The Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants for Young Researchers from the Northeast
The Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants for Young Researchers from the Northeast support independent research by making available small grants to those working in the fields of humanities and social sciences. Read more about the project that these grants are realised under here.
This section features essays written by our research grantees from the grant cycles of 2020-21, 2019-20 and 2018-19. We invite you to read, share and comment on these essays, which reflect the range and variety of subjects that preoccupy young researchers and writers from the region.
In the 2020-21 The Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants for Young Researchers from the Northeast grant cycle, the selected essays explored gender and its intersections through the themes of Gender and Public Space and Gender and Disability. We will be releasing one essay under each theme weekly–stay tuned!
This paper aims to conceptualise online feminist spaces created by marginalised gender identities in Guwahati, Assam, while also focusing on the existing interplay between digital platforms and local protests. Speaking to members of LGBTQIA+ communities in Assam, this paper highlights the importance of social media in creating space for diverse forms of feminist activism in a conflict-driven state. The implementation of the National Register for Citizenship (NRC) and the change in the Citizenship Rights Act (CAA) have complicated the region’s social and political fabric and increased vulnerability to communities beyond a state’s political imagination. The study was conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown period when digital spaces became even more relevant for those with access to disseminate information, connect with people and explore alternative forms of resistance.
Muslim women form a significant number of the domestic workers in Assam, hired as cleaners but whose work, like cooking, remains invisible. This paper looks at the exclusion of Muslim domestic workers from the kitchen and argues that this is driven both by their religious and class identities. It throws light on how religious prejudices and stereotypes play out in myriad ways in daily and public life. The paper adds to the literature on the religious composition of domestic workers in Assam and the exclusion they face in their workplace because of their religious identity.
This paper is based on the Baghjan blowout tragedy, which happened in the Tinsukia District of Assam during the pandemic year of 2020. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing and staying at home the new ‘normal’; on the other hand, this tragedy forced people to flee for ‘relief’, leaving their burnt-down homes behind. Public spaces such as schools, bridges or any other open spaces transformed overnight into a shelter for the victims. Women struggled even to access toilets. The demarcation between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ in such a scenario went through alterations. Thus, this paper, a combination of ethnographic texts, narratives, photographs and art pieces, investigates gender, disasters and the meaning of ‘public’ spaces for women.
This project is a visual narrative that attempts to portray the feelings of a girl living in a world that claims to be safe but, in reality, restricts and limits her. The images explore her never-ending desire to know what it’s like to be free—to know how the streets of Kalimpong look at midnight, to explore new places to eat, to meet new people, to go on treks, to stay in a tent with a view of the mountains near a river, to learn how to cycle on open roads, to do everything that she desires and to do all of these things freely. As a photographer, I have confronted myself and the space as well as my practice through this project.
The last few years have seen a vibrant debate on citizenship in the country, opened up by the process of updating the NRC in Assam, necessarily raising questions on who is and is not a citizen and traversing its multiple layers addressing the challenges posed by globalisation and other factors. North-east India, located beyond the chicken neck, has been in the peripheral political imagination of the powers that be, leading it to being reduced to a resource frontier. However, it is important to underline that the periphery, too, is not homogeneous. This paper tries to understand the periphery within the periphery through women’s lenses.
The paper examines the situation of Mising women in Assam and highlights the inadequate representation of women in governance, both at the village level and in legislative assemblies. The paper also explores the traditional roles of women in Mising society, particularly in Kebangs or traditional village councils, where women’s opinions are often devalued and dismissed. Although the needs of the community are changing, women’s rights to participate in decision-making processes are still restricted by customary laws and practices that prevent women from taking part in traditional village councils. The paper calls for a shift towards equality, as well as greater participation of Mising women in public life.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the significance of medics prevails worldwide. The pandemic resurfaces the gender gap in the nursing profession along with the stigmatization of the image of a ‘male nurse’. Throughout the century, the traditional image of a nurse has always been female. The root of such perception is often questioned and needs to be examined. Since nursing emerged as an early women’s profession in Mizoram, the paper is an attempt to analyse nursing from a gender perspective in colonial settings to understand the present nature of nursing in Mizoram.
This visual narrative follows the life of Binita Rai, a female Wushu coach from Samdong, East Sikkim. Despite the limited opportunities for women pursuing careers in sports in a small state like Sikkim, Binita has represented India in various international tournaments and is an executive member of the Sikkim Amateur Wushu Association (SAWA). However, her journey has not been easy, as sustaining a career in sports for women is just as difficult as building one. Binita has faced many challenges and continues to do so, including those stemming from systematic sexism in sports. This project is about her successful career against the odds as well as a meditation on the several challenges she still has to come across, many of them because of the existing systematic sexism in sports.
