Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

bhismaknagar

PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

IMG-20180327-WA0032

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

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Media, moral policing and manipulation: Who lost when Metropolis was shut down?

Since 2013, Metropolis Urban Winter Festival held in Guwahati, Assam had managed to bring together artists, musicians and others from the creative fields to showcase their work, exchange ideas and bring ‘urbanity’ to the city. This year was to be no different until the last day when it was hastily shut down by authorities, reportedly following a tweet by a senior minister.

Held from January 6 to 8, the festival’s main venue was Nehru Park. This year’s edition played host to a 72-member delegation from Bhutan, including those from the Thimpu-based Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). Private partners aside, the festival also had the support of state authorities including Assam Tourism and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). And while things ran fairly smoothly for the first two days, the GMDA shut down proceedings on the last day, allegedly because the venue had become a den for illicit activities.

 

POLITICAL GAMES?

A source in the organising committee of the festival said that the GMDA had given them permission for three days but that the same GMDA shut them down on the last day after a tweet from senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma criticising the “atmosphere” at Nehru Park.

On Sunday, Sarma had tweeted, “Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated”.

Some say that Sarma’s reaction is fuelled by a “clash between two ideologies”. The festival reportedly enjoys the “blessing” of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son and Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who in fact expressed his support for the festival on social media.

On January 8, a Facebook post (reportedly from Gogoi’s profile) read, “From day one I have supported the Metropolis festival in Guwahati as a celebration of youth, art and creativity. I would even take the Ex CM Tarun Gogoi to the festival where he would encourage everyone. The youth of Northeast are full of talent and creativity, and their initiatives should be supported and not obstructed.”

Then on Twitter, Gogoi took a dig at the BJP government in Assam when he tweeted, “Assam govt opens wine shops earlier in the day but shuts down youth arts festival for being a nuisance”. Two days later he again took to Facebook stating that the “GMDA should return the booking money that it collected from the Metropolis festival organisers. It is unfair to first give permission and then cancel for no rationale”.

One person who is part of the organizing team said there “may be some misinformation about the involvement of certain people”, hinting at Gogoi while dismissing his level of involvement.

 

MEDIA AND MORAL POLICING?

The people behind the organizing team claim that things escalated after some local news channels and papers blew things out of proportion.

“There is no evidence that liquor was served in the venue or any gambling took place as reported by some channels,” said one person part of the team.

Another member of the team said that the main venue is located near the Cotton College and the DC’s office and that the organisers never served alcohol to attendees.

They also say that some channels claimed that the venue had become a place of “nudity”.

“The trend in the media here is that anyone wearing clothes that show skin is labelled as promoting ‘nudity’,” said one. “This is Talibanization of Assam,” he added.

Another member of the team said that in Assam there are “no news channels and only views channels”. He added that the situation was escalated because most channels are either owned by politicians or enjoy their backing and therefore “look into things with the perspectives of the politicians”.

A journalist who works for a Guwahati-based channel that covered the event defended his channel’s actions.

“Whatever we reported was based on an internal report that the GDMA had compiled,” he said, adding that the channel did not investigate the claims independently.

He did however, say that the organisers had disrespected the Ashok stambh and Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue in the venue by covering their faces.

News channels also alleged that the bone of contention was that a ‘children’s park’ was being misused as patrons were smoking and drinking at the main venue. Not everyone is convinced by this claim.

 

POINT OF VIEW

Child rights activist from Guwahati, Miguel Das Queah, who held a session on corporal punishment in schools during the festival took to Facebook to express his views.

“I met lots of lots of children, along with their parents, who told me that they were absolutely enjoying the festivity. The festival had hundreds of vibrant young students, scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, designers, dancers, social workers, activists, actors, couples; each one celebrating the beautiful occasion of childhood and youth. There were no brawls, no misdemeanour. How can such a beautiful thing vitiate the atmosphere?” he wrote.

A city-based journalist working for a Delhi-based news outlet said that there was some amount of littering in the place but that the venue is far from what can be deemed as a ‘children’s park’ and serves more as a place for young couples to meet.

“There may have been some issues but it could have been handled differently,” the journalist added.

Amidst the din of what amounts to culturally-appropriate behaviour and possible politically-motivated moves, the primary aim of promoting the arts was relegated to the background.

“Nobody reported that we showcased three classics of Assamese cinema or the amazing performances by children,” one of the organisers said.

 A version of this report first appeared in The Citizen

The trouble with dams

Dams are not just about rivers and harnessing their power. As tribals, we are inextricably tied to the land and what happens to it. By damaging the land, we damage ourselves.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

From the introduction of the railways in the state more than 160 years after the first train rolled out from Mumbai to Thane to grand plans of building the Trans-Arunachal Highway, Arunachal Pradesh in India’s remote north-eastern region today sits on the cusp of imminent socio-economic change.

