Kohima/Shillong: Two tribal and Christian stronghold states are all set for February 27 assembly elections. And in both the states, Nagaland and Meghalaya, different situations persist with regard to the usually much-spoken subject – women empowerment.
By tradition and cultures, the states Nagaland and Meghalaya are studied in contrast. Nagaland is a typical male-dominated state and society, and till date, no woman could become a legislator in the state assembly. Rano Shaiza of UDF could become a member of Lok Sabha in the 1970s, and it took decades for BJP to ensure the second woman S Phangnon Konyak made it to Rajya Sabha in 2022.
In Meghalaya, the story has a twist. It’s matrilineal by tradition, but politics is strictly a male bastion. In the run-up to this year’s polls, there are four women candidates in Nagaland, while 36 female candidates are in the race in Meghalaya.
In Nagaland, one video from a campaign scene that has gone viral has a clipping wherein one poll agent reportedly says, “We cannot say what will happen in future, but right now letting a woman to be our head and leader…where is our pride?”
One independent candidate K Nakhro has been quoted in a local newspaper as stating that the speech of the poll agent has been misquoted. There is another story.
When a village elder in the Dimapur III assembly segment was asked whether he would back the female candidate Hekani Jakhalu of NDPP, the village elder innocuously remarked: “She was in one tribe but after marriage she went to another tribe of her husband. Let her take divorce and ask for votes from the community she belonged before marriage earlier”.
While BJP gave Nagaland its second woman MP in 2022; lately, saffron party ally NDPP leader and Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said in a tweet: “It’s about time we have woman representative in assembly…. we can make our democracy more vibrant”.
In Meghalaya, there are 36 women candidates, and ten are from Congress. Among women candidates of Conrad Sangma-led NPP, there are two sister nominees. A senior legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh is contesting from East Shillong, and her sister Jasmine Lyngdoh is trying her luck from the Nongthymmai assembly constituency.
“As a matrilineal society, our elderd have empowered us and it is for us now to use that empowerment,” says Benida Shisa Kharkongor, a Congress candidate.
Educationist D R Mridula says there are myriad issues related to men-women relationships in the socio-political context in a state like Meghalaya. A law was adopted in 2018 by Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council that said that any Khasi woman who marries a non-Khasi, as well as her offspring born out of such marriage, shall be deemed as non-Khasi. In other words, despite matrilineal systems, the real political or otherwise ‘power’ is with the men.
However, a senior State Government official unwilling to be identified gave another reason for the increasing cases. “Earlier cases were underreported. Now women are more aware of their rights and are not shy to report them. Moreover, people, in general, are now ready to report such cases because they know that the police would protect the victim’s identity,” he said.
Meghalaya Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui also told journalists in 2021 that “society has changed overall and the victims would not be discriminated against. That is why they no longer hesitate to report such cases.”
Despite Meghalaya state following the matrilineal system, it topped the number of crimes against women in the region in 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Meghalaya had reported 568 cases of crimes against women in 2020, which is higher than the states with similar populations and sizes like Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh in the north-eastern part of India.
Another Christian stronghold, Nagaland state – known for male chauvinism – had the lowest figures of 39 crimes against women in 2020, while Mizoram had 172 such cases.
“It’s a really sad state of affairs and reflects men’s distorted mindset. Other reasons are many and related to social issues like abundant rise in alcoholism and broken marriages,” said social worker Kyrsoi Donbok in Shillong.
The politician Ampareen Lyngdoh says multiple factors are involved in the increase in crimes against women in the state.
“Alcoholism and the growing number of men taking drugs and other substances are also responsible,” she said.
She also agrees that the growing number of broken marriages and forcing women to stay alone, manage the home, and ensure regular income during the time of the Pandemic and lockdown have also contributed to these crimes.
Some problems have been there for years. In Meghalaya, between April 2012 and March 31, 2013, officials reported 179 rape cases, of which 118 cases, or 64 per cent, were victims aged below 18 years.
“The gang rape was unheard of in Meghalaya, but these days these are occurring quite regularly,” says social worker Kyrsoi Donbok.
In the Nagaland context, one should note that Nagaland has a high literacy rate, and English is its official language.
However, the Nagaland Assembly holds the dubious distinction of opposing the women’s reservation bill, which had sought to reserve 33 per cent of state legislatures and parliamentary seats for women. In 1997, during the tenure of the S C Jamir-led Congress Government in Nagaland, the then parliamentary Affairs Minister, Zhove Lohe, moved a resolution, which the Assembly passed unanimously.
The opposition Nagaland People’s Council (NPC), the earlier avatar of the Naga People’s Front, led by the flamboyant Vamuzo, were part of the move. The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), an influential pressure group, too had written to the parliamentary select committee chairperson Geeta Mukherjee, saying the bill went against Naga tradition. Even the women’s reservation in urban local bodies has been vehemently opposed in Nagaland.
In Meghalaya, yet again, women’s political under-representation has another juicy story. At the meetings of Dorbar Shnongs, strong village-level institutions of the Khasis, women are not allowed to contest elections.