For the Love of “Cultures of Peace”

by – Shruti Sareen (with inputs on the Second day of Events by Rini Barman. )

The India Habitat Centre witnessed revelry of colour, art, poetry and music on 28th and 29th January 2011 in Cultures of Peace, a festival of the North East. It may seem ironical that cultures stereotypically associated with violence were here invoked as Cultures of Peace. This is what the festival tried to bring home, the message that life in the north-east is not one merely of violence, but of peace and love as well, and that focussing on peace and love is the key answer to the violence and terror in the region.

The first of the round table conferences, which as Sanjoy Hazarika pointed out, was actually a long table instead of a round table, was around the theme “Writing Peace, Writing Violence”. Indrani Raimedhi, Arupa Kalita and Pradip Phanjoubam focussed on the implicit violence in the north-east: the drum beats, the gun shots, people dying, the domination by the Assamese of certain surrounding areas of Meghalaya and Nagaland. Temsula Ao, a Nagini who spent her childhood in Assam, spoke of the emotional violence, that crisis of identity and belongingness this creates, and how both Nagas and Assamese people tend to see her as “the other”. Subir Bhaumik chose to focus on peace through the reminiscence of his army training, of generations of his family who had served the Tripura king in the army, and his decision to leave it all. Ananya Guha and Aruni Kashyap spoke in vivid terms about the cultures of the north-east which they do not see as implicitly associated only with violence. Ananya Guha talked about the land and nature, maintaining that spreading peace will inevitably lead to the lessening of violence, whereas Aruni Kashyap chose to show the ordinary experiences of common folk in the north-east, of the people living and not necessarily only the people dying. Nilanjana Roy moderated the session.

The session was followed by a viewing of Uzma Mohsin’s photography exhibition. The exhibit focussed on how girls from the north-east do not feel comfortable in a city like Delhi, where they are constantly seen as “the other” and viewed with suspicion, where people have stereotypical ideas about them based on their dress and so on. There was also an exhibition of paintings on the theme of violence in the north east, showing people breathing through oxygen masks, trying to escape suffocation, as several viewers commented. Red blood and blue faces contrasted and alternated with red flowers and blue skies in these paintings. During this interval the sale of books from the north-east on various aspects like literature, history, activism, mythology, politics and sociology also drew the attention of book lovers and knowledge seekers.

The next round table conference “The Words to Say It” moderated by Preeti Gill saw the participation of Mamang Dai, Mitra Phukan, Bijoya Sawian, Rita Chowdhury, Mona Zote, and Omar Sharif. Various ways of conveying the reality, or rather, realities, from the journalistic, reporting style, to fiction, to Mamang Dai’s style of focussing on myths, legends and folk tales were brought to discussion. The accessibility and democratic nature of blog-culture, e-books and the internet were also mentioned. North-east cultures are traditionally seen as being very rooted cultures and people are seen as having a strong sense of belongingness. Yet in this forum people spoke of Assamese people being deported to China, arrested and confined, and the identity crisis caused thereby. Mona Zote talked about her own atheism, which set her apart and made her feel alienated from the people of her own state, Mizoram, the majority of whom are Christians. She also mentioned that Mizoram does not have a strong culture of its own, quite unlike the Khasis, Arunachal Pradesh and others. Another important question raised here (and explored in more detail in the next session) was whether writers from different states in the north-east are connected to, or isolated from, each other.

The next session “Crossing Borders” had Monalisa Changkija, Uddipana Goswami, Aruni Kashyap, Triveni Mathur, Rajesh Dev, Rupa Chinai, and Dhiren Sadokpam as speakers, with Uma Chakravarti as the moderator. Critical questions like, who is an outsider/insider, and are all “north-east” people insiders, were raised. The session highlighted aspects in which power structures of dominance and hierarchy were recreated through boundaries within north-east and stressed on the need to exercise caution before seeing all ‘insiders’ as heroes and all ‘outsiders’ as villains. The north-east has no one singular culture which gives its inhabitants an “identity”, only several proliferating ones. As Sanjoy Hazarika said in a later session, it is more appropriate to see them as seven step-sisters instead of romanticising them as The Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters identity is also troubling because it completely leaves out the Sikkim state. Does distance make one nostalgic or more critical? What is the identity of an Assamese who never thought of himself as a “North-Eastern” before he came to Delhi? Where and how is identity constructed? What about the sub-altern tribes within the North-east, such as the Bodo tribes in Assam? When are they written about, and when do they actually speak for themselves? Questions such as these were brought up to ponder upon in this session.

The last of the round table conferences was “Stories from a War Zone”. Subir Bhowmick, Sanjoy Hazarika, Meenakshi Ganguly, Deepti Priya Mehrotra, Utpal Borpujari and Pradip Phanjoubam. Moderated by Urvashi Butalia this session focussed on issues such as the freedom of the artist. Journalists talked of their experiences of being threatened by censor boards and by underground groups when they wrote anything that did not toe the line, thus raising questions of “truth-telling”. Writers voiced an opposite concern, of the publishers’ stereotypical demand that writers from the north-east should only write about violence. Listening to people’s stories in villages was also seen as an important function of the journalist. A direct link was traced between the government’s bid for progress and modernity of urban, metropolitan areas, which leads to, for example, the development of dams in Tripura, dispossessing tribals of their land, and which in turn, makes them become insurgents. Other concerns that were addressed included the effect of violence upon the environment, insurgency and disputes with neighbouring countries like Bangladesh over resources, and emphasised the inter-connectedness of all states and the need to maintain solidarity.

The day ended with a spectacular theatrical performance tracing the life of Irom Sharmila, the bright torch light amidst the darkness, the passionate woman who began by writing poetry from a young age, and became a staunch activist, fighting for the fate of her people, going through hunger strikes to protest against the government, being arrested and jailed on baseless charges, and later, her helpless condition in the hospital where she is force-fed. This powerful performance brought the truth home more sharply and keenly than any of the round table conferences had done throughout the day.

The second day began with the session titled “Confronting the Past, Imagining the Future” with Sanjoy Hazarika and Laxmi Mathur as the eminent speakers. The north-east is a region with enormous linguistic, ethnic and political diversity, and yet with many commonalities of geographies, of resources, of marginalization. What does, or what can, the future hold? This was the basic question opened up by Sanjoy Hazarika while explaining how the north-east is in the periphery but by no means peripheral. He talked about the burning issues of migration, poor infrastructures of the north-east and the failure of the centre and state Governments to resolve the same. He brought forth the problematic plight of the 30 lakh people in the 3 thousand islands of the north-east. Laxmi Mathur talked extensively about the need of justice for establishment of peace. She also agreed with the need of retelling the untold and unheard histories of the northeast particularly of women, without which, the old wounds cannot be healed.

This was followed by book and poetry readings by Mitra Phukan, Mona Zote, Aruni Kashyap, Omar Sharif, Ananya Guha, Nitoo Das, Uddipana Goswami in the session “Expressing the North-East” . Haripriya Soibam’s readings Irom Sharmila’s poetry collection, Fragrance of Peace and Rojio Usham’s performance based on the same carried forward the performances of the previous evening.

The festival ended with music by Imphal talkies speaking to the passions and the senses of a large gathering, leading on to a spectacular concert by Soulmate, the jazz and blues band from Shillong. The festival seems to have been a good blend of the intellectual and the passionate, speaking to both minds and hearts. Hopefully, the Cultures of Peace festival lives on, reverberates, and gives meaning in times to come, and the end turns out to be but a beginning.

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