About the Book
When Thangjam Manorama was arrested and killed by the Assam Rifles in July 2004 in Manipur, it unleashed a protest the likes of which no one had witnessed. In some ways this was one of the triggers for this collection-to provide a space to women and men from the "Northeast" to tell us about the issues that confronted them daily, to talk about the pressures, the insecurities, the uncertainties confronting them in an area that has been facing low intensity warfare for decades. It is now many years since that incident but it is an image that has stayed in the mind, transformed into an icon of protest in the popular imagination.
The anger and the frustrations of the Manipuri women who staged that dramatic protest after Manorama's killing have in many ways been vindicated. In fact, each essay in this book brings to mind that troubling image, each contributor points to the Manipuri women, holding them up as a flag of rebellion, of protest, of questioning. Each essay questions issues of nation, identity, of what makes the people of the Northeast so alienated from the "mainstream"-some do it in a straightforward way and some refer to it obliquely. Many of the contributors are writers, academics or activists from the Northeast but there are many who are, like the editor, "outsiders". But "outsiders" who share a passion for the region and an intense desire to see change, to see peace.
This anthology seeks to give voice to the many issues and concerns that have emerged as a result of the last three decades (and more) of conflict and violence that has besieged the seven states of India's Northeast. These conflicts have been intense and protracted and have had devastating and long-term effects on local communities. The impact has been particularly complex for women who have faced greater violations against their persons at the hands of the State's armed forces as well as exploitation by non state actors. All the articles in this volume are intensely personal responses to what is happening in the Northeast, to the changes, the growing asymmetries and fault lines that are causing enormous rifts in the region. The essays, first person accounts and interviews present a picture of what it means to live in the Northeast.
About the Author
PREETI GILL is an editor with Zubaan. She has co-edited (with Uma Chakravarti) Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood. She has presented papers and contributed chapters in various publications on women and conflict in the Northeast and researched and scripted three documentaries on the Brahmaputra and the seven northeastern states of India.
Engaging with the Northeast: The 'outsider' looks 'in'
Why did we think it was trivial
that it would rain every summer,
that nights would be still with sleep
and that the green fern would uncurl
ceaselessly, by the roadside.
Why did we think survival was simple,
that river and field would stand forever
invulnerable, even to the dreams of strangers,
for we knew where the sun lay resting
in the folded silence of the hills.
This summer it rains more than ever.
The footfall of soldiers is drowned and scattered.
In the hidden exchange of news we hear
that weapons are multiplying in the forest.
The jungle is a big eater,
hiding terror in the carnivorous green.
Why did we think ritual gods would survive
deathless in memory,
in trees and stones and the sleep of babies;
Now, when we close our eyes
and cease to believe, god dies.
I would like to begin my introduction with a poem by Mamang Dai, one of the finest poets and writers from the Northeast. The poem is called 'Remembrance' and as you read it you are almost transported to that part of India that is called, for lack of a better term, "the Northeast". A region of green hills and lush valleys, of incessant rain, of dark deep forests, of mighty rivers, a region resonating with a deep silence. A silence that in much of this region now stands shattered by the sound of guns and a host of armed militancies. The poem, to me, embodies all that is the best in that region and all that is slowly dying and changing.
As Mamang says, will the traditional values systems, the ritual gods of these states survive the onslaught of guns, insurgency, counter insurgency, state and non state violence? A whole way of life is dying, slowly melting away into the shadows of the unknown. I feel that the Northeast region is at this sort of cusp-the old is giving way to the new, new beliefs, new dispensations, new power elites, new divisions and, of course, new alignments-it is a very difficult transition; made even more traumatic by internal conflicts and animosities that have been simmering for decades and are now on the boil.
Of course I do not belong to the Northeast and so my gaze is definitely that of the "outsider", an empathetic one who has a huge interest in the region, has travelled there extensively, and has had some experience of working on issues related to conflict and to women. I do not intend this to be an apology for being an outsider but rather as a personal response to the region referred to as the Northeast, and to the many issues of national significance that each one of us outsiders must engage with because we are 'Indian'. In fact I do think that many more outsiders should write about the Northeast, should visit the region, engage with the people and make their opinions and voices heard. But first what is this Northeast? And at what level does the outsider engage with the Northeast and the many complexities that make up the region? A region that is so far away in terms of physical, as well as every other kind of distance, in accessibility, cultural affinity, etc., that it seems distant from the hearts and minds of many Indians with its lush landscape, its local people who, in the eyes of many of their countrywomen and men, look completely different racially.
