Coverage of Naga women’s reservation agitation-Part I

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Media Monitoring | 14/06/2017
How the “national” media covered it. Both Hindu and ToI chose to give more space to violence, disruption, and political intrigue in their limited coverage.
VIKAS KUMAR examines the coverage between January 01 and February 24, 2017

Image from reproduced in Morung (Feb 16


The North East is largely missing from the national consciousness and discourse. Occasionally, insurgent attacks, kidnappings and extortion, violation of human rights by security forces, natural calamities, Republic Day tableaus, elections and political merry-go-rounds, and dignitaries visiting from New Delhi remind the “mainland” of the North East. The region always appears as an unresolved problem – ecological, infrastructural, national security, developmental, or humanitarian. This was evident once again last February when the anti-women’s reservation agitation suddenly pushed Nagaland into the “national” limelight.

After a decade of prevarication, the Nagaland government notified urban local body (ULB) elections a few days before Christmas on December 21, 2016. Starting in the first week of January, civil society organisations (CSOs) rallied against the government’s decision to introduce reservation for women in ULBs. The protestors maintained that women’s reservation was repugnant to Naga culture, Naga customary law, and Article 371(A) of the Constitution that protects Nagaland’s interests within the Union. The agitation continued even after the election was annulled and subsided only after the chief minister was replaced on February 22, 2017.

"Starting in the first week of January, civil society organisations (CSOs) rallied against the government’s decision to introduce reservation for women in ULBs."


This article examines the coverage of the anti-women’s reservation protests in Nagaland in the New Delhi editions of The Times of India (ToI) and The Hindu and the Dimapur-based The Morung Express (Morung, e-paper) and Nagaland Page (Page, web edition). The assessment is restricted to the period between January 01 and February 24, 2017 (except January 18 in case of Morung). The first part of this article provides a background, discusses the coverage of the protests in the “mainland” press, and the assessment of the mainland press in Nagaland’s newspapers. The second part focuses on Nagaland’s newspapers and concludes with comparative remarks.



Over the past 70 years only 15 women have contested 18 out of 696 elections to assembly and parliamentary constituencies (excluding bye-elections) held in Nagaland. They won just one election. Of the 15, only four were fielded by Nagaland-based political parties. The justification for women’s reservation is well-known and would not bear repetition. However, it is worth noting that an argument to delay the implementation of women’s reservation in Nagaland can be (and has been) made broadly on grounds that the existing law was introduced without sufficient deliberation, and indigenous resources (including village level deliberations to reform customary law) to address the lack of women’s representation in decision-making bodies were not fully utilised.

It was hoped that the introduction of the constitutionally mandated 33 per cent reservation in ULBs after sixteen years of struggle duly endorsed by courts, would help address the systemic marginalisation of women in decision-making bodies in Nagaland. However, the anti-reservation agitation, which claimed three lives, forced the state government to declare the election process null and void even though elections were held on February 1 in a few towns. The government has to share part of the blame for the fiasco as it failed to explain to its own legislators, let alone the people, why it suddenly withdrew its longstanding opposition to women’s reservation. The lack of clarity within the government and the ruling coalition was reflected in their reticence in the face of mounting opposition. The first clear statement of the government appeared on February 10, more than a week after the agitation had peaked. The ruling coalition’s chairman, though, had effectively supported the demands of the protestors in a mid-January opinion piece. Later the Minister for School Education & SCERT tried to explain the government’s position days ahead of elections, but failed to directly address the core claims of protestors, who by then had been emboldened by the confused and tame response of the government.

While there was a strong opposition to women’s reservation from entrenched patriarchal traditional institutions and CSOs, incumbent and aspiring male councilors who stood to lose their seats due to women’s reservation, vested interests that have until now benefitted from unrepresentative ULBs, the uncertainty surrounding the Naga peace process, growing literacy coupled with economic stagnation, widespread dissatisfaction with rampant corruption, the competition between the new generation of CSOs and their older cousins, power struggles within the ruling party, and inter- and intra-tribal power struggles also contributed to the unrest. More importantly, the opposition became intractable because competing interest groups used the issue to test/demonstrate their strengths in the run-up to bigger battles, including the next assembly election. When the situation went out of control all the groups conveniently blamed the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), which had doggedly pursued the matter in courts, and the state government for precipitating the crisis.


