What is the meaning of gender? What is the meaning of Justice? Which comes first in Naga society and how do we understand it? Like many nationalist societies around the world, the issue of gender justice and rights have remained marginal for a long time. We were told that issues like women’s rights or gender justice could wait till the Naga people gained their freedom. In that context, what did it mean to bestow any kinds of rights on women in Naga society? When terms like gender ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ remains extremely resentful terms for a larger section of powerful Naga traditional bodies, they become meaningless words. I ask these questions in relation to the opposition against 33% reservation that escalated into a violent protest and brought the entire state of Nagaland to a standstill recently. If Naga customary law is seen as the foundation of justice, the exclusion of women from these powerful decision making-bodies negates the entire notion that these are pillars of justice. The Indian state and the male traditional bodies alike are responsible for excluding the Naga women from all spheres of representative political processes. Article 371 (A) is a prime example of the patriarchal nature of the Indian constitution that bestows the Naga male bodies to have full authority and power to interpret customary affairs covering social, religious, and criminal cases.
What is Article 371 (A)? Besides Clause 1 which has four slim lines about protecting Naga customary practices and land rights, it is bizarre that a larger section of Article 371 (A) of the Indian constitution defines the power and functions of the Governor to the extent of laying down the qualification and salaries of the regional councils. Therefore, if people argue that all Naga rights “since time immemorial” is determined by this article and that this will determine the future of the Nagas, the enormous social and political transformation in Naga society is doomed. Article 371 (A) does not even define what is ‘customary law and procedure’ or ‘social and religious practices’. These processes which were regarded as enabling instruments for Naga people to become citizens of India, have in fact become the basis the basis of violent contestations and debates today.
The 33% Naga women’s reservation is not the only topic that has invoked Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution. For example, the ongoing coal mining operations and the oil exploration negotiations in Nagaland have rested on multiple interpretations of this constitutional provision. Naga politicians, landowners, village councils, and business families have all interpreted the provision for their benefit to mine for minerals and not be held accountable for the environmental degradation. Today, rivers, paddy fields, and forests across the coal belts of Nagaland are polluted and aquatic lives and vegetation have all perished. The landowners and those who fight against the government of Nagaland are male bodies – council members, armed groups, cultural associations, politicians, rich landowning families. Here, they make the constitutional provision work in their favour. Therefore, the very rights that have been denied to Naga women expressed through resisting 33% shows that it is not a new thing. This reveals that Article 371 (A) has favoured a male interpretation to reinforce Naga patriarchy and exclude women from positions of decision-making processes from the beginning. It has nothing to do with retaining the customary law and culture of the Naga people. What it has done is to continue to propagate a male hegemonic power and authority in Naga society. Naga male bodies have acquired the language of justice to retain the order of Nage male heritage and patrimony.
What does it mean to be a Naga woman? If the Naga movement for the right to self-determination, or the civil and political rights movement, or the solidarity alliances has meant anything at all, it simply means the quest for justice.
This kind of historical sense of justice is seen even in the Naga national history. Only Naga males became martyrs. Women were always victims. How can we talk about equality as a foundational pillar when justice, when equality and freedom in Naga society have remained the prerogative of the few? Can it be a democratic society when a minority have defined such a heroic and masculine militarized past? Today the Naga poor that includes orphans, widows, the unemployed youth, old people, and a large section of the disenfranchised public cannot take part in this debate. These are inherent contradictions. These are flaws that cannot be integrated in the vision of a Naga just society by simply including women who have been excluded. We have to realise that we have a flawed system. What kind of Naga system should we adopt that regards equality and justice is an issue we have not been able to envision. Here, it is important to embrace the feminist ideology of what it means to embrace gender equality and justice. Feminist philosopher Angela Davis wisely cautions us that we cannot imagine incorporating women into a misogynist society and dream of justice and equality. Or for that matter, can cannot we simply elect a black President or a female president (In the context of the United States) and expect racism and patriarchy to vanish. In the Naga context, like any other society around the world, it calls for the transformation of the society from patriarchy, economic injustice, including racism, homophobia, and gender violence.
What does it mean to be a Naga woman? If the Naga movement for the right to self-determination, or the civil and political rights movement, or the solidarity alliances has meant anything at all, it simply means the quest for justice. For me, justice is not a goal that can be achieved by simply implementing 33% reservation for Naga women alone. It is not a thing to be coveted and possessed alone by individuals – be it Nage men or Naga women. This vision of justice that Naga feminists dream about is based on a collective consciousness about a world where male and female/queer will march together and build a just society together. This longing deeply marks the identity of every Naga women who have been subjected to humiliation, shame, and oppression. This cry and yearning was visible during the 33% reservation. Instead of understanding how these voices were situated in a particular history of gender violence and injustice, there were continuous attempts to discredit these voices and cries. These were interpreted as attempts to shame the society or shame Naga men. How can the cry for justice and freedom from the lips of Naga women be read as shameful? Aren’t these moments of struggles that very processes that rejects gender subjugation? These moments remind us about the conditions how Naga women across every tribes have been compelled to serve the family 24X7 and yet remain silent.
