Second Civil Society Dialogue on Peace
The initiative was made possible by the support and collaboration of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, both of New Delhi. This report is the result of the Second Civil Society Dialogue on Human Rights and Peace in East and Northeast held on July 13-16, 2002, in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Our debt is to all participants in the Dialogue.
Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group
5 B Mahanirban Road, Kolkata 700029
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List of Participants
The inquiry for democratic-minded people of a conflict-ridden region and in a war-ravaged situation has always been: how are we to connect the issue of democracy with peace? While it is important to link human rights and peace, in what way can this link be deepened with ideas of justice, in particular gender justice, cultural democracy, decentralization, and a dialogic culture? It is from such an inquiry and the related realization, that the progarmme for civil society dialogue on human rights and peace in the east and northeast has entered its second phase. The programme continues from where the first dialogue ended, and efforts to carry forward the inquiry in a developed way by bringing in notions of cultural democracy and justice, in particular gender justice.
The end of the cold war, as we all know is marked by a plethora of new identity conflicts. “The collapse of old political frameworks and the reconfiguration of global economic power have been accompanied by an impulse to redefine, re-assert, and reconfigure meanings of nation on multiple levels” (Sita Ranchod-Nilsson and Mary Ann Tetreault, 2000, p.1). Starting from Yugoslavia to sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia, what is startling in these conflicts is the centrality of gender to resurgent forces of fragmentation. The connections in such movements between assertions of identity and increasing violence against women are also startling. From rape as a symbol of conquered terrain to identifying women as reproducers of identities, gender appears to be a key dimension in many of these conflicts and it is clear that belligerents on both sides take gender seriously. Yet male-centric analysis of identity conflict still tries to disregard the category of gender. These events have prompted extensive conversations among human rights activists, grassroots women activists for democracy, scholars, artists, musicians and sensitive people from all quarters. They have tried to reinterpret issues of nationhood, citizenship, and agency in the context of gender (Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias, eds, 1989).
Recent events in South Asia have dramatically brought gender back to the centre-stage of discourses on conflict. The situation in Gujarat portrayed the importance attributed to women as markers of group identity by right-wing forces and their efforts to legitimise control of women’s bodies and identities. In Gujarat actions were taken not just against “erring minorities” but, perhaps even more violently, against “erring women” from the majoritarian communities who appeared to transgress these given identities.Gujarat also brought to our attention how women are manipulated and becomes participants in a movement that is blatantly misogynistic. On the other hand peace initiatives in Sri Lanka has once again portrayed that the moment peace becomes an agenda for sovereignty women are pushed out of such negotiations. These events are a testimony to women’s tenuous positioning in identity conflicts and in democracy.
Women and Democracy
Feminist scholarship and women’s struggles alike have drawn attention to the incomplete nature of certain political projects such as democracy. For Carol Pateman “the social contract presupposed the sexual contract, and civil freedom presupposed patriarchal right” ( Carole Pateman, 1988, p. 102). In processes of democratic state formation in the West women were for a long time kept out of the body politic. In Africa and Asia the project of national independence gave certain political space to women. According to feminist writers such as Jayawardena (1986) in the post-colonial developing world for a time feminism and nationalism were compatible and allied, sharing similar objectives. During the period of decolonisation, political rights including the right to vote were given to men and women alike. Yet during the process of state formation male-female differences were reinforced. The new states formulated rights and obligations in ways that strengthened the masculinity of the public sphere and the femininity of the private sphere. In postcolonial states such as India the processes of state formation followed patterns that were set in the colonial past.
In Great Britain, for example, the British Nationality and the Status of Aliens Act of 1914 portrayed that rights of nationality could be transferred only through the male line. Women were considered as subjects or aliens primarily through their association with men. Thus the case of Fasbender vs. Attorney-General in 1922 showed that a female British subject could contract a marriage in good faith during war and lose her British nationality(Lord Atkinson quoted in Lord McNair and A.D. Watts, 1966, p. 66). Women’s rights to citizenship even in democracies were therefore tenuous. Likewise the first Indian Passport Act was formulated in 1920. This Act did not define who an Indian citizen is. But it made it mandatory for any foreigner entering India to carry a passport. In it the male pronoun “he” described the foreigner (The Passport Act, 1920, Act no. 32 of 1920). In subsequent Acts dealing with immigration and emigration the same practice was continued. The Foreigners Act of 1946 stated that wives of foreigners were also to be considered as foreigners. The Act prohibited Foreigners to change their names while in India. Exception was made if a marriage occurred between the foreigner and a woman (“native” or foreign) who was then permitted to take her husbands name, which presumed that a women’s legal status depended on that of her husbands status(The Foreigners Act 1946, Act no. 31 of 1946). Thus women as an independent legal identity did not emerge in the colonial period even though women got the right to vote.
In Constituent Assembly debates it was presumed by many members that the “masculine, as it is well known, embraces the feminine”(Mr. Naziruddin Ahmad, Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. 7. 22nd November, 1948). The Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, 1949 made it clear that the state had the power to wrest citizenship rights from a woman in certain extraordinary situations. If the state identified women as an abducted person it could push her across the border. Thus the identity imposed by the state was considered more important than a woman’s self identity. The male centrism of Indian project of state formation continued with the Citizenship Act of 1955. As its title suggests the Act dealt with modes of acquiring, renunciation, termination and deprivation of citizenship. Although the Act was meant to give rise to the category of universal citizen in actuality it did not. It continued the gender dichotomy evolved by the colonial state. The section on citizenship by registration stated that “women who are, or have been, married to citizens of India;” were to be given citizenship if they applied for it. No such stipulations were made for men marrying women who were Indian citizens. Thus citizenship by registration was largely transferred through the male line. In the section on the termination of citizenship it was stated that where a male person “ceases to be a citizen of India under sub-section (1), every minor child of that person shall thereupon cease to be a citizen of India”(S.C. Consul, Citizenship Act, 1955). Although all these discrepancies were rectified later the Shah Bano case portrayed that Indian democracy has not got over its male centrism.
Proponents of democracy believe that it offers the best hope for justice in any given society. Yet there is very little discussion on how that state of justice can be achieved. Democracy as a concept leads to homogenisation of certain identities. Certain identities are privileged over others. Thus certain identities are fixed as identity of the majority. Although the majoritarian community tries to exert control on women on the basis of her gender to get privileges she has to highlight other identities such as ethnic/caste/religion etc and her gender identity is considered inadequate for her to get the political status of either a majority or a minority. Yet in identity conflicts transgressions against women are often made on the basis of her gender.
Women and Identity Conflicts in the East and Northeast
Identity conflicts and movements, which are based essentially on demands for justice, have plagued India’s East and Northeast for sometime now. Northeast is the theatre of the longest state versus community conflict in South Asia and as such occupies a singular position in Indian politics. Different ethnic groups living in this region have been for years pressing either for independence, or separate statehood on the basis of political and linguistic-cultural identities or for special constitutional safeguards of their respective existences. But what is forgotten often is that while these conflicts have created frontiers and boundaries dividing and re-dividing territory, peoples, and communities, they are not the only feature of the situation. Surviving connections, relations, friendships, and continuing dialogues on the basis of fairness, accommodation, and mutual recognition of claims also mark such a situation. With many of these trends women are associated.
The northeast and east has witnessed many strong women’s movements both historically and in the present day. In both Nagaland and Manipur there are women’s groups that are active socially and politically and here I am speaking of the Naga Mother’s Association and the Meira Peibies or the “torchbearers”. In a number of occasions these groups have been able to transcend ethnic divide and speak in favour of peace. For example only recently when the Government of India announced a cease-fire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) it resulted in mayhem. What made the cease-fire particularly remarkable is that the GOI acceded to the Naga claim that cease-fire will be applicable not just to Nagaland but to all Naga inhabited areas in the northeast. This resulted in acute reactions in other Northeastern States, particularly Manipur and Assam, where it was feared that such a cease-fire is but a first step towards a “greater Nagaland” that will be carved out of these areas.
Immediately after the cease-fire was declared in June violence erupted in Assam and Manipur. The Manipuri students were the forefront of protests. They organized the first of such protests and a bandh on 18 June. An interesting feature of this protest is, that the Meiteis have turned not so much against the Nagas, as against the Indian State. However, due to the eruption of violence, many Nagas felt compelled to move out of Manipur resulting in massive displacement. According to a Naga Hoho estimate people who have left Imphal valley and are staying without homes in Senapati town alone have crossed 6000 and another equal number or more in Ukhrul. In Chandel and Tamenglong too, the figures are approximately 3000 and 5000 respectively. In Kohima and Dimapur a large number of people are taking shelter in the houses of friends, relatives and sympathizers. While government officers are being burnt down, there was a growing fear psychosis among both the Nagas and Meiteis. The government was left looking askance as to how to negotiate with this new situation. In the meantime even the Assamese declared a bandh. The GOI with its experiences of negotiating only with insurgent groups have been unable to deal with spontaneous civil protests and slowly the situation deteriorated into virtual civil war. The Naga internal conflict that had subsided in the last few years suddenly recommenced. According to a report of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights on 9 July 2001 cadres of the NSCN (K) entered Wokha with a strength numbering about 65. The next day, they raided the camps of the NSCN (IM) and occupied the main town. This resulted in torture and murder of some Naga men. The incident portrayed that space for peace is slowly disappearing from Northeastern India. A cardinal failure of the Indian democracy has been its inability to create a space for civil society dialogues. The state has been unable to increase the democratic space in Northeast by negotiating with civil society groups for peace such as the women’s groups and the human rights groups. Even the media have through its reports largely increased the fear psychosis and have not reported on spontaneous peace efforts that are being made by a few civil society groups and leading them are women’s groups. One such example was the effort made by the Naga Mother’s Association who visited Gwahati between 22 and 24 July and tried to explain to Assamese leaders that the Nagas had no expansionist tendencies. It was largely due to the efforts of democratic minded people among whom women featured prominently that some semblance of peace is restored in the Northeast.
This is not the first time that women have tried to make peace in the Northeast. In anti-foreigner movements and in inter-ethnic conflicts women’s groups have often spoken against ethnic killings and bloodshed. According to one observer women’s interventions “were pivotal in stopping Naga-Kuki clashes”(Comment made by N. Vijaylakshmi Brara in the session on “Women in Peace Campaigns in the East and the Northeast,” in Samir Das and Paula Banerjee eds., 2001, 37). This is not to say that women have never taken up arms in the Northeast. It is merely to emphasise that their contributions in peace making have been substantial(Paula Banerjee, 2000, 137-142).
Women, Human Rights and Peace in the Northeast
In her seminal work on gender and identity conflict Cynthia Cockburn (1998, p.213) writes, “those who govern us use identity processes to do so. Dominant groups maintain hegemony for the most part by discursive means rather than by direct force, mobilizing consent by inclining us towards particular identifications.” She is of the opinion that women trying to make peace should fight against such closure of identities. In the Northeast of India we see a similar process at work. Women are constantly negotiating fixated identities. It is true that they have organised themselves on the basis of role identities such as the Naga Mother’s Association or the Mizo Widows Association. But membership for the Nagas is open to all adult women. They have privileged the term “mothers” largely because there are very few entry points for women in state versus community conflicts where their ethnicity is given primacy over their gender. In such conflicts the women can make motherhood an entry point because society grants them a certain status as mothers. But once they make their entry they constantly negotiate their spaces and expand motherhood into meaning potential mothers, which encompasses the category of all women. They are aware that the term “mother” can create closures. But till date they have resisted such closures.
True that there are groups such as the Meira Paibies who do not overtly invoke their social roles. But the term torchbearers also have gender connotations, as it is associated with women putting up a vigil for protection of their communities. True, that such terms may privilege certain social roles but those very social roles also niches peace within women’s accepted spheres. Whether as mothers or as torchbearers women are the protectors. In a highly violent situation when women try to speak against a conflict they can easily be castigated as traitors and marginalised as transgressors. Therefore, these women by making peace women’s work and appropriating peace making as part of their traditional roles have arrogated for themselves some space for interventions into the political realm where society has traditional denied them other entry points.
Speaking on women’s contribution to peace making in Peru Isabel Coral Cordero (2001, p. 161) had commented that, “the process for building sustainable peace goes way beyond deactivating situations of armed conflict. Essentially it is a preventive process based on affirming democracy and sustainable development for the country as a whole.” Women who are organised and are making interventions for peace in the Northeast do not view their role as only political. They look upon themselves as custodians of society and their political role is marked as an extension of their social roles. As women’s groups they work extensively against teenage drug addiction, health problems, agricultural problems etc. and have strongly come out in favour of sustainable development.Through their social and political roles they are not just reworking gender relations but also trying to expand concepts of democracy. They have not made women’s initiatives exclusive of all other initiatives but rather have tried to work with other groups that are working towards “agonistic democracy”(William E. Connolly, 1991). They have skillfully made common cause with human rights groups and have made transgressions against women part of the broader agenda of human rights for all. It is with this realization Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG) in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Foundation for Universal Responsibility organized a three-day civil society dialogue in Shantiniketan (13-16 July 2002) with participants from Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and West Bengal. This was a continuation of the first round of dialogue held in Kolkata in 2001.
Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, in this second round of dialogue engaged in deliberations on ways of broadening and deepening the concept of democracy in the region. Since grassroots movements for democracy are often characterized by marked participation by women of the region, the dialogue programme in this phase was a discourse with grassroots women activists and women artists in search for an enrichment of/for democracy and peace. Controversial issues such as whether women’s organisations in the Northeast has a feminist agenda or not was debated upon with an open mind. CRG intended to facilitate efforts to develop a language of peace that may link the notions of cultural democracy, grassroots democracy with gender justice, and human rights. We feel that it is only in this way that the language of peace in the region can save itself from becoming hostage to the rhetoric of war.
