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Nagaland and the pandemonium box

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-02-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

Power games in Nagaland, the state searching for a formal end to decades-old armed conflict as well as a future of its own making, took another twist earlier this week. On 22 February, Shürhozelie Liezietsu, an 81-year-old on the verge of retirement from active politics, was sworn in as chief minister, replacing his Naga Peoples Front (NPF) colleague T.R. Zeliang, who resigned on 19 February in the wake of massive sociopolitical unrest across Nagaland.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an NPF ally, has for several weeks had proxies in rightwing media vehicles and public affairs decry the alleged role of the Congress and massively influential church entities in Nagaland, in the fracas. Zeliang is seen as being close to BJP functionaries tasked with handling northeast India.

NPF had 46 MLAs, of whom eight switched en masse from Congress in 2015, in a 60-member house. NPF leads the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government with four BJP MLAs—of whom three switched from the Nationalist Congress Party in 2014, the year after assembly elections were last held—and a lone member of Janata Dal (United). Call it consolidation, but it’s a bit rich for BJP to accuse the Congress of manipulation.

Trouble began to brew in late December when the state’s election commission notified elections to urban local bodies, with 33% reservation for women. Key tribal organizations—Nagaland has 16 major tribes—began to protest saying it went against customary law and against special privileges granted to Nagaland under Article 371A of India’s Constitution which protects such law, though it contradicts other provisions that offer reservation and equality to women.

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A handful of Naga village councils have female members. Nagaland assembly hasn’t had a female legislator since the state was formed in 1963. Women are largely restricted to tribal women’s organizations subservient to a tribe’s council, or the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), a feisty outfit that takes up issues such as HIV-AIDS and drug abuse. NMA even sent representatives to Naga rebel strongholds in Myanmar, a trek of several weeks, to urge peace and reconciliation.

The election commission was following up on an order of Gauhati high court buttressed by the Supreme Court, based on a petition by women applicants who challenged the government’s refusal to hold municipal elections though the state’s assembly had enacted a law in 2006 reserving a third of the seats for women in such urban entities.

Protests began to snowball even as women offered candidacy. Pushed to the brink by mounting protests from tribal and students’ organizations, the government called a truce on 30 January by announcing a two-month postponement of elections. It reversed the decision the next day, again urged by courts. Crowds erupted. Two youngsters died in police firing in Dimapur, the commercial hub.

On 1 February, elections were held in 12 of the 32 urban councils. The very next day these were annulled after Dimapur, Kohima, the capital, witnessed widespread protests and rioting. The demand grew for Zeliang and his council of ministers to quit. That took till 19 February.

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While Nagaland’s unlovely cross of institutionalized misogyny has just got heavier, to claim that Congress and the Church brought down Zeliang is glib, and opens the Pandemonium Box that is so emblematic of Nagaland politics.

Church groups are involved in every aspect of Naga life—far more than rebel groups which impose parallel administrations. Many church groups also impose ultra-conservative and regressive practices, but detrimental mixing of ‘church’ and state isn’t unknown elsewhere in India, including in the central government.

To some observers Shürhozelie appears to be a compromise to stave off Zeliang’s arch enemy, former chief minister and NPF strongman, Neiphiu Rio. If one were to consider conspiracy theories, Rio versus Zeliang tops the chart, a bitter rivalry played out over the shoulders of a state combusting on somewhat ludicrous, and dangerous, male outrage.

Rio won for NPF the 2013 assembly elections, and took office as a third-term chief minister. He contested Lok Sabha elections in 2014, won, and travelled to New Delhi as MP in the hope BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would elevate him: a senior minister—perhaps representing Northeast India—an elder statesman.

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He was instead put to pasture, denied any portfolio, while Zeliang competitively filled his space in Nagaland. Zeliang also assiduously courted influential BJP general secretaries. Last May, NPF—indeed, Shürhozelie, as president—suspended Rio from the party.

The biggest medium-term gainer in the fracas could be Rio and his cabal. Bereft of governance for years, the biggest loser remains Nagaland.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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