Civic or any other Bodies in Naga society; and inter-related (2) Infringement of Article 371 (A). Let us carefully take a very dispassionate look at our circumstance one step at a time.
Before plunging headlong into the subject proper, let me qualify the preceding analogy on the rights of women by saying: “Customs” and “Traditions” are the induced by-products of prevalent social environment at a given point of time which culminates into a customary law by virtue of a prolonged adherence to its practice.
1. The rights of women representation in Civic or any other Bodies: Our ancestral Nagas have had a brutal proven track record of headhunting as a way of life. The prevalent environment of their times therefore necessarily dictated “physical prowess” as the mainstay of community survival in which women obviously had no place by virtue of they being the weaker sex. The Council of Elders, which in present parlance is called Village Council, was therefore an exclusive “men only” club dictated by circumstance not by choice because they would have had to mostly concentrate on core survival issues of defensive or offensive warfare linked to headhunting. Such a subject naturally eliminated the necessity of women’s participation. This continuous process induced by headhunting circumstance was being practiced for centuries with the absence of women in the Council of Elders which had ultimately crystallised into a customary practice by the time headhunting was halted by the British only in the earlier part of the 20th century. Women of headhunting era were physically out of tune with the core attributes of headhunting prerequisites and were therefore misfits of their time…here again by force of circumstance not by choice. That times have changed…everybody knows. Everybody knows we no longer headhunt. Everybody knows that the present day subject has dramatically shifted from headhunting to that of development and progress. Everybody knows that this critical change of subject now makes women relevant…but the irrationally staunch traditionalists are unwilling to cross this Mind Block Bridge. In order to unblock this mind-block road-block some harsh realities of our present day need to be taken into consideration. How do the traditionalists think about the abundant presence of women in Government Service especially in Civil Administrative Service because this is simply a higher version at the Government level basically handling identical responsibility as that of the present day Village Councils or the Council of Elders of the traditional past involved in general administration? From the strictest traditional standpoint, the presence of women in general administration would be in violation of the customary law. In the same breath the fact that many of the women administrative officers are holding their own turf satisfactorily therefore demolishes any assumption that they are customarily unfit for this line of work or should not be in general administration. This is our practical ground reality. Again, how do the traditionalists think about the mandatory presence of a women representative in the Village Development Board in every village legitimatised by governing Rules? The traditionalists have raised no objections against the presence of women in Government service in various capacities including an exceptional case of a woman Chief Secretary in Nagaland. Then what is their specific bellyache in women representation in the Municipal Council or the Legislative Assembly? The moment we begin to deploy double-standards in defining our customary laws our problems would get compounded endlessly. If concessions have already been made in some sectors, which we definitely have without doubt, hackling in another sector against the same identical issue does not make much sense. Besides, there are some customary laws that have become obsolete, many more have been diluted from the original and some not even practiced at all. The critical flaw firstly lies in our customary laws not being codified and can be subjected to varied interpretations and secondly, the customary law management machinery does not have any specifically designated statutory authority to officially amend our customary laws that have become obsolete. This responsibility must now fall squarely on the Customary Courts or the Apex Tribal Hohos or even jointly, to activate the much needed amendment process within their respective Tribes by carefully assessing possible elimination of customary laws no longer in tune with the present times. No Law is perpetually sacrosanct and are subjected to change according to the changing times and values. That is precisely why Articles/Clauses in the Indian Constitution also get amended from time to time. Clearly defining the ‘rights of women’ in our society is one such controversial issue that requires customary review for appropriate amendment in some key areas in keeping with the changing time. Once this baseline is customarily taken care of, the apparent conflict with Article 371 (A) will automatically recede.
2. Infringement of Article 371 (A): Article 371 (A) is a bastard subject without an acknowledged father. It is theoretically ridiculed with venom when Naga National sentiments are expressed but defended with equal vehemence and used as a shield when genuine domestic problems need sorting out. The present women reservation debate is a classic example of this. The torch bearing stand-up-comedians happen to be some of our very own exalted leaders who conveniently condemn 16 Point Agreement that spawned Article 371A to keep Mr. Hebron happy, especially when it is nearing elections and at the very same time enjoy to the hilt the best of the benefits Article 371A has brought them. The Naga Haha is not very far behind as the ultimate joker of the pack. But today, protecting the sanctity of Article 371A has become the bone of contention. Watching them play this chameleon role with such panache is amazing. Were we in Hollywood, it would be acclaimed as an Academy Award winning performance. That is the Laurel and Hardy side of a burning topic. The real fire lies in messing with the essence of Article 371A. If we ourselves defile our own alter, expect others to do the same. The war has already begun with Petroleum Ministry, GoI disputing the very definition of Article 371A concerning the ‘below the ground’ ownership of our Oil/Gas and Natural Resources. The Government of Nagaland has compounded the problem by pouring ‘yet to be extracted’ Champang oil into this raging fire with its irrationally fictitious claim to land ownership, which unquestionably belongs to the people from the times of our ancestry even before a corrupt thing called Government came into existence, instead to sitting down with the real land owners and amicably sorting out the revenue sharing equation with maturity. Money is critically messing with our thinking box. We need to stop awhile and really think of the greater danger of undoing ourselves even before our adversaries do. Wilfully wanting to reduce our status to a second rate citizenship is downright demeaning and those initiating such a move are unfit for leadership. Coming back to the women issue, there can be no two opinions that without the amendment of our customary laws it will certainly infringe upon Article 371A.
3. Solution: The midcourse opened to us seems to be in 33% reservation for women by nomination with voting rights as suggested by some of the Tribal Hoho representatives. This will temporarily circumvent the log jam until such time amendment of the customary law on this issue is effectively addressed…which it must within a stipulated timeframe. Meanwhile, our womenfolk would also get a breathing space to prove their worth in the scheme of things until they are able to stand on their own two feet…which they too eventually must within a foreseeable future timeframe that should also be defined. We cannot expect miracles to happen overnight. Reformation is a slow moving turtle…it takes time. Nagas must learn to negotiate our hills and mountains patiently.
Khekiye K. Sema IAS (Rtd.)