Women’s reservation to correct some of the traditional/ customary

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Ninglun Hanghal
Many will argue and have already argued that there is no restriction for women if she wants to contest election – be it local polls, state or general election. There have also been numerous arguments and remarks – why should women need reservation? Who stop (ed) them to contest election? Indeed, there is no written law that says women are not permitted or not allowed to contest election.

Names of India‘s powerful women prime minister – Indira Gandhi, or women state chief ministers such as Jayalalithaa or Mamata Banerjee are taken a case for the argument against reservation for women. But here we are not talking about an Indira Gandhi or a Jayalalithaa or a Mamata. They are one in a million and few rare exceptions. Millions of women in India are still confining to their homes and plays a secondary role both in domestic and public spheres, let alone coming into the political arena. The case is no different in urban India or rural India or in the north or south, east or west. The number of women representatives in state assemblies and both houses of the Indian parliament are indicative of where women in the country stand. The situation is even worst in the north-eastern states.

There is no denying that there have been debates about women reservation on grounds of manipulations and that elected women representatives are mere “rubber stamps” of their husbands or party members or village heads. It is true in many cases, but it must be understood that these indicates that women still have a long way to “real empowerment”. It may be also noted that even after reservation, women have to be literally given a push and asked to contest the local polls. Most, if not all, elected representatives needed a ‘hand holding’ support for running office.

The 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution gives 33% reservations for women in local bodies ( panchayat and municipal bodies) so as to enable and facilitate their upward mobility. This constitutional amendment for women’s reservation and its implementation does not come easy and not without challenges, obstacles and debates over it.

In the wake of the recent incidents in Nagaland – the stiff opposition from traditional bodies against the reservation for women in municipal election in the state calls for serious introspection. The demand for reservation by women under the aegis of the Naga Mothers Association and the state government’s move to hold the long pending municipal election has resulted in serious repercussion and re-actions as witnessed in the events that led to the loss of two young lives and many injured, with normal life in the entire state coming to a standstill for days.

The rationale for opposition by the traditional tribal bodies being that reservation infringe upon the culture, customs and traditions – in simple terms there is no such systems of reservation in tribal ( or Naga society) governing systems and therefore there can be no such reservations in any administration and governing bodies in the state ( Nagaland).

Constitutional provisions such as Article 371 A in the case of Nagaland, article 371 C in the case of Manipur hill areas and other special statutory provisions for safeguarding “customs and practices” were conveniently and effectively used (and misused) by the traditional bodies in north-east India. There is and have been several interpretations (and misinterpretations) of these special provisions in the constitutions and customary laws/ practices, leading to a debate (rather an argument) of which one is more “powerful” or should be more powerful. It is also made to appear “complex and complicated” particularly when it comes to gender.

The reservation issue is indicative of the fact that tribal societies in north-east India are not yet prepared to welcome changes into their domain – the customary laws and practices, particularly in the traditional institutions of “governance and administration” where there are no women. The demand for reservation rather comes as a ‘cultural shock’. Much as the constitution provides special “status” for “authority” over “customs and practices” to be propagated , preserved and promoted, the traditional bodies have rightly claimed that it is their authority to decide whether women should have reservation or not, since women comes under customary ‘subject’ in traditional governing systems. These traditional bodies, such as village authority headed by the village chief or tribe based organisations, which are considered the caretaker and keeper of customs and practices, are the key decision making body in the community / society – including women’s lives (private and public).

In any socio-cultural and political affairs of tribal societies in north-east India, these traditional bodies hold the key. They run parallel authority and governance alongside the “government”. Further, romanticizing of these “bodies” and “customary practices” accelerate their hold over the community/ tribe.

The Nagaland reservation case has brought out the conflict between tradition/customs and women onto the streets in public. Even as debates, arguments and politicking have come out over the conflict, the key issue, visibly and clearly is the “customary laws and practices” – its institutions and thus its “keepers”. Therefore, it is here that one need to critically see and examine where some form of understanding can be arrived at. Not only the case of reservation, there are already conflicts in many other areas, in varied forms and levels – like customary laws versus legal laws, such as in sexual abuse cases, marital discords etc.

Customary laws are un-codified, un- written and has already undergone several changes – either naturally on its own account due to irrelevance or by compulsion. It is also high time that these traditional practices and customary laws are reviewed and revised to suit the contemporary times. Some form of ‘amendments’ if not changes in such practices and norms would be ideal. And of course changes in the structures and functioning of the traditional institutions, which is obviously an only men’s club.

Traditional bodies/ tribe based organisations for once should accept the fact that women are less privilege and doubly disadvantaged by customs and traditions. Reservation is one of the many ways to women empowerment; it is also one of the means towards correcting some of the traditional and customary wrongs that have been passed on from generations to generations. It would all the more strengthen traditional bodies if these organisations are more accommodating towards women who make up half of its population but are still lagging behind in all development parameters. When women are considered equal partners in socio-cultural and political life, it will all the more boost traditions, customs and add more value to such traditional institutions.

Source: The Sangai Express

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