The sun has barely risen over the lush green Patkai range that rings Pfutsero and the rutted roads of Nagaland’s coldest town are deserted. But Rekha Rose Dukru’s house is bustling with activity as the 35-year-old races against time to make it to her first election meeting of the day.
Her younger sister rushes in and out with steaming mugs of tea as her parents mouth a silent prayer.
They have reason to be worried. Dukru’s campaign hinges on two meetings later that day – one in her mother’s ancestral village of Tsupfume that hangs on a cliff, and the other in her father’s clan village of Zhavame. Her challenge: Wear down the hostility of the tribe and village elders, who are opposed to her candidacy because of one reason: She is a woman.
Dukru, who is fighting as an independent from the far-flung Chizami constituency, is one of five women in this election who are trying to change the course of political history in Nagaland.
Since the northeastern state was formed in 1963, no woman MLA has ever set foot in the 60-member assembly, and only one woman, Rano M Shaiza, has become an MP, that too back in 1977. But a watershed election this time might change that. “I decided to contest the election because the state needs a woman MLA, I know we are making history,” laughs Dukru.
It is 7am and the crowds have already gathered outside the community hall; but unusually, more than half are women who have come to see a woman hold forth on a public stage for the first time in their lives. “Your vote can change everything, it can bring water to your kitchens, electricity to your houses. Don’t let the men decide who to vote for,” Dukru implores the crowd. After the men disperse, she convenes a meeting of just the women, many of whom break into tears as Dukru’s mother Asale rises to speak. “I have never spoken before anyone but don’t let me be humiliated… vote for my daughter,” she tells the crowd.
An elderly woman named Rukho rises from her seat and says it’s the first time she is speaking to a candidate, who usually only talk to the patriarch of the house. “Today, I can assure you that my vote is for you,” she chokes on her tears.
AN ARDUOUS JOURNEY
Women in Nagaland are everywhere — they man restaurants, form more than 60 per cent of the agricultural labour, they run shops and sell wares in the markets. But when it comes to decision making, be it in the village council or city corporations or the assembly, women are missing.
The primary reason for this, in a state where 89 per cent of the population is tribal, are customary laws that govern each community, says Rosemary Dzuvichu, a professor at the University of Nagaland and an adviser to the apex women’s body in the state, theNaga Mothers Association (NMA). “In Naga society, women have no land rights, no inheritance rights, no sustenance rights and very little political rights,” she says, pointing out that though a majority of markets are controlled by women, men run the finances.
In the influential Ao tribe, women are barred from the Putu Menden (the traditional village council) and cannot become a Patir (village councillor). They are also restricted from public debates and titles.
In the Chakhesang tribe, to which Dukru belongs, an adulterous woman is banished with the clothes she is wearing at the time, and with a fine.
Most of these laws are not codified, and are interpreted by a council of male elders. Among the Lotha tribe, one custom, Rangpyahtaro (which literally means ‘ten coins’), was meant to seal a divorce. But the sum, considered massive in ancient times, is now interpreted as a paltry ₹10, according to a 2016 report “Enquiry into the Status of Women”.
“Accepting a woman in a political position is a major mental block, there is lack of support within the families… this hurts the confidence of women,” says Akole Wekowe, who works with a women’s organisation, the North East Network.
Her colleague, Seno Tsuhah, adds that men underestimate women’s contribution and they are regularly paid less. “Women are paid less to maintain the honour of the men,” she laughs. Any immovable property or land is never passed onto a woman because it is thought that the land will be controlled by her in-laws.
Elections in Nagaland are expensive, and more than half the candidates have assets above ₹ 1 crore, but a woman possesses little property or resources to marshal for the polls. “And till very recently, a woman’s vote would be decided by her husband or family,” adds Anungla Aier, chief of the Watsu Mungdang, the apex women’s body of the Ao tribe. As we speak, news comes of three women thrashed in Tuli because they allegedly dared to go against the diktat of their family on who to vote for — a grim reminder of how harsh the punishment is for women who dare to dissent.
A LONG HISTORY
The situation was made more precarious by long spells of militarisation, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which was imposed in 1958. “We have had a history of rape, violence, killing and total disrespect to women….the presence of army made us more insecure,” she says.
The glass ceiling was broken in 2005, when Tokheli Kikon became the first woman to become the village chairperson in Naharbari, near Dimapur. “I had to fight a lot with the men. Everyone said we don’t allow women to lead us. But I was determined, and won twice more.”
But the challenges kept on mounting, and at every step she battled male entitlement. “They were apprehensive of a woman making decisions. When I tried to save a heritage pond, everyone opposed me. The same happened when I upgraded the school. I did everything on my own.”
The simmering tensions spilled into the streets last year after the government notified elections to urban local bodies, and made 33 per cent reservation for women mandatory. The apex Naga organisations protested, warning that this suggested a dilution of Article 371A, which gives special status to Nagaland and is an emotive issue in the northeastern state where separatist movements have deep local roots. Two women died of alleged police firing as protests shut down the state and forced the government to defer the polls, despite a Supreme Court order.
“You should have heard the names they called us…prostitutes, Indian agents, witches…our men were insecure. The men assumed the town wards were theirs to inherit,” says Dzuvichu.
This came as a shock because the applicant in the case, the NMA, was widely respected and had a long history of working against corruption, alcoholism, drug use and militarisation. “They talk of customs, what customs do they follow when they jump in and out of parties?” she fumes.
There appears to have been some rethink among the men. Chuba Ozokum of the Naga Hoho, the apex tribal organisation, said the protest was mischaracterised and that the body fully supports women’s rights. Theja Theriah, another tribal leader, says he regrets the protests. Both hope more than one woman is elected.
THE WAY FORWARD
Back in Dukru’s ancestral village of Zhawame, tensions are rising. The village council doesn’t want her to contest because the sitting MLA is from the same village, and to have a woman represent the clan would mean dishonour. She calls the elders home for a lunch of rice, pork curry and traditional pickles before calling for a meeting – above them in makeshift wood galleries, groups of men laugh and look on.
“Everyone used to love me when I ran the local farms, brought investment and became an entrepreneur of organic and local foods. But now, I only feel hostility. I will not back down, I know I can become a leader,” she says with confidence.
More than 300 kilometers away in Aboi, Avon Konyak is fighting a similar battle. The 38-year-old is the daughter of a former minister and is considered a favourite to win. She is also the only woman candidate of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). “Women need to be part of decision making body…we are more sensitive, more sincere,” she tells me.
Rakhila Lakiumong, the BJP candidate from Tuensang Sadar II, is the only one who has fought an election before, though she lost by a small margin the last time. “Changing the existing system is my top priority. Winning the election will be the beginning of change,” she says.
The other two candidates are from the National People’s Party: Wedie U Kronu from Dimapur – III seat and Mangyangpula Chang from the Noksen constituency.
“We don’t remember having so many women candidates,” says the state’s chief electoral officer Abhijit Sen.
Still, the road ahead is bumpy. When asked why more women weren’t fielded, the BJP and NDPP say they didn’t receive more nominations. The ruling Naga People’s Front admits that getting women to win in Naga society is difficult. “If the women have no winnability or mass support, then it doesn’t make sense,” says Sebastian Zumvu.
As the evening clouds gather, Dukru implores her audience one last time. “My symbol is the candle but it is not lit. With your support, we can light it together.” Little does she know that she, and her fellow candidates, have already lit the flame for women in the state.