This essay is an attempt to document the lived experiences of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) in Nagaland, with a special focus on women with disabilities. By focusing on the various models of disability, this essay contextualises how the PwDs are socially and culturally perceived, stigmatised and discriminated against in Naga society. Based on a qualitative method, this essay documents the experiences of persons with disabilities narrated by them or by their parents and siblings. This essay also investigates the psychological, structural and infrastructural support given by the family, church, society and government for the PwDs in Nagaland. The essay concludes with recommendations for mainstreaming the PwDs in Nagaland at all levels.
Ao Naga folklore encompasses different realities and fantasies. In Ao Naga society, the predominant roles of leadership, moral authority and social privileges are attributed differently to men and women. Women are seen represented in multiple overlapped roles: as helpmate, refined lady, percussor in socialisation, cunning-manipulative matriarch, and aggressive maleficence entities. The paper reasons how the ‘dormant and unbending’ women’s roles are seldom glorified, patriarch-biased and at times reversed, justifying that the appropriation of gender spaces through traditional folklore is a multi-layered complexity than what meets the eye.
In the 2020-21 grant cycle, along with announcing the annual grant for young researchers from the Northeast, Zubaan also introduced the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants for Journalists from the Northeast. Aimed at early to mid-career journalists, this particular grant was a direct response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent lockdown, and their impact on the world of waged work, particularly freelance and independent media work in the Northeast and adjoining areas.
10 journalists were selected in total, with their proposals looking at different dimensions of the gendered impact of the pandemic, be it women’s work, access to healthcare, migration, or LGBTQI+ rights. To read their articles/ view their photoessays on these various themes that have been published on various online portals and written with the support of the grant, click here.
In the 2019-20 grant cycle, the selected essays focus on the themes of memory, migration, and children’s literature. We will be releasing one essay under each theme weekly–stay tuned!
This paper looks at Khongjom Parba, a form of oral ballad practiced in Manipur through the lens of one of its most famous practitioner, Nameirakpam Ibemni Devi. As the first woman balladeer of the art form, she is responsible for its growth and the form it has acquired today. Having its origin after the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891, Khongjom Parba gives us a novel way of looking at the past. As performances which rely primarily on oral transmission, it goes beyond the realm of the written and the ways in which histories have been ‘written’ till now. By highlighting different ways in which people have responded to the art form and the way different characters are treated within the ballad, this paper explores various ways in which people understand and live with their ‘pasts’.
This paper addresses the present and absent voices of women in narrating the story of the Nellie Massacre in Assam in 1983. The women carry the stories of their violent past while dealing with and responding to the changing political landscape of Assam. This paper attempts to visibilize these stories, and in turn, add different layers to our understanding of the violent event. The women addressing such events often display different dispositions — sometimes they are animated and willing to communicate, and at other times, they are reluctant to reveal too much to inquisitive strangers. Sometimes, they speak together in a group trying to find their space in the discourse while building solidarity through remembering collectively. This paper hopes to build on the existing narratives of the massacre while focusing on the specific impact on gender during violence wrought against the idea of identity and belonging.
This paper is an offering of knowledge-keeping that emerged from a collaboration with the author and her grandmothers. It honours and celebrates the food and medicine of the indigenous Himalayan people—medicine that comes from the soil and into the kitchen, which fills their stomachs and hearts and feeds their souls. To the author and her community, this food is not just medicine. Rather, it is complementary both to the needs of the body, and those of the soil—it is sustainable, organic and regenerative. The author puts this work together with the intention to acknowledge her grandmothers as keepers of these bodies of knowledge, practiced and honed over thousands of years, silenced but still not forgotten. Emerging from the times she spent with her grandmothers in her forest, or sitting at their feet listening to them, she shares her learnings and insights about these rituals and practices through illustrations.
During the secret killings in Assam, family members, close aides and suspected sympathizers of insurgents from ULFA and human rights activists from MASS were abducted, tortured, or gunned down. Witnesses to these killings continue to remember the surrendered cadres and police to be behind the death and the disappearance of their loved ones, where the army was ubiquitous. This paper challenges the erstwhile ‘secret’ nature of the killings. It attempts to unravel the silences, particularly of women who bore witness to those killings, and expose how the state assaulted people’s social lives in Assam in the name of counter-insurgency operations. Their stories mark both resilience and resistance.
