KOHIMA, Jan 10 : With their tiny frames, traditional attire, ready chuckles, and expert cooking, this group of Naga mothers looks what mothers are expected to. But when the stories emerge — of six-hour journeys into jungles to meet armed groups, of working with the HIVpositive in the early 1990s, of long legal battles — it's clear their idea of a mother's role is one that few women or men would be equal to.
The Naga Mothers Association (NMA) was formed in 1984 in response to the drug and alcohol addiction ravaging Nagaland at the time. "Every Naga tribe had a women's wing, women were strong in the church's activities. But with NMA they came together in an organised manner," says Sano Vamuzo, one of the network's founders and, at 80, an active adviser to NMA.
NMA's constitution mandates that every adult Naga woman is automatically made a member with an annual membership fee of Re 1. Leaders are selected from among members nominated by each of eight Naga tribes.
"In the beginning, the biggest issue affecting homes was drug addiction," says Abei-U Meru, also a founder and now NMA president. "The mothers came together because it was hurting every home." Along with spreading information, NMA started a rehabilitation centre. In the 1990s, it played a pioneering role in tackling HIV and AIDS. In September 1991, recalls founder memberformer president Neidonuo Angami, they visited the HIV-affected in Manipur Jail. "Food was thrown at them, such was the stigma. We were the first to go in and shake the patients' hands."
Through the 1980s and 1990s, NMA addressed the violence that tore Nagaland apart: atrocities by the Indian army against Naga groups and civilians, and then years of fratricidal killings between various Naga factions. "Daily gun battles would see two or three boys shot dead outside our homes. We would bring the shrouds for them," Meru recalls.
NMA made 'Shed No More Blood' its motto — one the women have gone to great lengths to uphold. Every time tensions simmered, they took off in a car on barely-there roads into the jungles of Nagaland and neighbouring states to urge leaders of factions to talk; NMA's only demand that peace be maintained. Ever since the 1997 truce between Naga groups and the Centre, NMA's been active in negotiations to settle the vexed issue of a homeland for all Nagas. But the ceasefire hasn't meant an end to the violence.
In 2010, the NMA helped calm one of the mosttense situations in recent years after two young Nagas were shot dead by the army at Mao town on the Manipur border. "For eight days, villagers refused to claim the bodies, tensions escalated on both sides," says Rosemary Dzuvichu, a university professor and NMA adviser. Stopped by the army at every step, Dzuvichu and Meru pushed through security cordons, shrouded the bodies and took them to the boys' families.
Over the past two years, NMA's been fighting an adversary of a different kind: some men in the Naga tribal and political leadership. In 2006, the Naga government brought in 33% quota for women in urban local bodies. But the state began to waver once the NMA pressured it to hold elections with the quotas. The mothers went to court.
The government said reservation for women would be in conflict with customary law, a position that enrages the NMA. "Customary law says Nagas can't buy and sell land. Does anybody follow that," asks Sarah Nuh, NMA's vice-president. "Culture is not static. It has to change," agrees Lochumbeni Humtsoe, the network's secretary.
When the high court upheld the state's position, NMA moved Supreme Court. The order's expected by the monthend. Balancing the state's tribalism with their ideals is a delicate task that NMA finds itself doing a lot. "Within NMA, we've forged alliances across all tribes. There's unity," says Vamuzo. Often, male leaders ask the women to put their tribe's interests first. Nagaland has never had a woman MLA. Naga Hoho, the apex tribal body, too, doesn't have women. "They expect women to speak only on social issues, not to make decisions," says Nuh.
"They worry women leaders will next go for their MLA seats," laughs Dzuvichu. The older women are sure a new leadership will emerge. "The elders planted the seed very well," says Neidonuo. "Many younger ones ask: Why mothers? Let's change the name to women. I say no. The NMA is for all women, unmarried or married, mothers or not. But the word 'mother' has dignity in Naga society. Everyone respects a mother. The name stays," says Vamuzo.