Nagaland 2023: Is Nagaland ready to elect its first ever women minister?
Women candidates for Nagaland Assembly elections

The persistent underrepresentation of women in the Nagaland State Legislative Assembly continued even in the age of Globalisation. Naga women in postcolonial history failed to attend the margin of women’s representation at local, national and global levels. While the state has never had a female member of the Legislative Assembly since its formation in 1963, we could witness history in the upcoming elections.

In 2018, Nagaland saw five female candidates contest elections, the highest ever. But this time, only four women candidates will be vying for seats. As the election inches closer, it is imperative to look at the stance of women’s candidature from different perspectives.

A report presented in We the Nagas pointed out that this is the first time that four women candidates will contest from a major party: two are from the NDPP and one each from the BJP and Congress. NDPP candidate Hekani Jakhalu is a social entrepreneur and the founder of YouthNet. A recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar award in 2018, she will be contesting from (3 Dimapur-III Assembly Constituency).

The other NDPP candidate is Salhoutuonuo Kruse, a social worker with over 24 years of experience working with various NGOs and civil society. She will contest from the 8th Western Angami Assembly Constituency. Another social worker, Rosy Thomson, will contest for the Congress from the 6th-Tenning Assembly Constituency.

The candidate from BJP, Kahuli Sema, a former Engineer-in-Chief of the Nagaland Public Works Department, is the second woman to hold the position of Chief Engineer among the Nagas and the first among the Sumi community. She retired voluntarily after working for the government for 34 and a half years to take on a bigger role. She will contest from 32 Atoizu Assembly Constituency (AIR Kohima).

One of Nagaland’s oldest regional parties, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which has in the past ruled the state for 15 years has no women candidate. Even in the previous elections, there were no women candidates from the NPF.

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Revisiting Naga women’s representation in state politics?

In the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, there have never been female representatives for decades. The state ranks last on the national list of getting elected and women contesting for election in the state legislative assembly. 

Politics is perceived as a male domain and while this is generally understood as normal, it needs to be investigated as to where it came from how it developed and how it affects women’s participation. It is crucial to identify and contextualise the current political system and to investigate the evolution of women’s place in society. 

As opposed to most political theorists and theories, anthropologists and sociologists have long agreed that Indian politics and its elections are deeply immersed in historically and culturally specific social processes and divisions.

In contrast to the rest of the nation, the pattern of women’s political participation in Naga society is clearly distinct. It’s important to note that the institutional principles of tribal society differ significantly from those of other communities. The Naga societies have not generally oppressed women significantly; they are seen as equal members of the community. The deeply patriarchal Naga culture holds that women must be respected and that men, especially, should not jeopardise their security. However, what seems debatable is whether the democratic process can flourish in the current dispensation, where politics is characterised as male, the Naga society’s traditional law clearly distinguishes between gender roles and gendered responsibilities. Traditionally, Naga women played no direct part in political affairs. They were not even permitted to attend village council meetings, speak, or stand in front of the village crowd during any type of meeting. Women’s rights as primary decision-makers have never been acknowledged by the traditional institutions that govern Naga’s social and political life.

Without any involvement of women in the past, women in Naga society are neither historically stable nor represent a “natural way” of political group and explication. Therefore, it is impossible to defend the idea that women can engage in activities without obstacles, independently, or with no repercussions. People believe that it is their personal right to participate, but the lack of support is very apparent. Although modern state and democratic implications are present in Naga politics, many processes still take place under the influence of traditional settings.

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Situating the problem

The major causes for the underrepresentation of women in power and decision-making are multifaceted and complex. Economic, social, and cultural issues, as well as unfavourable stereotypes of women and ingrained gender roles, pose serious barriers to women participation in public and political life. When a woman decides to participate in an election in her own right, she will have stronger representation and more negotiating power. However, due to mobility issues and family pressure, women typically do not have the chance to create their own space on a meaningful level. This is especially true in situations where discrimination results from the intersection of gender, class, and culture. Their status (in terms of the intersection of identities), standing (what social repertoires they bring to the political arena), and the level of bias that is deeply ingrained in gender, religious, and cultural prejudice obstruct women’s political trajectories.

The fight for women’s political participation in Nagaland is an outcry against political injustice and conservative, traditional practices that control and exacerbate Naga society’s plight. A sign of a new era in Naga politics is required. Until this point, civil society politics, customary laws, religious inclinations, etc. had control over Naga women’s political participation.

The people generally perceived women candidates to be non–serious candidates and incompetent and they happened to be in the electoral fray because they are either sponsored by prospective candidates to polarise votes against dominant opponents or simply to exhibit their importance in the public domain. This misogynistic idea of perceiving women as incompetent in decision-making creates a boundary of discrimination; this is another triggering factor that disallows people to vote for women despite their capability and competency. Another reason is that people generally perceive women candidates if elected won’t have good prospects in the government formation, and thus a waste of mandates of the people. Indeed, this is the general perception of common men. Not many people think in terms of quality representative democracy where democracy becomes successful only with the equivalent participation of both men and women.

