Naga women approach Supreme Court for reservation of seats in local bodies
Women of Nagaland who have been fighting for representation in the municipal and town councils are using the legal route to win their rights. Their organisation, Naga Mothers Association (NMA), has been demanding implementation of reservation rights in the local bodies for the past three years, but the state authorities have been denying it by not holding elections, citing Naga customs and possible violence derailing the ongoing peace process.
The matter has now reached the Supreme Court, with the association challenging a Gauhati High Court ruling before it. The special leave petition is scheduled for hearing on February 8.
NMA, an apex body of women in the state, had petitioned the Gauhati High Court in June, 2011, seeking holding of municipal and district council elections. The term of municipalities and town councils in the state had expired in March, 2010. Members of NMA, Rosemary Dzuvchu and Abeiu Meru, filed the petition on behalf of NMA.
A single judge of Gauhati High Court of Kohima bench ruled in favour of NMA in October the same year and asked the state to conduct elections. The court had found the reasons proffered by the state for not granting NMA's demand flimsy and baseless. The state had said that it had received letters and representations from many groups that opposed reservation of one-third seats for women, saying it is against the Naga custom and that it would lead to large-scale disturbance and violence. But the state failed to furnish evidence of any customary practice of excluding women from contesting or of disturbance.
The state counsel had argued in court that the authorities tried to hold elections in one of the 19 councils (Mokokchung Council) on May 7, 2011, which was marred by large-scale violence which forced the state to cancel the election.
Where's the evidence to back state claims?
But the special leave petition filed in the apex court claims that the protest was on account of certain changes in the land laws in the Nagaland Municipal Act of 2001and not due to reservation of seats for women. The petition says the state had not put anything on record (newspapers reports, for instance) to show violence, any police complaint related to law and order failure or any arrest being made.
The verdict of the single judge bench was challenged and set aside by the Kohima division bench of Gauhati High Court, on July 31, 2012. The bench asked the state government to set up a committee to look into the claims of certain groups and directed the municipal elections be suspended till the committee gave its recommendations.
According to reports, NMA's demand was opposed by organisations such as Naga Ho Ho, Eastern Naga People’s Organisation (ENPO) and Ao Senden. All these groups are influential in different pockets of the state.
When contacted, president of Naga Ho Ho, Kezile Tuo, said his organisation was not against reservation for women as such. “We are against rotational reservation of seats for women in the municipality and town councils. We want reservation should continue on given seats through proper mechanism,” said Tuo.
When asked why their organisation opposed NMA protests in different districts—against state minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu for tabling a legislation to reject 33 per cent reservation for women in municipal and town council elections on October 1, last year—Tuo denied the charge. He said his organisation was against amended provisions of the municipal Act which were not in consonance with Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution that protects customary rights of Naga tribes. The Article states that no Act of Parliament in respect of Naga customary law and procedure shall apply to the state of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of the state by a resolution decides to adopt it.
Sangyu Yaden, president of Ao Senden, said he opposed reservation. “Reservation is against the customary laws and also against the Constitution's provisions of Article 371 (A),” he said. But he did not elaborate on this.
The state chief minister and urban development minister said they were in favour of reservation for women and incorporated it in the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001 in 2006. But they were reluctant to act on it.
NMA's Dzuvchu asserts there is no such customary practice in Naga society which would be harmed by the implementation of reservation of seats for women. “Even the Nagaland government didn’t object when the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 was passed where 243 (T) was inserted requiring one-third reservation of seats for women and 243 (U) was inserted which lays down that election to every municipality would be held before the expiry of its duration.”
There is one-fourth reservation for women in the village development boards (VDB) since November, 1989, under section 50 of Nagaland Village and Area Council Act of 1978, she added. “Reservation is not new to the women of Nagaland. It has been adopted in VDBs, then why it being not adopted in the municipality?” asked Dzuvchu.
It's all about huge funds and unwillingness to share power with women, said Dzuvchu, who teaches literature at Nagaland University. “The Nagaland state cites law and order problem for not holding timely elections with reservation, then how would it be possible to conduct state Legislative Assembly elections in March?’’ asked Sanjay Sharma, a health activist, and also Nagaland state coordinator of Human Rights Law Network.
No official was willing to speak on the matter, saying the matter is sub judice.