If there is a place in India that is equally a part of the mainland yet quite removed from it, it is the northeast. The seven different states that make up the northeast are steeped in their own rich indigenous culture. But even so, a lot of voices from that part of the country go unheard. Much like central governments chose to do or have been doing, until recently, in the words of 29-year-old Assam-based poet and translator, Kavita Karmakar.
“That is one of the problems those of us in the northeast have been facing,” echoes Manipuri poet Saratchand Thiyam, on the sidelines of the ongoing Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode. Known for his works, Sister and Nungshibi Greece, for which he won the Sahitya Akademi award from Manipur in 2006, Saratchand recounts how his family and neighbours constantly lived in the fear of their mothers, sisters and wives being taken by the military to be 'tortured and raped'.
“Sister is a poem I wrote, dedicated to my own sister and other women in Manipur. I urge them to stay home and stay safe through the poem. It is about urging a sister to come home early so that she is not taken away by the military,” Saratchand says. He started writing when he was 13 and published his first collection of poems when he was 19. He has also penned three travelogues—one each on Bangladesh, Kerala and Greece.
His daughter, Athena Thiyam, published a collection of poems in 2014 when she was 13. “It has been decades and none of the many women who have been raped by the army have got justice. Even today many of us live without answers to these incidents. The voices are not being heard and that is where northeast literature comes from.”
Karmakar agrees that the voice of several minority groups are not being heard. “Take for example the tea garden workers who are part of the tea tribe community of Assam. They were brought from different parts of India like Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and regions of Bihar that are now Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. These workers were displaced and now continue to work for generations as tea pickers, with very low wages for long hours and in bad conditions. The managements tend to exploit them for commercial gains. Their voices need to be heard.”
Political leaders talk about them and do a few nice things only during elections and soon after forget about the minorities, she adds. Women and girls in the tea tribe community have been sexually exploited, too. Most of them have been living in deplorable conditions for generations, with basic facilities provided to them by managers. This has given rise to other problems like early marriage and the community's men being increasingly addicted to locally made beer.
Saratchand says the outcome of the Citizenship Bill is very important. “If the bill is passed, the outcome will not be favourable to local citizens or their livelihood. Number of immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are very high and if they settle in the northeast, it will be very difficult to co-exist because most of the immigrants will want to settle in the plains. The plains, especially in Manipur, comprise a very small area to be shared. Manipur, on the sidelines, is also witnessing revivalism of the Meitei culture, according to Saratchand. People of Manipur were of Meitei origin and many were converted to Vaishnavism in the first half of the 18th century. The king of that time, Meidingu Pamheiba, too, converted and took to the name, Gharib Nawaz.
According to Karmakar, who has published three poetry collections, the youth too, want to see a change in situation in Assam and northeast. “They understand the region’s violent past, its movements and the current situation and hope for it to be better,” she says The young writer, who hopes to make voices of the tea garden workers heard, has also written a translation of stories for children. A collection of her poems, translated in Malayalam, is expected to be out this year.
Karmakar, who is visiting Kerala for the fourth time, is delighted by the commonalities in aspects of food, culture and traditional clothing of both the states. “The paddy fields and plantain trees are common, mekhela chador and set-mundu are common, so is the love for fish and rice,” she says.