Actually the label "Northeast" is meaningless and inappropriate-it's a label that scholars and locals object to vociferously. The expression entered the Indian lexicon in 1971. Like other directional place names (e.g. the Far East, the Middle East), "Northeast India" reflects an external and not a local point of view. In fact, I am told that in none of the local languages does any word exist that has this effect of lumping together seven or eight very disparate states, each individual in its cultures, ethnicities, physical contours etc., and certainly very distinct in the nature of its problems. In fact, as Sanjib Baruah points out, "People tend to use the English term even when speaking or writing in a local language. Unlike place names that evoke cultural or historical memory, the term "Northeast India" cannot easily become the emotional focus of a collective political project." Dominant stereotypes about the northeast region persist which often just reinforce the images we have of these very troubled lands which are beautiful but fraught with conflict. And certainly, as Baruah points out,3 Northeast India's troubled post colonial history does not sit very comfortably with the standard narrative of democracy in India.
The North East Region (NER) comprising eight states, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and the latest entrant, Sikkim, has been one of the most continuously militarized regions of India since independence. During the 1990s, in terms of numbers, here has been one soldier for every ten civilians in the region." The common problems of economic underdevelopment, exploitation of natural resources, environmental degradation and changing demographic profiles in the states of the region have provided fertile ground for the growth of local rnilitancies, many of which later turned into popular secessionist movements. (Today, however, it is an acknowledged fact that most of these so-called independist movements no longer enjoy the support of the common people. Their support bases have dwindled with them having degraded into armed groups seeking to extort money and power by various illegitimate means.)
There is a widespread perception of neglect and exploitation by the Centre, New Delhi and local people believe that the 'colonial exploitation' of the wealth of this region has ensured that the region lags behind the national average in terms of development indices. (It is important to point out here that poor governance is as much a reason for underdevelopment as is the atmosphere of conflict and insecurity.) The Shukla Commission which was constituted by the Government of India in 1996 especially to look into the under-development of the region, observed that there are four deficits that confront the states of the Northeasr.P These are: a basic needs deficit, an infrastructural deficit, a resource deficit and a two-way deficit of understanding with the rest of the country. The NER People's Vision 2020 document released in 20086 is much more detailed and speaks of a number of other deficits which need to be addressed if the Northeast is to catch up with the rest of the country in terms of economic growth and development indices. The stress in this document is on all round development of the northeastern states with connectivity, infrastructure development and self-governance being the cornerstones of the development agenda.
There is a sense of deep deprivation which has been the basis of much of the unrest and violence that the region has been witnessing over the last fifty years. Most states have been besieged by three to five decades of armed conflicts which range from demands for self-determination and greater autonomy to assertions of complete secession from India, and a look at the recent past in Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur provides ample evidence of the way this has affected the lives of local populations.
In Assam this unrest was a result of the anti-foreigner movement that lasted for six years and saw much violence unleashed on vulnerable minority populations by numerous insurgent groups that became active in the region on this issue. In Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, secessionist movements became very violent due to a number of reasons, further aggravated by the harsh measures undertaken by the Indian armed security personnel engaged in 'counter insurgency operations' and the imposition of a number of oppressive laws, like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act 1958 (TADA) , National Security Act 1980 (NSA) , Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 (UAP) , and of course the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. All these draconian measures have contributed to aggravating the prevailing ground realities in these volatile states. In Nagaland and the Naga dominated areas of Manipur, the conflict is based on their refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Indian state, while in Mizorarn it was the neglect and apathy of the Indian government's response to the devastating famine of 1959 that led to the Mizo movement for independence. In addition, in Manipur and in Assam, strong ethnic rivalries have played a major part in the violence and insecurity that has engulfed the region. In Tripura the insurgency erupted over land tenancy rights because the land holdings of indigenous tribes have been reduced to less than thirty per cent of the total land. The fear of being swamped by immigrant Bengali settlers, who have come across the border, is a very real one and the splintering and factionalism in the many insurgent groups that 'rule' Tripura has led to much violence in the state making it a very difficult task even to access the villages and get data on the kinds and intensity of the violence that is being unleashed against vulnerable populations. There is large scale migration from rural are~ to cities due to this all-pervasive fear and insecurity.