We remain grateful to Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAF) and particularly to Dr. Helmut Reifeld for all his support. For us he has given a new meaning to the term partnership. Without him none of this may have been possible. Members of CRG and KAF together had a dream of working for peace in South Asia. This is but a small manifestation of that dream. We thank the Foundation for Universal Responsibility (FUR), New Delhi and Mr. Rajiv Mehrotra for maintaining his trust in us and once again agreeing to co-organize the programme with us. Thanks are due to all participants who so graciously submitted to their captive hood for three days and energetically participated in the discussions. We hope that they will remain with us in our future efforts. Our indebtedness is to all our colleagues in Calcutta Research Group who so often worked so well behind the scenes. A special thanks is due to Deborah Misao and Eva Saroach for doing an excellent job with the report. As always we hope that this report will in some small way work towards popularizing the agenda of peace and human rights in the East and Northeast.
Inaugural Session: 13th July’ Saturday
6:15 P.M - 6:45 P.M.
Speaker: Paule Gentot
After the welcome address by Pradip Bose where he stated the reasons for a civil society dialogue on peace, Paule Gentot, who had come all the way from France began her presentation. She discussed the history of the situation of women in Algeria and how it is linked to that of France. Prior to 1830 and the French conquest, Algeria was a traditional society and the family system was based on Muslim law. Once the French took over the administration by the Convention of 1830, the French engaged themselves to respecting property, religion and the structure of the Algerian family. The Algerians were forced to give up their juridical system and interpretation of their law. Therefore during the colonial times women were brought within a sophisticated system of law. An important school of French jurists existed in Algeria and was supposed to give a good interpretation of the Muslim law and traditions – sometimes with the excuse (in the field of marriage and family law) to improve the condition of our “Muslim sisters”. Until 1944, like the French women, the Algerian women had no voting or citizenship rights. The men however could choose French citizenship though very few opted for this status. Between 1962 and 1984 Algerian women fought against the family code. The colonial practice was replaced by a Muslim document that was completely outside the general ‘secularist corpus’ of the new Algerian system. After independence all law systems became secular except for the family and women were hardest hit by such a decision. There was a contradiction with the Constitution that affirmed the “principle of equality of all citizens without any discrimination based on race, sex or religion” and the non-secular family law that gave very little to women in terms of rights. In spite of the protests by the women, the code was voted for in 1984. Critics argue that the code is not the expression of real Islam. For instance, the authority of the husband over the wife is reinforced, and women are no longer obligated to contribute to the expenses of the family, but rather receive something from her husband in return for the gift of her body. This made women’s bodies a commodity to be controlled by men. Polygamy became a reality and in divorce regulation, husbands are favoured unilaterally. It is very difficult for a woman to ask for a divorce. In case of a divorce, for instance, the husband can keep the house even if the wife is given custody of the children.
As for the French Situation Paule Gentot said the feminists in the 60’s were more interested in individual problems and not in representational politics. It was at the end of the 70’s when the Left was in the process of restructuring; they began to be more progressive. In the 80’s they began to see that even though they were in all professions, they were never in power positions where it was only the men who took decisions. Therefore a positive resolution was taken to promote women in the electoral process. After ten years of debate an amendment to the Constitution was voted (8th July 1999) and a law (June 2000) that gives equal access to men and women in electoral processes could be implemented. During elections it was agreed parties would have to put as many women candidates as men or pay financial compensation. However in the recent Presidential elections some parties preferred to pay the fine but did not agree to support fifty per cent women candidates. In France, we find that even a law was not sufficient to change the political life of women.
In conclusion Gentot said she found it heartening how women of East and Northeast India still have reposed their faith and confidence in a Civil Society dialogue.
Inaugural Session: 13th July’ Saturday
6:45 P.M - 7:30 P.M
Speaker: Ritu Menon
“A women’s writing is her gesture, and like all women’s gesture it is subject to all sorts of social codes.”
Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Speaking of women writers in India, Ritu Menon said that women in India, have been writing for more than 2000 years, and they have written about practically everything; yet they have remained invisible, much like women writers in other parts of the world. Every where, women have come to writing— writing as legitimate, creative expression, that is — relatively recently, and this has influenced both the circumstances in which they write, and in which their writings are read and written about. The literary and social context of women’s writing is critical to their experience as writers. They live and work in an environment that is male-dominated as much as it is male-centered. women had to have their place in it (or be denied entry to it) as late-comers, pretenders, aspirants unworthy of notice, unable to meet the standards laid down by those who had only themselves in mind.
Defining cultural democracy Ritu said, “it means many things,” depending from which vantage point you are speaking. She drew linkages between freedom of expression, right to write and democracy. She asked certain questions such as: What is the power of word and how women acquire control over that power? Can women freely write whatever they wish, whenever they wish? Is there a ‘proper subject’ for women writers? Subjects such as religion, politics and sexuality, are they taboo? Who decides? And when we do write, are we generally accorded the serious considerations that all writers expect, or do our personal histories and private lives and loves become part of the literary assessment of our work? Can we be confident that gossip will not replace fair evaluation when women tentatively articulate what is often deeply and painfully, personal? Who censors and when? Are men and women censored differently? What sort of censorship do women face? She said such questions and confusions haunted her during and after a series of ten workshops on women and censorship in India. Conducted in Urdu, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bengali, English and Tamil, and held in different and varied surroundings, these workshops brought up new issues and allowed fresh insights into the nature of censorship that women face. Ritu wanted to share her experiences with the participants of this workshop.
She said the well-known Hindu writer Mridula Garg identified four kinds of censorship that women commonly experience: Political, socio-cultural, familial and internal or auto-censorship. Political censorship almost always follows cultural censorship and self-censorship certainly does so. In her view cultural censorship is probably more insidious and powerful than all the others, because it pervades all social institutions; for women, in particular, it introduces a powerful duality between the individual and the writer. Speaking for herself, she said that she had never experienced any censorship by her family. What troubles her is something else: she finds that she is torn between the cerebral/masculine and emotional/feminine dichotomy; drawn more to the former, she says her identity as a ‘women writer’ is thrown back at her by critics and the literary establishment, who tend to devalue it for this reason. The tension between gender and writing is ever present and despite herself, she finds she censors what she writes.
The literary landscape of India is one of the most exciting, yet most daunting and complex in the world. In a single country with a broken and shared cultural and civilizational history of 5000 years, it is a home to 22 official languages and more than 400 dialects. In some parts of the country, there are more than 40 words for a single item and in others dialect changes after every 12 villages! Most languages have ancient script and rich literary traditions—but some, like Kashmiri, have had to adopt Devnagri because their script was destroyed, while others, like Konkani, have no script but a rich oral traditions—usually considered the domain of women. Still others like, Urdu, are embattled, especially in the south of the country, where Dakhani, born of the marriage between Arabic (spoken by Arab tradesman to Hyderabad) and the local languages. (Telegu and Marathi) has been more or less obliterated as a literary language. Dakhani Urdu, which was essentially “feminine”, was gradually “developed” and corrupted by the “masculine” Persianised Urdu of the north.The mainstream she said has also been male-stream, in literature as in other fields, and even though women have been engaged in some form of literary activity on a sustained basis for little over a hundred years now, we are still in the margins. Women have always had to wrest space, to work from the “invisible margins within the margins” as Mridula Garg puts it. Literary history, no matter in which language it is written in India, has ignored women. What male centric critis have done is that they have herded them all under the rubric of “women writers”. Nabaneeta Dev Sen summed it up well when she said, “all writing is male, women writing are deviants, and hence they are all alike, like the Chinese.” By the single act of omission, women have been erased from the literary map of the country, denied their place in posterity. In the fifty-odd years since they were established across the country, not a single state sahitya akademi has had a women writer as a secretary; important literary and reviewing periodicals are edited by men and newspapers, magazine and publishing houses are male bastions. Literary guilds and informal associations of writers are a little more egalitarian, but they seldom wield the kind of power or patronage that the establishment does. The same can be said when it comes to awards and honours—few and far between for women. Women have been ostracized, reprimanded, rejected, or dismissed by the establishment because writing is a subversive act in patriarchal societies To take up the pen and write one’s destiny is the ultimate transgression, which is why the first and the most fundamental censorship for women is the denial of the right to read and write. Women’s accounts, when they are written down, are full of stories about their struggles to get educated and the obstacles they encountered on the way. Secrecy, concealment, fear, rebellion recur like leitmotif in their journals and diaries. Many used male pseudonyms to conceal their identities—a practice still in use among some women writing in Urdu in Hyderabad—and several do not publish their work at all.
If some of this material is available to us today, it is because feminist publications, periodicals and magazines have documented and preserved it for us. Women have consciously, deliberately, through handbills, leaflets, pamphlets, sourcebooks, magazines and periodicals, books and journals, created another world, and commented on the world they are in. Where access to print is difficult they have organised meetings to encourage them. All the testimonies by women over the last few years have come to us through transcripts, interviews and documents put out by small groups of women and women’s networks. The question of voice, the power of the word, the subtle, implicit, pervasive, insidious controls imposed on women by culture and society, family and community, have been taken up by women writers and academics, and gradually, a space has been created where women’s writing and creative expression can be discussed without fear of dismissal. Women writers are more “visible” today than they have ever been before, largely as a result of the systemic surfacing of their work by women’s press, critics, teachers and activists who have been part of the women’s movement and broadly share its politics.
Ritu said the last book to be formally banned by the government of India was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989, and it would be correct to say that the state has generally not curtailed an individual’s freedom of expression, by censoring or proscribing their writings. Yet the fear of being attacked, vilified or dealt with violently persists, and so we need to look elsewhere for its causes. The interesting shift that has taken place, post-Rushdie is that state censorship has receded and street censorship or censorship by the mob, has emerged as a powerful extra-legal usually, illegal force. The state’s failure to uphold and guarantee freedom of expression, gets exemplified by the assault on Deepa Mehta’s film crew in Varanasi. The link between the state, the street and individual vulnerability was very clearly demonstrated in the violence around two films made by Deepa Mehta, Fire and Water. Mobs in several Indian cities attacked cinema halls that were showing Fire (to huge audiences, incidentally) claiming that its depiction of lesbian love between its two protagonists was morally depraved, un-Indian and deeply offensive to all notions of womenhood and propriety. Almost exactly one year later, similar mobs attacked Deepa Mehta and her crew while she was filming Water in Varanasi, claiming this time that her portrayal of Indian widowhood was false, intended for a western (and therefore, anti-Indian) audience, financed by them, and derogatory and defamatory to Indian values and traditions. In both instances, the mob held sway. Fire was withdrawn from many theaters, and the shootings of Water were indefinitely stalled. In both instances, the state withdrew; indeed, as far as Water was concerned, the local government added its own peculiarly bureaucratic form of harassment to the violence of the hoodlums, leaving the filmmaker with no recourse, and practically no choice, but to pack up and leave. The central issue in Deepa’s Mehta’s trilogy is women’s sexuality. Through her exploration of three manifestations of this, she comments powerfully on the three holy cows of Indian/Hindu society: the family; casteism; and communalism. The shame, hypocrisy and profound prejudice of all three are exposed with blinding clarity, as is the stranglehold of entrenched patriarchies in the family, in society and in community. The sniffer-dogs of culture, (as Gujrati writer Saroop Dhruv calls street censors) could not allow this to go unchallenged. Yet Earth/1947 passed without comment, primarily because although it exposed the violence of gender and communal relations, and the bartering of women’s sexuality, it did not attack patriarchy frontally. With Fire and Water, however, the mask of respectability is stripped right off. Neither political patriarchy nor societal and familial patriarchies were able to countenance this impertinence.
On closer examination, other ways of silencing apart form banning, become apparent. Ignoring the work of a writer is almost as potent a form of censorship as banning it. The market has diverse means of “censoring” or never bringing to light what it believes is “unmarketable”. Many publishers, for example, tend to shy from voices that are too sharply critical, particularly in conservative periods. Others are inclined to downplay what they call “area studies” which may refer to a geographical area or a particular group: the underclass, women, blacks, dalits or minorities.
In 2000, the Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasrin, published her autobiography, Amar Meyebela, in Calcutta. It is her first major work, written over the years when she has been in exile in Europe and it was banned almost immediately by her government. The event passed without comment in the world press, including ours, almost as if this was but expected. This is ironic because, of course, anyone who wishes to read her book can do so easily enough—is readily available. But the point of censorship today, in the era of internet, is not to keep people from reading a particular work, it is to keep them away from writing it—and that is why it persists, despite the free and untrammelled flow of information. Taslima’s fault was that she defied the boundaries set by society by breaking the socially structured silences that women are supposed to observe. What is more, she overstepped her limits by discussing religion and sexuality, and placing women at the centre of both discussions. The title of her banned book Lajja -shame, is significant precisely because it wrenches shame away from its traditional mooring, women’s bodies, and onto the body politic, and society in general. Taslima thus fell foul of all establishments. This may explain why, seven years later, her work remains unacceptable, but it also demonstrates how effective this kind of censoring can be. With the resurgence of right-wing forces and the alliance of right-wing politics with right-wing economics, we can expect to see much more of this particular variant. In our context, though, we are more familiar with the absence of the state when it comes to safeguarding an individual’s right to freedom of expression. If there have been no outright bans or proscription in the recent past, there has also not been a single instance of the state coming out in support of free speech, when such speech has been attacked by self-styled, free-enterprise censors.
