Equality, Women=Men

Reservation makes sense, opposition doesn’t

The story…

So the Government decided to, after “thorough deliberation”, hold elections to the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) granting  33% reservation for women as provided by the Nagaland Municipal Act (NMA) 2001 through its first amendment in 2006. I am not sure if the deliberation was thorough or indeed if there was any deliberation at all. But a cause for celebration, yeah? Finally, the government has taken a bold measure casting aside its retrogressive tribal and patriarchal garb and clothed itself in a new progressive outfit fitting for a government alive to its time. Except, dispelling any cause for rejoicing, the CM explained that the decision was taken as the state has been “unable to avail the annual developmental funds granted by the Centre” for the development of ULBs. What?

(The government’s decision, which it arrived at after “thorough deliberation”, is interesting (and shocking) when we consider the fact that the current CM was the chairman of the seven-member select-committee appointed by the then govt., in 2012, which, after “thorough deliberation”, “unanimously” rejected the applicability of the provision for reservation which had been added by a “unanimous” decision of the NLA in 2006. This is a mockery of the public’s intelligence which sadly might turn out to be not so misplaced after all.)

But why is this happening in August 2016  — 15 years after the passage of the Act? As much as I would love to relate this shameful saga, it will have to wait for another time. For now, it is enough to know that Naga women have been urging the government to implement reservation policy in municipalities and town councils and the government has, to be very mild, so far been going where, and only where, the wind blows. It did not include reservation in the original Act (2001); then added it after Naga women took the issue to court (2006); then did not implement it (2006-2010); then rejected the applicability of reservation (2012); and now, it has decided to conduct elections with reservation (2016).

No to reservation… what?

(Disclaimer: Politics is a massively complex web that extends to and influences everyone. No commentary will satisfy all. This is a rant in defense of women’s reservation in the light of recent news and so, other connected issues like the one regarding taxation by municipalities through NMA 2001 vis-a-vis Article 371(A), will get a pass. And since this is a rant, subtlety will be sacrificed.)

The state government had a guiding role to play on this issue but it has not delivered. It has to be chastised but this essay is directed against the “civil societies”, the “stakeholders”, the “mass-based organisations”, the “apex bodies”, the “tribal Hohos” which have been the biggest roadblocks towards reservation becoming a reality. The term ‘tribal’ becomes even more ironic given the tribal ‘watch this clip‘ arguments that are being tossed around. It’s crazy.

Argument #1 The door is open for all.

This is a classic argument. You are welcome to throw you hat in the ring. We are not actively debarring you from contesting, why, then, is there the need for reservation?  Well, because this is not the way affirmative action policy operates or the reason why it actually works. Would the people floating this argument resign to their fate if, hypothetically, the Indian government decides to do away with reservation for STs citing the same argument? The appalling absence of women lawmakers in governance is the reason why they are being guaranteed a certain percentage of seats in local bodies. Similarly, the appalling backwardness of tribals when it comes to education is the reason why we are guaranteed a certain percentage of seats in educational institutions.

The opposition to reservation would be legitimate if women were proportionately represented in and had equal access to positions of administrative and political influence. The fact is that they have never been represented well, if at all, in our polity since time immemorial — to use a popular phrase among us Nagas. This is a fact no apex Hoho can dispute. That our society does not discriminate against women in other spheres of life, which I find it hard to believe but will swallow albeit with great difficulty for the sake of brevity, is completely beside the point.

Argument #2 Only the kitchen door should be open for women.

Some still think that women are ill-suited for decision-making. I’d imagine, just for laughs, that those menfolk are the hen-pecked ones who fear that decision-making is the only realm where they can safely escape to. Silly banter aside, a recent press release argued that men and women both get “due importance” and that “importance differ in different arena”. The audacious insinuation! What is intriguing is that you’ll often find this argument alongside the previous one. The hypocrisy! (link is NSFW)

The fact that only the kitchen door has been open for women doesn’t mean that other doors should remain closed for them. There is no reason to think that women will be unable to handle the pressures and perform the duties that come with public office. Just look at Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton (Trump can’t win.). Just look at the HSLC and HSSLC toppers list. Just look at the innovative start-ups. Just look at their selfies. Okay, maybe not those. Also, it is absurd to be fearful (What if this is the underlying reason?) that women will come to dominate and subjugate the men. (If you are a woman reading this in a women-dominated future where men slave for the reserved queens, remember that I was on your side!)

