Why Northeast doesn’t need ‘Beti Bachao’


The socio-cultural dynamics of India’s Northeast may be more progressive than the rest of India, but women’s rights here can definitely do with a boost, says Tulika Sarmah. She points to the recent protests in Nagaland against reservation for women in local bodies, to illustrate her point.

Abizarre episode of widespread violence resulting in several deaths and destruction of government properties in Nagaland, shocked the nation this February. The hill state is in the northeastern region of India that boasts of giving equal rights to the womenfolk, unlike other parts of the country. The state was to hold elections to urban local bodies with 33% of seats reserved for women. But influential tribal bodies with men at the helm, were opposed to the move, fuelling street protests, and the state government promptly decided to petition the Union government for exemption from enforcing reservation for women. A few women candidates were even threatened with social boycott if they refused to withdraw nomination. It only exposed the fallacy of some popular myths concerning gender equation in the region. Merely because the indigenous people don’t preach dowry, female foeticide and infanticide does not make their society egalitarian and gender equal. Stray incidents prove that patriarchy rules in overt and covert acts of suppression of women in the tribal societies too. In fact, Nagaland has not elected a single woman to the assembly since the state was created in 1963. The only woman MP (Member of Parliament) to have been elected from the state was some two decades ago.

Debunking myths
That incident throws myths about traditionally empowered women in northeastern India, into disarray. The Nagaland political leaders were against reserving 33% of seats in urban local bodies for women, as per the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution. They actually fear that women enjoying a greater say in all affairs in tribal societies will exert much more pressure on political and economic affairs of the state. As per the 2011 Census, the overall sex ratio at the national level is 940 females for 1,000 males, but the situation in the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Sikkim is better. Incidents of foeticide or infanticide in the region are non-existent. Only people who migrated from the northern and western India and settled in the Northeast follow prejudices of gender biases, which are also negligible if compared to the scale witnessed in Gujarat, Rajasthan or any state from the ‘cow belt’.

In literacy, with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the remaining six northeastern states have a higher literacy rate than the national average. Barring Assam, there is a definite rise of the female literate class in the Northeast societies, which sooner or later is expected to impact the occupational structure as well as peace politics. However, it has to be kept in mind that the region is still marked by a situation of women’s insecurity, materially at least – in spite of having a better track record on many counts. Out of eight states, six have a higher dropout rate for females than the national average. The lack of separate toilets for female children is one reason for girls dropping out of school as more than 78 percent of schools in Manipur, and more than 60 percent of schools in Arunachal Pradesh do not have separate provisions for girls’ toilets.

The Human Development Index (HDI) Report prepared by the Planning Commission of India revealed that gender disparity across the country has declined. But this decline is largely dependent on performances of the Northeast states (except Assam) and the states of the South. Further, the region does not present a homogeneous picture of how women are doing in the time of conflict and peace building. Three states by gender development indices (GDI) are above the national level, implying that women of the region are perhaps subjected to less disparity in terms of life expectancy, educational achievement, social status and access to resources. The gender gap is quite narrow for Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. In Manipur, the prevalence of women’s markets is marked as a cause for the reduced gender gap. It is also to be noted that the health indices for women in the region are better than at the national level, though things remain not very satisfactory due to development bottlenecks resulting from rampant corruption.

Furthermore, northeastern states do not present a uniform structure of women’s social existence. So it is not wise to view the entire region as uniform or homogeneous, which is often practiced in New Delhi in dispensation of duties and allocations towards the region. The blinkered view on the region makes its womenfolk suffer most. But the ground reality is such that the demand for gender specific measures, such as women’s commission, gender budgeting, greater electoral participation of women, and so on, are on the rise. The latest outrage in Nagaland is only a tip of the iceberg of gender politics. The moot question in the national context is; if tribal people are given reservation because of backwardness, then why not the women who suffer greater social discrimination? In the Northeast, women enjoy better social position, but in modern democratic system of governance they still lack the opportunities of self-governing. Apparently, the social structure in Nagaland favours its males and perhaps they fear that giving space to their female counterparts will pose a challenge to tradition – a tradition that excludes women from political decision making. Their tradition however accommodates their women in extinguishing crisis situations like the Nagaland peace process where their women umbrella organisation the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) had an important role to play. The NMA was the first organisation to ask the insurgent outfits to stop bloodshed and come to the negotiation table. So it is unimaginable that the very first attempt by Naga women to secure their political rights under the Indian Constitution is thwarted by their own people.

Henceforth, tribal women in Nagaland and in sizeable part of the region will be groping in the dark after this bizarre episode when, on the other hand, women in the rest of India will have the right to engage themselves in decision making in local governance by virtue of seat reservation. What is tradition if it does not provide equal justice to men and women? Democracy and gender justice cannot stay at the bottom of the social structure, and it is high time that the younger generation of men and women rise up to uplift themselves. It is noticeable in Manipur too that while women were praised for their courage and spirited battles against the might of the state power, whether in British India or Independent India best epitomised in NupiLal Uprising or Kangla Fort Stripping Protest respectively, they are not welcome when it comes to taking part in electoral politics. Irom Sharmila, nicknamed “Iron Lady” for her 16-year long hunger strike in protest against rape and murder of a young woman allegedly by jawans of the Assam Rifles and demanding repeal of the draconian AFSPA that gives immunity to such crimes, was a champion of human rights as long as she was on fasting, becoming a symbol of honour and pride, but was perceived as a sort of a ‘vamp’ when she decided to end her fast and launch a political party with an eye on contesting the assembly elections.

The gamut of discussions above may produce a rationality of giving space for womens’ activities in societies where the weaker sex is traditionally given a respectable place, but denied their political rights. Here, the irony of tradition versus development comes to the fore. Tradition allows the girl child in the tribal societies of the northeastern states a far better space of education, health care and everything a male child in traditional Indian societies enjoy. So the government schemes and propaganda of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ do not hold logic in this region. Rather, the policymakers should focus on the peculiarities of the region – that should not be beti bachao (save the girl child) in education, but should be beheno ko bachao (save the sister, mother, aunty) in politics! When the Panchayati Raj (73rd and 74th Amendment) Act was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi government in 1993, some of the northeastern States like Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya were kept out of the purview of the Act on the plea that these states had vibrant traditional institutions to accommodate their womenfolk. But gender inequalities, at least in the political hierarchy, have been in persistence since long. India is a vast country and its regions are incredibly different from each other, more so in social and cultural sphere, warranting a careful handling by all concerned.


Tulika Sarmah

Tulika Sarmah is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati. A post-graduate in Economics, she specialises as an economic and political analyst for both print and electronic media. She has made a number of documentaries on current affairs for Doordarshan. She has four books to her credit, three poetry collections and a translation of legendary artist Marc Chagall’s autobiography into Assamese.