STAGING TRANSITIONS – THEATRE OF THE 90s IN INDIA
NORTHEAST INDIA, LOOK EAST POLICY AND THE CULTURAL IMPLICATIONS
“A border is not a dead end but marks a cultural, economic and environmental zone, a continuum divided by a political boundary. Culturally and ethnically, the Northeast is truly a part of Southeast Asia. This logic should drive policy” wrote B.G Verghese in Man and Society: A Journal of North East Studies (2004).
According to Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978), through ‘ennumerative categories’ identities are demarcated, as well as formed through bureaucratic grids, which create a lack of clarity of where one’s community or region starts and ends. The Northeast, a region often understood as ‘India’s gateway to Southeast Asia’, (Hussain, 2009) shares more than 90% of its border with Myanmar, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh while constituting only 7% of its borders with India. This essay outlines and contextualises the cultural initiatives and schemes by the Indian Government in the Northeast, set against the political realities of the region in the context of India’s Look East Policy (LEP) of 1991, which marked a paradigm shift in India’s approach to cultural relations with its eastern neighbours.
India’s North Eastern Region (NER) includes the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Together, they represent a distinct geographic, cultural, political, and administrative entity. As part of the Eastern Himalayas, this region is also of geo-strategic significance as it shares its borders with four countries Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet Autonomous Region/China and Myanmar, and also with Nepal and is connected to India by a narrow piece of land called the Siliguri corridor, sometimes referred to as the ‘Chicken’s neck’.
The connection between the Northeast region and the rest of India is relatively recent, dating back to 1826 when Burma ceded Assam, Manipur, Jaintia Hills, Tripura and Cachar to the British with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo. Northeast remained as a buffer zone between China, Burma and British India until independence. “The states were integrated and demarcated into ad hoc units for administrative convenience, principally economic and resource planning and security calculations” (Kakati, 2021). The Government of India’s apparent approach was one that explored and studied the different cultures of the region and peripheries of the Northeast as a “phenomenally diverse mosaic of cultures which have to be preserved and enriched” (Ramesh, 2005 quoted in Haokip, 2010). The creation of states in the Northeast [Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur in 1972, Arunachal Pradesh in 1975, and Mizoram in 1987], with more than 200 tribes and indigeneous population were carved out on the bases of the tribal communities as perceived against the rest of India, which is largely demarcated on linguistic grounds. But according to Samir Das, author and professor of political science, “The gradual integration which was to anthropologically understand the Northeast, was replaced by the policy of progressive politico-economic and cultural integration of the tribal people, in order to speed up their socio-economic development” (Das, 2001 quoted in Haokip, 2010). As Anita Cherian observes, “The enclosure of culture within the frameworks of development, indicated through its inclusion within the parameters of the Five Year Plans, signals an affirmation of the seemingly contradictory desire for both an authentic Indian aesthetic and a planned progression towards a post-colonial modernity.” Centrally, the SNA’s engagement with Regional Akademies reinforced “through duplication and ubiquity the nation-state’s priorities, in particular, its structurally mediated attempts to subordinate claims to regional nationhood before the idea of national unity.” (Cherian, 2009)
While economic and cultural ‘development’ were presumed to be the catalyst for Northeast’s merge with the rest of India, was the Neo-capitalist nature of development in the form of resource extraction in the North Eastern expanded through mining, hydroelectric power plants, and militarised infrastructure ‘implemented on such a massive scale that the line of demarcation between assimilation and integration got blurred’? (Das, 2001) creating a complex field for the contestation of identities, land sovereignty, and conflict.
Given the Northeast’s distinct cultural, social, racial and linguistic identity, the question of citizenship and indigenous rights has shaped its historical struggle to integrate itself into the idea of the Indian nation and vice versa. As part of undivided Assam, Nagaland was the first to experience militancy in the Northeast region. During British rule, the Nagas had petitioned for an independent country. Their demand remained unconsidered, first by the British and then, post-independence by the Indian government.