The dominant popular image of this region is one of countless insurgencies where Indian soldiers are engaged in the defence of the 'nation'. People in the Northeast are different'? physically, culturally, in their religious affiliation etc., and this just underlines the fact of the divide that exists between the region and the rest of the country. It is true that there is a real lack of information about the region in "mainstream" India. There is a lack of knowledge about the ground realities of people's lives and of what is actually happening in many parts of the Northeast. Often the only access to information is through press reports, and the media focuses on specific issues that are often picked up because of their political nature. So you read of bomb blasts in Guwahati or Nagaland, or of counter insurgency measures in Assam or Manipur and so on but not stories about real people, real life situations on the ground, the day to day struggles of people, the issues that engage them. Also, and very importantly, this has further strengthened and cemented the borders and the distances that exist between people of the Northeast and the so called "mainland".
When Thangjam Manorama was arrested and killed by the Assam Rifles in July 2004 in Manipur, it unleashed a protest the likes of which no one had witnessed. In some ways this was one of the triggers for this collection-to provide a space to women and men from the Northeast to tell us about the issues that confront them daily, to talk to us about the pressures, the insecurities, the uncertainties in an area that has been facing low intensity warfare for decades. It is now many years since that incident'' but it is an image that has stayed in the mind, transformed into an icon of protest in the popular imagination. The anger and the frustrations of the Manipuri women who staged that dramatic protest after Manorama's killing have in many ways been vindicated-for how can anyone forget that searing picture? In fact, each essay in this book brings to mind that troubling image, each contributor points to the Manipuri women, holding them up as a flag of rebellion, of protest, of questioning. Each essay looks at issues of the nation, of identity, of what makes the people of the Northeast so alienated from the "mainstream"-some do it in a straightforward way and some refer to it obliquely. Many of the contributors are writers, academics or activists from the Northeast but there are many who are like me-s-oursiders. But we share a passion for the region and an intense desire to see change, to see peace. The volume has not been divided into sections but the pieces are all intensely personal responses to what is happening in the Northeast, to the changes, the growing asymrnetries and faultlines and it is in this light that I would like the different pieces to be looked at. They talk of a host of issues, of troubling images and yet do come together into presenting us with a sort of composite picture of what it means to live in the Northeast.
A second trigger for me personally was a visit to Nagaland a couple of years ago when, in the course of my travels through some Chakesang villages close to Kohima, I met many people whose ordinary, everyday lives had been changed irrevocably by what had happened in the state. I learnt that each family in N agaland has a story to tell, of personal loss, of bereavement, of physical and emotional trauma. Simply listening to their stories was a humbling experience because for many of them it was the very first time that anyone actually listened to them, actually heard their stories. Many of these are stories that the world outside does not know, has not heard, that have been silenced and marginalized. If indeed documentation does work as political intervention, then these are stories that we must hear so that there is mutual understanding and respect among communities. Perhaps this volume will help in mapping some of the trauma and tragedy of an entire region and to open up the region, in howsoever limited a manner, to the outsider. Perhaps it will work like a widening gyre, a spiral that is opening up and revealing stories and experiences of a little known region.
Analysts say war and civil conflict can be devastating to social and cultural forms because they impinge at the level of the whole society and every person who has survived conflict is aware of the wide ranging ramifications that this atmosphere of violence and insecuriry has on them. It takes people and sociery a long time to come to terms with what has happened! is happening around them. Let me recount here a story that a young woman whom I met in Dimapur told me it. It is a story that has stayed with me. One day, when their village was being bombed by the Indian Airforce, this little girl, a mere baby was hidden away in the hollow of a tree by her mother. The mother was fleeing from the burning village and as she ran she hid her precious bundle inside a tree thinking she would come and retrieve her baby once it was safe. It was three days before she could do so. As the child lay alone in the dark, hungry and frightened, waiting for her mother, what must she have thought of? What kind of impact would this have had on her young mind? The incident haunted her and as soon as she was able she decided to join the Naga National Front of which her father too was a part. It was only much later that she learnt to come to terms with these terrible memories, learnt forgiveness and turned to the church, and made her place with the violent past she had lived through.
This anthology has been a long time in the making, for various reasons among which are the distances, the poor communication network, the rapidly changing political landscape and new developments everyday, making contributors return again and again to their articles. For me, as the editor of this volume, putting it together has been a process of constant learning-learning about little known histories and of peoples from the margins, the frontiers-with all the attendant complexities and insecurities that that implies. As publishers and as feminist publishers it is important that we engage with these histories, with these voices from the 'margins'. It is for all these reasons that this is an important publication for it is looking at the experience of conflict that both women and men have been facing in this region. Women, of course, are even more vulnerable than men at such times with greater restrictions placed on them, their mobility, their access to health, education, livelihood, employment, even leisure. When we envisaged this volume it was all of these issues that we set out to explore through the telling of personal stories, or personal perspectives of a political situation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have contributed to this volume.
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