‘Shamans’ or ‘Deodinis’ among the practitioners of the Bathou religion have been in existence since time immemorial. Though now they are few and far between, the Boro society in Assam has always looked upon them with awe and reverence. While their origin, history and what they signify in these contemporary times might have taken a detour in attempts to comprehend their existence, one aspect that has never undergone change is that of their gender. Interestingly, only women have taken on the role of shamans among the Bathou practitioners of Boro society. ‘The One Taken by God…’ is an attempt to document oral histories and testimonies associated with the ‘Deodinis’, explore how private and public memory live on, find articulation in recounting her actions and status in Boro society, and to retrieve what might have been lost in translation along these years.
This paper examines the operational nature of the imagination and representation of female characters in Khamba Thoibi, a popular folktale in Manipur. The story is deeply embedded in the community’s historical and cultural memory and is often referred to as an epic of the region. Through this paper, the author interrogates conventional representations of femininity that rely on a dichotomy between docile domesticity and obstinate autonomy that is projected as a transgressive trait. By analysing the depiction of gender relations in the narrative, she explores larger thematic concerns of the oral folktale genre such as questions of class mobility, divine intervention and the socio-political expectations of the period.
This paper revisits the political conflict of 1986 (popularly known as Chyasi ko Andolan) in the Darjeeling Hills through the oral narratives of women who witnessed the conflict in various capacities. The conflict emerged out of direct contestations between the state and the political front––Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), spearheading the movement for the creation of Gorkhaland from the state of West Bengal. Chyasi is deeply embedded in the mental and emotional psyche of the people of Darjeeling Hills with memories of sacrifices, loss, pain, fear and trauma. A political analysis of conflicts remains incomplete without bringing in the memories of conflict that play an important role in the lives and histories of the people of these regions. Women’s stories often remain unheard, marginalized and silenced despite women being integral to these political processes. This paper uses oral narratives in the form of women’s experiences and stories to explore the political conflict of 1986 and its gendered dynamics in the Darjeeling Hills.
The essay attempts to analyse two reference books of ‘Ekal Vidyalaya’ in upper Assam, a school operated by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangha. The Ekal Vidyalayas are part of a larger social movement called ‘Ekal Abhiyan’ that aims to bring overall development in tribal dominated areas. These schools are not mainstream; instead, they act as an alternative school for students who belong to underprivileged backgrounds. The students (mostly lower and upper primary) enrolled under government schools are encouraged to join these schools to get help with their lessons. Apart from the regular help with lessons, the school functions under a distinctive Hindutva ideology of inculcating Hindu ways of life. The reference books distributed to students are part of this larger ideology. The curriculum and pedagogy are designed under ‘panchmukhi Shiksha,’ the five-tier education system borrowed from ancient Hindu religious texts. This essay investigates the gender dimension of the curriculum by analysing reference books, and interviews conducted among teachers and the school’s management.
Ning-them is a short fiction about finding oneself and one’s family. It is also a tale of friendship, love and betrayals rooted in Manipur and Delhi. Ning-them, the main protagonist struggles with identity crisis and un/belongingness; an experience that Sam and Pari also share in their own ways. The story centres on the three of them and their conflicting identities and relationships. It is told through Ning-them’s memory; often fragmented and in the process of retelling partially comes into terms with the conflicts.
Twenty years of Rambuai (troubled times) resulted in political turmoil and chaos in the hills of Mizoram. While the entire population experienced this period of troubles and suffered its effects, texts on Rambuai have been dominated by male narratives. New scholarly approaches continue to underplay the role women played during this period. This paper is an attempt to investigate unexplored personal accounts to create a new paradigm in Rambuai history. It locates an individual female agency from the autobiographical memories extracted from the unpublished prison writings and diaries of B. Vanlalzari, a female political prisoner during the Rambuai period.
This paper is about a period in Kalimpong’s history when it was a bustling trade-town, a potpourri of the world’s population (Datta-Ray, 1984), a town that connected India to Tibet, China and perhaps to the world, where its inhabitants depended on trade to make a decent living. The research paper revisits this period through the medium of memory and history through the eyes of men and women, and in a very significant way is about their personal histories. It explores the nexus between past, memory and history through the ‘lived realities’ of different individuals who have been a witness to a time period which is almost in contrast to the present day scenario. In so doing, it emphasises that in understanding the cultural history of Kalimpong or any other place, it is pertinent to take into account the myriad experiences and stories of people who are an integral part of a place’s history and culture.
A Kitchen across the Khal is a short story with three women–the narrator, her mother Rosie and her grandmother Champa– at the centre. Written in first person, the story is the narrator’s understanding of relationships and conversations in a partition-displaced household. It is a story of intergenerational trauma, conflicts within the household and the patriarchal regulation of bodies.