In the case of Mizoram, the Union Government failed to provide assistance and respond positively to the demands of the Mizo people during the devastating Mautam Famine of 1959. With an already prevailing sense of neglect and non-recognition by the central government, the devastation of Mautam Famine further fuelled the insurgencies in the region. In February 1966 Mizo National Front (M.N.F) led by Laldenga, launched the movement demanding independence for Mizoram. More than two decades of insurgencies finally ended in 1987 when Mizoram was granted statehood. The Institute of Music and Fine Arts (IMFA), established in 1979 as part of the Tribal Research Institute, functioned under the School Education Department. To commemorate Mizoram’s statehood, an eight-day long National Cultural Festival was held in 1987 in Mizoram. At the core of this festival lay the question of ‘national integration’. The festival staged the traditional dance drama and folk dances from five states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Assam and Manipur). According to Zoramthanga, the first Chief Secretary of Mizoram, statehood was an integration process in itself towards forming a monolithic national identity. Statehood, according to him, meant cultural and economic development for the people of Mizoram who can now elect their own members and officials determining the faith of the state (Sangeet Natak Akademi Archive V-1609). Two years after Mizoram became a state, in 1989, a separate Directorate of Arts & Culture was set up under the IMFA. The Arts and Culture Department of Mizoram’s Mission is to ‘study and record socio-culture, socio-economic and history of the tribal people of Mizoram.’
Tripura, the smallest state in the Northeast, experienced migration of Hindus from British ruled East Bengal, which later became East Pakistan and ultimately Bangladesh. This is “believed to have been responsible for reducing the indegineous tribal people in the state to minority status.”(The Geopolitics, 2018) This resulted in violent clashes and militant groups sprang up during the 1970s. The demand was for the restoration of tribal rights from the Bengali population, who were ‘dominating the political and economic affairs of Tripura’ (The Geopolitics, 2018).
In the case of Assam, the question of mass migration from East Pakistan was a major concern.There was a huge backlash from Assam as early as 1950s, but since the region was not fully understood by the central government, such concerns were not addressed. In 1978 India’s Chief Election Officer spoke publicly of the ‘large-scale inclusions of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls’ (Kakati, 2021). While migration from the partition was a continuing process, the lack of development in the region and the historical atrocities experienced by local people created the field for ethnic violence. The Assam Agitation fed off some of these tensions and only came to an end with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985’ (Kakati, 2021) The foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 were decided to be detected and expelled. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord clearly determines the role the Accord was to play. It states, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” (Kakati, 2021). In 1986, a year after the Accord was signed, a cultural complex ‘Kalashetra’ was conceived by the Cultural Advisory Committee of Govt. of Assam. Subsequently, in 1990 the Government of Assam had taken up with the Government of India the matter of placing the project of the ‘Kalakshetra’ under Clause VI. On 9th November 1998, K. R Narayan, the then President of India inaugurated the Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra.
During the 1980s, the Indian state moved away from heavily centralised planning led polity, towards a decentralised governing regime. It was during the 1980s in the seventh five-year plan (1985-1990), that the Zonal Cultural Centres were conceptualised and formed. The plan states:
“It is proposed to set up seven Zonal Cultural Centres which while developing the unique cultural identities of various areas in the states would also stress and explore their cultural kinship in relation to the totality of India’s composite culture, highlighting the essential unity in diversity of the Indian cultural heritage. The Centres would provide facilities for creative development of arts; with special emphasis on folk arts as also the revival of vanishing arts.”
In 1986, the Northeast Zonal Cultural Centre (NEZCC) was set up under the Ministry of Culture, with the purpose of preserving and promoting the unique cultural aspects of the region that contributes ‘to the largest composite identity of cultural heritage of India’ (NEZCC, MoC). The theme of this Zonal Cultural Centre, ‘Unity through Culture’ aptly represents the prerequisite for setting up the centre. A major activity of the NEZCC was the National Cultural Exchange Program.
