Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Date: February 7, 2017
Soon after elections to 32 urban local bodies in Nagaland were announced in December last, trouble started brewing in the state. The state government – a coalition of the Naga People's Front (NPF) and the BJP – announced that 33 per cent of the seats in the urban local bodies would be reserved for women, a mandatory requirement under Article 243 (T) of the Constitution.
Soon after the announcement, tribal bodies in the state started protesting against the 33 per cent reservation for women. This reservation, they speciously argued, was against Article 371A of the Constitution that guarantees special status to Nagaland. But Article 371A only states that no Act of Parliament can encroach upon or annul “religious or social practices of the Nagas”, “Naga customary law and procedures”, “administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law” and “ownership and transfer of land and its resources” without the sanction of the Nagaland Legislative Assembly.
It doesn’t take loads of intelligence to fathom that reservation of seats for women in urban local bodies (like municipalities and town councils) does not encroach upon Naga customary law or the religious and social practices of the Nagas. For the simple reason that the Nagas (or the 21-odd disparate tribes in the region who have artificially organised themselves under a manufactured identity called ‘Nagas’) always lived in villages that were governed by village councils run according to customary laws. It was only during the later part of British rule over India that small urban centres started coming up in the Naga hills. Thus, Naga customary law (or the unwritten traditions through which villages were governed by the all-male village councils) can never apply to urban local bodies.
Elections to urban local bodies in the state have been held up since 2004 over the issue of reservation for women. Naga women, under the banner of the influential Naga Mothers’ Association and the Joint Action Committee For Women’s Reservation had been asking the state government to follow the Constitution and announce reservation for women in urban local bodies (ULBs). They had even filed a case in the Supreme Court. Soon after the elections to the ULBs were announced in December, various tribal bodies, including the Hohos (apex bodies) of the different tribes, started protesting and launched agitations. The protests took a serious turn from the last week of January when a series of bandhs brought life in the state to a standstill.
To resolve the crisis, the state government entered into a deal with the agitators on 30 January to put off elections to the ULBs for two months in order to facilitate wider consultations on the issue. Significantly, the deal was brokered by the powerful Nagaland Baptist Churches Council. But the very next day, the state government was forced to call off the deal on the orders of the Gauhati High Court, which asked the state to conduct the polls. All hell broke loose and agitators went on a rampage, especially in the state’s commercial hub of Dimapur. The police, unable to control the violent mobs after lathicharge and firing tear gas shells on them, opened fire and killed two young men.
The police firing and resultant deaths of the two youths incensed the agitators who, two days later (on 2 February), torched 20 government buildings in state capital Kohima, and damaged scores of government vehicles. But before that, on 1 February, polls were held in 12 of the 32 ULBs (elections could not be held to the remaining local bodies since all candidates were forced to withdraw from the fray by the agitators). The polls went off peacefully and a large number of enthusiastic voters flocked to the polling booths, thus proving that the masses were not with the representatives of the tribal bodies and those demanding the scrapping of reservation for women.
After the unprecedented violence and arson in the state capital on 2 February, the state government announced the scrapping of the polls to the 12 ULBs in a bid to pacify the agitators. But that did not satisfy the agitators, who are now being led by the newly-formed Naga Tribes Action Committee (NTAC). The NTAC leadership, incidentally, is made up almost entirely of Church elders. After the 31 February police firing, the NTAC voiced four demands: scrapping of the polls, resignation of Chief Minister T R Zeliang and his entire cabinet, suspension of the Dimapur Police Commissioner and dismissal of the policemen who fired on the rampaging agitators.
Faced with the continuing belligerence of the NTAC, the state government bent over backwards once again by resolving to approach the Union Government with a request to take Nagaland out of the purview of Part IX A of the Constitution (which deals with municipalities and their composition and also contains Article 243 T that makes 33 per cent reservation for women mandatory). Chief Minister Zeliang, while announcing this, added that he would lead a delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take Nagaland out of the purview of Part IXA through an ordinance. It is another matter that such an ordinance would never stand judicial scrutiny.
But even this could not pacify the NTAC, which is insistent on the resignation of the council of ministers. In fact, the NTAC has resolved to get the Hohos of different tribes to apply pressure on the MLAs of the respective tribes to resign from the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government in the state. The legislative strength of the DAN is 51 in the 60-member state assembly (48 NPF MLAs, four of the BJP and one of the JD(U). In fact, the Naga Hoho (the apex body of all the tribes) has also demanded the resignation of the DAN government.
According to reports by central intelligence agencies, the protests against women’s reservation have been orchestrated by the Congress, which is still smarting from the mass desertion of all its eight MLAs from the party in November 2015. The Congress MLAs joined NPF en masse. The Congress has, traditionally, been close to the Church, and the intelligence agencies believe that the Church co-opted itself into this plot by the Congress to create a crisis in the state and force the Zeliang government to step down.
The Church has never been happy with the NPF joining hands with the BJP and forming an alliance with a party it considers to be a Hindu party. The Church is extremely powerful in Nagaland, an overwhelmingly Christian-majority state (evangelists from Europe and the USA were encouraged and aided by the British rulers to convert the tribes to Christianity from the end-19th century) and openly dictates terms to the government.
The secessionist National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) headed by Thuingaleng Muivah, which is engaged in protracted peace talks with the government of India, also fished in troubled waters and took the side of the Church. Not surprising, since the NSCN avowedly believes in ‘Nagaland For Christ’. The NSCN and Muivah have also been displeased with the NPF for allying with the BJP.
That the women’s reservation issue was just a cover for the conspiracy hatched by the Congress in league with the Church is evident from the fact that the NTAC has been proclaiming that nothing short of the resignation of the council of ministers would do. The Congress revealed its hand by demanding that not only the government resign, but the assembly also be dissolved and fresh polls held in the state. The Church has given enough indication, both in private and publicly, that the government ought to meet the NTAC’s demands.
A senior minister pointed out that the trouble last month-end was cleverly planned. “The stridency of opposition to women’s reservation was surprising since many knew that such reservation did not encroach upon Naga customary laws. But the manner in which the protests gained currency and spread to all parts of the state, the way in which it became violent, and the open provocation of security forces by rampaging mobs in Dimapur, thus forcing the police to open fire, is proof of some sinister forces guiding the agitation for their own petty political ends,” said a senior minister.
What the minister did not say was that enough evidence of the Congress and the Church guiding the agitators has emerged. Chief Minister Zeliang and other leaders of the NPF have been meeting powerful clergymen and leaders of the tribal bodies to resolve the issue. Some Church leaders have obliquely hinted that the demand for the resignation of the Council of Ministers would be dropped if the NPF snaps links with the BJP and withdraws from the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a non-Congress political group formed by the BJP last year.
This exposes the Church’s vicious anti-BJP stance and the lengths it can go to in its opposition to the BJP. This entire issue also exposes the ugly truth about the Church involving itself in politics in Nagaland (and all other states where Christians are in a majority or form a substantial segment of the populace). And the Congress, which has been reduced to utter political irrelevance in Nagaland, has found in the Church a natural ally to get back into political reckoning.