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13 April 2024

Indian politician quits after protests against giving women stronger voice

By Reuters

The chief minister of India's remote northeastern state of Nagaland has resigned after facing increasing pressure for failing to quell weeks of violent protests by tribal groups opposing a move to give women a stronger political voice.

Former Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang announced plans to allocate one-third of the seats in local urban authorities for women in January, sparking protests by male-dominated indigenous groups who said it goes against their customary laws.

The protests, which began on Jan. 27, have turned violent  with tribal groups torching government vehicles and blocking roads. Two people died and dozens have been injured.

Elections to the state's local bodies scheduled for Feb. 1 were postponed due to the violence and instability.

"I have stepped down from office," Zeliang confirmed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Kohima, the state capital on Monday. He refused to comment on the reason for his resignation.

Even though Nagaland's new chief minister will be sworn in on Wednesday, activists said Zeliang's resignation was a setback in the struggle for Indian women seeking an equal say in shaping policy at local and central level in the country.

Nagaland has never elected a woman legislator. Customary laws in the state also bar women from heading village councils, land ownership and inheritance rights.

India's Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of a petition from the Naga Mothers' Association, the state's leading women's rights group, and directed authorities to reserve seats for women in urban body elections.

"It will be very difficult for the new chief minister," said Monalisa Changkija, a prominent feminist writer.

"On one hand you have the constitutional obligation, yet on the other hand you have the tribal bodies opposing the women reservation issue."

The turmoil in Nagaland is a reflection of wider patriarchal attitudes faced by Indian women in politics.

In the world's largest democracy, women hold only 12 percent of seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament combined, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union - just over half the global average of 23 percent.

A Women's Reservation Bill - which provides for one-third of seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women - was introduced in 1996 and passed by India's upper house in 2010. It has never been ratified in the lower house.