Northeast: Seven Sisters, one brother and a step mother


Zubaan, a publication house, organises a deliberation on struggle, survival and hope of India’s forgotten lands through “Cultures of Peace: Festival of Northeast”

The first day of the Festival of Northeast happened to be a full day of interactive sessions involving some of the brightest minds of the eight northeastern states of India namely Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and Sikkim. Though Sikkim identifies more with issues uncommon to the rest of the seven sisters as the northeastern states are referred to, nevertheless the development of Sikkim is very much tied to the fate of northeast. The reasons are its geographical location, the passage of trade routes and cultural similarities. The festival did find the mention of Sikkim and the book stalls sold stories of Lepchas from Sikkim, the overwhelming theme of the festival found more echo with the stereotypical image of northeast as a zone of conflict and policies of successive government in the New Delhi.

Subir Bhaumi and Home Secretary GK Pillai among the audience

Subir Bhaumi and Home Secretary GK Pillai among the audience

Veterans like Sanjoy Hazarika, writer and journalist from Assam and Subir Bhaumik, BBC journalist from Tripura and many scholars, authors and journalists of northeast living across India shared their views amid a distinguished audience which included Padma Sri Awardees, lecturers, students and even Home Secretary G K Pillai.

The Programme:

Day One (January 28, 2011)

Session One:

Writing Peace, Writing Violence

For the last six decades and more parts of the northeast have been caught in a spiral of political violence – violence against the Indian State, violence between factions of militant groups – which has spilled over from the public arena into the private. Guns now have the status of toys – even children are familiar with their shape and size, and many of the younger generation have grown up knowing violence as the only constant in their lives. Without exception, writers and cultural activists have responded to the violence around with an extraordinary flowering of creativity. In this session writers, poets, journalists from the different northeastern states respond to the questions: Do situations of ongoing conflict motivate writers to write for peace? Can literature and culture play a proactive role in bringing about peace? Can they act as political tools to mitigate violence? What role, if any, do writers themselves play? How do writers deal with the difficult issue of writing and representing violence without falling into the trap of creating a pornography of violence? How do they counter popular stereotypes presented in the media of the northeast to the mainland and of the ‘outsiders’ to the northeast? What are the themes that figure most in writing from the region?

SPEAKERS: Subir Bhowmik, Temsula Ao, Arupa Kalita, Ananya Guha, Aruni Kashyap, Pradip Panjoubam, Indrani Raimedhi
Moderator: Nilanjana Roy

Subir Bhaumik, Sanjoy Hazarika and Meenakshi Ganguly at the Festivalo of Northeast

Subir Bhaumik, Sanjoy Hazarika and Meenakshi Ganguly at the Festivalo of Northeast


Inauguration of Exhibition entitled SEVEN SISTERS AND THE CITY by Uzma Mohsin

Session Two:

The Words to Say it

The different northeastern states have rich and multiple linguistic and cultural histories. As well, they have high levels of literacy, and, in many places, a familiarity with English as a language. This session asks how writers choose their various literary and cultural forms of expression – oral narratives, poetry, theatre, music. Do they serve similar or different purposes? How and why has the English language become the dominant medium of expression? Do the local/indigenous languages still have a role to play? Is the younger generation experimenting with new form and content? What sorts of themes are younger writers and poets looking at? Is the old writing style relevant in the current context? Is there are a movement away from oral narratives?How are younger writers using or are they using the rich inheritance of myths and legends and folktales?
SPEAKERS: Mamang Dai, Mitra Phukan, Bijoya Sawian, Reeta Chowdhury, Mona Zote, Omar Sharif
Moderator: Preeti Gill

Session Three:

Crossing Borders

For many years, with the northeast, as with Kashmir, the media in what in the northeast is called ‘mainland’ India, have paid scant attention to the region, seeing it somehow as belonging to the periphery. Equally, northeastern writers have not figured much – until recently – in the literary world (more specifically the English literary world) of ‘mainland’ India. In recent years, this has begun to change. How successful has the effort to create space in ‘mainland’ India been for writing from the Northeast? Equally importantly, is this literature crossing state borders within the region itself? What has been the experience if this has already been done? How far can translations, literary fests and conferences contribute to this?

Another interesting question in this context might be: If the Northeast has been ‘relegated’ to the ‘periphery’ and the person from the northeast faces a sort of stereotyping (something that we read about in media reports, in conversations etc.) is there also a stereotyping of the ‘outsider’ in the literature of the region? How does the northeast perceive the immigrant outsider who has settled in the states of the northeast?

SPEAKERS: Monalisa Chakija, Udippana Goswami, Aruni Kashyap, Triveni Mathur, Rajesh Dev, Rupa Chinai, Dhiren Sadokpam
Moderator: Uma Chakravarti

Session Four

Stories from a War Zone

For several years, parts of the northeast have been under the infamous and draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The presence of the army is ubiquitous, and security forces are everywhere. Yet it is important to ask: What is security? Does the presence of weapons create a sense of safety? What purpose does the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act serve? What would repealing it mean? How does one work towards mitigating violence, both state-driven and due to factionalism? What does the prolonged presence of armed forces mean for the ordinary citizen? Does security get identified with its what would normally be its opposite – the weapon, the soldier? In this session, writers present their views on this by speaking on the issue or reading from their works.

