Based on my limited reading about the people from north east India from my school text books, I had drawn some similarity between the people there and the people in my home state, Jharkhand-that both of them are tribals; are similar to each other and are different from the non-tribals. However it was only during my post graduation, the syllabus of sociology gave a detailed narration of the diversity of the tribal groups existing in this part of the country. For example, there are as many as 272 ethnic groups comprising around 80 tribes among the Nagas with a population of about three and a half million spread across four states of India. Similarly in Manipur there are 32 ethnic groups with 29 major tribes and 2 ethno denominations. Similar diversity is also found among other north eastern states. North Eastern states have a total tribal population of 8,142,624.
During when I was enthralled to know about the vast culture of the area, I was disturbed to learn about the separatist movements going on there. The apathetic and negligent attitude of the central government for the development of this part of the country and its residents seem to me to be one of the reasons for continued separatist movements.
While India takes pride in its character of ‘unity in diversity’, of late It seems to be a country which is quite ‘divided’ and has led to what may be termed as ‘culture of conflicts’. Quoting a line from the bible would be relevant here: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God!’
But, how am I thinking of peace, when there are more than 40 battalions of the Indian Army and Paramilitary forces present and active in the North East region and have gunned down thousands of inhabitants? And where there are numerous rebel and armed groups within the ethnic communities themselves!
Ethnicity and separatism
We have seen how religion and ethnic movements have consolidated different groups and instilled separatist ideologies to push for group autonomy under the garb of their welfare and social reform (‘Brahma’ being one of them among the Bodos). The struggle for self determination and fight against the armed forces has turned into internal strife amidst traditional groups.
It is observed that in any conflict situation the women are the worst sufferers. Here also in such movements, intolerance, aggression and violence to the women of the communities are witnessed.
Through all these strife, women have been the sufferers of the most heinous crimes and injustice. No wonder that it’s only the women who have sacrificed for their families and community along with maintaining respect for their own cultural protocols and traditional values.
Women are not generally entitled to property rights under their un-codified customary laws and practices. However it feels nice to know of the existence of still some matrilineal communities like the Khasi women of Meghalaya which believes in property rights of women.
Peace building by women’s organisations
We have seen that with time several women’s organisations in the north east have come up to protect and promote the rights of tribal people especially the women. They are the Assam Boro Women’s Justice Forum, Nagaland’s Naga Mother’s Association, Naga Women’s union, Manipur Hmar Women’s Association, Arunachal Pradesh’s R.K Mosang Memorial Society, Tripura’s Borok Women’s Forum of Twipra, Dimasa women’s society, Manipur’s Zomi Mother’s Association, Assam’s All Tiwa Women’s Association, Rabha Women’s Council, The Manipur Women Gun Survivor’s Network, Control Arma Foundation of India etc. These women’s groups have helped the women deal with trauma and agony owing to armed conflicts. They also have worked towards the economic empowerment of the women affected by violence.
In this effort and struggle, two strategies have been adopted. One, which looks at building leadership among women and enabling them to understand the concepts of disarmament and non- military techniques to establish peace, and then focussing on their economic empowerment. The other strategy is to first economically empower the victimised women by compensating their loss and then creating an enabling environment to nurture their leadership. Both the models have helped in developing individuals into an organised and empowered group.
Both strategies emphasises on placing women on the negotiating table and representation of women in the various committees which can contribute toward governance and peace building. Some initiatives like ensuring enhanced presence of women in elected bodies, reservation of women in government services, creation of strong women’s pressure groups, larger women participation in national forums, employing more women in the para-military forces and designated women guards in relief camps during armed conflicts will go a long way in real empowerment of women and their role in conflict resolution and development of society.
One such significant example is the establishment of women’s cell in Nagaland Dimapur district followed by formation of women’s cell in Kohima and Mokokchung districts handling and interrogating all criminal cases related to women and children and such cells have been designated as anti-human trafficking units.
All these efforts carry the legacy of significant women’s groups in the North East that are still proactive like the Naga Mother’s Association. Matri Manch in Gauhati is formed by mothers whose sons had disappeared. They have fought against abuse of women. Similarly Mire Paibis (Women Torchbearers) that started in Manipur as Nashabandi to combat the ever increasing alcoholism got popular support and eventually it is campaigning against atrocities by the security forces.
However, whether all these strategies which are invoked by the women’s groups lead to their greater say in the peace building process in wake of apathy of the state toward promoting women’s groups and the inaccessibility of the groups and civil society to the administration is a question that remains unanswered. The women's bodies promoted by the government like State Women's Commission and women's bodies attached to the Department of Social Welfare at the dist levels are not active as per expectations. Members are mostly appointed on political preferences and govt has hardly any political will to make them effective. Similarly the role of media in highlighting the role of women in peace building and conflict resolution cannot be underestimated. But media has hardly played any visible proactive role in this sphere.
Durang Basu Mullick is working as a social activist in Delhi.