In August 2001 Kali published the first English translation, of Taslima’s autobiography, entitled My Girlhood, after inserting a clause in our agreement with her French publisher that we reserved the right to edit or modify any part of the text that we thought might jeopardize the book or its author. Taslima called this “censorship by feminist” and in a way, she was right, but her concern or consternation, even anger, couldn’t have been greater than ours. Never before had we been mindful of whether what an author wrote would “offend”; never before had we thought it prudent to modify certain references to religion, and never before had we hesitated to fully promote and publicize a work as important as Taslima Nasrin’s autobiography, for fear of it being distorted, sensationalized or misrepresented by extremists of all kinds.
It was painfully clear to us that the political climate in the country had changed dramatically. Fifteen years before, in 1986, we had published a most irreverent book, called Women in Muslim Paradise, by eminent Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi. Illustrated with miniature paintings done by a young Indian miniaturist, this little book made a sharp commentary on women and religion and how all religions—in this case, Islam—subordinate them. Fundamentally, it was not very different to what Taslima Nasrin said either in Lajja or in My Girlhood, but Mernissi was saying it at a different time. Although her book followed the Shah Bano judgement and the beginning of the of the Babri Masjid dispute we did not have a moment’s hesitation in publishing it in India of the 1980s.
Every society has some degree of censorship, which it carries out by its normal means of social organisation and control. The women, as Ritu stated, in her workshops, representing 10 major literary language spoke about their marganilisation in the literary establishment, about male patronage, and sexual harassment by editors of powerful periodicals and papers. They said that insidious and subtle censorship is exerted by literary and educational establishments; social and cultural mores; the market (especially the global market); the family, community and political ideology. This type of censorship is pervasive and inflicts long-term injuries. It is a fact that, had it not been for the existence of feminist presses all over the worlds, much of what we have today considered the classic texts in feminist writing and criticism would never have seen the light of the day, because they would have been considered “unpublishable”. An unstated view shared by several mainstream publishers in the West, for example, is that the time for feminist writing in past? Why? Because we’re in a post-feminist period. This conundrum is one that many feminists recognize. A measure of “openness” to their writing has meant that some writers have benefited enormously from the greater visibility and selling power of commercial publishing houses. But it also means that the publishers can—and do—decide when they should promote a particular kind of writing, and when they should move on to something more lucrative. The opening of mainstream publishing to the broad range of women’s writing offers women writers the freedom to choose from a variety of options, but as a more and more of them exercise their choice in favour of trade and academic press, those very many women who initially took the risk—relying as Linda Gardiner says, on “sweat-equity and tremendous word-of-mouth publicity”— find their survival at stake. The impact of bookstore chains on feminist bookstore in the US, for example, has been devastating. In 1998 their number dropped from 110 to 85, a fall of 25 percent, and most bookshops in towns where super chains have opened up, have seen their book sales drop by about 15 to 40 per cent. Only nine years earlier, in 1992, their combined sales were more than 35 million dollars. In London, Silver Moon, the 17-year old women’s bookshop and a beacon in women’s retailing, closed shop in November 2001.
The importance of being economically viable, says Ritu, is not lost on feminist publishers, but because our objective is primarily to be true to our politics, we walk a tight rope. The skill, as Susan Hawthrone says, lies in combining the commercial with the political. Feminist publishing, or publishing for social change, is by definition a “developmental” activity. It is a long-term investment involving the surfacing or excavating of hitherto unacknowledged word. It is particularly so in countries of the south. Not only are we unable to provide advances or other inducements to our authors, we are simultaneously engaged in publishing the kind of movement-related material that no commercial publishers will take up: reports, primers, handbooks, training manuals and so on. Slow gestation, low returns and difficult marketing characterize this kind of material, which many may not even classify as books or monographs, for much of it is fragmentary and documentary in nature. It requires net working and dogged perseverance of a kind that commercial publishing is unable to invest in because its interest lies in markets and not in resistance.
It is in this paradoxical context that women writers are writing today, and that feminist publishers are continuing to work for change. The question before us is how can we enable women’s voices—censored by culture, society, family and the markets —to continue to work for progressive social change?
Session One: 14th July’ Sunday
9:00A.M. - 10:15 A.M.
Speaker : Sanjay Chaturvedi
In his lecture Sanjay Chaturvedi argued that geopolitics is a set of social, cultural and political practices, both material and representational, employed in the service of statecraft. Once critically conceptualized, geopolitics relates to the geopolitical imagi-nation of the state, its foundational myths and the complex power relations underpinning the imagination and organization of the ‘nation’ as a spatially coherent community. Geopolitical knowledge tends to be constructed from positions and locations of political, economic and cultural power and privilege. No surprise, the histories of geopolitics have tended to focus upon the actions of states and elites, overemphasizing (masculine) statesmanship and the (male-dominated) practices of statecraft. The gendered nature of geopolitical writings and interpretive acts often goes unchallenged. Geopolitics whether high or low, is invariably intertwined with certain hegemonic forms of masculinity. In short, masculinity, nationalism and patriotism are intimately entwined. However, the state-centric geopolitical policies, have rarely gone without some form of contestation by those who have faced various forms of domination, exploitation and/or subjection that results from such practices.
A critical geopolitical sensitivity towards the socio-cultural construction of space — or territorial ‘mapping’ and ‘scripting’— in post-partition South Asia enables appreciation of borderlands as sites (material as well as intellectual), in which the normative forces of gendered nationalism and territorial state practices are brought into performative crisis. Whereas a denationalized approach to pre-partition, pre-national, history reveals how political spaces other than the dominant national one continue to play a role in the nationalist era. The homogenizing, securitising, and in some cases dehumanizing practices of nationalizing states in South Asia, which are most pronounced in the border regions, continue to be met with resistance from various quarters. Such histories and geographies of resistance can be characterized as geopolitics from below emanating from subaltern (or dominated) positions within society that challenge the military, political, economic and cultural hegemony of the state and its elites.
It is therefore important to critically examine the geographical representations and practices that produce the spaces of politics on the one hand, and to assess the prospects of revisualizing political spaces by focusing upon anti-geopolitical struggles. The key questions then are: How do geographical discourse and systems of power conspire together to envision space as something that can be homogenized and bounded, and ultimately linked to territory? How do certain geopolitical practices, by which sovereign states construct their national identities, produce a politics hostile to diversity and voices from the margin, especially those of women? And finally, how are gender-based identities and various social movements posing a challenge to the official representation of national identity different from statist identities and how unified states secures their national identities by suppressing or eliminating as well as by disciplining the space within their borders?
The presentation focused on the interplay between geopolitics and gender and raised the question how mapping of nations can be gendered. The symbolic geopolitical spectacle at Wagha border is a combination of masculinity, nationality and patriotism. When the tall, macho looking geo-bodies bang their boots, what are they defending? Honour of Nation; failure of nationalism or post-colonial nationalism? Further, Is there any way in which we can have gender as antidote to geopolitics?
According to Sanjay a critical analysis will reveal the insensitivity of geopolitics to gender. Maps not only show but also conceal and hide cartographic silences. Maps of borders do not show violence at borders. Analysing the geopolitics of partition Sanjay said that partition was the excess of geopolitics. Whose territory was being partitioned in 1947? If the partitioned entity was “India”, then, one might ask: whose India? “British India” of imperial imagination and mapping? Akhand Bharat (indivisible India) or Bharat Mata (Mother India) of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s Hindu, right wing, patriarchal, imagination? “Dinia” of Choudhry Rahmat Ali’s imagination? “Achhutistan” –the imagined homeland of the untouchables? None of these? Some of these? All of these? Or was it a discourse of unity and diversity or partition of homes, families etc.
Sanjay said there are two kinds of maps. Firstly, ‘maps from above’ and secondly, ‘maps from below’. Maps are visual manifestation of mapping; conveying, accepting and resisting geo-construction. When British used the term tribe, they used it in very pejorative sense. Further, British constructed two political communities of Hindus and Muslims and led to the construction of political space. No doubt there are differences between Hindus and Muslims. But the genius of British mapping is that they injected in their socio-spatial consciousness the notion of majority and minority.
When one is engaged in geopolitics of fear one constructs a geographical construction of fear. Jinnah talked of two-nation theory. His understanding of culture was incapable of co-existence, erasing the geography of shared common space, constructing a new geo-graph. According to Rada Ivekovich the logic of partition are intricately embedded in the process of ‘othering’. Even Ambedkar works on partition, his definition of two-nation theory is also embedded in the logic of othering. Had Rehmat Ali’s partition maps or his geopolitical imagination become a reality, then female bodies would have become geo-bodies. In all the proposed maps of partition, e.g, Rehmat Ali’s proposed map or Sikh proposal, where there is distribution of Sikh and Muslims, what is missing is representation of homes and families.Ethno-politics contains an element of geo-politics. Imagined homelands want to have a territoriality. It is important to note as to how different imaginations and representations gradually succumb before the territorial imagination and are gender blind. Women as a category are juxtaposed between community and families. Excess of geopolitics has served excess of partition Excessive geopolitics transforms and erases home, families, gender and communities. All these maps were gendered blind maps.
So how to problematise maps? It can be done by challenging the act of mapping, by challenging histories and geographies of domination. The final submission is that it is important to evolve gender sensitivity to power politics of maps and sensitivity to micro-level socio-spatial consciousness. Mapping has to be contested by other kinds of mapping, for example, Naga Mothers can become mapmakers. Maps of domination are state centric and can be contested by maps of resistance by women children, geographies of neighbourhood. One can also talk of macro level sensitivity to macro level hegemonies.
Such a challenging presentation evoked many questions. There were contentions that if homes assume centrality in mapping then those who do not have homes can be unhomed. Sanjay replied that he was not arguing that homes should be made central. He was merely pointing out to differing socio-spatial consciousness. Maps that we use are imposed from above. Home is a humanized space. We have to de-territorialize imaginations. Nations imagination cannot be de-territorialized.There is a need to challenge the fundamentals of mapping. Parents can play a greater role.
Session Two: 14th July, Sunday
10:30 A. M. to 11: 45 A. M.
Speaker: N. Vijaylakshmi Brara
Vijaylakshmi spoken on how performing arts can be linked with peace making. She said that Manipuri theatre have often worked towards the unification of society and have led to the assertion of community feeling. She said that the first Nupi Lans were struggles against the colonial rule. These Nupi Lans fought for the rights of the Manipuris. They were not aware of gender issues. The Meira Paibis followed the Nupi Lans. Members of Meira Paibis created a movements to fight against social evils. However, the Meira Paibis have not addressed the question of marginalisation of women. Therefore, they do not address gender discriminations and all inequalities are pushed under the carpet. Women have multiple indentities but in Manipur notwithstanding the Meira Paibis the only indentity a woman is allowed is that of a mother. Only motherhood can give her agency. In formal politics women are totally absent Meitei women are not present in any apex legislative bodies. Meira Paibis have not questioned the power of patriarchy. Vijaylakshmi was pessimistic about the future of the Meira Paibis because hardly any educated women are joing the movement today. However she said as a women’s group Meira Paibis still have a lot of potential as they have carved out a niche for themselves in society. They merely need to regroup and think beyond maintaining social orders.
Session Three: 14th July’ Sunday
11:45 P.M. - 1:00 P. M.
Speaker: Niedonuo Angami
Niedonuo started her presentation by responding to the question raised in the previous session as to why NMA was participating in these discussions. She said she was happy to be here so that she could listen to other brothers and sisters who have come from sister states and also from other parts of India. Niedonuo said that she also had something to share with them. She said she would speak about:
A. 1955-post cease-fire situation.
B. Organization of NMA in the peace making process.
Niedonuo said cease-fire Agreement between the Government of India and NSCN (IM) indicated a positive change and the culmination of Naga people’s desire for peace. Niedonuo argued that fear can be understood as an embodiment of insecurity of Naga people in the context of evolving events. How to tackle this fear? There can be a solution to this problem but then solution also gives rise to a set of other problems. All the disputing parties rarely come together because of fear. Political talks between the Government of India and NSCN has had direct and indirect impact upon the lives of Naga people who want political solutions to their “just” demands. There are two kinds of fear that they have to face and apprehend. Firstly, fear of success of the dialogue, i.e. fear of ending the conflict. For certain vested interests if some solution is arrived at, then there will be a necessity to reformulate the order of solutions, as a situation of peace may affect their power base. This category is more active in creating psychological warfare, division and confusion then becomes their weapon. Secondly, people who have been party to the talks, who have struggled for so long, if no solution is arrived at then their fear is the fear of defeat. Impact of all these is on children and mothers is enormous.
Niedonuo said as mothers we do not care just for our children but other children too who are victims of atrocities and violence. Even in Manipur during post-ceasefire agitations when people were killed, the mothers conveyed their condolences, and pleaded that they do not want to see such a situation again. Mothers are trying to make peace, not only between Nagas and Indians but also with neighboring states. She asked what is the use of destroying your own people and their property? Can we say that all these destructive and violent actions will bring peace? She said instead of waiting for the state to evolve a solution we should and must start people to people dialogue. This is the only way to build relationships and have an understanding of other’s problems. It is important to have ‘room for acknowledgement and accommodation’ and have less room for misunderstanding. Since we recognize and know the issue, she said, let us acknowledge it and appreciate each other. Lastly, she affirmed only the people can produce a solution.
While commenting on the presentation Vijaylakshmi said there must be a call to all mothers from northeastern states to unify. She said only a networking of mothers can bring in peace. Ritu Menon asked Niedonuo as to why they call their association a mothers association and not a women’s association? By calling such associations as mother’s association Ritu said we are not questioning the entire system? Niedonuo replied that any Naga women could become a member of NMA. Paula Banerjee in reply to Ritu’s query said that in a conflict situation there are very few political spaces open to women. Motherhood is one such space. Perhaps the Naga women find appropriating motherhood a way to legitimise their extremely difficult political and public negotiations.
SessionFour: 14th July’ Sunday
2:00 P.M. - 3:15 P.M.
