India’s northeast: a war-and-peace painting


In the context of conflict and confluence of cultures and languages in Northeast, I recollect the famous painting of Pablo Picasso – War and Peace. This is as famous as his another painting, Guernica, available at Madrid, Spain. Picasso originally hailed from Spain. He spent last 15 years of his life at Mougin, a quiet village in South France, where he died. The painting captioned ‘War and Peace’ is available at Picasso War and Peace National Museum at Vallauris, South France. It’s a village of art and artists. Mougin, Vallauris and Cannes form an equilateral triangle of approx 7 km each side – a triangle of art and culture, and of course, of peace. I was at Mougin for a year when I visited War and Peace Museum several times. The painting, comprising three pieces, is on the walls of the tunnel-type extension of an abandoned chapel.

On the left wall, there is a painting, an allegory on the theme – War. A warrior is on a war horse with a blood-quenched sword in one hand and a bag full of germs spreading over the trail in the other. A peace-loving solder tries to resist the invading warriors and an image of a pigeon is embossed on the shield he holds. On the right wall is another allegory on peace. A child is ploughing on the sea with a winged horse, a mother is breastfeeding her baby, parents are caring an infant, children are flying kites and women are dancing in tune with a folk instrument. The front wall has another allegory of peace makers from all sections of people.

Northeast India today is also a painting of war and peace. On one wall there is a collage of insurgency, bomb blast, AK 47, corpses of youth, victims of witch-hunting, rapes, Irom Sharmila, and on the other wall there is another collage of Bohag Bihu, Kati Bihu, Rasleela, Durga Puja, Kartikar Pali, Merapaibi, book fairs, literary festivals, literary events, Bhupen Hazarika, Hemanga Biswas and the like. Let peace prevail and will prevail. Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Shanti Om.

War symbolises aggression – cultural, linguistic, and economic – all forms of imperialism. The result is instability in society. Homogenization in terms of language, culture and religious faith is the main motive behind such aggression. There is a threat perception among the weaker sections – the threat of losing their ethnic identities. An ethnic identity has language, culture, and faith as the main variables. The Northeast is a melting pot of identity construction and deconstruction. In this context, the word assimilation plays a significant role. Assimilation is a natural social process. There is nothing to say about it as far as it is natural. However, under the forces of aggression with the motive of homogenization, assimilation is a steganographic envelope which hides aggressions, oppressions and inhumane tortures on the vulnerable people simply for their ethnic identities. Current states of affairs in Assam, Manipur and other north-eastern states portray such an alarming picture of war. Language and literature in the Northeast are currently in a war zone.

What is required urgently is peace. Peace symbolises accommodation – accommodation of diverse cultures, faiths, rituals, languages (major and minor), and literature with equal dignity and equitable space.

The Language policy of India is imperialistic in nature. Only 22 of more than 1,600 languages and dialects are used or allowed to be used in public sphere. We present to the world as Indian literature only the works in these 22 languages – a partial view only. Literature in other minor languages may also be on a par with the literature of these 8th Scheduled languages, but there is no quota of space is for them in the framework. Our policy is paradoxical in nature, particularly in scheduling the people and the languages of India. Our policy makers are from a stratified society; hence stratification is inherently present in our policies. Weaker sections of the Indians have been scheduled as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.

Accordingly, they enjoy the facilities and get privileges. The general category people are struggling to survive. On the contrary, the stronger Indian languages are scheduled and the weaker or minor languages are categorized as general. All privileges, facilities and government resources are granted for the Scheduled or stronger languages only. The general or minor languages are struggling to survive without having any patronage from the government and other agencies. Maybe, this is one of the reasons why the number of endangered languages in the world is the highest in India. And India has the highest number of endangered languages in its Northeast.

As for Indian languages, 196 are currently endangered, mostly from Northeast India. Languages are dying in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and other states in the Northeast. If we browse the website of Ethnolougue ( we get the list of endangered languages in these northeastern states and the current stages of vulnerability of these listed languages. With the new generations sharply shifting to dominant languages in order to ensure jobs for themselves and the undercurrent forces of linguistic imperialism operating in the region, these languages are now increasingly under the threat of being extinct. Language dominance and aggression is going on in the Northeast.

On the contrary, accommodation of minor languages and literature in policy and forums is not adequate. My appeal is to accommodate literatures of these minor languages of the Northeast in literary forums through translation or otherwise – GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. Major languages of the region should provide a safety net around minor and endangered languages – like an adult guides a vulnerable toddler by holding its finger in a busy street. A minor language in the Northeast is fervently appealing to the major languages in the region like Assamese, Bengali, Meitei and the like – ‘seniors, super seniors, please hold my finger and guide me in the busy street, but please don’t show me the finger any more’.