“Mainland” media

The print edition of The Times of India (ToI) made room for the issue only after the outbreak of violence. It published about 13 items between February 2 and 24, including three front pages news items, a matter of fact piece (They fought for sons & husbands, but now they’re alone, Feb 8), and a problematic editorial to which we will return later (North East fires, Feb 06). Most of the news reports of ToI were filed by its Kohima correspondent. There is a factual inaccuracy in one of the web news items of ToI, which claimed that elections to ULBs “had not taken place in Nagaland for the last 16 years” (Nagaland agitation: 10 things to know, Feb 3).

The Hindu published ten items including four front page news items, opinion pieces by Dimapur-based Nagaland Page’s editor Monalisa Changkija (Pride as well as prejudice, Feb 8) and Shillong Times’ editor Patricia Mukhim (Tradition, democracy and gender, Feb 10), and two editorials (Bowing down to patriarchy, Feb 10 and A battle lost? Feb 23). All but one news items published in The Hindu were sourced from PTI. The only in-house news item dealt with extortion rather than women’s reservation. The paper also published letters to the editor that echoed the newspaper’s position on women’s reservation.

"These newspapers did not pay attention when the problem was building up in January."


Several aspects of the coverage in ToI and Hindu are noteworthy. First of all, as Morung noted, “After weeks of chaos, national media decided to wake up to the unfolding situation in Nagaland” (Feb 07). These newspapers did not pay attention when the problem was building up in January. ToI, though, published a few news items in its web edition that hinted that the situation was not normal.

Even when they made room for the issue, both newspapers chose to give more space to violence, disruption, and political intrigue in their limited coverage. However, political intrigue was mechanically and superficially noted and its complexity was left unexplored. Neither of the newspapers provided a biographical sketch of the new chief minister, who is a well-known scholar and patron of Tenyidie language and a champion of regionalism in Naga politics. Also, they did not note, let alone examine, the diversity of opinions and interests within the state. In ToI, images accompanying news items exclusively dealt with violent protests and arson.

Right Image : Feb 3/ToI and The Hindu , Left Image : Feb 4/The Hindu and ToI


The Hindu and ToI did not try to situate the protests in Nagaland in the larger canvas of developments within the state and across the country. There was no analysis of the recurrent unrest in Nagaland. A few years ago laws governing petroleum exploration were the bone of contention, then two years ago alleged undocumented Bangladeshis attracted the ire of mobs, and this year opposition to women’s reservation rocked the state. The Hindu fleetingly noted that the as yet incomplete peace process served as a backdrop to the agitation, but the interaction between the two was left unspecified and unexplored. The latest episode of the government abandoning the public space to mobs was not examined as part of a longer series of similar events in the state. 

A few examples of possible interstate comparisons are also in order. One, the protests in Nagaland overlapped with Jallikatu protests in Tamil Nadu and the general debate on triple talaq across the country, both of which revealed unease with modern one-size-fits-all laws grounded in contemporary understanding of human and animal rights. Two, the anti-women’s reservation protests in Nagaland could have been compared with protests related to caste-based reservation/laws involving Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat, and Marathas in Maharashtra. Three, the debate over the future of Article 371A of the Constitution, which eventually overshadowed the issue of women’s reservation in Nagaland, reminds of a similar debate under different circumstances in Jammu and Kashmir over Article 370. Not coincidentally, both Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir fall in the ethno-geographical periphery of India.

"Instead of analysing the problem, the newspapers passed clichéd judgments and offered advice from a distance."


Last but not the least, instead of analysing the problem, the newspapers passed clichéd judgments and offered advice from a distance. ToI’s editorial (Feb 06), which reads the problem through the lenses of law and order and development, is noteworthy in this regard. It argued that the people of the region are responsible for their own underdevelopment insofar as they prioritise identity over development and condone or even directly contribute to the breakdown of law and order. ToI did not ask if something more than maintenance of law and order, say, the legitimacy and content of law, might be at stake in North Eastern conflicts; disruptions in law and order might be a people’s means of moderating the pace and scale of their integration with the rest of the world; and the frequent public statement of identity might be ways of reassuring oneself in the middle of a fast changing world over which one has no control.

The Hindu’s formulaic editorials are not as problematic, but they do not move beyond the comfort zone of the mainland media. Its editorials separated by about two weeks do not differ in terms of the depth of analysis/understanding. The first editorial focused on readily available facts and arguments in favour of women’s reservation and questioned the denial of women’s rights under the garb of protecting the state’s autonomy and the fragile peace process. The second editorial embraced wishful thinking and offered gratuitous advice.