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Traditional barrier

In the Naga society, the heightening struggles over gender questions, intersectional struggles, and the continuing marginality of women in politics despite their increased visibility often get rejected by the idea of preserving the tradition. The ongoing battle of Naga women for inclusion in the public sphere serves as an example of unjustified male hegemony. Ironically, Nagaland has consistently outperformed all other states in terms of safety; the state also has a higher proportion of females in higher education, a high literacy rate, and low rates of infant and maternal mortality; Naga women also hold significant positions in almost every other field, despite the male-dominated tribal bodies’ exclusion of their participation. The fact that none of these falls under the purview of Naga cultural and traditional institutions is significant. As a result, in Naga society, the process of negotiating for women’s rights is frequently seen as demands outside of the traditional customary setup. Despite their labour, Naga women lack the authority and power to participate equally in traditional assemblies and customary courts where decisions are made. Any claim to participate in traditional institutions as a decision-maker is immediately interpreted in this context as being against Naga culture. the current custom of using tribal men’s bodies as part of Naga culture

Also Read | Nagaland polls: Nominations of 200 applicants found valid

The disguise in the voting pattern

The writers have previously argued that the emancipation of women from being merely an absent electorate to active voters is highlighted in the election commission reports from 1964 to the most recent general elections in 2018. The data shows a shift in a high increase of Naga women voters. However, women merely engaged as candidates, and the number of women running for office has not improved.

Women’s high participation in voting has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the number of women as candidates and elected representatives. However, considering this phenomenon, if we look more closely at the Nagaland electoral system, statistics that present a huge turnout for women can be questioned.

Studies indicate that in most Naga societies, women can hardly exercise their political power in choosing the candidate and casting their vote in the elections; most follow the advice of their husbands, with some feeling under pressure to comply with their family/husband’s wishes. This shows that women are only “hoax voters” unable to take advantage of the rights that are presented to them. This demonstrates how women’s votes accelerate male politicians into office. If indeed women voters support another woman, surely women candidates can be elected to political office.

Another underlying discourse on voting preferences and patterns in the Naga context is frequently linked to pre-existing social structures, emotions, and conflicts that rebind onto the democratic arena where they found new expressions in a language of politics. Regardless of how significant a political party is, allegiances and loyalties to family, kin, and communities frequently override party ideologies, so no matter how many women run for election from a party, there is no assurance that they will win.

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Why should we vote for women?

The Naga society’s idea of protecting Naga women from the risks of politics is to restrict women’s access to positions of power and decision-making; this is a covert mechanism and imperceptible concept that both men and women regard as normal. In order to address this issue and provide justice in Naga society, it is fundamental to look at the various pillars on which partnerships and allegiances are formed. We can anticipate a radical shift in Naga society through electoral politics.

It is imperative to recognise that women should be elected to the political office not only for the reason of parity but for representation. Studies also indicate that more women in legislatures positively correlated with increased perceptions of government legitimacy. Women elected to political office will generate interest in politics among women. When women are given equal opportunity to hold power, people will understand that it is important to raise women’s visibility, there will be a reduction in discrimination, and their visibility will provide a space and position in all spheres of life. 

Women once elected can strengthen the party in important ways, in addition to the vital work that non-elected women perform at the grassroots level. When women are the majority of the electorate and yet none are elected, it also negatively affects future generations as ongoing imbalances in equal opportunities can affect the prospects for social and economic development in the longer term.

More women achieving positions of power are made possible by a more predominantly female civil society. It becomes more likely that more women will enter national parliaments as more women take on leadership roles on a wider scale. It takes both objective factors associated with modernity’s economic and cultural facets, as well as behavioural and career decisions that are motivated by subjective values, to fully integrate women into society and advance them into positions of power. 

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If any of the women get elected, it won’t just be a historic feat for the Naga people; it will also change the way people perceive women in politics and their involvement. 

Previously it was argued that “there are so many Naga women who are eligible, but they don’t forward to contest the election.” But now that there are women coming forward to contest elections, there shouldn’t be any excuses. Recently one of the female indenting candidates was strongly criticised on social media for having shown her connection to the Chief Minister of Nagaland, with many (men) resenting her as another politician (“Puppet”) of the ruling party. However, if subtly observed other candidates did not receive much backlash as she does.

For her supporters, she is known as a very strong candidate who has tremendously worked for the upliftment of Naga society on varied platforms. So, could this resentment be justified on the grounds of gender? Is she seen as a threat to their supporters? Or could it be because of the patriarchal values and the misogynistic attitude of the people?

These questions, however hypothetical, are very important to navigate women’s position in politics, especially in the context of Naga society where women were never seen as someone who could make decisions in the public sphere. With the state having been considered one of the most progressive states of India in terms of key gender indicators, it is disheartening to note that it has not inspired many women to be at the forefront. It is high time for Nagaland to witness history by electing its first Women Minister in the state legislative assembly. 

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Sentsuthung Odyuo is a Research scholar and  Dr. Maya M is Assistant Professor at Christ(deemed to be University). Views expressed are personal.

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