Mention the Indian Northeast and, for most, some searing images immediately come to mind. One of those, perhaps, is of a group of nude women protestors in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Manipur, challenging the soldiers to rape them; of gun-toting militants engaging in negotiations with the ‘oppressive Indian government’; or of Irom Sharmila, a spare lady with curls, a resolute will and an ever-present nasal tube, through which she is force-fed as she continues her decade-long fast demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. Potent images all – but just how accurate, or all-encompassing, are they?
The Peripheral Centre, an anthology of 26 voices comprising academics, activists and writers, gives the reader a glimpse of a Northeast that is endowed with natural bounty but also ravaged by years of insurgency – a periphery that could never become part of the core architecture of the country. Many of the writings in this collection are by people who have experienced violent conflict in one form or another, some on an ongoing basis. Even against this emotional backdrop the essays are shorn of excess verbiage, communicating ideas that are clearly very deeply felt.
The anthology functions like a window, attempting to bridge the gap between mainland India and the Northeast. This includes explorations by both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, which constitutes a central split for many of the ongoing conflicts in the region. Here, the insiders try to look out of the window and explain the jagged faultlines around which they have been living; the outsiders look in and try to form their own understanding of a region that is not only ghettoised but has often been seen as a monolith. The Northeast is comprised of eight diverse states that are clubbed together as one homogeneous region; in turn, that area is often stereotyped as conflict-torn, unsafe and underdeveloped by the Indian ‘mainstream’, including by the media and policymakers. Yet such a view fails to understand that each of these states has its own distinctive culture, in its myriad facets, as well as its own problems.
While the book might not offer a roadmap for the future, it does provide important space to both insiders and outsiders to introspect and discuss their passion and vision for the states of the Northeast. The virtue of being an outsider is one that Preeti Gill, an editor with the Delhi-based publisher Zubaan, values without sentimentalisation. ‘I do not intend this to be an apology for being an outsider,’ she writes, ‘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”.’
Journalists who have covered the Northeast are in a unique position to trace the delicate parallels between the personal and the external, and to explore the intersections between lives and worlds. Among these stand out memories of the Assam upheaval against the supposed influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh during the late 1970s, and the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983, one of the worst pogroms in independent India. Insider journalist Sanjoy Hazarika’s points out that the massacre was in many ways way a turning point for the Northeast, as it epitomised the ‘growing divide in Assam, between settlers and the “indigenous”, between tribals and non-tribals, between one tribe and another, between those of one religious faith, not to speak of political ideology, and another.’
Of course, emotions run high regardless of one’s status as a local or non-local. The agony of losing a dear one is discussed at length by ‘outsider’ Sumita Ghose, the wife of Sanjoy Ghose, who was abducted and killed by members of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 1997. In reflecting on the vicious cycle of violence and how ordinary people are often forced to pay the price of conflict, Sumita tells a surprisingly hopeful story of how individuals are able to rebuild their lives, retain their humanity, and refuse to fall prey to acrimony and recrimination. Ghose writes that she is learning, with great difficulty, the need to reject negative feelings, that she is no longer angry with ULFA or with the people of Assam. ‘It has been a cleansing of sorts,’ she writes, ‘of discarding negative emotions that can only hinder, never help.’
In the eyes of many, the militarisation of the Northeast has been further fuelled by the Indian state itself. Much of this ire is focused on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, which for decades has been used by the state forces to act with impunity. In a provocative piece, the well-known Northeast scholar Sanjib Baruah personally critiques Ajai Sahni, the head of a New Delhi-based security think tank called the Institute for Conflict Management. Baruah takes Sahni (who is not included in this volume) to task for his professed belief that the debate over the AFSPA has been ‘emotionally charged’; and for suggesting that as long as there are counter-insurgency operations, the AFSPA or a similar law will be ‘indispensable’. In the past, Sahni has suggested that without such an ‘enabling’ law that ‘confers necessary powers of search, seizure, arrest and engagement’, the army cannot be engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Baruah, on the other hand, stresses the potential political resolution of insurgencies, and urges that insurgents be viewed as ‘disgruntled citizens’ and not as ‘enemies’ or ‘terrorists’. At the same time, he admits that political solutions and agreements to end armed conflicts in the region are rare – though the end of the Mizo insurgency following negotiations with the Indian government, in 1987, stands as an important counter-example.
At the moment, Baruah warns, policymakers have no roadmap for getting the Northeast out of its low-level equilibrium of poverty, non-development and lack of faith in the political leadership. He proposes the term post-frontier, around which a context-sensitive alternative policy framework could be developed. As an illustration of what a post-frontier policy paradigm might look like, he suggests the institution of multi-level citizenship to replace ethnic homelands. Such an approach, he says, could provide a more democratic means of managing tensions between ‘settlers’ and the indigenous communities in the long run.