Speaker: Krishna Banerjee
Krisnha Banerjee is an editor of a Bengali magazine named Khoj Ekhon. She said that she is also working with women on issues of political empowerment and peace. She is of the view that solution to the problems that women face do not get enough space, recognition and representation in any of the known magazines. She was a member of CPI(ML) and she believes that women’s problems need a different platform than what the political parties are willing to give. Whenever she raised the issue of women’s political empowerment in the party it was said that revolution will take care of it. And women were there to take care of the order. She was in prison and after she came out of the prison, she saw the so-called women’s magazines only dealt with the glossy issues of beauty, make-up, cooking etc and did not address actual problems of women. With the party one is not supposed to talk of such problems relating to women. There was another CPI(ML) magazine ‘Pratibedan’, but such magazines were co-opted by the party leadership for perpetrating their ideologies and views with little space left for women.
Krishna said she wanted to listen to the voices of women and their problems and then get it in print in a magazine. For this she and her colleagues went on surveys in the villages and felt acute necessity to bring out a magazine in 1995. She said one of the first Bengali woman writer was Rassundari Devi, who was born in 1820. She was illiterate and one day she dreamt of reading Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, so she got up in the middle of night and searched for the book and she couldn’t read so she started rubbing her fingers on alphabets. Her husband though supportive of her endeavour to read got irritated when she couldn’t pay enough attention to his problems. Krishna said in ancient and medieval periods women had the tradition of reading books. Nehani used to write wonderful books. Women were literate at one point of time. They used to sign deeds. In 1835 Samachar Darpan used to publish letters written by women.
While discussing issues that are addressed in Khoj Ekhon, Krishna said that in a previous issues of her magazine she discusses the problem of rape. She refers to an incident where a tribal of Tripura was raped by a BSF personnel and her husband took her back home. One of the leaders said that it was the women’s fault and because she was nasty she was raped. They questioned the husband as to why he took his raped wife back. He replied that men were injured in war and women were raped. Rape is a war scar. He asked do women leave their injured husbands? They do not he answered hence how can he leave his raped wife who was actually a victim of war. Krishna said society inflicts on women fear through the institution of rape and this is what Khoj Ekhon, intends to combat. Her magazine wishes to fight the patriarchal hierarchies of power.
In response to her presentation Karuna Singh questioned Krishna about the role of women in communist party today. Krishna replied that there are many groups within the communist party, with their own groups of women followers. But that space is not a space where women’s problems are given primacy.
9:00 – 10:15
Aparna Mahanta opened her discussion by saying that Northeast is a region with many diversities. Prior to the coming of the British, Assam, Manipur and Tripura were states of their own.
In the Northeast, the tribal sub-strata is of enormous importance and the Northeastern way of life is often governed by the tribal system. There is a greater social visibility of women in the region and farming is done by them. They are seen in the hills, at the market place and or visible in the public domain. But it was in the private sphere that they exerted greatest influence.
In the recent past, the whole of the northeast has been involved in many identity movements. The role of women in these movements and the way women are being constructed through the ideologies developed in the wake of these movements is very important. Yet their participation in the identity movements was often downplayed and men’s role in the liberation movement was glorified. Most people assumed that once liberation came the position of women would be equalized through the process of liberation.
From the time the British came, the patriarchal forces reasserted and women were marginalized. Professor Mahanta cited the example of the Khasi Hills, where the British would sign treaties with the male chiefs (nokmas), as representatives of all people. And women were kept out of the negotiating processes. Coming to the interface between the nationality/identity movements and women’s movements in the late 70’s Mahanta said both movements came at the same time in Assam. The two movements were intertwined from the beginning. Since the beginning there has been the intermingling of the two discourses. In this milieu of ethnic strife women utilised the confining spaces available to them to create a voice in the political setup. Yet after the movement achieved partial success they lost out.
Aparna is of the opinion that the issue of violence cannot be discussed in isolation. All societies are founded on violence. The concept of fear is especially prominent in rural villages. Locating violence outside the home was considered legitimate, but not identifying that violence within. She said the observation that women were never within the state is not merely a rhetoric but truth. When women’s movement brought home violence to the public domain, it was often contested and not accepted. The way violence was projected was that of an intrusion by the outsider. Violence is imbricated in our daily life. Violence in north-east must be seen as an extension of what is happening in the world.
Speaking on the issue of rape Aparna said there is a difference between the way rape is identified in liberation movements and women’s movements. Rapes in the northeast were brought in the discourse by women. In Assam, the Nari Mukthi Sangstha brought out the issue of rape, but the people did not respond. But during the Assam movement it became a public issue. There was selective demarcation of what is public rape and what is private rape. It was brought into the public domain selectively. Rapes are considered mass rapes when the victims are the representatives of the community and the perpetrators are the Army.
In the 1930’s even as the Boros were mobilizing as a community, they made a ban on the Boro women to go to the market. This ban was framed as a ban by the community but actually it was a mode by which patriarchy wanted to control women’s mobility. Similarly, Khasi women could not marry outsiders or else they would lose their inheritance rights. But Khasi men can marry outside This is a kind of control over women imposed by the patriarchy. There is very limited allocation of public space for women’s activism. Only under certain conditions women are allowed to enter the public space. Further, women’s movement has not yet got united for family reasons. Within the family context, the woman’s role as a nurturer and protector was extended. Outside of the family a women’s space was contested. If women wants to protest against violence they must learn to come out on their own in order to combat violence. In Arunachal Pradesh, women are protesting against the customary laws, the ways they have been codified and conceptualized.
In those northeast states where there is no violence, the control over women are still stringent. Customary laws are manipulated by state apparatus. Therefore, how can the struggle of women against violence be made effective? In Assam there is a great increase in social violence. Women have now been identified with the culture of protest. It is legitimate to come out and protest when your son is imprisoned. This is a positive development that might lead to the end of the culture of violence.
During the discussions Samir Das said, he had reservations about describing women’s role in that movement as political. Aparna replied that history has to be reconstructed using new methodologies. She said she considered women’s participation in Assam movement as political. But historians or social scientists who have traditionally written about these events were all male. Hence they highlighted their reservations of calling women’s participation in these movements as political.
Session Two: Women’s Panel on Issue of Gender and Citizenship, 15th July’ Monday
Participants: Paula Banerjee, N. Vijaylakshmi Brara, Ashima Kaul Bhatia and Binalakshmi Nepram
Paula Banerjee began the discussions in this session. She said that in the history of Indian women’s evolution towards citizenship from the beginning Foreigner’s Act/Abducted Persons Recovery Act, etc marginalised women from being full citizens. Although the present Citizenship Act does override these discrepancies but still marginalisation exists. Further, she said that it is interesting to know how women combat the formal structure through their negotiations in the informal structure. She compared women’s peace making roles in Sri Lanka and Nagaland and said that the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) with its ability to take up new issues and expand its programme has created a space for themselves in peacemaking and in reworking of gender relations. The NMA started in 1984. It started not because women wanted to enter the peace process but to curb the effects of alcohol on the community. In 1994 it changed its character into that of a peace group. The NMA have been proactive and widened their horizon, not limiting their activity to one role. The NMA continuously addressed contemporary issues through their programmes. When women brought the demand that they should have the prerogative of inheriting land the NMA addressed the issue of customary laws. By appropriating their role as mothers, they legitimized their role in the ceasefire process. They were able to legitimize their position and space of negotiating between different tribal groups and also overtly challenged the gender structure of their society. Paula showed concern as to why women’s informal roles in peacemaking fail to become an intervention in the formal space.
This discussion was followed by a discussion on Atwas. Athwaas, which means a handshake in Kashmiri, was born out of Kashmiri women’s desire to create democratic spaces in militarized region of Jammu and Kashmir. They visit the different parts of the State trying to humanize the violent conflict. Athwaas is being facilitated by Wiscomp (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace). The group visits the fractured reality of the state listening to narratives of women, groups and people who live on different sides of the political and ideological divide or marginalised from state structures. The idea is not to offer solutions or level accusations but to look for those alternatives that can help break the cycle of violence and revenge. Traveling from north and south Kashmir to the migrant camps in Jammu, they aim to redefine the vocabulary of the conflict, linking freedom to economic freedom and jihad to education of children and also bring to center-stage the enormity of the humanitarian suffering .In doing so they are also identifying constituencies of peace. The group is fairly representative of the composite culture of the State. The group members keeping aside their preconceived notions, prejudices, myths, stereotypes and listen to narratives of women across the divides. In the process the personal has become the political.
Vijaylakshmi Brara spoke on the Meira Paibis. She is of the view that during conflict and Meira Paibis are very organized. This has become their goal now. But Vijaylakshmi is pessimistic of the future role of Meira Paibis, the reasons being firstly, no new faces are joining the organisation. Secondly, their main role is that of watchdogs, i.e., to protect their men. Both underground and other patriarchal groups in Manipur use this. Thirdly, Meira Paibi’s seem not to have any proactive agenda.
During discussions Paula said the question why women are always pushed out in formal negotiations for peace. Ritu Menon responded by saying that both war and peace is a contract between men, they decide the terms and also when it is to be waged. They also decide when peace is to be waged and how truce should come about. Both war and peace are discourses of power. When we talk of peace it is a question of sharing of power and women are marginalised. Sanjay Chaturvedi commented that there are many links between peace and environment. It is also important to question the manner in which questions of environment can transform issues of peace. In environmental degradations women are the worst victims. The session ended with everyone agreeing that economic degradation leads to cultural degradation and in such a scenario women suffers most.
Session Three: 15th July’ Monday
11:45 A.M. -1:00 P.M.
Speaker: Samir Das
On the question of citizenship, Samir Das stated that there is the accusation that citizenship, by defination, is gender insensitive. When we talk of citizenship we talk of the modern state. It is only with the emergence of the modern state that there has been a transformation of subjects. It is also with the emergence of the modern state that subjects get transformed into citizens. If we look at the modern state from within all citizens are at par with one another (ref. Art 14 of the Indian Constitution).
Each nation state is culturally unique. The state represents its nation. The citizen is also a ‘national’ citizen. Therefore, any concept of citizenship necessarily contains the concept of the ‘national’. The state is theoretically committed to a grand Indian civilization. For e.g. if we look at immigrants coming from East Pakistan we see how the Indian state regularized them as Indian citizens.
Ethnicity is recognized to the extent that the state recognizes it. The state through its actions portray that ethnicity only begins with the state (for example the 8th Schedule). Yet we find that communities clamour to be ‘recognized’. The relation between ethnicity and citizenship is oppositional. Citizenship sometimes plays a role in making the ethnic communities assert their identity. The Assam movement looked upon citizenship as an identity. If the state could not stop the flow of migrants then the language and culture of the Assamese would be lost. On the contrary, the Gorkhaland movement is that of persons who were accused of being foreigners and yet they were claiming to be Indian citizens. They were inventing their own identity - that there is a distinction between Nepalis and Gorkhas. In trying to reinvent their identities they came in conflict with the state that maintained that it had the sole power to impose certain identities.
In the discussions that followed Sanjay Chaturvedi enquired whether Indian State has created different ethnicities? Samir Das replied in the affirmative. He said that even though describing itself as ethnically blind, the state recognizes the ethnicity of its citizens. The 6th Schedule is an example of this recognition.
Session Four: 15Th July, Monday
2:00 P.M. - 3:15 P.M.
Speaker: Subir Bhaumik
In his discussion on Tripura Subir Bhaumik maintains that it is different from all the other states in the north-east. Tripura has a left government in power. Earlier there was a princely rule in Tripura. At different periods of history, the Manikya kings of Tripura controlled large tracts of what is now Bangladesh. So it was never unusual for the Tripura kings to rule over tens of thousands of Bengali subjects. Just before the state merged with the Indian Union, nearly three-fourth of its revenues came from those areas of Eastern Bengal where the King was not a suzerain but a tax-paying zamindar of the British.Kings were great fans of Bengali culture. The Bengali farmer taught the tribes people the wet-rice plough cultivation, the Bengali teacher gave him modern education. But the Kings realised the importance of protecting the lands of the tribesmen. In backward agrarian societies, land is not merely an economic resource, it is the symbol of the collective. Just before the Partition, Maharaja Bir Bikram designed the Tribal Reserve to protect the tribal lands and their demographic edge. But the Maharaja also entered Eastern Bengal with his troops to protect the Bengali Hindus affected by riots and they got shelter in his kingdom.
But the king was not able to maintain the compactness of tribal reserve. Problems became acute when the equality between the Bengalis and the local tribal people could not be maintained.The Partition opened the floodgates of influx from East Pakistan. Tripura never had a very decisive tribal majority - it verged on a 55:45 ratio with the tribes people just ahead. But the post-Partition influx reduced the tribes people into a “foreigner in his own land” - within two decades, he was reduced to a decisive minority, barely thirty percent of the state’s total population. The demographic balance was wiped out - so was the tribal’s control of arable land, the key resource in a predominantly agricultural state. Successive governments promised return of alienated tribal lands, without success. The first such attempt - by the Left Front after it had come to power in 1978 - ended in a fierce riot in Teliamura at the tri-junction of the three districts.
