Nagaland’s municipal tightrope

Context: Recently the Neiphiu Rio-led Nagaland repealed the Nagaland Municipal Act of 2001. This led to the cancellation of the State Election Commission’s March 9 notification for holding elections to Nagaland’s 39 urban local bodies (ULBs) with 33% of the seats reserved for women. The apex court has, however, stayed the notification cancelling the civic body polls.

Why is there opposition to ULB polls?

  • Nagaland is arguably the only State where ULB seats are not reserved for women as mandated by clause IV of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India.
  • Most of the traditional tribal and urban organisations oppose the 33% reservation of seats for women as they argue that such reservation would violate the special provisions granted by Article 371A of the Constitution to Nagaland.
  • The hohos (apex tribal bodies) point out that women have traditionally not been part of decision-making bodies.

Article 371A

The Article states that no Act of Parliament would apply to the religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, and ownership and transfer of land and its resources.

Have such polls ever been held in Nagaland?

  • The first and only civic body election in Nagaland was held in 2004 without any reservation of seats for women.
  • The State government amended the 2001 Municipal Act in 2006 to include 33% reservation for women in line with the 74th Amendment.
  • This triggered widespread opposition forcing the government to indefinitely postpone the ULB polls in 2009.
  • Efforts to hold the elections in March 2012 met with strong protests and in September 2012, the State Assembly passed a resolution to exempt Nagaland from Article 243T of the Constitution which is related to the reservation for women.
  • This resolution was revoked in November 2016 and elections to the civic bodies with 33% reservation were notified a month later.
  • The notification led to widespread mayhem in which two people were killed in large-scale violence and arson.
  • This made the government declare the process to conduct an election null and void in February 2017.

Why did the government decide on ULB polls this time?

  • Under pressure from the Supreme Court, the Rio government laid the ground for holding ULB polls after consultations with various stakeholders, including churches, NGOs, and tribal bodies in March 2022.
  • The State Election Commission on March 9 notified that the polls would take place on May 16.
  • The tribal bodies and civil society organisations threatened to boycott the polls until the “borrowed” Municipal Act of 2001 factoring in women’s reservation is “reviewed and rewritten in complete consonance of the voice of the Naga people” so that it does not infringe upon Article 371A.
  • The government succumbed to public pressure and repealed the Municipal Act with immediate effect as the people “cannot be compelled” to participate in the elections.

What is the way forward?

  • The groups against reservation for women want a “guarantee” that the 33% quota would not violate the provisions of Article 371A.
  • Before “rushing to conduct” the ULB elections, they suggested that the duration of the reservation should be capped at two tenures and demanded that the post of chairperson should not be reserved for women.
  • The Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) said that the State government erred in not listening to or consulting with women’s organisations before taking the decision to repeal the Municipal Act.
  • The Supreme Court pulled up the Nagaland government for adopting an “ingenious method” of repealing the Municipal Act to evade the undertaking given to the court for holding the polls.
  • The apex court also noted, “Nothing has so far emerged (with respect to Article 371A) to advance a plea that religious or social practices of Nagas or Naga customary law and procedure denies the right of equality to women insofar as the participatory process is concerned in such elections”.

Mains practice question

Can special provisions of the Indian constitution to protect the customary laws of tribes be used as grounds to oppose the reservation for women in local bodies? Discuss in the light of recent Nagaland’s decision to cancel the reservation for women in local bodies. (250 words 15 marks)

Source: The Hindu

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