It was not only a sympathy vote, which in 1984 catapulted Rajiv Gandhi into enjoying a greater majority in the Lok Sabha than even his grandfather or mother. It was the popular expectation of change, no longer in the form of a reversion to the past, but a long-awaited move towards 21st century systems and practices. Unfortunately, the bulk of the personnel and the policies of Rajiv’s government were the same stale concoction from the past. Voters in India have become used to politicians who won their votes on the promise of a forward-looking change, but who revert to past ways and personnel once elected. What concretized the perception that Rajiv was a policy “oldie” in newbie garb, was his response to the Shah Bano decision of the Supreme Court. In an Orwellian act of doublespeak, the bill that took away the financial rights in the divorce of Muslim women was named the “Muslim Women Protection of Rights in Divorce Act 1986”, an edict accepted as legal despite its discriminating between women of different communities in what was often the most consequential decision of their lives. Had the country’s 42-year-old Prime Minister stood up to the handful of fundamentalists who were protesting against the Shah Bano verdict, had Rajiv Gandhi mobilised moderate Muslim opinion (led among others by Arif Mohammad Khan) against those seeking to keep women enchained through a false interpretation of the Quran, even the Bofors scandal would not have been sufficient to drag his popularity down to below Lok Sabha majority levels. From the time he got passed the Muslim Women’s Act and lost the “reformist” label, from the time he brought forward a Defamation Law in 1988 that converted the media into his foe, Rajiv Gandhi inevitably headed towards the electoral disaster of 1989. Sadly, there have been multiple instances where politicians have forfeited the favour of their constituencies by being timid and cautious once elected to high office, rather than energetic in seeking change, not simply around the edges, but at the core of governance practices and systems. Small wonder that as yet India has not witnessed a shift in the governance structure to 21st century practices. There was an expectation in 2014 that Narendra Modi would initiate a full-scope shift to innovative processes in the government at the very start of his term, and those who have faith in the Prime Minister’s commitment to his poll promise of “Minimum Government” are hopeful that a comprehensive reset of the mechanism of governance will be carried out by Modi before the 2019 polls.
Because of his Shah Bano-related surrender to obscurantists, Rajiv Gandhi gave oxygen and worse, respectability, to religious fundamentalists that has proved costly for the public interest. Women in India are often still subjected to discrimination and to neglect. A Prime Minister who asked for votes on the promise of change was expected to stand up for their interests, rather than side with those eager to ensure the continued subordination of women to patriarchal mores. Since the Muslim Women’s Act, three decades have passed and last week’s developments in Nagaland indicate that equality of the sexes is as elusive in 2017 as it was in 1986. Not, of course, that the shabby treatment meted out to women in that state by a group of male supremacists has created any great stir in a media that continues to ignore the Northeast of the country, even when a Chief Minister kills himself and leaves behind a suicide note that remained almost forgotten, until the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stepped forward to treat it with the seriousness which the law mandates for a missive written from the edge of the grave.
In the Nagaland case, the now former Chief Minister, T.R. Zeliang, sought to ensure 33% reservation for women in the forthcoming local body polls. This was opposed, oddly enough, on the grounds that such a policy was “anti-Christian” and “infringed on Naga laws and practices”. It may be remembered that the Shah Bano judgement was opposed by male supremacists as being “anti-Muslim” and “against Muslim laws and practices”. In most parts of the world, the Christian community is easily among the most modern and fair to women, but not, it would seem, in Nagaland. Propelled by anti-equalitarian instincts, self-proclaimed “tribal elders” (naturally all male) began to agitate for the proposed women’s reservation to get shelved, and for the Chief Minister to be forced out. It is extraordinary that Nagaland has never had a lady MLA throughout its existence, a fact that should make the “elders” ashamed, rather than jubilant. Should the state and Central governments remain passive at the way in which justice has been denied in this matter to Naga women, they would be sending a signal that would embolden cultural troglodytes across the country to intensify efforts at propelling society in a reverse direction to 21st century needs.
Indeed, there should be 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha as well, through a constitutional amendment creating two-member constituencies in a third of Parliamentary seats, that would allot the two seats in each such constituency to the male and the female candidate with the largest number of votes. Such a method would do away with the heartburn that would result were any existing Lok Sabha seats to be reserved exclusively for women candidates. Electing more women would add to the quality of debate and improve the atmosphere of the Lok Sabha as well as the state legislatures. As for the Rajya Sabha and the Vidhan Parishads, here too a third of the seats should be made dual member constituencies, with those male and the female candidates getting the highest number of votes being elected to such seats.
The Nagas are a modern people, and most are no longer bound by “tribal elders” who represent values hostile to modernity. Unlike the Shah Bano surrender of 1986, will 2017 witness another climb-down, or justice for women? For that is what should prevail, not merely in Nagaland, but elsewhere, including through abolishing the cruel practice of triple talaq.