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Eight angry sisters

Published : Sep 21, 2010, 6:16 pm IST
Updated : Sep 21, 2010, 6:16 pm IST

The Peripheral Centre is an ambitious book. As the back flap explains, “it seeks to give voice to the many issues and concerns that have emerged as a result of the decades of conflict and violence that has besieged the seven states of India’s Northeast”. The contributors include writers, academics and activists from the region as well as “outsiders” like its editor, Preeti Gill. But what they all have in common, of course, is the desire to see change and peace in these troubled states.

The Peripheral Centre is an ambitious book. As the back flap explains, “it seeks to give voice to the many issues and concerns that have emerged as a result of the decades of conflict and violence that has besieged the seven states of India’s Northeast”. The contributors include writers, academics and activists from the region as well as “outsiders” like its editor, Preeti Gill. But what they all have in common, of course, is the desire to see change and peace in these troubled states. Gill’s introduction, titled Engaging with the Northeast: The ‘outsider’ looks ‘in’, offers a brief yet comprehensive history of the area and also deconstructs the label “Northeast”. She is correct in that this word lumps together seven or eight states with very distinctive cultures, ethnicities and social and political problems, and that it reflects an external, not a local, point of view. I’m afraid, like the equally offensive misnomer “south India”, we are stuck with it. This reviewer is no stranger to the phrase “What’s new in the Northeast ” asked in all earnestness.

Which is why The Peripheral Centre is an important book. Over two-dozen essays explain and analyse the conflicts that continue to plague Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and, the latest entrant, Sikkim, with a focus on how this violence has affected the women of these states. Apart from being the trigger for this collection, the protest and anger against the arrest and killing of Thangjam Manorama in July 2004 in Manipur also runs as a common thread through the essays. If nothing else, rage is what links these disparate states together — rage against a consistently militarised response from the Centre to the region’s political “unrest” as well as a feeling of “exploitation” and deprivation that has led to despairing underdevelopment. (Although it must be pointed out that poor governance and rampant corruption are just as responsible for this economic backwardness.) Sanjoy Hazarika’s line that “people usually take to arms when pushed to the wall” resounds, loud and clear. In his essay In Times of Conflict the Real Victims are Women, Hazarika gives an account of the Nellie Massacre of 1983 in Assam where over 1,700 lives were lost — an event that he says encapsulated the growing divide between settlers and “indigenous”, tribal and non-tribal, and between those of different religious faiths. (The attackers were members of the Tiwa tribe and the victims were immigrant “Bangladeshis”.) He also touches on how the state and the system have failed women, “the most vulnerable and marginalised” in these conflict areas and how the Centre must apply new rules of engagement and operations — for one, to turn the rules which the Army sets for itself in terms of conduct toward the civilian population into actual laws passed by the Indian Parliament.

Also striking for its intimate and personal tone is From a Reporter’s Diary: An Introduction to Northeast India by Rupa Chinai, who has visited and engaged with the region’s people for the past 25 years. Her account recalls people she knew, like Joseph, a young Mizo whose family was tortured by the Indian Army, and Niketu from Khonoma, a village that has been at the heart of the Naga struggle for Independence from India. Chinai, who worked for Himmat, a magazine edited by Rajmohan Gandhi, also notes the first stirrings of the Bodo movement in the early ’80s. Mamang Dai in Arunachal Pradesh — The Insurgency Scene succinctly outlines how the districts of Changlang and Tirap in this relatively peaceful state have become a battleground for the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and its feuding factions.

Among the essays that focus on the status of women in the north-eastern states, Temsula Ao’s Benevolent Subordination: Social Status of Naga Women crisply and effectively traces how the Naga society has existed on the strength of “male superiority and male prerogatives” in most fields, from education to governance. In the same vein, Esther Syiem in “Khasi Matrilineal Society: The Paradox Within, explores how an age-old matrilineal society, where women are custodians of clan wealth and property, still does not allow their involvement or decision-making in matters of governance or “dorbar”. Performance: The Gendered Space in Manipur by N. Vijayalakshmi Brara offers a brilliant take on the idea of performance (on stage and within a social context) and the role of women in Manipuri society. She likens the awe felt at watching a performance of the Ramayana to the awe felt when over a dozen Manipuri women “lay themselves bare in front of Kangla Fort demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act” from the state.

While the content of The Peripheral Centre may sometimes seem unwieldy, it is only because the issues to tackle are innumerable. Like the scope of the book, they too are daunting.

Janice Pariat, a freelance writer, is currently based in her hometown Shillong after spending many years in Delhi, London and elsewhere