According to Bhaumik the Sixth Schedule has achieved nothing in Tripura. It has only empowered a certain section. It has not only undermined the tribal population but also have paved the way for cultural rape. Subir was pessimistic about development project such as the Dumbur dam project. The Congress government commissioned a thirty-metre high dam, 3.5 kms upstream of the river Gumti to generate 8.6 MW of power . The dam submerged 46.38 sq.kms of prime agricultural land that totally belonged to the tribes people. Official records suggested 2558 tribal families were displaced but only those who had land deeds were officially treated as “oustees”, the rest of the tribal peasants got the boot . They lost their lands, the urban population, mostly Bengalis, got electricity. This emerged as the single biggest instance of ethnic injustice by an administration controlled by Bengalis and totally insensitive to tribal aspirations. Within four years, Tripura witnessed its first big ethnic riots – and though the two events are not directly connected, the scar on the tribal psyche caused by the displacement at the Gumti hydel project zone is not to be under-estimated. For those of us belonging to the older generation of Bengali families who pride in the composite ethnic traditions of Tripura with both nostalgia and perspective , it is time to work towards a strategy of ethnic reconcialition before it is too late. As much blood and tears has flown down the state’s small rivers in the last two decades as its waters - and the tiny state can take no more of bloodletting and dehumanisation. A beginning has to be made to end the mistrust - clearly, somebody has to forgive somebody for the past, and somebody has to forgive somebody for the present.
Rangita: Issue of Cultural Democracy
Khekeli: Experiences of a Woman Editor
Ashima: About Atwas
In her comments Rangita said that the concept of cultural democracy should be one of recognition, participation and representation. There have been subtle changes in the roles of women in performing arts. But do the national media highlight the position of women in conflict areas? What about the younger generation? Have we been able to articulate ourselves? We live in a hegemonic discourse. The argument is that the young people face a dilemma – that they haven’t been able to represent themselves. To this Paula Banerjee responded by expressing a desire to create a forum for the young professionals.
Khekali said all of us have our experiences. There are unlimited alternatives but it is the traditional mentality that makes us rigid. As a woman editor she has tried to combat rigidity of identities.
Aashima said that women in Kashmir has embarked on an experiment conducted by WISCOMP, where they have tried to take women from the capital to the valley and vice-versa. Women from both sections are victimized and marginalized. All Kashmiris are fighting conflict at a personal level. There is a fractured reality in the role of women in a research project. There is a need within self to see the enormity of humanitarian crisis - for women to connect to each other’s suffering. She said although our borders are secure but how secure are we? The male hegemony cannot cut across the divide. The third party is nowhere to be seen. Women’s role in the peace process is not seen.
The state, which is patriarchal and masculine, pushes us to the question of national security. How do women define security and overcome fear and strategize peace? How do we democratize the peace process?
In the discussions Karuna Singh enquired, “do the NGOs function better in tribal areas because of their personal contact with the people?”
Session Two: 15th July, Monday
Athili: About Naga movement
Bhavananda: About the peace process in Manipur
Vivi: Her experiences as the first women secretary
Eva: Geopolitics of South Asian Water ways: A study in the Geopolitics of Sustainability
During the second participants discussions Vivi spoke about the Naga Student’s Federation (NSF). The NSF was formed to strive for the students and the Nagas as a whole. She said they are trying to cultivate and uphold Naga traditions and cultures and to get involved and participate in all issues that affect the Naga people. The student community cannot be a silent spectator to those who are trying to determine the future of Nagaland and hence the NSF.
According to Bhabananda there is a cultural and social base from which Manipuri women’s uprising took place. He spoke of Manipuri myths, the role of monarchy, the colonial past and the evolution of post-colonial Manipuri politics.
Athili spoke of the NPMHR. He said NPMHR believes that human rights violation is a concern for all. Peace does not mean the absence of war. Their role is to initiate a process to define the problem and what would be the best the best solution.
Eva spoke of water treaties and said that no women have ever been involved in treaty making. Yet they are affected by it. She said in any political negotiations women should be involved.
Concluding Session: 16th July, Tuesday
In the concluding session the participants suggested following recommendation to take the initiative forward:
Peace and conflict resolution strategies in north-east should seek to accommodate and engage all involved communities and ethnic groups. They should be inclusive rather than exclusive.
Such process should concentrate not on elite/power sharing arrangements, but on alternate arrangements that lead to the empowerment of people in the grass roots and offers solutions to larger social, economic and ecological issues.
Peace process and conflict resolution strategy should be worked out on very transparent basis.
Women should be involved in all levels of peace making. Peace processes need to address gender inequalities to be sustainable.
Women’s Initiatives for Peace and Gender Justice in North East India
Author : Aparna Mahanta
Present day North East India is haunted by violence and insecurity arising out of ethnically based identity movements and the Indian state’s military intervention to control them. The regional specificity, such as its strategically important geographical position or its ethnic composition need not be reiterated here though it has a significant part to play in the present impasse. What is significant however is the specificity of women’s historical status in the region and its significance for the roles expected and possible for them in the present situation of violence and conflict and the possible effect of the situation on their future role and status. The interface of the ongoing identity movements of the region and the women’s movement, silent but growing, is the site for the shaping and reshaping of gender identity which is part, though in diametrically opposed directions, both of the nationalist projects underwriting the former movements and the goal of the women’s movement.
Recent studies on the implications for women of nationlist and communal identity formation projects have shown the crucial role of gender for a nationality’s or a community’s self-imaging. The implications of such movements for defining women’s status and roles in a society under revived or modernized systems of patriarchal domination is thus much more serious than it appears. This aspect was for a long time obscured in the North east identity movements because of the libertarian potential sensed in them. The anti-patriarchal thrust of the movements, contesting as it were the patriarchal domination of the Indian state by asserting the rights of the weaker or small nationalities was focused upon. The insidious working of patriarchy in a new environment was not properly understood or at least the ultimate consequences of the movements or the effects on gender relations were not considered. Freedom is a heady word, but if it has to be achieved at the cost of the un-freedom of some, it has to be watched or at least the costs counted particularly the long range costs which include the rise of newer patriarchies where none existed. Or to put it another way is patriarchy to be fought with patriarchies or is it not essential to evolve newer paradigms of gender relations that transcend the present unequal ones?
Though violence is the focus of the present discussion, particularly women’s role in ending it, the issue of violence cannot be discussed in isolation, as something sporadic or temporary and in which women’s agency as instigator or perpetrator is minimal. In such a reading women’s role will be simply that of a peacemaker like the pukheriela among the warring Naga tribes of yore whose status derived from the fact that she was a non-combatant. Such a reading bypasses the issue of women’s complicity as a communal subject as well as object. The present violent phases of the ethnic self-determination movements has to be seen in their structural relation to the other non-violent, peaceful, democratic movements for identity that preceded it or run concurrently with it. The ideological underpinnings of cults of violence have to be gone into, particularly the ways violence is demarcated into what is legitimate, i.e. acceptable (domestic violence) and what is illegitimate and determined as such by community approval or legal fiat. Few observers applauding the peaceful, democratic Assam movement were aware of its violent underside, which burst out in sporadic incidents like Nellie. My contention is that the ideological control of women through the identity building exercises strengthened patriarchy or even created patriarchal structures where they did not exist by the ways it legitimized and delegitimised certain types of violence, or marked out the political spaces available to women. The kind of violence meted out by the armed forces to the village women by the army in search operations is quite rightly condemned as illegitimate, but the same kind of violence meted out to a wife by a husband is glossed over and made invisible, immunized from protest by women’s groups on the ground that it was diverting attention away from the main issue.This selective condoning and condemning of violence was particularly evident in the way rape was selectively used as a political strategy. Rape was brought out from the private domain into the public political space. The women of Kamrup were raped by Indian army, the Bodo women by Assam police and therefore seen as outsider’s aggression on “our” women, and hence the subject of public anger without in any way affecting the social issue of rape and women’s honour. Nor did women contest this. The main issue in rape is that of woman’s exposure, as a sex object and outside the sacred ‘lakshman rekha’ of home. Here the army were allegedly raping the women inside their homes, during search operations, hence it was more heinous than wayside rape or in the field where it could be glossed over as indiscretion or accident. It is notable that all the publicized rapes were mass rapes, with both rapists and victims seen as faceless plurals, signifying their status as markers of community honour/dishonour with the gender aspect elided, as being not between men and women but Assamese/Indian or Bodo/Assamese.
A similar point needs to be made about the allocation of political space to women in the movements, whether peaceful or violent. During the Assam movement women went on the streets, courted arrest, were jailed, spent nights in the open, but that did not open out the spaces for them. After the movement it was the same old back to the home. Similarly in the violent movements it is within the homes that women’s support is sought, as shelter giver, food-provider, at times treasurer. Hence in the protests against violence women have not cared to transgress this space limitation. They are free to protest as “mothers”, care providers, not as citizens and autonomous subjects. The appeal for peace is made to ‘our boys’ who have gone astray. The same privileged positions as males continue to be given to the boys in the deference shown to their activities. The only successful women’s movements against violence in the North east is that of the Naga Mothers Association of Nagaland and the Meira Peibis of Manipur. Here women take the social vigilantes role, an extension of that as nurturer and care-giver, stopping trafficking in drugs and alcohol, protecting against false arrest and disappearances. In this role women are not threatening but rather protective. Though much less publicized much the same kind of role of protecting arrestees or providing care and shelter to militants is being taken by the women of rural areas in Upper and Lower Assam, who are activated more by familial considerations rather than any concrete ideas of resistance to state terrorism. Now that the protection of the movement is gone women no longer come out to the streets to protest on their own.
Even in the N.E. states not much affected by violence yet, the inherent violence of sexism and ethnic assertion is very tangibly in the air. In Meghalaya for instance the students’ organizations are sponsoring bans on intermarriage of Khasi women with outsiders on the ground that property inheritance is matrilineal. While this may be seen as resistane to the encroachment of patriarchal norms brought in by men from already patriarchal societies and undermining the sexual autonomy of Khasi women, it also smacks of attempts by their own menfolk at patriarchal control over women’s bodies in the name of preserving ethnic purity. The issues of customary laws which mainly affect women but are controlled and manipulated by men to serve sexist ends are being raised by tribal womens, organizations in some of the tribal states like Arunachal Pradesh.
Hence the struggle of women against violence in the Northeast cannot remain at the level of resistance to outward manifestations of violence, but must reach out to the ideological underpinnings of violence against women and others labeled as deviant/outsiders in the existent or emerging patriarchal structures of society. It is a major strategy of patriarchy to render invisible or make natural the violent repression of women and thus gain their willing compliance in their own subordination in the name of male superiority (read control over ideology). It is here that the role of the women’s movement comes in. By continuously drawiing attention to the gender aspects the women’s organizations demystify the ideological moorings of patriarchal structures. As a result of the reigning environment of violence in Assam, crimes against women, mainly in a domestic setting have become very common as reported almost daily in the vernacular papers. Earlier they were hardly noticed, now they are noticed because of a growing culture of women’s protest, usually organized by the local women. While organizing for political issues by women is illegitimate, organizing on women’s issues is sanctioned and women are using this space to get their voices heard. Similarly in the tribal states women’s organizations can focus on the way community interests override issues of gender justice, for instance in the administration of customary laws, and at least initiate a gender discourse that will look at issues of violent sexism in society. A culture of participatory activity by women in public, limited though it may be, as in the case of organizations like the NMA and others like it as well as the spontaneous organizations of Assamese women around cases of social violence whether perpetrated by army, ultras or private individuals and families will legitimize women’s occupation of public space for articulation of demands for social and gender justice, that will not remain confined to the domestic arena but will embrace the sphere of public action.
The Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) was founded on 9th September in 1978, based on the Universal belief that “violation of human rights in any part of the world is a threat to the human race as a whole and protection and promotion of human rights anywhere is a concern for all”. The formation of NPMHR was necessitated by the massive violations and suppression of human rights, in the midst of the political conflict between the Naga Resistance Movement on the one hand and the Indian and Burmese State on the other hand. It was also a period when the people of India were suffering immensely under state suppression in the form of the Emergency; and a general awareness of human and democratic rights was being created and debated upon. It was in this atmosphere that many people in India began to receive the Naga opinion with an open mind, during which it was formed after much debate and discussion by a group of Naga students in Delhi. Over the years NPMHR has grown into a mass movement and has initiated a number of campaigns and launched a series of activities at the local and international level.
NPMHR thus emerged with attempts to give an organized expression to the Naga peoples fight for their rights while exposing to the people of India and to the world, the State of India and Burma has been pursuing against the Nagas. The Nagas have throughout their history fiercely maintained their political and cultural independence. The policy of treating a ‘Political Issue’ as mere ‘Law and Order Problem’ and the constant application of military to force a nationalist movement to submission has resulted only into a senseless cycle of violence thereby violating human rights and robbing peace. NPMHR attempts to give a response to the campaign of annihilation of the spirit of basic human rights including the right to life and self-determination.
The Naga peoples struggle for their right to self-determination has surpassed five and half decades and yet the decolonization process that emerged in the mid-twentieth century has conveniently bypassed the Nagas’ history either because of its continued isolation or because ‘realpolitik’, not popular consent, still continues to determine the fate and destiny of many peoples and nations. Our experience of human suffering and pain has been misinterpreted and threatened at every level of the society. Yet in the midst of these bitter experiences, the people have courageously continued to manifest a strong yearning for their rights to freedom, respect, equality and justice. The existing confrontational attitude, if allowed to continue, will only enhance the lack of understanding and mistrust between the Naga people and the Indian population. The Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) is of the opinion that accusations and counter accusations would only stall the ongoing political process. It further believes that what is required at the moment is a concerted collaborative effort from both the sides to bring about better understanding and respect between the two peoples. We realize that both sides need to have the will to listen and to understand the needs and interest of the other in order to bring about a mutually acceptable solution.
It has taken all these years and a great loss of human life for the Government of India to realize that the Naga Issue is fundamentally political in nature, and thus a genuine solution can only be arrived at through negotiation and dialogue based on mutual respect and dignity. The cease-fire agreement entered into between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) on the 1st of August 1997 has facilitated the opening of a space - and the opportunity - for constructive dialogue in seeking an honourable solution. However, as we enter into the sixth year of the cease-fire we are yet to experience any substantial development, the lack of which threatens the very survival of the fragile peace initiative. This definitely calls for greater political will and sincerity on the part of all parties concerned.