Home to a  myriad group of tribes speaking various Tibeto-Burman languages and tracing their origins from separate sources, Arunachal Pradesh is an anthropologist’s dream destination. From Buddhist tribes to practitioners of animist faiths across the length and breadth of the state and to followers of new gods, the state is changing as we speak.

With growing changes to the socio-economic landscape of the state, come changes in the aspirations of people and what they want to achieve with their lives. Good education and an honest job that pays the bills are no longer enough as people begin to dream big and look beyond the mundane to secure their dreams. Agriculture that sustained families for generations is no longer seen as lucrative means of income-generation as newer opportunities await for this primarily tribal state. The government of the day too, is daring people to dream big and now a variety of loans for small and medium size businesses have become more accessible to a wider demographic. Despite what lays ahead, the path to prosperity is still a long way out.

Known for the rich treasure trove of natural resources, India is looking towards the state to harness all that Arunachal has to offer. With just two popularly elected members of parliament for a population of fewer than 15 lakhs, the state lacks any real political weightage in New Delhi’s power circles. Ironically, it is through power that the state is trying to gain more power.

Various studies and reports have extensively written that the state has a hydropower capacity of over 50,000 megawatts which is around 40 percent of India’s power generation capacity. For any industry to grow and bring about economic changes, it seems obvious that the state should try to tap into this large capacity. After all, almost all industry requires energy to sustain itself in order to ultimately sustain the economy.

For example, the varied climatic conditions across the state throughout the year make it an ideal place to cultivate a variety of agricultural and horticultural products which can be kept in cold storage and exported. However, cold storages require a large amount of electricity and hence the popular belief that hydropower should be harnessed to power industry.

At the outset and on the surface, it appears like a win-win situation for all. However, if you scratch the surface, or rather dive deep, the situation becomes complicated.

Before the approval of any major infrastructure project, it is required by law that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report is prepared which would assess the effect a project can have on the surrounding area’s ecology. Needless to say, the pro-project, ultra-capitalist hydropower lobby is much more financially powerful than any pro-environment NGO, giving it greater clout to not only influence policy decisions but also tilt EIA reports in their favour.

Example: The EIA study of the 225 megawatts Talong Londa Hydro Project states that “The state is blessed with major rivers which have significant hydropower potential, such as Subansiri, Siang, Kameng, Lohit, Dibang, Tirap and many tributaries such as Kamla, Ranganadi (Panyor), Dikrong and Tawang Chhu.”

The keyword in that above line is ‘blessed’. An EIA report is, for all meanings and purposes, meant to be a scientific document based on empirical data and should be devoid of romantic language. A simple line stating how several major river basins are present in the state should suffice. As trivial as this observation may appear, the fact is that it sets the tone in the minds of readers that damming these rivers is a logical and foregone conclusion.

Let us stick with the Talong project as an example of the impact it will have on the Kameng River.

The Kameng River is about 264 kilometres in length, originating from the glacial Himalayan lakes and flows down to the neighbouring state of Assam where it is known as the Bhareli/Jia Bhoreli before eventually joining the Brahmaputra River. In East Kameng district, where a large part of the river and its tributaries flow, live the Nyishi people. They have fished and harvested on these rivers for centuries.

The Kameng River

The Kameng River.

The Talong project will be built 20 km upstream of Seppa town, the district headquarters, with three units of 75 megawatts each, and will result in a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 488 metres. An FRL is the highest reservoir level that can be maintained without spillway discharge or without passing water downstream, i.e. in case of heavy rainfall, the water level at the reservoir may increase leading to flooding of surrounding areas. But that is speculative and so let me avoid such a conclusion. Let me stick to a basic fact.

It is well-known that dams lead to submergence of surrounding areas which results in displacement of human populations. The Talong project’s EIA report states clearly that “damming of river Kameng near village Pachi will result in the creation of 400 hectares of submergence area”.

While a hectare as a unit is used often in such scenarios, I feel it is important to actually present a visual image of how large it is.

To use a sporting analogy, most sports fields are one hectare in size. Picture an international standard football pitch which is 100 metres in length and about 50 metres in width. Double the width and you have a perfect square football pitch of 100 by 100 metres which is equal to one hectare.

Now, think of an area that will encompass 400 such altered football pitches and you get an extent of the area that will be submerged by this one project alone.

In the Kameng river basin,  46 hydropower projects have been planned which, needless to say, will lead to submergence of many more football fields. In East Kameng district alone, there are 22 projects planned for construction and yet awareness about the effects of dams amongst people living along the Kameng river basin remains basic, to say the least especially when compared to the Siang basin where massive projects of over 6000 megawatts have been planned for construction.

The reason I bring this to notice is not to talk about football fields. I highlight this point because of who we are and our relation to the land.