The railways arrived in Assam in the latter half of the 19th century, which led to the formation of several railway and industrial townships in the region. Woven from the recollections of women from the authors own family and long-time residents, this essay attempts to explore the inter-generational experiences of the female inhabitants of Lumding railway colony.
Kereng Kothoma: A Modern Retelling of the Folk Tales of Tripura is a translation project. The translated stories revolve around the lives of the Tripuris, i.e., the indigenous, working-class people of Tripura and their numerous adventures and misadventures. Originally in Kokborok language, these stories for children have been transmitted orally through generations. This project aims at preserving and extending the longevity of these stories and the culture and tradition associated with them so that the valuable memories don’t get lost in this age of chaos, consumerism, and instant gratification. It tries to capture the celebration, reaffirmation and dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, their meanings, and the development of gender identity and expectations associated with it that begin from childhood.
This paper is the germ of an idea, a call for the urgent necessity and the collaboration of other writers, artists and researchers to rethink our archives, to make unfamiliar and unknowable what we accept passively. In this paper the author situates Lakshminath Baruah’s folktales in their historicity and context, and offers an argument for retelling these stories through a feminist perspective for the current generation of readers. She rewrites three of these stories with an attempt to uncover and expand moments of feminist potential, while trying to maintain the spirit and the linguistic essence of the original. The three retold stories are – Siloni’r Jiyek’or Xadhu (The story of the kite’s daughter), Tula aru Teja (Tula and Teja) and Kaati Jua Naak Kharoni di Dhaak (Put Kharoni on the cut off nose).
This paper is an attempt to introduce Tai Phake children’s literature and to look at this age-old literature through a feminist lens. Tai Phake literature encompasses both oral and written work. A selected few among these works have been categorized as children’s literature, which are—Mo Kham Lao Luk (Lullaby), Pung (Folktale), Kham Son (Idioms) and Kham Ta (Riddles). The paper also illustrates the lives of the Tai Phake people who have maintained their culture and heritage, even as changing times have made it difficult to continue doing so.
The paper is an attempt to present the diverse oral narratives of the Zeliang community in Nagaland. These folktales from the village of Gaili in Nagaland have been passed on for generations by the elders and storytellers of the Zeliang tribe. The children’s tales included in this collection aim to give readers a look at the culture and tradition of the Zeliang people, while also introducing them to their vivid and unique literary imagination. These stories include myths and legends which highlight heroic figures and warriors from the village, while other fables show the organic relationship the community shared with nature and the environment. In many of the stories, we see strong women characters who take bold decisions but at the same time show deference to the conventions of the community. Therefore, the following folk tales also provide a way of looking into the relationship between labour and gender roles, cultural understanding of masculinity and femininity, and how desirability and romantic relationships, etc. are shaped within Zeliang society.
This essay is a graphic narration of three folk stories from Assam, originally compiled by writer Lakshminath Bezbaroa. The author visually translates these three folk stories through a gendered lens to generate curiosity and interest among children. She hopes that this work breaks gender stereotypes among young readers.
Migration to the cities is a household phenomenon in the entire Northeastern region of India. For people in Manipur, the English word ‘outside’ serves more as a noun that means ‘anywhere outside Manipur’. In the ‘outside’, these migrants take on adjacent identities for navigating their way through different cultures and phenomena. However, when they return home for good, they come back to cities, towns and villages that function in ways completely different from the cities they were thriving in. The researcher, a young woman from Imphal, focuses on the stories of women who call Imphal home. This paper is divided into three main sections: i) the reasons of their leaving and returning, ii) how they are navigating this new home every day, and iii) what changes they would like for their city. These sections try to describe how young women who have returned home from outside are actively involved in the cultural production of the urban space that they live in, and how each woman has her own unique experiences and opinions. The paper also tries to bring out the overarching gender and development issues related to this phenomenon.
Considering the significant flow of individuals migrating from the Northeast to the rest of India, this paper argues for the need to recognise the diasporic community that is ‘internally’ formed by these individuals. Emphasising on the affective aspect, the paper additionally examines the role of food and cultural festivals on this populous.
This paper studies the Jhumur songs of the tea plantation workers of Assam, and looks at them as oral histories of the various communities and tribes brought to Assam by the colonial project of growing tea. It traces the history of migration, and the narratives and ever-evolving history and culture of the tea plantation workers of Assam. While looking at themes of alienation, exploitation and colonial/post colonial plantation regimes, this paper also traces the gendered cultural, social and economic politics in the history of migration which produce the fractured positionality of women tea plantation workers in Assam. While the women are usually treated as docile /invisible, in the Jhumur songs their memory is resilient and the songs are irreplaceable in recording loss, memories of ‘home’ and privations of daily plantation life.
