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Nothing prepared me for Sangram. I knew it was a long journey to get there by train and by road. I had heard the brothers tell me a little about how close-knit and inclusive the community was. I thought I had some idea about the physical, social, cultural and political context that Sangram offered. And I was excited about the prospect of visiting a school started by the brothers in this remote corner of the country. But none of this prepared me for what I saw, heard and experienced in the 5 days I was in Arunachal Pradesh.
The first thing I was struck by was beauty. A simple, rugged and ordinary beauty that becomes extraordinary as it becomes part of the larger narrative of the people who live within this beauty. Naharlagun Railway station was small and clean against a backdrop of hills that were neither grand nor magnificent like the Himalayas. Simple, rugged, ordinary. As we travelled the 210-kilometer, 10-hour journey into and through the hills to reach Sangram I realised how hard it must have been to build these roads, to drive on them and to rely on them. Slushy and muddy in places, broken and sandy in others, steep climbs, windy curves and a long, hard journey – and all I could think of was the resilience of people who travelled on this road all the time to get to services, medical help, opportunities or just to connect with the rest of the world.
When we reached Ane Moriam School, I saw the valley we overlooked and realised how remote and how far we were from everywhere. I also realised how little I knew about this place that was a part of my own country. I was surprised to hear so much hindi being spoken here. My narrow perception of the north eastern states was obviously up for questioning. Over my first dinner, I heard a little about the Nishi community that inhabits Sangram and the present political environment with the elections underway. It was only over the next 3 days as I interacted with students, teachers, the brothers and residents of Sangram did I truly learn to appreciate what life is like at Sangram.
The Nishi community is one of the traditional tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh who lived by hunting, gathering and cultivating. The forest and the land were what they lived by. Simple principals of community living have kept them a close-knit, clan-rooted community. Any member of the community can walk into any Nishi household and eat at mealtime. The food that is there is shared by all. The Nishi house is one big room (traditionally) with the hearth in the centre. The hearth has a fire place with a metal rack above it for drying the meat and for storing firewood. Everyone sits around the hearth as meat is roasted or cooked slowly and eats together. The house is made of bamboo and when someone is building their house, they get the bamboo and everyone in the village comes to help them build it. The family cooks for everyone and feeds them for their assistance.
The clan is what everyone swears by. Loyalty is determined by clan. Friendships and now political alliances are determined by clan. Land and the number of mithuns (type of bison) you have is a determinant of how wealthy you are in the community. The size of the house and number of hearths in it is an indicator of the number of wives a person has. Every family has the traditional ‘dhao’ (a knife in a sheath) owned by the boys and men. From a functional one to an ornate one, each is a symbol of status and standing. The women have their colourful jewellery and metallic cymbals and objects gifted to them when they are married which represent their wealth and status. Bride price is given when a wedding happens and child marriages or betrothals are common. If an engagement is called off (as some young girls are starting to do so now) the parents must return the bride price and more.
The morning starts early in the village as people eat their meal of rice, meat, greens and head off to the village or the forest. They return by afternoon or sundown and get things done at home before they eat dinner around 5:30 – 6 pm. Rice brew is a common drink and both men and women enjoy it. Hard-working, fiercely loyal and immensely resilient is the impression one gets.
If you felt this is a description of the community from a few generations ago, not much has changed today. Children go to school in the day now instead of the farms or forest. Some men and women have government jobs in and around Sangram. Some men drive the sumos that are the only form of public transport. Some continue to farm or get fresh fish and meat from the forest and the river. And there are amenities in the village now, being run by non-tribal outsiders – shops, businesses, services – that have brought the consumerist, capitalist society into the Nishi homes. Beer and Pepsi have taken over the drinking habits and the hillsides. Mobile phones and the internet have brought the Korean pop-culture into Sangram and changed hairstyles and fashion for the young and old. Instead of the traditional Doni Polo faith practiced earlier, Christianity is practiced in the region now and there is great faith in and reverence for the church. Loyalty to the clan now translates into the politics of power and votes. Votes are traded and bought with large sums of money that help families in their struggle to build a better life for their children. Compensation for land given to the government has helped people build assets to make their lives more comfortable. Some of the younger generation have studied and travelled in other parts of the country but come back for government jobs and definitely to cast their vote!
The students of the Brothers’ school were an incredible testimony to the transformational power of education within the realms of a close knit community and a strong traditional identity. The young boys and girls know traditional skills and norms. They have traditional Nishi names and also have English names sometimes. But what was most overwhelming was their ability to now question what is and dream of what can be.
- Why are the leaders corrupt?
- Why are girls not treated the same as boys?
- Leaders should be elected on the basis on their personalities not the money they pay for votes.
- Why are Assamese buntis (house-helps) and other non-tribals ill-treated?
- Why should children be married so early? The boy still has the choice to decide when – not the girl.
- Why is there no proper hospital in Sangram?
- When will the roads and other development reach Sangram?
- When will people stop ruining their lives with alcohol and tobacco?
- How can we make Sangram cleaner and more beautiful?
- What about those who are illiterate and not in schools – children, adults, our parents?
These were some of the questions and concerns voiced passionately by the young students who participated in the Social Inclusion Week. They were able to identify the diversity in their predominantly homogenous community in terms of the people whose needs are different even within the community and these needs are being neglected – women, children with disabilities, the illiterate, those with less land. They were also able to look at those who are the ‘outsiders’ and their exclusion by a homogenous community. They were able to recognize and verbalise what bothers them as being disrespectful or unjust or inequal. What was incredible was the passion with which they cared about their community. In a world increasingly becoming disconnected with the real, Sangram was an example of how a sense of community alongside the tools of critiquing and thinking help young people bring about change. There are stories I heard and young girls I personally interacted with who are challenging the norm and refusing to be married, with support from the brothers. These girls are facing the consequences of their choices with grace and the resilience that is their legacy. Young boys and girls are aspiring to study and learn and take on new occupations.
It is easy to see the role the school and the brothers have played in slowly heralding in this change. Pro-active, enthusiastic and immersed in the community – the brothers are as much a part of the social and political fabric of Sangram. The familiarity along with the deep respect that everyone in the village has for the brothers is heartening. I heard stories of brothers who had been here and continue to be in touch, of ex-students who meet regularly in Itanagar and of families who have been deeply influenced by the school and the presence of the brothers.
While the community is giving the children the roots and the strong sense of identity, the school is giving them the wings and the strength to question, to aspire and to challenge. They are now ready for more. As young leaders, they are ready for alternatives that will help them change the story of corruption, of political violence and of neglect within the community. They are ready to change the script.
As my week ended, I felt blessed to have been able to develop my own connection with the Ane Moriam community. I came away with my belief in the power of a strongly connected community reinforced. Such a community can give its children a sense of identity and a sense of belonging which gives them the confidence to transform themselves and their communities.
Neha Pradhan Arora
Social Inclusion Resource Person, Bangalore