Regardless of where we grow up or where we work, as indigenous people, we draw our identity from the land that we belong to. Our traditions, our culture, our daily habits are influenced by the land. If we practice shifting cultivation, it is because it is the land that we live in, compels us to do so. If we fear the flowering of the bamboo, it is because the land has shown us time and again that famine will follow when it happens.

The land and the people are not separate. We are one and what we do to the land, we do to ourselves.

For tribal people, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

For tribal people, like the Nyishis, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

A version of this essay first appeared on ‘Laapi’ magazine which was published to mark the 37th foundation day of the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organisation on 24 October 2015. To learn more about their work, visit http://www.ekswco.com/

Can music change the world?

For four days and nights, from September 24 to 27, twenty-eight musicians spanning across various genres came together for this year’s edition of the Ziro Music festival (ZFM) in the picturesque Ziro Valley in India’s remote north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In four years the festival has grown exponentially and played host to scores of artists.

While music is still seen by many as a leisure activity, musicians across the globe are using their craft to bring about changes. In fact, this year there were a few musicians who made their festival debut at the festival, and used their songs to promote ideas of peace and change.
Yangon-based punk rockers Side Effect, who performed in India for the first time at this year’s festival, sing about politics and social issues that most in Myanmar are afraid to speak about or against.
Lead singer Darko C, sporting a pair of Ray Bans on the morning of the final day of the festival, said with a tinge of frustration that young people in Myanmar don’t care enough to talk about politics; but he hopes it will change.

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar's Side Effect think its important to sing about politics

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar’s Side Effect think its important to sing about politics.

“If we want to see changes then we must bring those changes ourselves,” he told me, gulping down Kingfisher Strong beer at 11 in the morning.
We spoke extensively about music censorship and how it has been relaxed a little recently thanks to “reforms” in the Myanmar government; but Darko reminded me that the more things change the more they remain the same.
For example, their song ‘The Change’ speaks about the apparent shift to democracy from the military junta that happened in 2011-12, with lyrics such as: Is it time to change, the change we always wanted? Kind of hard to believe that; you know should wake up now.
Their song ‘Meikhtila’ is another example of a socio-politically charged song. Written shortly after the anti-Rohingya riots in which at least 40 people were killed, the song talks about the destruction, and the video for the song was shot in the same town where the violence occurred in 2013.
Another artist who raises issues about socio-political problems through his craft is BK.
The young rapper from Tripura wrote in an email before coming to Ziro that he sings about issues of racism and politics and social problems because “I believe that through music we can bring about the necessary changes in society”.
One of the changes he hopes to bring about is in the people’s attitude about the northeast and its people.
On stage, before livening up the place with his immaculate flow, BK told audiences how he wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in a hospice or a hospital, and that he was born in the jungles of his home state where insurgency and communal rife has torn lives apart for decades.

BK sings raps issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face outside

BK raps about issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face in mainland India.

“Music has the ability to change a person’s attitude. Music can touch lives and change lives. Music is a gift from god. So let’s use music to change lives,” he says.

Singer-songwriter Takar Nabam from Arunachal, who is currently based in Delhi, also later told me that music can bring people together and help heal the world.
Post his opening gig, legendary singer Guru Rewben Mashangva from the state of Manipur said that music “has the power to change the world if people sing about issues that matter”.

Rewben Mashangva (left) a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan in the west of country

Rewben Mashangva (left), a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan from the west of country.

Mashngva is a staple in Ziro and is called the ‘King of Naga Folk Blues’. His unorthodox style of guitar playing combined with his gritty vocals have made him a festival favourite and inevitably draws comparisons with Bob Dylan. Little surprise that the legendary folk singer is one of Mashangva’s favourite singers.

Mercy, of the Tetseo Sisters, has a different take on the issue saying that they do not believe in musical activism “but admit that every song has a message”.

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland's Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it.

Based out of Nagaland and New Delhi, the Tetseo Sisters have performed across the globe at various cultural exchange events and have used their music to create awareness about voting rights and football earlier.
And while Mercy says that they do not believe in using music to stir controversies, she admits that “music is a powerful medium”.

Even the always jocular never-seems-to-be-serious Daniel Langthasa aka Mr India of Digital Suicide is positive that music can change the world.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Langthasa is based out of Haflong in Assam and has seen his place torn apart by underground violence – and that is reflected in the band’s music.

Their song #OPERATIONALLOUT acts like an outlet for anger and frustration over the presence and damages arising out of the numerous outfits in the region. The song begins with the acronyms of some of the larger separatist organisations.
The lyrics to most of their songs have no more than ten words played on loop, and his songs such as #AKHUNI that expose the hypocrisy of not talking about sex in the second most populated country in the world. Yet, a day after their performance, when I asked if music can change the world, he says, with his most serious face: Yes.