While recognizing the limitations of the current peace initiative, we feel the need for constructive intervention by the people towards consolidating the peace process. We are of the opinion that for any positive outcome to emerge from the current peace initiative, negotiation and dialogue must take place at various levels of the civil society. NPMHR is thus in the process of initiating a ‘peoples to people dialogue’ with Indian civil society towards evolving better understanding, thereby creating a process of interaction and dialogue. It is implicitly a process whereby we recognize the distinction between the Government of India and the Indian civil population and realize the urgency for Indian intellectuals and civil and democratic rights group to participate and contribute in the peace process. Further NPMHR is of the view that for any viable political solution to emerge and lead towards a “sustainable peace”, it must transcend the confines of the negotiating room and engage the people; civil society has to contribute responsibly towards forming public opinion and broadening participation. We would like to believe that such initiatives will help facilitate a broader democratic space for a more consistent, constructive and sustainable process of dialogue and interaction that would address some of our common needs and interest and redefine the differences and fears that exist.
The Naga peoples wish to acknowledge the initiatives taken by groups such as this to creating a better understanding and relationship between the Naga people and the Indian society. We further hope that this would contribute towards bringing about greater transparency and accountability in the peace process. These initiatives provide opportunities to share the Naga history from our own perspective.
While the Indian state is engaged in political level talks with the Resistance groups, its machineries and agencies have embarked upon a more subtle campaign as to destroy the Naga spirit. It has continued to wage a psychological warfare with its “Army Development Groups (ADG), “Military Civic Action (MCA)” and “Operation Good Samaritan”. Notwithstanding the many beneficiaries because of these initiatives we are aware of the real design behind these. They are meant to further colonise our minds and leading the Naga people into believing that they are around in the Naga hills for the good of the Nagas. That they cannot survive without the Indian State’s dole.
They have on many occasions usurped the local administration and gone for developmental programmes. Mention may be made of the numerous excursions of young students to nearby towns and cities. Few ‘luckier’ ones have been taken to places as far as Mumbai and Delhi. Not one of these initiatives goes without a photo appearing in one of the local english dailies. Many of the ‘peace’ rallies in Naga areas of NE India were sponsored by the Army. The many ‘thank yous’ to newspapers by Nagas are uncountable. It is for discerning people to decide which ones are voluntary. What is one odd edical camp to a village in its 30 year history of pain. Does the Indian Army or the “Sathi Laga Force” think that the Naga people can be fooled by its cosmetic stunts of conducting excursions, free medical camps, music concerts, fashion shows, constructing community halls or leveling playgrounds, etc, while its intention is to subdue the mind and take away the dignity of the people. The Naga people needs to be well aware and watchful of the nefarious design of destructive forces trying to systematically intrude into our communities and lives.
This has happened not just in Naga areas of India’s North East but also in other conflict areas of the region. It has happened in Kashmir too and in other parts of the world. Peace is not just the absence of war. It is not just the absence of human rights abuses either. Peace is not just what is as understood by the elites. There cannot be peace without justice, without the acknowledgement of our history, without addressing the roots of the conflict. The present circumstances do not enable us to search and strengthen our roots.
The Naga people (and also many other marginalised and oppressed peoples) live under imposed systems and structures that are alien to our values and worldviews. The structure under which we are made to function is itself violent. Structural violence interpreted at the grassroots could mean inadequate drinking water facilities, lack of access to electricity, no basic education facility, no basic health services, unemployment, corruption in the ‘government’, etc.
We are unable to be ourselves because of this structural imposition. Our struggle is not so much to replace the rulers but to transform this conflict and resultant human sufferings to a relationship of partnership. It provides us an opportunity to seek new ways to rebuild our future. We want to determine our own destiny and future by reclaiming our history and correcting the unjust legacy.
Our vision is for the well being of the aged, for the advancement of the youth, for the liberation of women and for the protection of our children. Our vision foresees the unity of the people of our land. Building peace is a collective responsibility. It requires freedom. It demands justice. It rejects exclusion. It also requires the willingness of the stronger to listen to the positions of the weaker ones. Our vision sees beyond the present conflict and beyond the present phase of our history.
The 1947 declaration of Independence and the 1951 Plebiscite are events that are sacred to the Naga peoples. These were done by our leaders taking into consent the collective Naga spirit. If there are people who would question these, they do so because they cannot understand and appreciate our way of life, our philosophy, our relations. We believe in the collective spirit of our peoples.
Nagas have come through the years of vilification, misrepresentation and marginalisation. We continue to be subjected to situations where our wisdom and capacities are questioned by people with whom we would share a future, if not a common future. They fail to look beyond the boundaries and territories created and imposed by the state.
It demands courage and statesmanship on the part of our neighbouring peoples in fulfilling their responsibility towards the Nagas. It calls for reciprocation, humility and wisdom of the Naga peoples. It demands of us to jointly secure a future of partnership based on truth, mutual respect and dignity.
Author: Bhabananda Takhellambam
The 18th of June is remembered as the “Great June Uprising” as well as “Unity Day” in the state of Manipur. “The State government declared it as holiday to facilitate greater public participation in the observation” (The Imphal Free Press, June 18, 2002). Lakhs of people paid homage to the 18 departed souls who lost their lives in an effort to safeguard the territorial integrity of the state. It started with a public rally from Polo Ground (the heart of the city) Imphal to the memorials constructed at the site where the deceased were cremated, ending the procession with floral tributes. “Some 30 odd communities participated that included Meitei, Kabuis, Khongsais, Hmars, Kukis, Paiteis, Muslims, Punjabis, Marwaries, Jains and others, numbering about 5 lakhs” (The Imphal Free Press, June 19, 2002). The homage ended with a mammoth meeting at the Khuman Lampak Stadium. And it was women that outnumbered their male counterparts in high proportions.
The high participation of women of Manipur in the issues of nationalism is nothing new. It is a historical process, even dates back to the times of myth and legends. This is possible because the potentials of Manipuri women were regarded and realized. During the time of Meidingu Paikhomba (1666-97), a separate ‘wayel shang’ , court of justice, called “Patcha Loishang” run by women to deal the affairs of women was established. It was in existence till the 17th century, around 1891, till the arrival of Hinduism. (B. Kulachandra Sharma, “Manipurgi Leingaklonna Piramba Awangba Thaki Nupigi Hak”, Macha Leima, December, 2002).
Women’s uprising and nationalism in Manipur can broadly be divided into following parts;
Women in myth and legends:
Women of Manipur had played a very significant role in the society. Even in myth and legends the Lairembies (female deity) occupy a prominent and respectable place. The indispensability of Thong-ngak lairembi, the episode of Tangkhul Nurabi, Haoreima Sambubi or Panthoibi, Phouibi says it all. Coming closer to reality, the Leishemba myth (myth of creation of earth) and coronation of the mythological ruler Pakangba and the role played by his mother are not just a myth for; “it (myth) is not an idle tale, but a hard worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imaginary, but a pragmatic character of primitive faith and moral wisdom”. (Brownislow Malinowski, “Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays”, cited in Thanaoujam Chanu Ibemhal, Haoreima Sambubi (Imphal: Lamyanba Printers, 2000) p. 22.)
Women’s Uprising during monarchial times:
The exploits of royal ladies like Laisana queen to Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, queen Laitonkhu wife of Pengshiba, and the ingenuity of Queen Yaourei Leiyathi Khunkam Leinamung, the love story of Pitanga, the episode of king Thawan Thaba Hiran, valour of Queen Lingthoingambi are an example of Manipuri women’s courage. Outside the state of Manipur, the history of Manipuri princess Karunganayani is well read.
Besides the royal ladies, in political sphere, the influence of common women in the administration cannot be ignored. It was customary for the women folk to gather in groups and present their grievances before the king. Even death sentences were reprieved if women pleaded on behalf of the accused. “In Raja’s days a criminal sentenced to death was occasionally reprieved if a sufficient number of women appeared to intercede for him”. (Manjusri Chaki-Sircar, Feminism in a Traditional Society, [New Delhi: Shakti Books, 1984], p. 26.)
Even the process of sanskritization that began in the 18th Century with the ascendance of king Pamheiba to the throne of Manipur under the title of Garibnawaz (refuge of the poor) was checked due to the presence of a strong female power. Thus, Hinduism has been absorbed in the ethnic culture. For there was a pervasive and distinctive role for women in the public sphere, viz. political economic social and religious, found perhaps nowhere in other parts of India.
Women’s uprising during colonial times:
The Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891 marked the end of sovereign and independent existence of the Manipur forever; it was the beginning of the British rule of Manipur, as a part of British Indian administration, and after 1947, as a state of the Indian Union.
The first popular uprising was the event of 1904 popularly known as First Nupi Lal. It was against the British orders of punitive punishment, to rebuild the new state bungalow (burnt down by some unidentified miscreants) purchased by the government form Mr. Mitchell, the executive engineer and occupied by Mr. Nuttal and Dunlop (Letter from Maxwell to the Secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Assam. No. 373, dt. 1st October, 1904, in Naorem Lokendra, Unquiet Valley, New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1998 p. 76.) Though the uprising was for a short span, the result and impact it created on the British administration far outweigh the time period. “The intensity of the backlash forced the political agent to rescind the rebuilding orders”. (N. Joykumar Singh, The 1904 Movement, in The Third Annual Conference of Northeast India History Association, Imphal: Manipur University, 1982).
The women’s agitation was seen again in popular Bazaar Boycott Agitation of 1920-21. This agitation from the memorandum submitted to the judicial member on 25th September reveals that it was against the exploitation of native traders by the Marwaris.
One of the most important events in the colonial history of Manipur was the “Women’s Agitation of 1939” more popularly known as the second Nupi Lal. The agitation, which started for a ban in export of rice from Manipur, suddenly, took the form of anti-monarchial and anti-imperialist uprising.
Due to this uprising many reforms were introduced and changes were made in the administration of Manipur. Chief court was established in Manipur. A council replaced the Durbar in 1946-47. Acts like Manipur Constitution Act, Manipur State election Act, etc. were passed. Election rules were constituted and election was also held in the state. In 1948 Manipur Assembly was established.
Women’s Uprising in the post-colonial times:
In the post-colonial times the political awareness of women was very high. In 1954 and 1959 women played an active part in demand for responsible government in Manipur. In 1960 women formed ‘Women Assembly Demand Committee’ to press the central government to grant responsible government in Manipur. Women’s participation in ‘Statehood Demand Movement’ was very significant in late 60’s. After statehood in 1973, when the Manipur Peoples Party led government was toppled due to defection in the party, women were first to agitate against it and shouted slogans of ‘anti-defections’.
Now, the present state of affairs in Manipur is characterized by a high degree of social, economic and political instability. The instability is dominated by fragmentation and fractionalization of the polity and society. The innumerable participants, each espousing its own cause, have complicated the political and economic scenario of the state. The 1980’s and early part of the 1990’s have presented the most common features of inter ethnic clashes and undertones of insurgency activities. Counter-insurgency operations have resulted in gross violation of Human Rights, rape, torture, disappeared persons; in Manipur it is everything worst that you can imagine of. To counter these threats the women of Manipur have taken up the lead and responsibility again in the form of Meira Paibi.
Meira paibi got its name as an organization about two decades ago, but the organization has a long history in another name of ‘Nisha Bandhi uprising’ that began around the mid 70’s. Nisha Bandhi was against the sale and consumption of intoxicants, more so liquor. In the year 1991-92, their efforts (then transformed into the Meira Paibi movement) finally paid off. The then Government of Manipur led by Manipur Peoples Party of R.K. Ranbirsana passed the prohibition order on the sale and consumption of liquor. Manipur was declared a dry state, and is still today.
Meira Paibi uprising can be taken as the logical outcome of the rise of insurgency and counter-insurgency policy in the state. To counter the menace arising out of this dialectic, the women started spending nights outside the comforts of their homes, patrolling the streets and guarding their locality against any surprise search operations of the armed forces. They took up the “meira”, an improvised bamboo torch, and it became the symbol of their movement, and thus the name “Meira Paibi Uprising” (Uprising of women who hold meira). To spend the night the women needed a proper place to rest or stay. This led to the construction of improvised shed, now popularly known as Meira Shang. Today, all the localities have Meira Paibi organizations, and almost every locality has their own Meira Shang.
The Meira at the first glance may appear to be just another source of light in the dark. But if one looks deeper, it has a significant meaning of its own. Holding the lit up meira, the Meira Paibis (paibis is the plural of paibi) feel confident to face any untoward incidents. It gives them a sense of security. It is a symbol of their dignity and moral strength. It is sacred to them for it gives strength and inspiration. It gives them the courage necessary to face and protect themselves and others in the face of adversaries. It is a reminder of the sacred oath that they took, to fight injustice. And above all the meira is the mascot of solidarity inside their own Miera Paibi group as well as among other Meira Paibi groups all over the state.
The socio-cultural and political tradition of Manipur has legitimized the women of Manipur in whatever task that they may take up. The legitimacy is based much more on social and moral approval, than on legal sanctions. Manipuri society does not permit men to inflict physical harm to women, at least in public. Even in traditional times, women were exempted from capital punishment. The strength and courage necessary to face any adversary was born from these social and moral obligations of the society toward women.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the problems of this trouble torn state of Manipur up to large extent could be solved with Meira Paibi. “Given the inherent strength of Meira Paibi movement, I am sure that they would be able to take up these (lawlessness, insurgency, corruption, social evils) important issues and usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the state, where the people irrespective of their religion, caste or creed would be able to enjoy the fruits of development and march along the path of progress towards a bright future” (“Governor urges meira paibis to play the role of peace makers”, The Sangai Express, Imphal, Monday 1, 2001, p. 1.)
