Nagaland: Where She Is Not Scared

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What is it that makes Nagaland the safest place in India for women? We travel to the northeastern state and find that reality doesn’t always tally with statistics

Aakki Dimasa seems quite the life of a party. A 28-year-old musician from Dimapur, the commercial nerve centre of Nagaland, he can fire up a crowd of giggly teenyboppers and reserved grownups with his perky singalongs. On this cold December night, he has magically whooshed in to bedazzle a karaoke stall in a rollicking street market along the central square of Dimapur. It’s a road that runs behind ruins of the 13th century Dimasa- Kachari kingdom, and is peppered with small stores and clandestine booze joints. Jaunty and self-assured in a Fedora-like hat and a well-fitting beige jacket, Aakki regales a growing posse of young boys and girls—squished around the computer monitor—with a popular Bappi Lahiri number, sometimes leavened with Nagamese. No one seems to be ill-at-ease or jostling for space. The crowd is singing their hearts out, even with a patchy internet connection fouling up the lyrics on YouTube—with Aakki’s liquid movements in the spotlight. He has the air of a local celebrity about him.

I start to relax, watching the frenzy that Aakki seems to have stirred around me on my first night in Dimapur—otherwise one of vacant streets, closed shops and expressionless commuters even at 9 pm. I later approach Aakki to learn more about him; he is strolling around with a bunch of thuggish looking men. I greet Aakki with a cheery ‘hello’, and his companions start joining us one by one.

Aakki tells me that he’s with a band called We Five Brothers, which mostly performs Hindi songs. “I am headed to a party. Do you want to join us?” he asks. I politely refuse, saying I’m too tired, and regret it almost instantly. What am I scared of? Isn’t Nagaland India’s safest state for women?

As I discover, it’s true—somewhat.

‘Many women in more civilised parts of India may well envy the women of the Naga hills their high status and their free and happy life; and if you measure the cultural level of a people by the social position and personal freedom of its women, you will think twice before looking down on the Nagas as ‘savages’,’ wrote the Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf in 1939. Known for his formidable fieldwork in Northeast India, his observations have an echo in the last annual report compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau on ‘Crime in India’, 2014, published in July 2015. It shows Nagaland as the safest state for women in India—with the lowest number of cases reported under ‘Crimes against Women’, at 67 in 2014, while the countrywide total of such cases for the year stood at 337,922. The state has an estimated female population of over 1.1 million, and so, by NCRB records, a crime rate against women of just six per 100,000 people. This makes it the only state with a single digit on this score. The all-India average is 56.3. Needless to say, Delhi has the highest such crime rate: at 169.1.

While statistics rarely offer a real picture of ground reality, failing to account fully for cases of rape, domestic violence, workplace harassment, incest, sex trafficking, kidnapping and abduction that go unreported in patriarchal societies, and often more so in places ravaged by years of insurgency, army excesses and fratricidal clashes, Nagaland still seems to stand out from other states. Young women in Nagaland today typically look puzzled when you ask them to recount instances of eve-teasing or stalking. Testimonies like “Naga women don’t know what’s a pepper spray”, “Naga society is a very open society” or “There is no moral policing in Nagaland” come thick and fast from middle-aged mothers and migrant workers to punkish college kids and elderly village chieftains.

One would be hard pressed to find a single woman who can readily attest to being indecently stared at because of her attire. And one should not be too surprised to find a female vegetable vendor reading the Nagaland Post while selling her wares early in the morning, or a 19-year-old college student instinctively bending down to tie his girlfriend’s shoe laces in broad daylight, or a woman with seven children saying, “Women should marry by 35 and men by 40.”

Both Gracy Ayee and Juliana Medom work as coordinators at the State Resource Centre for Women in Nagaland, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Passionate about women’s empowerment, this Thelma-and-Louise, men-be-damned-like duo decided to return to Nagaland after doing Master’s degrees at premier institutes in Mumbai and Delhi. In a newly opened cafeteria in Kohima town, they recount episodes of rape and sexual harassment in Nagaland like long-forgotten folk tales even as I receive one-line news updates on my phone of a minor’s gang-rape in Delhi. They always add a silver lining to the grisly incidents they describe. Like how in August last year, when a 60-year- old farmer was raped by a youth in a paddy field, most of Kohima turned out in a procession to protest the crime and shame the offender. Or how one night when a girl in the middle of a deserted road was lunged at by a taxi driver, another man materialised from a passing Bolero to thrash and chase away the predator. “This is the irony of our situation here in Nagaland. It’s not that women are completely safe. But we all know that there is a hero somewhere, that we are more likely to be lucky.”

Gracy illustrates this explanation with the image of a traditional Angami couple: a fierce-looking, rock-sturdy warrior wielding a dao (machete) standing before his wife who is saddled with a bamboo basket filled with vegetables and firewood on one shoulder and a baby strapped onto the other. “So that the man can immediately spring to action in the face of an oncoming threat to his family,” says Gracy with a sardonic grin.

