The focus of the 15th edition of the Annual Festival of Arts at New Delhi’s India International Centre was the North-east. It was a five-day programme from 27-31 October on the IIC lawns to provide an opportunity to the people of Delhi of “getting to know the diverse ethnicity, cultures, crafts and cuisine and also the aspirations” of the North-east as succinctly put by IIC president, NN Vohra, a distinguished civil servant and till recently the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. Vohra explained that the festival theme, “Experiencing the North-east”, was a pleasant concept based on a perception that “there are a large number of spaces where we can experience the North-east”.
The programme, organised in collaboration with the North Eastern Council and the Department of Development of North Eastern Region, was a great success as it drew huge crowds. In those five days, the IIC was literally taken over by the colourful people from the North-east, who made it look like a part of Shillong’s Police Bazaar in winter when people from all over the region throng the place for their Christmas shopping.
Exhibitions of history, manuscripts and books, arts and crafts, textiles, photographs recording important developments and ethnic food stalls covered the IIC lawns. They enabled visitors to know how the region had evolved and provided a flavour of the North-east. The food stalls attracted many as they served authentic Assamese, Naga, Khasi, Garo and Sikkimese delicacies. The day-long cultural fests featuring live rock music and dances by artistes from all over the region also brought in a lot of people, especially from the diplomatic community. The performance of the internationally-acclaimed Shillong Choir made for some memorable moments.
Stalls showcasing products like exquisite cane and bamboo furniture, textiles, organic food, tea and other beverages, did brisk business. The festival took a cinematic journey through the North-east as 11 films — four in Manipuri, three Assamese, two in Mizo, and one each in Khasi and Naga —were screened.
However, it was not all fun and music as there were seven interactive sessions where poets, artists and writers from the North-east sat with mainly Delhi-based researchers to look at the region through artistic expressions, writings, poetry reading and story-telling; the region’s linguistic diversity and identity politics, which often leads to violence were also taken up for constructive debate.
On the whole, it was an amazing experience for all. But if one looks at the five-day extravaganza from one of its major objects —demystification of the North-east —, then the efforts IIC made, does not seem to have achieved it in full measure. It would be useful to mention some of those aspects of the North East for greater success of such efforts in future.
First, the object of “demystification” was not quite realised as a visitor might form an impression that the North-east is primarily a mountainous region inhabited by tribes, when, as a matter of fact, the scheduled tribes of hills and plains constitute only about 25 per cent of the population of the region.
One must note at the same time that the geographical area under control of the tribal-dominated states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram plus the areas under the three autonomous district councils of Assam, one in Tripura under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, and the autonomous councils in Manipur Hills cover roughly 70 per cent of the North-east.
Except a few patches in the Karimganj, Tripura and Mizoram sectors of the Indo-Bangladesh border, the entire borderlands of 5,182 km in the region with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan are tribal areas. This has given the tribes a huge geo-strategic importance disproportionate to their number, which the more numerous tribals of Central India do not possess.
Thus while one can understand the reasons for giving importance to the hill areas, space for other cultures like those of the plains tribes like the Bodos of Bodoland in Assam, who have succeeded in asserting their distinctive identity and secured autonomy under the Sixth Schedule; and other important ethnolinguistic and cultural groups could have been provided.
One, for example, are the Tea Tribes, who form at least 20 per cent of the Assamese population, and the base of the region’s main organised and export-earning tea industry. They are Adivasis, who were brought, mainly from the Chhota Nagpur region, to work in the tea plantations as local labour was not available because Assam was virtually depopulated during the Burmese Rule prior to the British take-over in 1826. They have blended with the neighbouring villages and yet retained their culture and art forms in music and dance.
Similarly, the cultural expressions of the ethnic Nepali and Hindi-speaking people in the North-east, who together comprise about 10 per cent of the population, have interesting features because of shared life experiences with the Assamese and other groups, which could have been presented.
Finally, the Bengalis who have a huge presence all over the North-east with overlapping linguistic and cultural identities as till recently ethnic Bengali Muslims of the Brahmaputra valley have been returning Assamese as their language since the 1951 Census.
Their presence is primarily due to inclusion of three high revenue yielding populous Bengali districts — Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara in Assam when it was carved out of the Bengal Presidency — a fact often ignored by North-east observers. Karimganj, a remnant of Sylhet, and the other two areas perpetuate the “united” character of Assam. The assimilation of Muslims who introduced jute in the syncretic Muslim culture of Assam is a fascinating story as much as the unique flavour mainstream Bengali culture acquired in the North-east.
At the end of the programme, one got an eerie feeling that there was reluctance to take a holistic approach to the North-east possibly because of the region’s complex history — economic, political and administrative —, which shaped its demography. Nevertheless, the message of “Experiencing the North-east” should be that diversity is strength and all-round cooperation is central to efforts to “look and act east”. One should remember that geography is the economic destiny of nations and openness to the neighbourhood is the way forward for the North-east to reconcile history with demography.
The objectives of experiencing the North-east would be best realised if spaces were provided for all these diverse cultures to bring home the point that peace and cooperation within the region is a precondition for entry into the Association of South East Asian nations and the regional economy.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India.