SPEAKERS: Subir Bhowmik, Sanjoy Hazarika, Meenakshi Ganguly, Deepti Priya Mehrotra, Utpal Borpujari, Pradeep Panjoubam
Moderator: Urvashi Butalia

Day Two (January 29, 2011)

CONFRONTING THE PAST, IMAGINING THE FUTURE

Speakers: Sanjoy Hazarika, Laxmi Murthy

This session focuses on the difficult question of looking at the past, and imagining the future. For the northeast, a region with enormous linguistic, ethnic and political diversity, and yet with many commonalities of geographies, of resources, of marginalization, what does, or what can, the future hold? Is it at all possible to imagine the region as a federation of states, given the geographical contiguity and the physical ‘separateness’ of the region? Or are the differences too wide and too deep? If one question is how the northeastern states may imagine themselves as a region, another is how the northeast sees its future vis a vis the ‘mainland’, i.e. India. Does the past have any lessons to offer in this respect?

Further, the northeastern states have another, unspoken, unwritten history in common, and that is the history of their women. When Th. Manorama was arrested and killed by the Assam Rifles in July 2004 in Manipur, her death unleashed a protest the like of which has not been seen in India in recent times. Several years after the event, images of the protest still remain iconic, inspiring men and women not only in the northeast but across the length and breadth of the country. The fast unto death undertaken by another young Manipuri woman Irom Sharmila is into its tenth year and this is another powerful image that has similarly seized the popular imagination across the region. In both instances the women have clearly challenged the militarization and the violence they face as ordinary citizens. A writer – once again a woman – has been appointed as an interlocutor to negotiate a dialogue between the ULFA and the Indian government. Assam offers a long history of women’s groups – the mahila samitis – who have not only played a crucial role in maintaining peace, but have also been active in the economic fiels, as have the women of Manipur and Nagaland (instances of Naga Mothers efforts at peace building are well known and documented). In working for economic development, in sustaining peace on the ground, how have the women of the northeast contributed to preparing for the future? In this session we hope to ask a question that is seldom posed and that is: what will the future hold for the women of the northeast? Will the years of struggle and conflict yield a society in which women have a central place, in which they are considered equal citizens?

We ask one ‘insider’ and one ‘outsider’ to look at these questions and tell us what future they imagine for the Northeast. The session will have a generous amount of time for discussion and questions.

4 pm—5.30 pm

Readings from Irom Sharmila’s Fragrance of Peace by Haripriya Soibam and Seram Rojesh

Performance by Rojio Usham based on Irom Sharmila’s poetry

Readings by creative writers and poets from the Northeast

Music by Imphal Talkies led by Akhu

6.30 pm –8.30 pm
MUSIC CONCERT by SOULMATE from Shillong
Sale of books on the northeast near the Amphitheatre on 28th and 29th

Exhibition of Photographs entitled Seven Sisters and the City by Uzma Mohsin at the Convention Hall Foyer from 28th to 31 st January

Le Mashale (A women with torch), Performance on Irom Sharmila at the Fest

Le Mashale (A women with torch), Performance on Irom Sharmila at the Fest

It would take a series of articles to write everything discussed during the Festival of Northeast that marked twenty five years of feminist writing in Indian and expressed solidarity with ten years of Irom Sharmila’s fast on Nov. 4, 2010. It was on 4th November 2000 when Irom had started her fast.

In known political history of the world, there is no other example of any similar struggle. Nor is there any parallel of any government of a democracy being so insensitive to its own people. The first day ended with the enactment of a solo play “Le Mashale” (A woman with torch) depicting condemnable role of Indian Army in violating the sanctity of womanhood under the controversial AFSPA (Armed Force Special Powers Act).

An hour from now the today’s session is going to start. Will you remain sitting even now?

Related Story:  Cultures of Peace: Festival of North East

 

Comment



  1. Desi Coutinho

    I’ve been in Imphal since 17th trying to see Sharmila. As arranging a meeting has its difficulties I have been applying for permission to meet her since end of May last year I am extending my stay at Imphal until March 10. One way or another I shall meet her. I have downloaded this page to my desktop and I shall try and leave her with my computer. She is freed for two days each year on some strange technicality which the Indian Legal system then believes justifies her imprisonment without trial for over ten years. But then the Indian Legal system believes AF(SP)A does not violate the Constitution. If women like Thangjam Manorama can be gangraped and murdered by Indian paramilitaries and the Malom ten massacred and the CBI don’t have the right to investigate then Mother India can murder her children in the North East within its current Constitution. She is a brave simple woman. As you will know from her poetry. Yours is one of the web pages I have downloaded for her to view. Once I leave this hotel I doubt she will have any opportunity to websurf even if they don’t confiscate the computer.

  2. vibha

    A commendable effors and an opportunity to buy books on the northeast. . I attended the session on the second day. very powerful poetry from Northeast especially from the younger generation. The podium discussions were too short and unfortunately rhetorical. What I couldn’t understand was a complete lack of circulation of information– at the northeast centre at JNU — hardly anyone knew of this interesting event– any publicity was only through a word of mouth! Are scholars and students not part of any discussion on NE? Shouldn’t there be some kind of co-ordination between different organisations working on Northeastern issues?

    The word of mouth did evntually get around as was evident at the concert in the evening which attracted a big crowd — including many students from northeast and also many foreign tourists who were happy to attend a free concert by a popular band from Meghalaya.

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