Patriarchy rules, Nagaland shows

The recent leadership change in Nagaland, involving the resignation of T R Zeliang as chief minister and his replacement by Shurhozelie Liezietsu, illustrates the problems in bringing about a social and political reform in a traditional and conservative milieu. Zeliang had to quit because he had decided to hold urban local body elections in the state with 33% reservation for women. He had to cancel the elections after the tribal organisations of the state launched an agitation against the decision, claiming that reservations for women violated the safeguards given to the state under Article 371A of the Constitution. The article protects the customary practices and laws of the tribal society. However, the tribal groups’ concern rose more from their patriarchal mindset than from the need to protect customs, because reservations have nothing to do with customs. It is the women’s groups in the state, led by the Naga Mothers’ Association, which have been campaigning for women’s reservation. The high court and the Supreme Court had found no conflict between Article 371 A and Article 243 (D), which guarantees reservation for women, and had given the go-ahead for the elections.

After Zeliang cancelled the elections under pressure, it was difficult for him to continue. He was exposed as a weak leader and his request to the Centre to issue an ordinance exempting Nagaland from reserving seats for women further compromised his position. The tribal bodies have withdrawn the agitation with the swearing-in of the new leader. But they have realised that they can put pressure on the government to do their bidding. Nagaland is not a backward and traditional society in the conventional sense. It has a high rate of literacy even among women. But women have had no role in politics. There has never been a woman legislator in the state’s history.

Liezietzu has a serious challenge before him. He may not be in a position to introduce reservation for women in elections any time soon. He is a veteran and respected politician known for his scholarly bent of mind and pursuits. He is a writer and linguist, and has a reputation as a minister who tried to introduce educational reforms in the state. But the tribal bodies have already warned him that they would not accept women’s reservation in any form. Liezietzu has not made his thinking on the matter known. But there is expectation among the women of the state that he might be able to do what his predecessor could not. They feel that he has a historic opportunity and responsibility.

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