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Gender and Sovereignty in Northeastern India

30 January 2013

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[The Nation and its Margins: Reading Gender and the Politics of Sovereignty in India’s Northeast, by Papori Bora. Dissertation, University of Minnesota. 2011. 322 pp. Primary Advisors: Jigna Desai and Richa Nagar]

Review by Atreyee Sen

Dissertation Reviews - January 8, 2013

In the early hours of July 11, 2004, members of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary wing of the Indian army, broke into the home of Thangjam Manorama, in the eastern district of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Accusing her of having links with the People’s Liberation Front, a banned insurgent movement demanding a separate socialist state of Manipur, the young woman was tied up, beaten and interrogated in plain sight of her family members. Later in the day, she was dragged off by the army men. Her semi-naked and bullet-riddled body was found abandoned by the wayside, carrying evident signs of torture and rape. A number of human rights groups in Imphal held mass rallies in and around the capital to protest the ruthless execution of this young Meitei woman (the Meiteis being the largest ethnic group in Manipur). Matters came to a head on July 15, when young and old women in Imphal, who had suffered and survived years of vicious assaults by the Indian Army, paraded naked in the streets. Defying curfew orders and carrying banners saying “Indian Army, rape us” and “Indian Army take our flesh,” the naked women demonstrated in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters. The state responded heavy-handedly to this mass outrage, injuring over a hundred protestors, both men and women, with indiscriminate use of teargas shells and rubber bullets. The chief minister of Manipur was finally compelled to initiate an enquiry into the custodial death, but the perpetrators were given a flimsy slap on their wrists. The victim’s family refused to collect the body without an accurate post-mortem report. After several weeks of lying in a morgue, Manorama’s body was cremated by state authorities to avert further enquiries.

Papori Bora’s interesting and interdisciplinary dissertation revolves around this extraordinary set of events. She focuses particularly on the nature of the women’s protest to approach and answer critical questions on the long-term conflict between the Indian state and armed ethno-nationalist groups in the northeastern region of India (comprising the seven states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura). While the post-colonial state struggled with the inclusion of the Northeast in its imagination of an independent, diverse yet integrated “India,” most social and political organisations in the seven states rejected homogenous nationalist identities, retained “tribal loyalties,” and overtly other-ed the Indian nation. In this context, Bora refers to “postcoloniality” as an intellectual and political project that critically engages with “the ways of knowing” and “modes of doing” set in motion by the intertwined processes of British colonialism and Indian nationalism. To reclaim the power and position of the Indian state machinery in the Northeast, the government developed a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it introduced a number of socio-legal institutions to open doors for popular participation in liberal politics, including provisions for sustaining customary law. On the other hand, the state encouraged the Indian army to establish its military dominance and suppress secessionist movements in the region. The central government even sanctioned notorious Weapons Acts, which inadvertently permitted the police and armed task forces to arrest, incarcerate and sexually violate local people without appropriate cause or documentation. Bora argues expressively that this inclusion-exclusion binary, and the paradoxical approaches developed by the nation state to establish its prominence, has resulted in a political impasse in the northeastern states. She interrogates whether Judith Butler’s “gender performativities” and shifting notions on the intelligibility of bodies could recast such postcolonial narratives on forced citizenship in representative democracies.

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