Author: Eva Saroach
As a natural resource, water (and the water discourse) involves the environment. But even the environment that we have come to understand is the outcome of how, “Nature is transformed by a sophisticated series of forms of knowledge and the endless writing of reports that empowers its divide and control nature in order to develop and modernize it”. It is within this ecological discourse that relationship between environment and geopolitics is formulated and a ‘new environmental geopolitics’ is constructed. The integration of environmental issues like, ozone depletion, water disputes, transboundary pollution etc, into geopolitical reasoning suggests that a new form of power-knowledge is now a part of twentieth century geopolitics.This does not mean that environmental problems do not exist in reality. Various examples of accelerated environmental degradation, including transboundary pollution, diminishing forest reserves, depleting fresh water resources definitely raise crucial questions regarding the well being of humans ecosystem. But it is the manner in which environmental ‘problems’ are conceptualized and prioritized, or the way solutions are sought to such problems, which remains at the heart of environmental geopolitics.
These new dimensions of ‘green’ geopolitics are therefore not innocent constructions about the environment. They signify a particular understanding of the world that very much relates to traditional thinking of global geopolitics, but is now revived and reformulated in terms of a new language. The language here becomes a strategy of conceptualizing, thematizing and even controlling nature. Consequently, ecology emerges as a geopolitical metaphor, whereas wild nature becomes a passive ecosystemic infrastructure, simply waiting to be tamed by a green geopolitics. Such ecosystemic structures are, in other words, related to political power entrapped within the global political economy. This form of geopolitics is described by Vandana Shiva as ‘Green Imperialism’.
Once the traditional geopolitics has refurbished itself in ecological terms, it is within this discourse that green geopolitics nurtures itself both as a theory and practices. Thus, it is argued here that concepts such as ‘ecological security’ and ‘environmental sustainability’ need to be problemtized, since such categories often reveal “more about environmental knowledge is produced as a political resource than an appreciation of particular material circumstances. A better understanding of how a series of ecological ‘threats’ is constructed is possible only by challenging, or at least by going beyond, the conventional categories and typologies which privilege and protect certain actors, interests and priorities. Briefly touching upon the term “sustainable Development”. I find this term an oxymoron. Sustainable development constructs and projects all environmental problems as ‘efficiency’ issues, which somehow have to be managed by the class of the so-called experts or techno-managers. Also, policies once enframed in the language of ‘sustainable development’ provide state actors with a pseudo-scientific justification in support of select global environmental agreements. Such a clever manoeuvring or manipulation of ecological rhetoric, which is deeply embedded in state-centric geopolitics, does provide the political elite with an unusually cohesive power-knowledge combination for making sustainability discourse an integral element of this new green geopolitical approach.
Access to freshwater resources has always been a highly contested political issue. After all both power and politics in the final sense are about access to resources, be they natural, human or imaginary. The issue of who gets what, when, where and how out of transboundary watercourses, including aquifers, is primarily a geopolitical problem related to multifaceted question of domestic political concerns, ideological priorities, official foreign policy attitudes, regime stability and boundary drawing practices. The political actors involved both within and among the sovereign nation- states, view water security as an important aspect of national and regional security. Further, various competing international positions on water issues often have a geopolitical dimension that reflects engagement with broader ‘national’ objectives of security or development or both. That is why, even the concept of sustainable development needs to be problematized. As the politics of sustainability and sustainable development are complementary to each other. Whereas ethics of sustainability demands an altogether different approach to the sustainable development and management of waterways. Ethics of sustainability means, economically viable, culturally appropriate, gender sensitive and ecologically sustainable management and development of waterways. As in the state centric approach to the understanding and also the ways the solutions are devised these codes are missing.
Though, in terms of sub-continental hydrography, the post-colonial, post-partitioned states of South Asia, are united, sharing the Indus river basin (India and Pakistan) and Ganga–Bhramputra-Meghna basin (India-Bangaladesh-Nepal), geopolitically they stand divided; as against the backdrop of asymmetry of wealth, knowledge and information, water issues continue to induce conflict and struggle among them for power in various forms.
In the South Asian context, anxiety over the availability of the fresh water resources, has more often than not resulted in turning water into a security issue. Utmost secrecy is maintained regarding actual facts/figures of water availability or scarcity. For instance, whether the Farakka Barage has actually harmed Bangladesh or not, or it has caused great physical and mental harm to many communities in Eastern Bihar and West Bengal, is one of the most well-guarded secrets of the Indian state. The strategy of ‘revealing’, ‘not revealing’ and also ‘partly revealing’, has always been the hallmark of traditional geopolitics of water resources, which unfortunately seems to persist in South Asia. Needless to say, such ‘strategies’, or rather machinations of statecraft, including ‘cartographies of secrecy and silence’ remain a major obstacle in the way of ecologically sustainable development and management of the South Asian waterways.
It can also be argued perhaps that sovereign states engaged in the relentless pursuit of their respective national self-interests are often inclined towards resolving the water conflicts in a non-cooperative, myopic way. Such policies have often proved to be a failure in the face of the growing demands, as newly emerged water uses compete with the existing ones, demanding that either new priorities are established or innovative accommodations devised. As in the case of Indus river basin, both India and Pakistan, due to strongly entrenched notions of ‘Otherness’ and the alleged incompatibility of ‘national positions’ have shown reluctance to adopt integrated basin development plans. Although the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 has been hailed more or less universally as a success story, thanks largely to the third party mediation by the World Bank, for some what the Treaty had actually achieved with remarkable efficiency was to partition the integrated Indus river basin. The imperatives of an integrated-holistic model of the sustainable development and management of the river basin would have demanded a very different approach to the whole issue on the part of both the parties. Recently, the Indus Water Treaty has been publicly denounced by the Jammu and Kashmir government as being discriminatory to the state. The J&K government feels that its interests have been hurt on at least two major counts. First, it cannot use the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Second, it fails to get any compensation for the power generated from the three rivers on which India exercises control.
The Mahakali Treaty of 1996, signed between India and Nepal is also one such example where the ethics of water sharing could not bypass the deeply entrenched issues of sovereignty and (in)security or for that matter ideological contestations. Thus far the dominant trend among the two nation-states has been to perceive water issues both as a major problem area and as a valuable resource to enhance their respective ‘national’ power and defense. In the process, the water issues have been (mis)used to sustain the conventional geopolitical considerations. At the same time, the technological ‘interventions’ of all kinds have adversely affected human ecology and the capacity of nature to renew life support systems. Those who adopt the “mining” attitude vis-à-vis nature and its endowments, especially water, emboldened by various technological advances, often overlook the sad plight of people at the receiving end; the disempowered coastal communities struggling along the international waterways or the displaced due to the ‘damming’ of rivers. For certain politicians, technocrats and the big contractors, such communities are neither nationalist nor patriotic enough since they oppose ‘development’ and ‘progress’ embodied in big dams. In the perception of such builders of ‘modern Indian temples’, the traditional knowledge and wisdom of the coastal communities is primitive and not futuristic, conservative and not radical.
It is perhaps time for the states and the regimes the world over to move from ‘state centric approach’ to the ‘people centric approach’. In today’s interdependent world, spoils of the imagined victory would soon be offset by the actual costs of ecological decline and the resultant instability at local, national and regional levels. The plain and simple fact needs to be retold with all possible emphasis at one’s command that historically rivers might have been used by the map makers to delineate political boundaries, but ecologically speaking rivers join and not divide nations. Any river which flows through two or more nations is supported by a ecosystem that cuts across political boundaries, and cooperation is needed among the riparian states not only to avert conflict but also to protect the natural ecosystem. Further, as water is a life sustaining resource, the ethics of water sharing demands sharing both with the nature and among each other. The ethics of sustainability requires a new, normative, and humane geopolitics, in place of a state-centric, power-oriented geopolitics of mastering space and resources. A radical reformulation of the conventional understandings of sovereignty, security and development alone will ensure ecologically sustainable, culturally appropriate, gender sensitive and economically viable development and management of the international waterways in the interest of humanity as a whole.
Author : Rangitabali Waikhom
When I look into the enormity of problems of the conflict torn state of Manipur, overwhelmed by inter ethnic clashes, poverty, the magnitude of violence and other oppressive forces, the response of the younger generation of women go unnoticed. They are the women who are interested in a creative expression of culture and who would like to be represented in the national pantheon of voices, but their voices are little heard and in a sense marginalized. Everybody talks about Meira Paibi but none talks about the educated group, educated young women who would like a certain kind of self representation in different aspects of expression of arts, literature, music, dance, politics, intellectuals, the built environment, and the entire array of voluntary activities. The problem is complex; the sense of identity is acute. They are the voices from an underdeveloped society trying to catch up with the world’s development.
The younger people endeavor to raise their subdued voices of the young about what they want to see, what kind of problems they experience in the economy, society, arts and where lies their voice in the larger democracy like the one in India. In this context the main problem is the dilemma and confusion about how these young women who are in a process of making efforts to locate their self-realization, cultural and political aspirations etc. The question, which worries, is where are we now?
It is true that whatever little voices Manipuri women speak out is concerned with our problems, our state. So it doesn’t attract attention beyond this boundary. The issues as such are not of national interest. Everybody is aware of the role of Arundhati Roy—her solidarity as the activist of Narmada Bachao Andolan. It came as news headlines and it was nice to hear when 22 years old Rup Kanwar lost 19 kg in four days. It was wonderful for us. But who is concerned about Irom Sharmila Chanu who is fasting for almost 2 years without any food now (still surviving in artificial feeding)? And the saga of many others still remained unsung. It is a question to be asked how many civilian women and young girls are tortured, raped, and killed by the Indian security forces while fighting with insurgents? Do we ignore their voices just as mere fallout of insurgency? If you look at the presence of the army in the northeast you will know what kind of condition the northeast has and how women in conflict and women in the cultural endeavour exist or survive. It is a very delicate issue. There is no representation of these women in our media. The national media has also ignored any of such women’s issues in their agenda and whatever reasons they are not able to cross the lines.
Our art forms are very dependent today. Even masculine voices are stunned so, where will the voice of woman come out? It exhibits a stereotype image of Manipuri woman, which the world has imagined –women dancing, singing, accompanying their male counterparts etc. The drama in reality and the drama, which is represented, are being distanced. Few get the recognition and are awarded. But we cannot represent Irom Sharmila Chanu in our drama cinema or theatre. Again the question of why the voice of the woman cannot be projected can be raised. Many of the Manipuri talented artists whom you see today are representing which India wants to show them as Manipuris not as Manipuris want to show themselves. Thereby the true representation is halted by the discourse itself.
I cannot plead for a dance, drama /theatre or in any other form where women voice is raised for you to recognize. The problem is not a question of our appealing to understand us neither a kind of assertion to recognize us in the democratic set up but it is time to let others know that our realities are something, which are quite different from whatever else you are expecting. It is rather a kind of our anguish and dilemma.
We want to know ourselves. We have our unique features of crisis. When we try to represent ourselves we are unable to locate our voices as we have not yet succeeded to articulate our contempory position.
If you want me to speak as a young contempory women ‘s voice that represents as a Manipuri of the 21st century then it’s important to see beyond the images of great dancers in numerous institutions, going foreign tours or images of young girls in the television. The outsiders long to see us through the level of exotic culture everything choreographed and commodified. You want to see us in this way and not concerned to see other things, which remains obscured, and perhaps which are the source of all the things.
Many of our women meira paibi – an entire grassroots generation, market women, peasantry, proletariat etc., apart form their economic contribution form serious motherhood in order to stop the repressions thereby dissipate their energies. They cannot get out of that and are going to stay for they cannot be wished away. But there is something very inner crisis of womanhood which is reflected in elderly uneducated generation but whose values are very strong about right and wrong. we younger ones fail to be like them or follow their footsteps. We are facing big expectations and represent the middle class aspirations. At the same time we expect emotional and economic security and have genuine problems relating to that. There is a crisis for us specially educated women and our problems are a condition of gender in a period of suppression and dehumanization- an attempt to have a united voice lies in this critical period. We are not either westernizing or indigenring ourselves or take the fundamentalist position because we are not yet free from how to represent and assert our voice.
At this juncture it is quite impossible through the gender movement and all those international discourse to view our women in our own cultural, social and economic reality because our women have a distinctive culture and responses to the influences and problems of life. Many cases within the pan-Indian nationalism cannot reach us. Our national genesis undermined by history made our problems more complicated.
The alienation and distance are complete and in the age of global communication it seems still excommunicated. So we stand nowhere in the institutional recognition. We are free, liberal but the native discourse is to be realized.
The Manipuri women live and fight because they have to fight. It is a matter of importance to understand and on this ground of ‘how are we so’ when one wants to discuss or speak on the contempory women’s movements and not that “I have been kept in the kitchen, I need to break free. I am an actress give me award, I am a writer please recognize me etc” but something more the voice is the search for the self.
We all need to strive for getting correct clues, we need time and understand our resources to self organize, our practical and fieldwork experiences need to expand the network. And when organised the younger generation can also focus on the process of peacemaking and conflict resolution and to mobilise ourselves to identify peace and resist violence. We also need to analyse how women can work towards peace in the violence affected Northeast India. The right kind of efforts and articulation will also enable the Meira Paibis of the state to widen the horizon to change its character forming a peace forum and linked directly in peacemaking process. We need to read ourselves to know about our history and many references that have shaped our history. The question “where are we now” is to be rethought and redefined and we need to reflect why these question arises. This itself is the battle. We are going to fight to overcome the alienation of our voice from our own roots. And perhaps this is our present voice.