“It’s only families who are really tough on you in Nagaland,” quips Nenghoilhing Hangsing, who was crowned Miss Nagaland 2015 on 9 December. This slim 20-year-old is a head-turner alright,but no flimsy beauty pageant can really appreciate her pluck and lack of self-consciousness. When she talks, she could just as well be speaking for the countless young Naga women who are sick of a dominant male figure-head in the family. “My grandmother was powerless when her husband was alive. Now she is voiceless with her elder sons. The male is so dominant, and I hate that idea... it is really uncivilised. [The proof of this is that] my mother also left,” says Hangsing with equal measures of delicacy and vehemence. Her parents split up last year and she seems to love how she needs to be the most responsible one among four siblings. In one of the qualifying rounds of the contest she won, she had proudly spoken of her father being her greatest influence, even though he was never the best one. “He was a very very disturbing dad... all those things he made me feel,” she says, “I decided I will never be that bitter person, and that I will be everything that he is not. I think [the jury] really liked this answer… it gave me my confidence back.”

Hangsing compares her fraught relationship with her father with that of hers with geometry in school: she hates both of them far too much to let them overpower her. Cheeky and vivacious, Hangsing loves to imitate accents, hates green tea, says she is easily attracted to non-Naga men, and wants to become an IPS officer. But her restive spirit is now starved of excitement in safe old Nagaland. When she told her father she wanted to go to Delhi for her BA, he was furious. “He was like, ‘Do you know how they treat women there? Do you know how Naga people are treated there?’ And I told him, ‘If I were to choose any place in India to study, it would be Delhi. Because Delhi is the most dangerous place and I like to challenge myself. I’d like to see myself go there and just survive and tell people it’s not as bad as you think.”

In Kohima, the cool, hilly and picturesque capital of Nagaland, women literally own the streets. They are everywhere, right from fronting small retails stores to selling pineapples along the highway, from holding fort as traffic cops to handing out parking challaans to sundry car owners and taxi drivers. Girls scurry to school in uniforms swishing above the knee in the December chill, and mothers with groceries cross the streets in the faint evening light even as an Army vehicle rushes past with the barrel of a gun sticking out from its moon roof.

Zakielhounuo Tepa, 40, who claims to be the state’s first female taxi driver, plies her van from Kohima to St Joseph’s College in Jakhama. She had to get rid of the first driver she hired for her taxi because of his alcohol addiction. “He would always refuse to turn over the money earned. So I decided to become a taxi driver myself . It is better not to depend on anyone. Men are mostly alcoholics. Well, not all are bad. But still. I decided not to marry, because who knows, they will drink and create a needless fuss,” she says, hinting at the rampant alcohol abuse in the officially dry state of Nagaland.

Tepa now lives with her sister in a rented house on a monthly income of Rs 25,000. She leaves her house alone in her taxi every morning at 3 am to collect tokens to ply routes from a taxi stand some 2 km away. Often, she comes back home to clean her car and start work at 7 am. She enjoys ferrying boys and girls to college, and mothers are quite fond of her. “I don’t drive rough like some men do,” she says with pride. She has never had to face troublesome men on duty in her two years as a taxi driver, she claims. Later I find a short documentary titled Kindle Tales—brought out on the eve of International Women’s Day 2015 by the Nagaland State Social Welfare Board—in which Tepa admits to being made fun of sometimes, with people passing snide remarks about how this isn’t a woman’s job, people she dismisses as ignorant and foolish.

In much the same way, 22-year-old Mhasileno Sokrano, Nagaland’s ‘first bus conductor’, complains about how men sometimes refuse to pay the fare and are often sloshed and foul-mouthed. There are many more, however, who do support her choice of career, she adds.

“You can walk very safely in the streets of Nagaland without worrying that a Naga boy would come, try to touch your breasts or pinch your bum or hiss catcalls,” says Monalisa Changkija, editor, proprietor and publisher of a daily called Nagaland Page, “That doesn’t happen in Naga society. Our boys just don’t do that. There has never been any segregation of the sexes in schools or play-fields. But patriarchy comes out in the family. It’s amazing how paradoxical and contradictory it is that a Naga boy will protect you in the streets and defend your ‘honour’, but the same boy will have no problems bashing up his wife and sister at home.” Back in the 1990s, she wrote fearlessly on human rights violations by the Indian Army, especially of women. Changkija feels that most women’s groups and NGOs in the state are not really addressing the real issues of patriarchy. Her own poems, however, are taught at universities in Nagaland. Feisty and searing, gender inequality figures in most of them. Sample this:

‘I see it nowhere written
that your unironed shirts
deserve my attention
more than my flying lessons

While Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution grants substantive rights to Nagas to practise and uphold their unique customs and traditions, it has also proven to be a big stumbling block for genuine women’s empowerment in the state. The amendment has prevented the state from implementing 33 per cent reservation for women in municipal and town councils and from granting them the right to inherit ancestral property. The 17 recognised tribes in Nagaland have their own laws and customs that govern daily life. Disputes and offences, especially in the villages, are adjudicated upon by an elaborate network of village councils and customary courts. Reading some clauses related to marriage, divorce and rape in the customary ‘rule-book’ of the Angami tribe, for example, can tear apart notions of gender equality. They sound like the words of a khap panchayat. Take this law on divorce, for instance: ‘If a woman while living with her husband gets involved in an extramarital affair, or falls in love with another man, there is nothing wrong for the husband to mishandle her. As the wife has unlawfully humiliated her husband, she can be divorced without being given her shares. The husband retains all the properties including her basket etc that she brought in at the time of her wedding. The only thing given to her is her cloth to cover her nakedness.’ Of course, this is not quite how divorce cases are generally settled in Nagaland, what with educated people preferring constitutional courts, but the fact that they exist is reason enough to be anxious about gender justice in the state.

Khunyu Rino is the head ‘Dobashi’ of the customary court attached to the office of the deputy commissioner in Kohima. A genial grandfather, the 66-year-old invites me to his village along National Highway 29 where he lives in a big house with his family of 12—his wife, daughter and nine sons—opposite a building housing the Indian Reserve Battalion. It is here, among pots and pans and a pig farm, that all the clichés of a traditional Naga woman come alive. Yes, the two women in this lovely, gregarious family of 12 enjoy great respect and are given the pride of place in family matters. Kerileshienuo Rino, the 37-year-old daughter who dropped out of school in the 4th grade and runs her own nursery, will never be married off without her consent. Khunyo has great confidence in his wife and doesn’t interfere in her day-to-day home management. But the two women are also the busiest members of the family. They wake up before dawn to fetch water. They then collect firewood, pound rice, feed the family members and the domestic animals, head to the fields and return with their bamboo baskets filled with vegetables, spin yarn for weaving, cook the evening meal, brew rice beer and then light a bonfire for a warm round of the legendary Naga beer in the family kitchen. Dare Khunyo ever mistreat his 64-year-old wife—he would be excommunicated from the village by her clansmen. The women here are certainly well protected.

It is only when I catch hold of Kerileshienuo tending to her germaniums, away from the doting gaze of her father, that she tells me how she wants to open a small store, even though her brothers have promised that they will take care of her come rain or shine. “I try not to ask for money. I try to sustain myself with whatever I can cobble from selling flowers and vegetables. But every time I ask my father for a little extra, he gets angry. He would be like, ‘You have everything you need, why are you being so demanding?’”

In the crowded walkways of Kohima, I think I see an older version of Kerileshienuo. Avole Sakhru cuts the most adorable picture with her round face, limpid eyes and a ready smile. Dressed in a traditional skirt with a buttoned-up sweater and woollen cap, one can never guess the acute hardship that is her daily reality. A vegetable vendor by profession, Sakhru is also a mother of two girls and three sons. Her eldest child is a graduate from Kohima Government College and is unemployed. Her unwell husband too doesn’t do any work. She comes in at 6 in the morning and finds her fresh stock of water snails, frogs, fish, crabs and other organic vegetables offloaded by her retailer in the spot where she sits every day. After working for 12 hours, she shares a cab with other women vendors to go home, leaving unsold vegetables in the same place. “Nobody steals any vegetables lying around in the open all through the night,” she remarks. She has to pay several Naga insurgent factions an annual “tax” of Rs 500, apart from Rs 150 in rent and municipal taxes. With a daily take-home of Rs 500, she is the sole breadwinner of her family and has never faced any harassment in her work area. On most days, you would find her chirpily haggling with customers. “I like coming here,” she says, handing out a bag full of frogs to a waiting customer.

With an increasing number of assertive, well educated, professional women, many of whom are opting to stay single or have smaller families, the traditional framework of Naga society is being upended. Rosemary Dzuvichu, a prominent Naga social activist and advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association (famous for its mediation between the government and Naga insurgents), firmly believes that crimes against women in the state have gone up, even though there are many naysayers. “The armed conflict coupled with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has taken its toll on women and young girls, including children. Most crimes go unreported, and even if registered or taken up in the courts, they have not seen justice. The fact that the previous government had taken a decision to do away with fast track courts in the state instead of setting up more [of them] made it a legal matter in the light of the Supreme Court order.”

Nino Iralu, a member secretary of Nagaland State Legal Services Authority, argues against fast track courts. “We get a total of 3,000 cases of crime, out of which only 100 to 200 are more than five years old to warrant the setting up of fast track courts. And there are hardly any women- related cases...”

Later that night, I see a friend request notification from Aakki Dimasa on my phone. I immediately accept. With less than 50 friends and no weblinks or YouTube videos of his band, I realise that he hasn’t quite electrified the virtual world. I wonder how many more interesting night owls I would have encountered in Dimapur had I hopped along with Aakki into the witching hour. I curse my cagey old self, my spontaneity dulled by years of sinking and surviving in other Indian metros. If not anything else, I would have been safe with Aakki and his ‘brothers’. For the fault lines clearly run somewhere else.