Two important aims of NEZCC were,
- To make special efforts to encourage folk and tribal arts and to frame special programmes for preservation including, documentation and sustaining of the vanishing art forms.
- To frame programs that would encourage involvement of the youth of the Northeastern states amongst themselves, as well as initiate a pan-Indian dialogue amongst the youth, on Indian art, culture and heritage.
The founding of the centrally run Manipur Dance Academy (later known as the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Akademi) in January, 1954 offers an insight. There is no explanation of the considerations motivating the establishment of the institute even before Manipur acquired statehood. In the state of Manipur, militancy originated in protest against the forcible merger of the former Manipur Kingdom with India. In 1964, the United National Liberation Front formed with an avowed objective of ending discrimination against Manipur, which was accorded statehood only in 1972 nearly 23 years after its merger. The same year, the Manipur State Kala Akademi was established, whose main objectives were to promote research in the fields of music, dance, drama, literature, archives and fine arts, cooperating with similar institutions for the enrichment of Manipuri culture.
A report (published during the 2004 Madras Music and Dance Season) on the Assamese form, the Sattriya Nat, offers clues to an important line of argumentation. The report suggests that India’s underlying cultural unity found validation in the ineffable ‘classicism’ of its performance forms. While the discourse of classicism appropriating forms like the Raas Lila from Manipur and the Sattriya, reinforces a pan-Indian ideology, the forms of cultural recognition accorded to Manipur also gesture towards the complexities of the state’s relationship with the Indian union. In other words, it is not unreasonable to surmise that governmental distinctions, such as an institution for the preservation of the Raas Lila, or its recognition as a classical form were intended as palliatives, compensating its coerced accession into the Indian Union in September 1949, under the conditions of the ‘Manipur Merger Agreement.’ (Cherain, 2009)
The Department of Art & Culture, Manipur was set up in 1990 and Point (d) of the Mission Statement, allows us a to understand the relation between Northeast India and Southeast Asia and finds a central policy inclination a year after in the form of Look East Policy (LEP) which was launched in 1991.
According to the eminent arts writer Shanta Serbjeet Singh, that the thrust to present Indian culture as a form of soft power advanced when “Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984, when he made it very clear that he saw culture both as a arm of diplomacy and as a tool of persuasion within the country. It is no longer ‘Naach Gaana’ it is ‘NaachGaana’ with a purpose”. In other words, culture was recognized as a tool for national integration during the decade of 1980s. It was to become an arm of diplomacy in India’s pursuit of building relations with other countries.
Image (Number 1) Newspaper clipping of the TOI 3rd June 1989 titled ‘ICCR on centre stage’ (Shanta Singh)
Roughly six years before the LEP was launched, a systematic cultural apparatus was put in place in the form of the Department of Culture. It was one of the four departments under the Ministry of Human Resource Development set up in 1985. The Department of Culture’s role entailed the preservation, promotion and dissemination of art and culture in India. ‘Promotion of Institutions and Organisations of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies’ is one of the seven broadly classified activities of the department. Buddhism forms a strong link between India and Southeast Asia and this domestic encouragement to preserving Buddhism therefore, should be viewed in the larger soft power dynamics.
In July 1991, India launched its Look East Policy (LEP) under PM Narasimha Rao detaching from its Non-Aligned approach. LEP as a foreign policy approach was intended to build stronger ties with Southeast Asia laying special emphasis on the Northeast region. By and large LEP was envisaged to increase India’s connection with Southeast Asia from an economic, and strategic dimension. Yet, it was through culture and creativity that the mental and spiritual fodder to nurture this growing engagement was to be provided (Chand, 2014).
It is essential to move away from the state-centred construction of a cultural policy of homogenizing culture when the idea is to develop NER through the Look East policy. This is not to discredit India’s cultural connections and efforts in enhancing ties with the eastern neighbours but to point out the limitation of the Look East policy. Including the peculiar cultures of NER in it would further reinforce India’s pride in possessing one of the most diverse cultures in the world.
