Building Bridges

The Cultures of Peace Festival travelled to three cities all over India this year writes MITRA PHUKAN

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“Cultures of Peace”, was held over the three cities of Pune, Mumbai and Guwahati on 30th, 31st January, 2nd and 3rd February. The theme of all the meets was “Building Bridges.” These programmes were presented by the feminist publishing house, Zubaan, in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, India, with the  programme and production support of Khublei.

The overall aim of these events was to bring an understanding of the region known as India’s Northeast and also of other conflict areas of the country, to the various cities, including Guwahati. This last was necessary because the participants in the panels included speakers from other states of the region, also.

The programme began with a three hour discussion/dialogue at Pune University, moderated by Sanjoy Hazarika, Founder-Director and Prof, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. The theme was “Examining Human Rights Issues in the Northeastern States and Beyond.”  The panelists included MeenakshiGanguli, Director, Human Rights Watch, Sahba Hussain, Women’s Rights Activist, PriyadarshiTelang, Director, Manuski Trust, NeenaNingombam, Secretary, EEVFAM, and this writer. The speakers spoke of the different kinds of injustices that are still being perpetrated around the country, with a lively interaction taking place with the audience, also. Several speakers as well as the moderator focused on the injustices that the continuation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is perpetrating, in different parts of the country. As an author and novelist, I spoke of the role of the writer in this scenario, which is to humanize and foreground the issues, giving examples by reading out stories by Memchoubi of Manipur, Temsula Ao of Nagaland, and my own also.

The next session took place at the Symbiosis Vishwabhawan, the topic being Literature, Politics and Poetry. Besides myself, the panelists included author Avinuo Kire, Margaret Zama, Prajwal Parajuly, Ankush Saikia, Triveni Goswami Mathur, and Samrat Choudhury, and was moderated by Neha Mathrani. The evening also included a performance of Urmila Pawar’s “Aayadan”. The concluding event was a breathtaking music concert by the Tetseo Sisters of Nagaland, where they showcased their folk music heritage through superb melodic and harmonic proficiency.

The next day’s discussions and dialogues were on the topic, “New Feminisms and Women’s Movements”. Moderated by Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan, the participants included Jarjum Ete, immediate past Chairperson, Arunachal Pradesh State Commission for Women, Madhu Gurung, Author, Belinder Dhanoa, Artist and Writer, and Roshmi Goswami, Vice Chair –Urgent Action Fund (USA) and Co-Founder, North East Network. The day ended with film screenings at the Film and Television Institute of India. They included Mamta Murthy’s wonderful “Fried Fish, Chicken Soup and a Premiere Show”, the thought provoking “A Measure of Impunity: the Impact of Conflict on Women in Nagaland and Assam, ” by Maulee Senapati and Sanjoy Hazarika and “Yarwng”, a film in Kokborok with English subtitlesby Joseph Punlinthanath.

The festival then moved to the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai. The first session, “The Politics of Writing” featured, besides this writer, also Margaret Zama, Preeti Gill of Zubaan, and Rupa Chinai, author, and was moderated by Samrat Choudhury. At this, I spoke about the politics implicit even in choosing a language to write in, during the prevailing linguistic conflicts that are a feature of this region even now. The readings also evoked a response from the packed audience. This was followed by a RAP session by Tripuri artiste BK, whose world view provided a refreshing take on the situation all around. The next session, “Young and New Voices” also featured him, along with authors Siddhartha Sarma, Ankush Saikia, and Avinuo Kire. The audience response was highly encouraging.

The Guwahati sessions, held at the KBR Auditorium, Cotton College were disappointing in terms of audience turnout, though the panelists themselves all spoke brilliantly.  The first session of the evening, “Northeast Writings by Women : Non Fiction”, moderated by Preeti Gill included highly regarded authors, journalists and academics such as Anuradha Sarma Pujari, Rakhee Kalita Moral, Monsalisa Changkija, Teresa Rehman, Uddipana Goswami, and Indrani Raimedhi. Each one spoke rivetingly of their different experiences on their various journeys. The next session, moderated by me, was on Fiction and Poetry. The panelists here were Margaret Zama, Streamlet Dkhar, Rita Choudhury and Minimon Laloo.

The point of these readings, discussions, film screenings and musical offerings, was to “Build Bridges”. Interactions of these kinds are always worthwhile, especially when people narrate their first hand experiences. For example, Neena Ningombam’s description of how, after her husband was taken away from home, she saw his body on TV after a few hours, was a poignant reminder of the reality of life in Manipur, made all the more moving by her matter of fact manner of telling her story. Rapper BK’s story of how he was stabbed in a Delhi incident, underscored several contemporary issues. This was just after Arunachalee student Nido Taniam’s death, and the discussions on issues of discrimination and racism acquired even greater urgency.The younger authors such as Ankush, Avinuo and Siddhartha brought in fresh new voices to the discourse.

On the other hand, the beautiful music of the Tetseo sisters showed a small part of the unique cultural heritage of this region, a heritage that is only now slowly becoming known to the rest of the country. They showed that in spite of the conflict, beauty remains, luminous and unforgettable in all its many dimensions. This was truly, therefore, a way of “Building Bridges”.