In almost every conflict situation some of the most affected are women, and The Peripheral Centre provides a refreshing new focus on the women of the Northeast. Writers Temsula Ao, Esther Syiem and Lal Dena dissect the widely held belief that women enjoy equal status in many tribal societies of the Northeast. They suggest that this is not so, and argue that the social status of tribal women, which for centuries was dictated by male superiority, cannot be changed merely by legislation or cosmetic reform. Instead, Dena suggests two political mechanisms: increased proportional representation of women in all elected bodies, and increased political activities by autonomous women’s bodies. Only then, she says, can women become part of the policymaking elite, and thus take decisions regarding the overall improvement in the status of women. The paradox inherent in the Khasi matrilineal set-up of Meghalaya is explored by Syiem, of the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong. She talks of a situation in which, despite the supposedly empowered status of women in Khasi community, the sex ratio remains skewed, women’s role in decision-making is minimal and customary laws actually perpetuate discriminatory practices.
On a similar theme, ‘outsider’ Sumi Krishna reflects on the interplay between gender and development. ‘Official data measure conventional developmental indicators but do not capture the extent or intensity of women’s daily burdens,’ she writes. ‘Yet, even these data contradict the widespread assumption that there is little gender disparity in the Northeastern states.’ Krishna explains that demographic trends, the extraction of natural resources, the disturbed socio-political environment of insurgency and related violence, and government agricultural and development policies have altered the resource base of the Northeast. This has far-reaching impacts on the lives and livelihoods of women, and poses challenges to women’s agro-ecological knowledge, skills and labour, their role in hill-farming systems, and their position in the family and community.
The impact of Christianity, especially on tribal societies of the Northeast, has also been profound – and again, particularly for women. The contribution by V Sawmveli and Ashley Tellis analyses the patriarchal set-up of the church and the marginalisation of women. In Mizoram, for instance, the church played arguably the most important role in brokering peace during the separatist and militant movement in the state. However, the presence of women in the clergy of any denomination is negligible. Women play a supportive role and run the day-to-day work of a community, but are typically not given a say in political decision-making.
A prime casualty in any conflict is health, especially of women. Today, there is an acute vulnerability in the Northeast to HIV/AIDS, and women, coping with decades of insurgency, are becoming increasingly susceptible to this epidemic and other health concerns. For instance, lack of health-care infrastructure has led to appalling conditions for reproductive health. A survey presented by health researcher Monisha Behl reveals an alarmingly high incidence of miscarriages among rural women. Women do not readily talk about their tragedies and the miscarriages are rarely reflected in official data. Behl’s interviews with more than 700 women in Zunheboto District of Nagaland show that only 10.4 percent used contraceptives. Thirty percent said they would not like to use contraceptives, another 30 percent said that ‘children are a gift of God’, while the rest said they did not know what to do. The average number of children per woman is between four and seven in this area, while the maximum rises to ten.
Elsewhere, psychiatrist P Ngully looks at issue of psychological trauma and mental health for people living amidst decades of conflict. Ngully cites the example of December 1994, when the civilian population of Mokokchung town was caught in a severe clash between Naga underground factions and the Indian Army. A study conducted 11 months later showed that the population was continuing to suffer from multiple stress disorders. According to Ngully,
These persons are filled with anxiety, worry and unhappiness. There is no joy or verve in their life. They look at the future with a sense of doom. For the Nagas, their village was like a nation by itself. When it was reduced to ashes and they were herded into concentration camps, their sense of belonging and security was shaken. Paradoxically, the long years of violence have led to a swell in creativity that finds an outlet in the prose and poetry of women writers from the Northeast. In a selection titled ‘Women Writing in Times of Violence’, academic Tilottoma Misra says that these ‘literary ventures are voices of women who are otherwise numbed by a fear of retributive justice’. For instance, she tells us how Rita Chaudhuri’s fictional ‘Abirata Jatra’ is largely autobiographical in nature, based on the author’s experience as a student activist during the turbulent days of the Assam Movement. Or, Arupa Patangia Kalita’s ‘Felanee’, which is a subtle analysis of the impact of various forms of organised political violence on the lives of a group of fugitive women who have survived terrible violence and are living on the margins of society.
By and large, the fictional stories referred to by Misra mirror the coagulation of hearts against the militants at a particular phase in the course of the ULFA insurgency in Assam. Some of the writers reflect defeatist anguish while other writers continue to assert their conviction in the ability of human effort to alter the course of events. Inherent in many of the latter’s writings is the conviction that nature has the power to heal and rejuvenate. As Ayangla Longkumer writes in her poem ‘Freedom’, ‘Freedom is just another word/ If love is torn asunder/ And if instead of counting the blessings/ Counting the dead bodies/ Becomes the latest preoccupation.’
~ Teresa Rehman is a journalist and media consultant based in the Northeast.