Affirmation of LEP can be seen through the cultural initiatives undertaken by India post 1991. A military stand off between India and China had occurred in 1986-87 when China had entered into Arunachal Pradesh, yet India was the first country where China hosted a major cultural festival, the ‘Festivals of China’ in 1992. The festival consisted of exhibitions, seminars and talks, performing arts events, and film festivals (Ministry of Culture Report, 1992).
In 1993, UNESCO’s assistance for the project on conservation and preservation of Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi and Satdhara in India was a vital step for strengthening ties between India and the Southeast –
This conservation, although implemented on an Indian territory, had its implication on the broader Buddhist faith and community. Southeast Asia has the largest Buddhist population in the world, and such an effort culturally reinforced India’s connection with the region (Ministry of Culture Report 1993).
Subsequently there was a series of Festival of India in different countries in the region .In Thailand at Thai Cultural centre in Bangkok on December 13th 1995. Thailand launched its Look West Policy in 2007 that corresponded with India’s Look East policy.
A 13-members delegation headed by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan was sponsored to Indonesia to participate in the 9th International Ramayana Conference in 1993.
In 1995, ‘Days of Vietnamese Culture’ was held in India exhibiting Vietnamese photographs and handicrafts with a reciprocal event titled, ‘Day of Indian Culture’, held in Vietnam in 1996 (Ministry of Culture report 1996).
India marked Indonesia’s 50th Anniversary of Independence. ICCR sent a Photographic Exhibition of Mughal monuments and publications on Islam in India to the Istiklal Mosque Festival held in Jakarta.
ICCR held seminars on ‘Continuities and Convergences in the Performing Arts Traditions in South and South-East Asia’ in Kolkata on 11-12 December 1995. Eminent academics from India and Southeast Asia participated in the seminar (ICCR Annual Report, 1995). An increasing emphasis on India and Southeast relations can be seen through this seminar that tries to put India and Southeast Asia in one bracket.
This has hugely impacted the identity formation under the banner of ‘Indian’ in post-colonial decades. Can this be understood as an export of regional forms to build connectivity with Southeast Asia?
Chand, M. (2014). ‘Act East: India’s ASEAN Journey’, Ministry of External Affairs. Government of India. Available at: https://mea.gov.in/outoging-visit detail.htm?24216/Act+East+Indias+ASEAN+Journey
Cherain, A. ‘Institutionalising Manoeuvres: Nationalising Performance, Delineating Genre: Reading the Sangeet Natak Akademi Reports 1953-1959’. Third Frame: Literature, Culture and Society Vol. 2, No. 3, July–September 2009, 32–60
Hussain, W. 2009. ‘India’s Northeast: The Super-highway to Southeast Asia?’, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Available at: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/102095/IB105-SEARP-Wasbir.pdf (Accessed 15/09/2022)
ICCR Annual Report 1995. Ministry of External Affairs.
Kakati, B. (2021) ‘Conflict and Development in Northeast India’, Transnational Institute. Available at: https://www.tni.org/en/article/conflict-and-development-in-northeast-india (Accessed: 15/09/2022)
Kumar, S (2018) ‘Causes of Insurgency in Northeast India’, The Geopolitics. 3 May. Available at: https://thegeopolitics.com/the-origins-and-causes-of-insurgency-in-northeast-india/ (Accessed: 15/09/2022)
Ministry of Culture Annual Report (1991 to 1999)
Said Edward. Orientalism. Published 1978
Sangeet Natak Akademi Archive V-1609
T. N. Kaul. Nehru the Idealist and Revolutionary Tenth Lecture. 8 December 1983. Available at: https://www.cambridgetrust.org/assets/documents/Lecture_10.pdf
Verghese. B.G. Man and Society: A Journal of North East Studies (2004).