On Thursday, a new chapter in Nagaland's political and feminist history was quietly written, and behind it all, yet again, was a group of Naga mothers who have had a leading role in every key moment of the state's modern history.
Nagaland revoked a 2012 resolution passed by the state assembly, and will now join the rest of the country in implementing reservation for women in local bodies. But behind a seemingly technical and procedural issue is a long history of activism by the Naga Mothers Association.
"The Naga Mothers Association (NMA) was formed in 1984.
The Naga Mothers Association (NMA) was formed in 1984. According to the NMA's constitution, every adult Naga woman automatically becomes a member of the NMA with an annual membership fee of Re 1. Each of eight Naga tribes (six others are now under the Eastern Naga People's Organisation but still come together with the NMA on major issues) nominates a woman to the NMA and the leadership is selected from among them. The NMA also takes up issues of women from non-Naga communities in the state. Teachers, public servants, housewives - the NMA's leadership represents a wide swathe of Naga society, bound a strong sense of public service.
Nagaland is permitted by Article 371A of the Constitution to frame its own laws that align with its customary laws in some matters. In 2006, the Nagaland government brought in 33% reservation for women in urban local bodies. Once the NMA began to pressurise the government to hold elections with the quotas, the government began to waver. The NMA, as part of a Joint Action Committee of the women's organisations of 16 Naga tribes, went to court, at which point the government took the stand that reservation for women would be in conflict with customary law. Taking the support of the special Constitutional provisions, the Nagaland Assembly in 2012 passed a resolution exempting the state from the application of Article 243(T), Part IX A of the Constitution, dealing with reservation of seats in municipalities. The High Court upheld the state government's position and the NMA went in appeal to the Supreme Court, where a final order is pending.
The NMA has long held that reservation for women is not in conflict with customary law and the 2012 resolution goes against the spirit of the Constitution. On Thursday, the Assembly concurred. The Assembly would be giving an impression that the House was against the Constitution and it would also be difficult for the House in convincing the Court regarding the validity of the resolution, Parliamentary Secretary for Municipal Affairs, Economics and Statistics, R Tohanba, said.
Despite the state's good record on women's education and workforce participation, women in Nagaland are all but absent from the political process. Nagaland is the only state in the country that has never had a woman MLA. While every village and tribe has its own women's wing, there are no women on the village council, the state's equivalent of panchayats. The apex decision-making body of Naga tribes, the Naga Hoho, too has no women's representatives.
"Despite the state's good record on women's education and workforce participation, women in Nagaland are all but absent from the political process.
No strangers to long, hard battles, for the NMA the legal challenge has meant facing much hostility from the political class and from members and leaders of their tribes and communities. It also involved dozens of journeys to Delhi via Dimapur and Guwahati for court dates that were postponed at the last minute or final orders that never came.
These are challenges that would be daunting for many, but in the list of things the NMA has faced it up to, they are practically insignificant. In the beginning, the NMA's greatest challenge was drug addiction; with injectable drug use came HIV and AIDS in the 1990s, an issue the NMA played a pioneering role in, helping destigmatise the condition by memorably holding the hands of HIV-positive inmates of the Manipur jail in 1991. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the NMA became deeply involved in the daily bloodbath's on the state's streets, as killings by the Indian army against Naga groups and civilians, and internecine warfare between various Naga factions broke out. The NMA made 'Shed No More Blood' its motto, and lived it every day, taking off across the state into the jungles as well into neighbouring states to meet leaders of the different factions and broker peace. In 2010, the NMA helped calm one of the most tense situations the area has seen in recent years, after two young Naga men were shot dead by armymen in Mao town on the border with Manipur. For eight days, the village refused to claim the bodies and tensions escalated on both sides until the NMA, led by current President Abei-U Meru, pushed through security cordons, cleaned and shrouded the bodies themselves and brought them to the boys' families.
Thursday's victory is a moment of quiet pride for the NMA. "It has been a long struggle for Naga women to get our Constitutional right in getting reservation for women," Rosemary Dzuvichu, advisor to the NMA, said on Friday. "But it's worth all the suffering we went through to get legal justice and now recognition from the present government that women have a right to partner men in municipalities. We are positive Nagaland will see changes in the future," she added.