Friday, 24 March 2017


Negotiating religious and ethnic customs: New Regime of Governance in India

By Snehashish Mitra

Since Narendra Modi led BJP government assumed power of the governing India since 2014, a common theme among the debates have been changing the old settlements of power hierarchy and provoke a new one as an alternative. Financially demonetization has been the major policy initiative which ruffled much of the socio-economic fabric. Two other initiatives of the present regime have created waves of arguments and counter arguments wherein gender, particularly the position of women, has been of prominence – abolition of triple talaq among the Muslim community and 33% Women Reservation in the Urban Local Bodies in Nagaland.

Abiding by the Sharia Laws within the Islam religion, a Muslim male can divorce his wife by uttering the word ‘talaq’ thrice with no boundation of alimony. The issue came to limelight after a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by Shayara Banu from India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, demanding a ban on triple talaq. Shayara herself faced divorce through triple talaq and continuous metal and physical abuse throughout her marital journey. Shayara’s demand has been backed by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) which is spearheading the campaign. In a knee jerk reaction the All India Muslim Personal Board (AIPMB) cited that interference with the Muslim Personal Law is not in accordance with India’s constitutional provision of freedom of religion through Article 25 and Article 26. Since the debate surfaced, AIPMB has organized massive rallies enacting anticipatory protests against any move to alter the existing customs. Arguments and counter arguments have been exchanged over multiple forums. A prominent logic against triple talaq has been that since triple talaq has been abolished in neighboring Islamic nations of Bangladesh and Pakistan, the same should be applied in India as well through a uniform civil code. More about triple talaq later, now let’s turn our attention northeast wards towards Nagaland.

Nagaland has been in a state of political imbroglio since the issue of 33% women reservation in Urban Local Bodies (ULB). The demands of reservation as spearheaded by the Naga Mother’s Association (NMA) and opposed by the apex Naga bodies such as Naga Hoho. It was contended by NMA that women has been poorly represented in the electoral bodies of Nagaland, no women legislator out of the current 60 legislators serves as testament to NMA’s assertion. Initially the traditional Naga bodies cited Article 371(A) wherein any constitutional provision had to be passed by the Nagaland Assembly in order to be enforced within Nagaland. However when the Nagaland Municipal (third amendment) Bill 2016 was passed incorporating the provision of women reservation, the Naga bodies cited that such provisions are incompatible with the Naga customary practices. A feminist critique against such argument is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes as a customary law and the terms are overtly dictated by male dominated ethnic bodies.

The protests against municipal polls forced most of the candidates to withdraw their nominations and ultimately the election was called off. Two protesters were killed during a mob-police street battle and the chief minister was eventually replaced.    

Much has been written, spoken and debated about the merits and demerits of both the issues separately, with a magnifying focus on women rights, justice and freedom of making one’s own choice. My contention is that packing both the issues together will help us in unpacking the collective means of governance in today’s India wherein gender, women to be specific, is utilized as an important means by state (and political party) in order to negotiate with the challenges of governing societies. While the style of intervention however differs in both the cases, women and gender is the new fault line in governance.

Concerning the issue of triple talaq, apart from the judicial mechanisms at play, the right wing ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been particularly vocal against triple talaq. The concern however is unlikely based on sincere concern for the Muslim community and its upliftment. Hindu dominated narratives and rhetorics, anti-Hindu violence practiced by the BJP makes the Muslim community an unlikely faithful en-bloc supporter. It’s a likely strategy of the BJP to create a faultline across the Muslim community through the prism of gender which it would hope would translate into electoral dividends. None of the opposition parties, except Trinamul Congess has vocally opposed the interventions to revoke triple talaq. Therefore there lies a high probability that the BJP would be able to wean away a considerable percentage of votes or at least split them among oppositions and themselves in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh which has a considerable percentage of Muslim voters. Women empowerment, had it been a sincere agenda of the BJP, there were issues it could have taken up among its own support base, that being the Hindus. In recent times women from the Hindu community has been demanding rights of entry in several temples across India. Several courts have either questioned the practice of barring women from temple or banned such prohibition. While claiming to be party with a difference, the BJP has been silent understandably in order not to disrupt the male-Brahmin hegemonic ideas and values. One wonders what would have been the stance of BJP if Raja Rammmohan Roy and Iswarchandra Vidyasagar were active in contemporary era with their respective reformative agendas of women’s empowerment.

The issue in Nagaland can offer a different understanding if we take into account the changing pattern of governance in Northeast India over the last few years wherein the agenda of the Indian state has been to shift from security centric governance to trade centric governance. Such agenda has been manifested through ‘Look & Act East Policy’ which envisages a greater trade and connectivity with India’s eastern neighbouring nations such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam etc. Therefore Northeast India assumes the role of bridging the spaces between mainland India and Southeast Asian nations which would therefore require a peaceful Northeast, which has been politically volatile since India’s independence in 1947. Nagaland has reiterated its own sovereignty through both violent and non-violent means. Women organizations have often take up the role of arbitrating between the state forces and ethnic organizations to ensure peace. As the new subject of peace women plays a prominent role in order to ensure justice in general terms for the Naga people and specifically for Naga women. The reservation of women in the municipal polls can thereby understood as a transformation of the contest over sovereignty into a question of governance. Apart from the state and central government Nagaland is governed by the village councils headed by hereditary male village headman. The centre of power is therefore localized and gives a sense of traditional way of governance. Municipalities, along with its provisions, legislation and taxations, however brings the state closer to the household and facilitates governance and surveillance by the same. Perhaps existence of such dormant realizations sublimates through opposition of women reservation in municipal elections and thereby outright opposition in the name of customary Naga traditions. This unyielding act of not submitting to the ideas of Indian state’s ideas of governance asserts Christian Lund’s observation that ‘in post-colonial political landscapes, governance is not the preserve of the governments. A wide variety of institutional actors are at play in this enterprise, often using the language and idioms of the state’.  

A collective analysis of the both the issue shows how women become an entry point into community and a territory for a political party and the nation state respectively. The issue at stake no doubt carries the legitimacy of justice. Justice however takes a different notion when it’s aligned with the peripheral groups. The Muslim women can also be considered as a peripheral group abiding by the social indicators which negates most of the hopes about progress of the Muslim women in India. On the other hand Nagaland and the Nagas have been territorially peripheral since formation of India. This is not to suggest that the women in the ‘centre’ are duly treated; 33% reservation for women in the national parliament is yet to be passed as a bill. It is therefore between the old subject of labour and the new subject of governance and representation, women have to tread the ensuing path.

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