With Oinam 1987, four artists aim to examine India's systematic indifference towards the people of North East

Gayatri Spivak's pioneering commentary on subalternity famously catalysed the discourse on political agency among the subaltern population. Not only did Can the Subaltern Speak? introduce a semantic shift to the language of postcoloniality, it provided the tools to identify the 'old' and the 'new' subaltern within contemporary power dynamics. Locating subalternity in the context of India's North East, four artists now investigate what the landscape of the region might seem like after re-claiming agency, subverting the politics of documentation while encouraging a 'sanative' culture. Through Oinam 1987, Bazik Thlana, Athoiba Soubam, Nongpok Arambam, and Rohit Saha examine specific events in the history of North East India where the voices of the victims of human rights abuse were ignored, silenced, and obliterated.

While the four artists belong to different regions, they have been researching and documenting socio-political issues plaguing the North East. While Thlana is visual artist from Mizoram and recipient of the FICA Inlaks Goldsmiths Award, 2018, Saha's graduation project about extra-judicial killings in Manipur titled 1528 won him the Alkazi Photobook award in 2017. Both Arambam and Soubam hail from Manipur and practice photography, printmaking, as well as analogue soundscaping to engage with communities. The Blue Birds — as they call themselves — came together virtually in January after creating a WhatsApp group where they brainstormed in the months to come. "We all shared the urgency and importance of working together as a group to highlight the oft-ignored North East India, which has long been subjected to state repression, political violence, discrimination and othering."

CAN THE SUBALTERNS BE HEARD? 2020 from Rodin on Vimeo.

From the outset of our exchange, the Blue Birds voice the precariousness of the term 'North East', the generic label that has come to define the whole region in mainstream narratives. Furthermore, the term is often used to rationalise many underlying presumptions and stereotypes that the artists 'abhor and seek to do away with'. However, while they do come from different parts of the region, they simultaneously embrace the opportunity to engage with the northeastern 'community' — precisely why they do not hesitate to assume positions which help them 'belong', while not entirely belonging. "While speaking for oneself is an important and urgent mode of operation, the pitfall is always the question of representation as North East itself is a diverse collection of culture, history, language, etc. This brings us back to the statist rhetoric of ‘unity in diversity’ and what it would mean to speak as a collective and stand together in solidarity. We do not necessarily place our artistic practice as a representational voice but more so to highlight and instigate questions that could open up to larger discourses," the group asserts.

Imagined as an alternative form of scrutinising events confined in loss, grief, injustice and abuse, Oinam 1987 features a slew of sub-projects within. A case in point is Can the subalterns be heard? wherein Thlana employs a typewriter without carbon paper as a mechanism to question the accountability of official narratives. To achieve this, he types out several affidavits, telegrams and letters — exchanged among the local administration, Manipuri activists, Prime Minister's Office, and Assam Rifles — featured in a chapter in Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Nongray's The Judgement that Never Came: Army rule in North East India, which also lends the project its title.

In an introductory video, Thlana provides a glimpse of the seemingly straightforward process of using a typewriter with no ink, denoting an erasure of voices. However, soon an unsettling realisation creeps up on you as Thlana continues to work the typewriter and each keystroke echoes uncannily like a gunshot. "One of the things that I have been mulling over is the fact that that certain sensory experiences are predominant over others. Like the saying ‘seeing is believing’, or how the ‘eye-witness’ is often held accountable in legal procedures. But as much as our eyes can deceive, an absence of sight does not merely dismiss anything." He proceeds to address how certain sensations, such as the visual aspect, are exploited more frequently in art too, even though there's been some experimentation in the sound and smell sphere. "Part of the reason that each press sounded like a gunshot to me is because the particular incident that I was looking at is replete with violence. One of the things that we try to understand through Oinam 1987 is the notion of ‘emptiness’, as one of the justifications for the court rulings is that either there is no ‘evidence’ or it has been lost. So what would it mean to have an empty shell (of a bullet) without a dead body, or an empty shell (of a camera cartridge) without a picture? These soundscapes, therefore, question our sensory perceptions."

In 2019, the Manipur High Court disposed of cases that had been pending for 28 years. However, despite India's colossal legal backlog, the cases in question had been filed in the aftermath of Operation Bluebird, forever wrecking the social, economic and political landscape of Oinam Hill, a village populated largely by the Poumai Naga tribe. The Naga People's Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) observed that in the counter-insurgency operation carried out by the Assam Rifles, "around thirty villages were affected, 125 houses were allegedly burnt, 112 houses, 6 schools and 10 Churches were dismantled, properties worth of Rs 50 lakh were looted from seven villages and people belonging to five villages were forced to work, 27 persons were alleged to have been killed on different dates in Senapati district, three women were allegedly raped and five women were sexually molested while 300 persons were allegedly tortured." The fallout from these incidents imbues Pungou Phanek amadi Inaphi (The Sarong and the Shawl).

Pungou Phanek amadi Inaphi juxtaposes long exposure photography with prolonged legal processes in the North East.

In the visual piece, Athoiba commemorates the dead as he imagines his mother attending a funeral service for the victims of Operation Bluebird. Belonging to the Meetei community, he printed photographs of water reflections on his mother's Pungou Phanek, a type of sarong worn by the Meetei women during a funeral or ritual service. In re-examining the prolonged legal processes that followed after the defence operation, the installation recognises a common past, marked by the fight for independence, insurgency, counter insurgency, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has, for six decades, been the thin yet defining line that often separates blood and life in the North East. "The draconian law allows the military to kill, question and arrest at will, thereby enabling violation of several human rights. Therefore, it is this shared collective memory and historical trauma — which different states have witnessed in the past and to this day — that inform the project at large," he explains.

The old adage 'art is a mirror to society' has allowed for existing power structures to be acknowledged and even come undone. For years, artists have enacted their agency to construct fresh narratives on social change. That being said, The Bluebirds want the 'complicity of art' to be acknowledged as well, especially the medium of photography. "Documentation can often become an intimidating process. Moreover, in official forms of archiving, it often leaves one vulnerable. In recovering lost histories and erased memories, we want to take a different turn on ‘documentation’ where our practice becomes a tool for interrogating timeline of memory making. In our experimentation, we use expired films as a conceptual tool where pictures lose their lucidity, acting as a metaphor for the historical evidences which either went missing or were undermined. This, therefore, is an act of overturning the politics of accountability, raising ethical questions on archiving and scrutinising an exploitative eye," says Thlana.

With the coronavirus affirming the country's systematic indifference towards the people of North East, the four artists wish to ultimately establish a practice premised on 'care and healing', despite the weight of socio-political half-truths.

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