Argument #3 We should not open doors to strange things.

Reservation is alien to our ‘culture’ But so are suits. Our forefathers never practised reservation.  And they never practised Christianity. This is such an uninformed argument. Culture is not a constant. It is dynamic and reflects the zeitgeist. This weak argument is often supported by the claim that men and women in our tribal society have always been considered equal. Infact, some were “disheartened”, and this is true, to see “women folks drawn to sink down to second class status by the state government” through the policy of reservation.

Wait a minute! The contention that Naga men and women have equal status (everyone remembers NaMo’s gaffe, no?) is fiction. Also, reservation does not degrade, it uplifts. Reservation is not negative, it is affirmative. Any force or combination of forces — social, cultural, economic, institutional, political etc — may work to undermine certain sections of society. The institution of caste undermined the position of the Dalits, for example. The patriarchal social system led to the exclusion of Naga women from decision-making enterprises. Reservation is a policy to correct such aberrations caused not by the incapacity of the impinged sections but by unyielding larger social forces outside the influence of those that are adversely affected (and, unsurprisingly, often under the control of those that are benefited).

Argument #4 We should not open doors for reservation now.

This is the position of the apex Hoho among the (lesser?) apex Hohos. It stands by the observation that it is still “premature to introduce 33% women reservation in Naga society” and that we should instead “advocate women empowerment by creating various opportunities”.

If not now, when? No, seriously. The observation is from a 2011 federal session. And I have no idea what the “various opportunities” are and whether they have been created at all. Throw in a resolution number and a few sophisticated words and boom, legitimacy appears before thee upon a cloud. It’s 2016 and the same position is being maintained. To be fair, their position is a lot more nuanced (read: ambiguous) than simply that and they do want for women to be represented.

Argument #5 Article 371(A) is a room whose door should not be opened to reservation.

Oh that article of articles! Article 371(A) Clause 1(a) safeguards Naga customary practices by making the state’s legislative assembly responsible for everything that ultimately gets implemented in the state. Only when the state legislature passes it does a parliamentary act become law. The fact is that the provision for 33% reservation was passed and added to the Nagaland Municipal Act by a unanimous decision of the state assembly in 2006.

Putting procedural quibbles aside, let us, for one moment, entertain the argument that reservation infringes upon Naga customary practice. First of all, there is no and can be no such thing as Naga customary practice. It is a myth. Every tribe has its own set of practices and there are variations even within tribes. Second, the reservation is for municipalities and town councils which are constitutional institutions and not customary institutions. If we adhere to this line of reasoning, we will find that almost everything that we practice today infringes upon our specific customary practices. Such a perspective is not only disingenuous but destructive.

In conclusion…

To be honest, I know of 20 year-olds who are more sensible, mature and alive to the realities of today. I get the impression that the mega organisations that we have supposedly furthering our agenda are neither well organised nor concerned about our collective agenda. It is sad. What’s worse is that they are peddling in paranoia and flinging incorrect facts (or fiction; since they are not correct? hah) to make their ‘help me Obama‘ arguments.

A certain organisation lamented the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in August without consulting the “civil society” and the “stakeholders”. It was actually a Cabinet meeting that decided to go ahead with the election for the ULBs in implementation of an Act which is not the Women’s Reservation Bill and which had been passed long ago.

Meanwhile, another questioned the “hustle” of the state govt. in implementing the Act pointing out that the bill is still pending in the Lok Sabha. While it’s true that the Women’s Reservation  Bill for reservation of women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is still pending, the concern here is the reservation with respect to local bodies which was made constitutional in 1992.

Yet another advised against making rash remarks as they might be “counterproductive to our adversaries(sic)!”(this is a joke, no?) while expressing concern for female candidates whether they would survive the dirty world of politics filled with “corruption, manipulation and muzzle(sic) power”. (The pun is strong on that one.)

The learned would read and laugh, the literate would read, the rest wouldn’t care and none of these would matter. But the thing is that here is a bunch of people incapable of making a sound argument with clarity or, more correctly I presume, unwilling to admit that they don’t have any argument at all and they are indulging in spreading misinformation and abusing grammar (subject-verb agreement is never their strong point) and they are the ones stalling the march towards gender equality despite valid and rigorous arguments as well as eloquent, heartfelt and sensible appeals from the other side of the debate. Naga women should be angry. The youth should be alarmed. And the leadership? They ought to be penitent.