Today, what kind of justice and freedom do we choose at this crossroad in Naga society? One that excludes the poor and speaks the language of exclusive economic benefits for Naga individuals? One that includes the rich and their network of families and friends? One that solely sees people through the prism of class, ethnicity, and entitlements? What is it that we should call for at this moment in Naga society? To begin with, if Naga women have to be included within the 33% reservation for political participation, then the existing practice of Naga customary law, practices, and processes that is defined as “democratic” or at times “egalitarian” needs to change. What kind of change can we call for? We can begin a process of demanding for a Naga democratic system that calls for an end to militarization, violence, and demand the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1957). The existing violent Naga society we have accepted as normal is an exceptionally soul numbing system, that Naga men and women alike have been forced breath every day. The forms of the AFSPA and the militarization were exposed during the crisis that Naga public faced this time. The level of fear, digital censorship, the apathy of the state authorities, and the charged violent atmosphere across the state underlined the foundations of Naga militarization.
This is not the time to be ashamed as Naga people because of the crisis.
One of the issues about the violent protests around the 33% reservation was related to the media coverage. Irrespective of the criticisms against national and international media who covered the issue in Nagaland, we need to recognize that the issue of gender justice came up as an important point. Naga people have to engage with the national and international community as our interlocutors and alliances. We cannot afford to push away the disturbing issues some journalists wrote about Naga society and curl up. I would argue that the 33% opposition and the culmination of the violent protests in Nagaland made us realise the importance of feminism as an ideology. Especially, Naga men and women alike who participated in the debates about gender justice felt the need to extend these conversations. At this hour, we need to recognize the importance of tribal feminism, justice and the need to conceptualise these terms and processes. The debates that have emerged though the 33% reservation should push us towards a political tradition in Naga society that shakes the foundation of inequality and unjust practices carried under the cloak of Naga culture. This is the time to create a form of Naga gender justice that becomes a norm and ignites conversations about addressing many more political issues such as racism, discrimination, and the rights of tribal migrants in contemporary India.
This is not the time to be ashamed as Naga people because of the crisis. It is a time to reflect and connect; examine our political foundations, including building alliances and solidities to talk about justice across the region and beyond. To be honest, we cannot expect a radical change in Naga society through electoral politics. History stands as a witness. Even if we implement the 33% reservation, unless the municipal council as a system embraces the principles of gender justice, includes the Naga poor, single mothers, widows, unemployed youth, and speaks for the old and the marginalised from all backgrounds including the poor non-Naga migrants and traders, the moneyed groups and power hungry elites will continue to dominate Naga lives. Yet, I feel this is a wonderful moment in Naga society where every men, women, and youth have read the Nagaland Municipal Act, the Constitution of India – especially Article 371 (A), and have knocked at the door of the Bar Council of Nagaland to hold discussions about the legal implications of the act. In every locality, there are small groups of men and women sitting together rebuilding trust and reaffirming their support for gender justice. Imagine hundreds of such small groups coming together to form a joint common vision for a just Naga society! However, forgetting the existing militarization and violence in our society will obstruct our vision for a Naga just future. How can we live under extra-constitutional regulations like AFSPA, have ceasefire camps with a stagnant peace talk, and pretend to fix our society? Until we continue our demands for a political resolution of the Indo-Naga political conflict and demilitarization of Naga society, we cannot rebuild Naga society.
The logic of protecting Naga women from the dangers of politics, public office, reservation, and all kinds of activities cannot be based on a Indian state like militarized strategy; to impose a cultural and traditional curfew and incarcerate them within the limits of the four walls. Lest we forget, let me remind you the logic of the Indian state. For long, Naga people did not get it, they were defined as emotional, childlike, barbaric, wild, and savages. Only guns and bullets from the Indian state could tame them. If this same logic is used by the Naga leaders and male tribal bodies on the Naga women/the poor/and marginalised sections of the society to rule them, we have successfully adopted the master plan and replaced the vision of a just future with a broken and violent mechanism. Today, we are yet to hear the name of a Naga woman who will lead the Indo-Naga ceasefire talks, become an advisor to the Naga Hoho, the arbitrator at a Naga customary law proceeding on divorce, the wise head in a property dispute between two brothers, the head of the Naga Forum for Reconciliation, the Chaplin who prays for the Chief Minister, or the leader of the Christian churches (across denominations).
Naga people (both men and women), scholars, activists, and practitioners across the fields (churches, education, government offices, cultural associations, and women bodies including youth clubs) need to recognise that a feminist tribal ideology can achieve a meaningful framework of gender justice and peace. Feminists in the women’s movements across the region have shown us the courage and wisdom to create political alliances across class, ethnicity, race, caste, generation, gender stereotypes, and beyond territorial and nationalist boundaries to dream of a new just world based on equality and a habitable future. As a Naga feminist, I remain hopeful at a time when Naga society decides to sit for consultation that we are able to resist the money, power, and attractions of authority wrapped in Naga patriarchal and traditional cloaks. Such kind of seductions has devoured numerous Naga tribal councils, politicians, leaders, community activists including the church workers. Albert Camus’s wise words come to my mind. As Camus fought racism and homophobia and joined hands with the African American civil and political rights movement, he noted, “I love my country, but I also love my justice”. I too end this essay by stating “As much as I love my Naga community, I also love my justice” and will continue to join hands with the struggle for gender justice.