A three-day international conference on the North-east, one of the largest ever to bring together scholars, practitioners, students, writers and researchers from across India, Myanmar and Europe, was organized by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi from Feb 4 to 6.
The Conference, “Reimagining the North East: Narratives, Networks and Negotiations’, saw not less than 14 parallel sessions where nearly 60 scholars from different universities presented their empirical work as well as new ideas and projects. The themes included sensitive topics such as migration and the Assamese Muslim, the violence in Bodoland, the politics of hydropower, questions of sub-nationalism running through literary texts as well as border fencing and how small communities as in Meghalaya designed political responses based on their perceptions of ‘outsiders’.
There was a special presentation on the challenging ethnic peace processes in Myanmar by a former Myanmar diplomat representing the Myanmar Institute for International Strategic Studies in Yangon while ace photographer Findlay Kemper presented his long journey across the iconic Stilwell Road which have captured the imagination of many in Eastern India and SE Asia.
‘What is truly encouraging is that many of those who participated were young researchers and teachers who are deeply rooted in specific issues and concerns and seek to address it through their field work, analysis and vision,” said Prof. Sanjoy Hazarika, Director of the North East Centre, which organized the conference. It is the third in a series which started at Gottiinghen University in Germany in 2011, followed by one hosted at the University of Vienna in 2013.
Funding for the conference came from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Indian Oil Corporation and the Sikkim Government through its Sikkim Studies Programme at the Centre.
A highlight of the conference was the resonance of cross-border narratives, traditions and concerns exploring linkages with Myanmar and South West China.
More than 120 participants attended the opening session where the keynote was delivered by Prof. Willem Van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam, one of the most prominent scholars of the region, where he located the tiny state of Mizoram as an example of connectivity to Asia and Europe over the centuries through cultures, conflict and religion. ‘Why the Northeast is no longer ‘remote’: narratives of modernity’ was his theme.
Another highlight was the Centre’s annual Cultural Evening of the North-east, which has become a feature of the University calendar, drawing an audience of not less than 1,000 who were energized by the legenderry Lou Majaw of Shillong who sings Bon Dylan, rock and the blues. A vigorous Bihu dance and songs by the local band Footwings were other features. The audience enthusiastically responded to Prof. Hazarika’s remark that ‘Delhi is the ninth state of the North-east’ referring to the engagement and settlement by many from the region here., despite the problems they faced.
There was standing room only at the closing session where a vigorous conversation ‘A Thousand Years in a Lifetime’ between the public intellectual, historian and author Ramachandra Guha, Prof Schendel, Prof Udayon Misra, IIAS Fellow, and Prof. Hazarika was moderated by Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan, ecological historian and Director of the Nehru Memorial Library. The programme was joined by Vice Chancellor Prof Tanka Subba of Sikkim University.
Prof. Guha pointed out three asymmetries in the region – political, cultural and ecological with the result that it was becoming a natural resource ‘catchment area’ for India. The author of India after Gandhi’ and also ‘India Before Gandhi’, Prof. Guha quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s concern and opposition to -industrialization ‘like Britain and America.’ He said that the Centre needed to ‘unpack the diversities’ of the NER and not to view asymmetry merely as ‘difference’.
Prof. Hazarika and Prof. Misra referred to continued male dominance even in those societies in the North East where gender equality is widely viewed as being significant but often the reverse was the case. Prof. Hazarika said that networks of counseling for victims of conflict, especially the most vulnerable groups, and involving civil society groups and scholars were critical to enable the region to move out its seemingly unending circle of continuing violence.
Vice-Chancellor Talat Ahmad praised the sustained work of the Centre over the years and the way it had put such a large and detailed programme together . Prof. Ahmad pledged the continuing support of the University to the Centre, saying it had set a standard for research and innovation. He also underlined the fact that while issues of discrimination may have been seen in other parts of Delhi, no such case had been reported in the Jamia campus since it followed a policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ for such conduct.
The entire conference has been recorded by Rajya Sabha Television with one of its main anchors interviewing several prominent participants. The network proposes to make a detailed presentation of the conference in a few days.