Manipuri Theatre and its Role in Peace Making
Author: N.Vijaylakshmi Brara
“The Manipuri theatre has a long history, a fine tradition of chivalry, arts and culture,” wrote Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.
What does the word Theatre mean? For me it means performance. A performance, that sends out a message. It also means drama, with all its splendour and elaborate casts and crews with its make believe spectacular scenes. In this context, I perceive that the whole Manipur State permeates with theatrical elements. In my book also, I have suggested that Manipur was and to some extent it still is in fact a ‘Theatre tate’ . And when I say this I do not mean that it is a ‘full of fun’, a non-serious kind of structure. In fact what I have suggested is that drama, display, ceremony and splendour form an intrinsic part of the state pparatus.
But why does the state manifest itself in such a way and how does it do it? We should not forget that a good performance leaves a strong impact on our minds. It also leaves us with a feeling of awe and reverence when we see a spectacular display. One still remembers the impact of the television drama, Ramayana. The magical feats and the spectacular performance of various modern day Godmen in front of thousands of disciples are all too familiar. Jayalalitha’s aura and her role as the mother (Amma) of Tamil land is also always seen as accompanied by elaborate rituals, perfusing some kind of cosmic aura around her.
The concept of Theatre State
The concept of Theatre State was propounded by an anthropologist called Clifford Geertz. He drew a parallel between the statecraft of the Balinese State and theatrical art. ‘It was a Theatre state in which the kings and the princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and the audience.’ According to him spectacles, elaborate ceremonies and public dramatizations were not means to political ends, they were the ends in themselves.’ Court ceremonialism was the driving force of the court politics’. Thus power served upon pomp and not pomp, power.” The ritual life of the court was not merely reflective of social order but also of supernatural order, upon which all individuals in strict proportions to their status sought to pattern their lives.
In Manipur, the State ritual was not a simple coronation of a particular king but an expression of cosmic energies, through this ritual. The ritual and the belief in kingship were the object of respect and veneration for the people, and not the king as a person. The rituals related to the belief in kingship and involved reenactments of origin myths. They were extremely ceremonial and theatrical. Individual kings were only the ‘actors’, enacting the role assigned to them in this whole performance. In the coronation ceremony a lot of emphasis was placed on the ritual coition between the king and the queen. This enactment of fertility principle was seen to reflect the procreation of cosmic energies and also enhanced the procreative power of its people and the earth. The adornment of Tangkhul dress by the king and the construction of the royal house in Tangkhul architecture were reflective of the brotherhood with the hill people. Needless to say, that prosperity and brotherhood were considered pre-requisite in ensuring peace and peaceful coexistence between its people.
Lai-Haraoba (the appeasement of the deities) The Lai-Haraoba is another detailed theatrical exercise where the traditional priests and priestesses (the Maibas and the Maibis) are the main actors while the people are the accompanied artists. Together they enact the beginning of life through its conception in the mother’s womb, the birth, the construction of the house and the start of the settlement, the cultivation of land, the weaving of clothes and a dance in a serpentine track (Lairel mathak) that represents the regeneration and continuation of the civilization.
The importance of the success of Lai-Haraoba is seen as directly linked, with the prosperity of the state and then to the prosperity of the individuals. It was, and still can be seen as, an appeasement of the ancestors for the welfare of the whole state. It should be seen as the origin of the people’s theatre. The people’s involvement is complete. Various dances of Tangkhuls, Kabuis and other hill tribes are essential part of the Lai-Haraoba. The prosperity and peaceful co-existence is again emphasized. In the past therefore, our ancestors had a clear vision. They knew that prosperity of the whole state is essential for a peaceful society. This aspect was emphasized in the theatrical anecdotes of both Coronation and Lai-Haraoba. I fail to understand as to why our present leaders fail to understand this and instead continue giving us the usual chicken and egg story. Although the enactment of prosperity rituals do gain importance when they have to stand for elections.
But, whose prosperity?
Lai-Haraoba was not only the religious festival enacted regularly though the nook and corner of the Meitei society since time immemorial, it also provided the most important form of public entertainment which both the royalty and public could enjoy and also participate. Legends, folk tales were enacted through dance forms, songs etc. In fact, the present day Manipuri proscenium theatre as well as Shumang Leela (Street Theatre) could be traced back to the Lai Haraoba festival.
The present “stage”
Today Manipur has two types of organized theatre groups with apex bodies and an organized administration. One performs on the stage (proscenium theatre) and the other on the streets inside the localities in ‘Jatra’ style popularly called Shumang Leela.
History records that it was in 1902 that a play called ‘PRAVAS MILAN’ was enacted in Bengali in the precincts of late Raja Dumbra Singh with rolling scenes and prompted speech in which actors both from the Bengali and Manipuri communities participated. This set the trend for the growth of proscenium theatre. Many historical and mythological plays were translated and enacted. There were both Bengali and Manipuri theatre groups. The Bamacharan Mukhopadhya Bandhap Natya Shala was the most prominent Bengali group. The first Manipuri language drama (Narasingh) was written in 1925 by late L.Ibungohal Singh, which was performed in the Govindajee Temple complex. Manipuri theatre gradually expanded. The Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU), the oldest group was established in 1931, the Aryan Theatre in1935, Rupmahal in 1943. The youngest of all the groups, the Chorus Repertory of Ratan Thiyam was established much later, only in 1976. MDU used the genre of utilizing folkloric traditions. The themes revolved around the depiction of poverty, domestic violence, drunkenness etc. Rupmahal Theatre Company started with the mythological plays. They were very loud and full of melodrama. Later they started taking up renowned satirist GC Tongbra’s plays and revolutionary social thinker Arambam Somorendro’s plays. One of their latest productions is based on the Naga-Kuki problem directed by Khundombom Brojendro.
Their style remains melodramatic having a fixed weekly clientele along with family and friends of the artists. Today we have around forty theatre groups spread all over the valley. The latest of them being ‘Forum for Laboratory Theatres of Manipur, which was established in 1990. The proscenium theatre today has been de-cotextualized, according to Dr. N.Premchand (a noted theatre director). His contention is that, “ Instead of confronting the home audience theatre in Manipur has become interested in showing to the audience outside Manipur.” With the result, changes in social and political life are not taken notice of and instead it misrepresents the people as forever fixed in an exotic and eternal world of tradition. Therefore, sometimes even though the ultimate message may be relevant. For example, peace and non-violence in Ratan Thiyam’s Chakravuh, or the diginity of woman in Kannahilal’s Draupadi, it does not touch the heart. The audience does appreciate the intricate theatrical exercises but the story seems to be outside the context and therefore fail to carry the message home. What we need is to build on the popular theatre and create a kind of ethno-political dramas, if we feel that there is a need for the proscenium theatre to play a role in the peace making.
Sumang leelas are on the other hand more popular form of plays. They are also the roving entertainment groups, which regale the people with their earthy, spontaneous humour interacting directly with the audience, which surrounds the performers. Rather than concentrating on historical and mythical themes, the shumang leelas have mainly dealt with contemporary issues. They have instead filled the place and have taken a prominent lead in playing an active role in carrying the message of peace, and fight against other social evils. They are the street plays of Manipur with an apex body called the Manipur State Sumanglila Council. There are around twenty-four Sumang leela groups, out of which ten are exclusively women groups and fourteen are exclusively male groups. This gender exclusivity is a very unique feature of this art form. In male groups the female role is enacted by a male and in female groups the male role is enacted by a female. In the early phases mythological and religious themes dominated these Leelas. A little later it started subtly critisizing the aberrations in the society and gave expression to people’s protest against the British rule, oppression and exploitation, wrapping it up with fun and humour. According to L.Damodar Singh,” It is a tool for ‘social engineering’ and conscience keepers.”. “ Sumang Leela is a powerful weapon to register the protests of the people. Therefore it is full of vitality because of its inner strength and resilience to provide entertainment as well as create awareness.” It has an innate quality to enthrall and involve the audience. It’s a people’s theatre because it reflects their joys, ideals and dreams along with their sorrows, fears and anguish. Recently, Sanaleibak Nachom Artists Association did a leela on WTC. Meitei leima Jatras cum drama Association did a leela called the ‘Black Day’, basing their theme on how the common people are caught between the Army and the under ground extremist groups. It got the best play award in the All Manipur Sumang Leela competition conducted by the State Kala Academy. This group has got another play titled ‘Curfew’, which shows the personal human feelings transcending the communal divide created between the Meiteis and the Tangkhuls. In the past these Sumangleela groups have been also performing on the themes related to domestic violence, drugs, AIDS, polygamy, army atrocities, corruption etc. One can see people bringing their own stools and sitting around an open stage till two in the morning and coming back with faces full of various kinds of emotions. The involvement is complete.
Even though women actively participated in the public religious ceremonies and functions, both before the advent of Hinduism, viz., Lai Haraoba as well and after the advent of Hinduism, viz., Ras Leela, Goura Leela etc., women’s participation in the stage dramas was rare. Their participation was not encouraged. The women’s role was played by the male artists. They began participating only since the 1930s. The female artists were mainly drawn from those who were involved in the Mandap Leela (religious plays performed in the temple Mandaps), Kubak Eeshei (Songs by clapping) Marbak Jagoi artists (a from of Hindustani dance which was very popular during the 2nd Word War amongst the army jawans) etc. Before the advent/popularization of Proscenium Theater, the Mandap Leela was patronized by the King. During the reign of King Chandrakirti, Sabhaparva, a mandap leela was very popular, in which female artists like Kangbam Maipakpi Devi, Soirem Keinya used to take part. They also appeared in a number of plays produced/organized by the State Education Department which also played a pioneering role in the popularization of the proscenium theatre. Women artists (Sairem Lakshmi, Khundrakpam Prabhapati, Laitonjam Meetlu, Soibam Angangpemma, Maimom Thambalgou etc) also appeared in the Prahlada Charit enacted by the Nambol Drama Samiti directed by Okram Ibomcha in the year 1923. Thereafter in 1926 in the play Sabhaparva directed by Chongtham Mayurdhwaja, Lourembam Leibak Leima played the role of Droupadi, and Konjengbam Pishak the role of Kunti. Other female artists like Palujam Moithap, Ngangom Pashot, Yumnam Ongbi Nungshimatum also acted in that play. These female artists were pioneers in the field. They revolted against the societal notions, which considered them ‘fast’, and of loose character. These women were beautiful and won the hearts of many for the roles they played. Unfortunately, many of them did not lead happy married lives. It was mainly after the 2nd World War, the female artists began to increase in number and also started gaining social acceptability. Even in Sumang Leelas, earlier there were only male artists. In recent years all women Sumang Leela has come up but they only present their plays in the yearly festivals. They are mostly based on the traditional religious and mythological plays like ‘Moirang Parva’, and stories like Khamba and Thoibi (the eternal lovers). Lately though they have started taking up issues such as drug addiction, alcoholism etc. It will be not be wrong to say that they have today, become an extension of the Meira-Paibi movement. The women artists are mainly the market women, who after their long and tiring hard work, collect in the evening and release their creative energies through this medium. There is very little intellectual intervention and the theme revolves around maintaining good social order. Many of the Meira-Paibi leaders of today, whom I talked to recently, are sumangleela artists of yesteryears. On asking as to why they felt the need for all women Sumangleela, they answered that in mythological plays women looked aesthetically more pleasing than men dressed as women. They lament that they could not continue as actors as other issues gained priority over a period of time. There has also been no recent recruitment of young women, and not many people want to pay and come to see old artists. They feel that they have a peripheral status in relation to the patronage given to the artists of Raas-Leela and Pung-Cholam etc. Therefore, they have chosen to put their points across through the medium of Meira-Paibi movement. Although as said earlier, they continue to present their leela in the yearly festivals.
I feel that Sumang leelas are the fertile ground for generating peaceful co-existence among the people of Manipur. The potential lies here. They are the street theatre and therefore are mobile. It is they who receive the audience. Therefore they can also choose their audience. But before doing that they have to envisage their problems and broaden their horizons. They have to realize their potential and also understand their responsibility. I am not saying that they do not understand, but what I am trying to say is that in the present scenario, they have to shoulder a greater burden. I have also said earlier that the involvement of the Sumang Leela artists with the audience is complete. The people sitting all around the stage get encapsulated with the actors and feel one with them. I would suggest to the director of the play ‘Curfew’, for instance, to take his troop to the hills. At the moments I do not think of materiel motives. The way they have involved the valley people they also have the potential to attract the hill people. Write more scripts on such issues, convey the futility of killing and emphasize the power of the people, and selfish motives of certain political leaders. Wrap it up with satire, with humour. Humour strikes deeper and causes less pain. Dramatic performance has great impact. It is much more powerful than written or visual media. Sumang leela or the street theatre as we generally call them has even greater appreciation and therefore greater impact in Manipur than the proscenium theatre. Similar to Lai Haraoba, Sumang Lilaa have a familiar and informal aura around them. This kind of non-intimidating atmosphere attracts people. It encourages people to react instinctively and consequently builds a connection. In my paper I have promised to discuss ‘Manipuri Theatre’, but have discussed only the valley theatre. And here lies our basic problem. In our literature, in our studies in history, and in our day to day references, ‘manipuri’ has become synonymous with ‘meitei’. In my case I am a bit justified because there are no theatre forms existing in the hills. But can we not involve some people from the hills in our troops? After all Sumangleela of the present times is very secular and does not even have a strong regional (valley) outlook. It is I feel the best platform for hillvalley amalgamation. It can in that way become a true ‘Manipuri Theatre”.
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Khurai Awang Kongpal, Laishram Leikai,
Phone : 0385-321075
Email : email@example.com
Rangitabali Waikhom Waikhom
Moirangkhom Sougaijam Leirak,
Imphal, Manipur- 795 001
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org