Culture and peace are under a symbiotic relationship. Culture prevails when peace prevails and peace prevails when principles of co-existence, co-operation and dignity prevail in the culture. Peace is another name of equilibrium. Peace brings in cultural equilibrium, language equilibrium, political equilibrium, financial equilibrium, trust equilibrium etc. Equilibrium in all societal domains brings in stability, tranquility and prosperity in society. Culture germinates on a soil enriched with peace. Culture doesn’t germinate on any ground of hatred, dominance and war. What germinate there are the greedy viral thought processes.

Bridge is a correct metaphor in this context for connecting different cultures, languages and literatures forming a network, an Internet of People. In communication parlance, Internet of computers has brought about a revolution in the world. Because of this new enabling global infrastructure, today information can flow across all boundaries – geographical, economic and political. It, thereby establishes an equilibrium state of knowledge and information. The rich pool of human knowledge and information is now instantly shared by anybody, irrespective of caste, creed and citizenship of underdeveloped, developing or developed countries. Moreover, people can enrich the pool by publishing their domain specific knowledge in the Internet from any corner of the world. Like Internet of computers, this Internet of People will surely bring about language, literature and culture equilibriums.

 Yes, ‘war and peace’ is a bipolar recurring pattern in the history of mankind. War disturbs the social harmony or equilibrium, peace initiatives re-establish the equilibrium. When the social context is fully charged with negative energy a source of immense positive energy emerges from within. When the world was stained red with human blood during the world war, the clarion call by Swami Vivekananda as brothers and sisters in Chicago was a pigeon of peace flying in the burning sky for universal brotherhood. When Kurukshetra was red with siblings’ blood, the cantos of Srimat Bhagavat Gita were chanted by Lord Krishna in the battlefield itself. Society transits from one equilibrium state to another through the turmoil of war, unrest and disturbance. The equilibrium states, the states of peace, are stable, and the rests are unstable. The utopian world would have been staying permanently in a state of peace without further transition. But unfortunately the transitions are recurring patterns.

I’m a short story writer. What is a short story after all? It’s a transition from one equilibrium state to another and the disturbance in the life of the protagonist is the subject matter of a short story. Isn’t it? To sum it up – we have an ancient civilization, long cultural traditions and heritage. But India today is a trust deficit country. There is no alternative but to build mutual trust among different cultures, languages and literatures of the Northeast. Building bridges among different ethnic groups is possible when we have mutual trust and respect for ethnic identities. If we travel across the Northeast, we see a cultural continuum. Different ethnic identities are constructed not on common cultural traits but on differences. Common traits give us the proof of concept of solidarity, belongingness to a common ancestor in the phylogenetic tree.

How to bridge the differences and build the Internet of People? It is possible by taking language as a medium to connect people and communities. All other languages may reside in the lips or the right brain of a person, but the abode of one’s mother tongue is the heart. Mutual respect and recognition of mother tongues of ethnic communities of the Northeast, major or minor, will automatically build the bridges. Translation of literature from one language to another will establish a heart-to-heart communication forming Internet of people. I strongly believe, not aggression for homogeneity in language, culture and faiths but accommodation of heterogeneity with equal dignity and equitable space is the panacea for the social instability today in India in general and the Northeast in particular.

 I would like to conclude with my beautiful experience in Bangladesh. I visited Syhllet, erstwhile a part of Assam till 1947. I went to Masimpur, a Bishnupriya Manipuri village, to see the famous historical malthep there where Rabindranath Tagore visited in the first week of May, 1919 and conceived the idea of Rabindra Ntritya Natya while enjoying subtle nuances of the Manipuri dance and decided to spread the dance form worldwide through Shantiniketan. There, a long interview of mine was taken in the very house, where Tagore took rest. I was asked, ‘if the world speak a single language instead of different languages, the world would have been a beautiful world altogether. What do you think? I asked the interviewer, “What is your favourite colour?” He replied, “pink.” Then I answered his question metaphorically, “imagine, the leaves of all trees, all flowers, eyes of all young girls, eyebrows, hair locks, roads, buildings – all pink. Will you call this monochrome world still beautiful? There are different colours, different languages, different cultures – this diversity, this heterogeneity, actually make the world beautiful, not homogeneity.”

sinhaProf Smriti Kumar Sinha is a dedicated writer in an endangered language, Bishnupriya Manipuri. He has penned over thirty stories and many of the stories have been translated into Assamese, Bengali, Kannada and English. A collection his of fourteen short stories, published by Niyogi Books (2015) in English, entitled Seducing the Rain God received attention of readers worldwide. Prof Sinha is recipient of the Geetiswami Memorial Award, 2010, instituted by POURI, a leading Manipuri Socio-Cultural Organization, Bangladesh. He also teaches Computer Science at Tezpur University. Prof Sinha can be reached at