Gender & Sovereignty in Northeastern India


A review of The Nation and its Margins: Reading Gender and the Politics of Sovereignty in India’s Northeast, by Papori Bora.

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.

Bora originates her analyses within the idea of difference embedded in colonial historiography. Through a critical reading of Edward Gait’s A History of Assam (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1926), considered to be the first comprehensive historical account of the region, Bora shows how Orientalists and Indologists constructed the northeastern states as the Mongolian Other of India, clearly demarcating the inhabitants of this region as immigrants from China and South East Asia, as ethnically and linguistically diverse, and as racially different from Aryan and Dravidian cultures (Chapter 2). This emphasis on “difference” became mapped onto colonial policies in the region. For example, the government developed alternative administrative structures for tribal areas, which were distinctly different from other parts of the British Indian Empire (Chapter 3). The rise of Indian nationalism, whether in the colonial or the post-colonial period, continued to infantilize tribal groups, preferring to speak on their behalf instead of envisioning people from the region as political agents. According to Bora, “This puts India and the Northeast as unequal speaking subjects. The Northeast is heard only when it regurgitates the lines of nationalism—any time it does not, its speech is foreign to the Indian nation and its message is lost in translation” (p. 160). She goes on to explain how postcolonial citizenship operates in the region, and whether the disjuncture between democratic (inclusive) and martial (exclusionary) arrangements, can be articulated as “constitutive incompleteness” (p. 190) of the Northeast (Chapters 4 and 5).

In the last and vital leg of her dissertation, Bora suggests that a helpless womanhood, constructed in the context of armed struggles, has resulted in the marginalization of women’s voices in regional mediation policies. Sovereignty movements, the rhetoric of motherhood and human rights discourses have repeatedly returned women’s bodies to the realms of subordination and vulnerability (Chapter 6). The 2004 nude protest in Manipur, however, provided an opportunity to upturn conventional constructions of gender. By commanding the state to violently assault “us” (women, the community, and the dignity of local people), the naked women protestors used the platform of a sensational gendered performance to surrender their citizenship rights, and confront the state’s farcical enactment of equality (Chapter 7).

This dissertation contributes to an ongoing debate about the gap between contemporary feminist vocabulary, and women’s experiences as members of postcolonial citizenries. Bora’s interrogation of a public protest in Manipur successfully demonstrates how “gender” as a category can both meet and oppose the “state”; she champions the value of performativity as an important theoretical tool that can be brought into critical conversation with postcoloniality. In her lucidly written narrative, Bora makes an overt plea for re-writing, complicating and critiquing our understandings of gender, bodies and sexuality in and outside the “nation.”

Atreyee Sen
Department of Religions and Theology
University of Manchester

Primary Sources

News reports such as “Manipuri Women’s Dramatic protest,” by Kalpana Sharma, 25 July 2004, The Hindu
Edward A. Gait, A History of Assam. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1926
Indian Statutory Commission (Simon Commission) Report, 1930, especially comments by J.H. Hutton
Indian Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Debates
Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) 1958 and 1972 Amendment

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2011. 322 pp. Primary Advisors: Jigna Desai and Richa Nagar.


Image: Protesters in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters. Times of Assam.

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