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Tradition, democracy and gender

File photo of Nagaland Tribal women and children outside a health centre.  

Democracy replaced the rule by village republics and monarchies both of which are inimical to the inclusive growth of human societies. Village republics represented by traditional institutions have always frozen women in a time warp and clearly demarcated their gender roles. Women’s roles in all tribal societies are therefore clearly but surely circumscribed. Any attempt to get out of that role is viewed as a transgression. Some Naga men have written articles on the present crisis and claimed they are not against women’s participation in urban local bodies. They acknowledge the significant roles played by Naga women in the peace process and in other areas of development but have prefaced their arguments with the rider that the election to the urban local bodies should not have been pushed too hard and that some women activists have derived their strengths from the idea of feminism. So according to such Naga ideologues, women cannot take collective decisions unless “allowed” to by the tribal apex bodies. And the tribal bodies will continue to argue that traditional customary practices never envisaged a political role for women; hence their assertion for political rights today goes against Article 371(A) of the Constitution.

The contentious Article 371(A)says no law passed by Parliament will prevail in Nagaland unless ratified by the Nagaland State Legislature. But the Nagaland Assembly has already passed the Urban Local Bodies Bill allowing 33% reservation for women! So why the hullaballoo then? Isn’t this also an after-thought by a section of Naga politicians who want to unseat the Chief Minister TR Zeliang?

It is a travesty of democracy that Nehru listened to the likes of Verrier Elwin- the voice of ultimate wisdom at the time - as far as the tribals are concerned. Elwin suggested that the ‘tribes be allowed to develop according to their own genius.’ Verrier Elwin who had Nehru’s ears also had a romantic notion about tribals and tribal lifestyles. Elwin held the view that democracy with its western derivatives would expose the tribes to a governance system that would subsume their traditional value systems and way of life and because of which they might be ‘mainstreamed’ Elwin’s intentions might have been noble at the time but even he was paternalistic in his ideas of conserving the tribal way of life. At the time of Verrier Elwin, understanding of gender equality and equity was a big, black vacuum. Like others before him, Elwin believed that men had the natural right to head the traditional institutions and women had to act out their defined gender roles. Participation of women in governance might have seemed improbable for Elwin who saw the tribals as a little better than primitives and where it was as natural as the act of breathing for men to control women and all other socio-political institutions as well. I wonder what Elwin would say if he were alive today to witness the gender war in Nagaland.

When the Panchayati Raj (73rd and 74th Amendment ) Act initiated by Rajiv Gandhi was finally passed in 1993 the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram were ironically kept out of its purview, ostensibly because these states had vibrant traditional institutions. The significance of the PR Act is that it empowers women to hold office in local governance bodies by giving them 33% reservation, now raised to 50%. The exemption showed complete ignorance of the politics of the three states and was based on the premise that tribal communities practice an egalitarian way of life where men and women had equal rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sadly, those who advised Rajiv Gandhi never studied the traditional governance systems before proposing the PR Bill and taking this critical decision. Even in matrilineal Meghalaya where women are said to enjoy more social and economic mobility the truth is that women have always been kept out of politics. They may enjoy the right of lineage where children carry the mother’s clan name but beyond that women have no semblance of political participation in the traditional local governance bodies. Women are told that their voices will be represented in the traditional institutions by male members of their families. Period. Today while women can attend meetings and that is considered a great leap forward, they still cannot hold office in these traditional bodies.

The paradox about India is that those who governed us in the early stages of political history had very little understanding of the rigidity of tribal customary laws and practices which are at complete odds with post-colonial democratic aspirations of citizens. The Constitution of India provides equal rights to women and men but who follows those concepts in letter and spirit? Indian women had to fight even inch of the way to extract their rights from a system that is socially embedded in patriarchy. Politics has often failed to correct social biases. This is evident from the way the caste system in India has survived all legislations for affirmative action for Dalits and tribals. Similarly affirmative action that propose a nuanced development to address decades of gender discrimination are still largely implemented in the breach. The irony is that even among Dalits and traditional institutions across tribal societies are run by a male-centric tribal elite that believes they have the divine right to rule and also head all political institutions.

Women never had and seemingly would not have any role to play in governance even in the 21st century, unless they claim those rights under law. This is the crux of the matter whether we talk of Meghalaya, Nagaland or Mizoram. The ongoing tussle between is all about women claiming their rights to head urban local bodies and men thwarting that assertion by invoking Article 371(A) of the Constitution. This Article bestows special rights to the Naga people by virtue of which laws passed by parliament have to be ratified by the state legislature of Nagaland. In a sense, therefore, Article 371(A) makes the national laws subservient to the state laws of Nagaland. Is this not a dichotomy? And now the Naga Hoho an apex body comprising all tribes and their subsidiaries have forced the Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) to withdraw the Special Leave Petition filed by the JACWR in the Supreme Court, because they apprehend that the court might not take a lenient view of 371(A) and might even scrap it completely. Naga women leaders are being intimidated and their homes vandalised. What sort of democracy is this?

Socrates defined democracy as a political system that maximises two things – equality and freedom. As far as Nagaland is concerned these two attributes are only enjoyed largely by men. Even the role of the church – another male-centric body is questionable here. The recent incidents have set back the clock in Nagaland by a few decades. What surprises me is that even educated and apparently liberal minded women have taken shelter in the argument that women’s reservation in urban local bodies is an idea whose time has not come. They are all capitulating to the call for peace as if there can be peace without justice. In fact the recent violent enterprise has turned women into a collateral constituency. This should be a sad moment for women’s movements across the country!

It is unfortunate that the recent incident has claimed two lives. The question is who instigated this ugly episode and who stands to gain from it. The Naga people must not get bogged down by dirty politics!

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 4:07:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Tradition-democracy-and-gender/article17282384.ece

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