The move [to hold ULB elections with women’s reservation], predictably, resulted in strong opposition from tribal groups who sought to use the issue of Naga autonomy as a ploy to resist it . . . Mr. Zeliang should have stuck to his government’s order and sought more public acceptance by rallying the many in favour — in particular, Naga women who would have finally got their constitutionally mandated stake in local governance . . . the NPF-led coalition under the leadership of Mr. Liezietsu has its task cut out. It has to clearly assert its authority as the ruling establishment in the State. It must also focus its energies on the Naga peace process, which remains unresolved despite the reported signing of an accord between the Centre and insurgent groups in 2015. (Feb 23, emphasis added)


Even a cursory familiarity with the ground reality would have revealed that the developments were not at all expected or predictable. The inchoate coalition opposing reservation relied upon a fortuitous alignment of local electoral and non-electoral politics, a sustained disinformation campaign (about the relationship between women’s reservation and Article 371A), and intimidation, to rally public opinion against women’s reservation. The post-facto advice to rally women sounds good. However, ironically, women were themselves drawn into the agitation. In fact, women of some of the most literate tribes were publicly less supportive of reservation – they were underrepresented in the opinion space of newspapers, the few women’s organisations that withdrew from the Nagaland Mothers Association (NMA) represent women of educationally and economically advanced tribes, and later women from these tribes were at the forefront of protests. Likewise the advice to focus on the peace process makes sense under ideal conditions. However, dominated by tribes based in Manipur, the main Naga insurgent group in talks with the Centre is opposed to including Nagas of Nagaland or the Government of Nagaland in the peace process.

Opinion pieces published in The Hindu were authored by the North East’s best known women editors, Monalisa Changkija and Patricia Mukhim. They questioned the exceptionalism of Nagaland, in particular, and tribal communities of the North East, in general and also questioned the conditions under which space was made for customary law in early post-colonial India. However, both overlooked the circumstances that compelled the Union government to accept self-proclaimed islands of exceptionalism in the first place and also the persistent barriers faced by the government in making a counter-narrative acceptable to people in the North East (and, for that matter, in the Kashmir Valley).




Beauty queen Imlibenla Wati offering tea to bandh volunteers

Feb 17/Morung

Women volunteers in traditional mekhela (wraparound)

Feb 15/Morung


The less than satisfactory coverage in the “national” media was criticised in Nagaland’s newspapers. Morung (National Media in Nagaland: Bull in a China Shop, Feb 07) drew attention to the flawed coverage in the “national” media (not including ToI and The Hindu): misspelling of the chief minister’s name, misidentification of the locations of arson, etc. Morung pointed out the absence of “journalistic diligence and fervor in the national media when it comes to reporting the North East” and the reliance upon “telephonic interviews from its bureau outside the state.” Morung approached journalists across the North East to understand the core-periphery divide in the media. Two weeks later, Morung drew attention to a misleading article in Swarajya magazine (Feb 20). Also, several opinion writers and press releases of CSOs criticised the outside media for misrepresenting Nagaland and applying alien standards suited to caste-based societies, to Nagaland.

However, Morung does not hold a uniformly negative perception about the outside media. It reproduced about eight opinion pieces from the “national” media, including three written by Nagaland Page’s editor Monalisa Changkija for The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle, and The Indian Express. (One of Morung’s editorials (Jan 19) also praised Monalisa Changkija’s editorials: “If one wants to make sense of the current imbroglio unfolding before the slated elections to the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in Nagaland State, the best place to go would be the editorials of the Nagaland Page.”) One of the pieces Morung borrowed from Hindustan Times criticised the indifference of the rest of the country toward the problem of women of Nagaland: “nearly a million women are being forcibly shut out of the political sphere in Nagaland, but strangely the rest of India has largely remained nonchalant. This lack of outrage is by itself outrageous” (Feb 7). Morung also carried a clarification of Samudra Gupta Kashyap with regard to the misunderstanding created by a story he wrote for The Indian Express.

Despite being tabloid-sized with fewer pages, Page made room for nine pieces and two other items published outside the state. Unlike Morung which borrowed only from mainland newspapers, Page borrowed from regional newspapers as well. Four hard-hitting opinion pieces by Shillong Times’ editor Patricia Mukhim written for The Hindu, Assam Tribune, andThe Northeast Todaywere the highlight of Page’s borrowed material. Mukhim questioned the misuse of tradition and tribal exceptionalism to block social change and raised difficult questions about the Union government’s understanding of the North East.

The discussion in this part revealed disconnect between the New Delhi-based media and the country’s ethno-geographical margins. The next part examines the coverage of anti-women’s reservation agitation in Nagaland-based newspapers and compares it with the coverage in the “national” media.


Part 2 - Naga papers: lots of comment, little reporting

(Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.)



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