In the 2018-19 grant cycle, the selected essays focus on the broader framework of women’s multiple histories and gender in the Northeast.
By analysing first-hand testimonies from the Imphal valley, this paper attempts to unpack questions of vigilante forms of gender justice, keeping in mind two important realities of the region–the fact that sexual violence perpetrated against women by security force personnel in Manipur has gone punished, and that indigenous and tribal communities in the Northeast region have their own customary laws for dealing with those accused of rape.
Marked by their red coats, the ‘Gaon Buras/Buris’ (village old men/women) have been a part of village councils in Arunachal Pradesh for several years. This paper attempt to examine the position of women in the community and bring their narratives to the fore.
This paper explores certain faces of the quotidian of people who are living ‘queer’ lives in Manipur, through stories of struggles and negotiation of 8 people trying to survive abuse, find livelihood and acceptance from their family and community; amidst the hostility of nation-state conflict.
This paper explores the location of Assamese Muslim women as cultural citizens, and the possibilities of building up new networked archives to preserve and discuss the social memories of these cultural citizens.
The signing of the Mizoram Peace Accord in 1986 has been called one of the most successful peace accords in the country. Using women’s oral testimonies, this paper addresses some missing aspects of the story by focusing on the memories of women.
Through a storytelling process that involves visuals and direct narratives, this paper attempts to look at indigenous kitchens through the lens of gender and memory. It looks at the idea of space, cooking, and rituals among communities involved in meaning-making through culinary habits.
This paper puts together the memories of Manipuri people, particularly Manipuri women, during the years of the Second World War. It offers a gendered reading of the War and establishes the centrality of oral testimonies in providing a perspective of the war from below.
This project traces the personal journeys of four grandmothers within the context of family, gender, state, and violence. It is an attempt to narrativise and represent the intersection of familial memory with history.
This paper seeks to examine the evocation of erotic desire in Bhawaiyaa folk music, which has often come under moral disciplining and soft censorship by the state. By looking at the social and material conditions of local practitioners and memory keepers, it focuses on the social and collective histories of this singing tradition.
Despite the fact that it has been more than half a century since Nagaland attained statehood, in Naga society, to do politics is to be a man. This paper attempts to take a closer look at Naga women’s political participation historically, and in present-day Naga society.
Muuns are female shamans of the Lepcha tribe of Sikkim. This essay offers glimpses into the journey of the Muuns though stories and experiences collected from various Elders, male Shamans (boongthing), and practising Muuns.
This paper tried to explore the gendered crime of witch-hunting and address the impact witchcraft accusations have. By focusing on the stories of the survivors, this paper aims to draw attention to the power wielded in private spaces, and the rehabilitation and coping mechanisms of the survivors.
Drawing on the lived experiences of Naga women in the fictional works of Easterine Kire and Temsula Ao, this essay aims to debunk the debated myth of a ‘privileged’ Naga women by looking at existing roles and representations of Naga women in social and political spaces.
This paper explores the discursive shifts in the representation of Aonglemla, a non-human entity that is believed to be malevolent. It also looks at how digital mediums have contributed to the continuity, fictionalisation and humanisation of Aonglemla through narratives detailing such encounters.
The Mishmi (Idu) tribe is known for its textile weaving skills. However, these weaving practices have seen a rapid decline over the years. This paper looks at how gender dynamics have intertwined with state politics to affect the weaving tradition in the region.
Using the symbolic and sociological implications of the Khasi hearth, this essay examines the domestic and familial determinants of work in the working-class home by using the author’s own family history as a representative case study.
By looking at the everyday lives of Buddhist nuns, this paper attempts to explore the gendered struggles and resistance they face. Further, it partially looks at the construction of the female body and sexuality in Buddhist textual representations.
This paper attempts to understand violence between ethnic groups and its subsequent avoidance in the aftermath of incidents of sexual violence, wherein the perpetrators and victims were identified as belonging to different ethnicities, in the region that is now called the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), India.
This paper looks at the historical legacy and representation of women in Vaishnavism in Assam. By drawing on Vaishnava texts and the hagiographical writings of Vaishnava gurus, it argues that the representation of female devotion within the tradition is based on gender and caste norms.
Through the interviews of 30 women migrant construction workers working in Hatigaon in Guwahati, this paper tries to highlight the various issues they face as a result of their gender and occupation.
In the form of a graphic narrative intertwined with the story of the illustrative art of the Meiteis, this paper looks at the recently revived Meitei script and tries to write a creative story of it.