Power Relations in Monalisa Changkija’s Poetry


A Sentiyula

This paper attempts to critique Monalisa Changkija’s poetry based on Michel Foucault’s Power-Knowledge theory. Foucault believed that where there is power, there is resistance. Power as a tool to control people is exercised both through theory and practice. Power is everywhere but is often invisible and unequally distributed. Power exists in a triangular relationship with Knowledge and Self. The exercise of Power can also change with time, as thoughts can also change. Power-Knowledge combines to influence and create people. “Subjectivation” refers to how people were created and controlled by predominantly powerful forces. “Technologies of Domination” refer to these controlling forces. “Technologies of Self” were ways to resist these powerful forces. Changkija’s poetry is studied as a “technology of self” which tries to create awareness, encourage critical thinking, determine its own values and minimise its domination over others. She does this by depicting different power relationships in her poetry and subsequently, tries to restore the power balance in her society through her writing.
The poetry of Monalisa Changkija, written in free verse, is deceptively simple. However, a close reading of her poems throws up a myriad of issues which are at the same time localised in her society and universal in theme. Her poetry can be understood best in the context of her journalistic background and the years of service she has rendered to the discourse of Naga Politics. The poet herself acknowledges in ‘February’s Tragedy’
“When my verses
do not rhyme
nor conform to
traditional norm,
to you, they are
just words,
not poetry.” ( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 8):

As one of her the strongest voices of protest against any form of injustice in her state Nagaland, she also knows that she has been destined to speak out:
“But some of us are destined
to build boats on hill tops
and pay for it” ( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 5).

Power-Knowledge Equation in Changkija’s Poetry
Many of her poems can be read as examples of the power-knowledge equation propounded by Michel Foucault (1926- 84), the late French social theorist. In his earlier works, Foucault was interested in how power was used to control people. For example, in Discipline and Punish (1975), he was interested in the penal system and how the use of power changed over hundreds of years. In his many writings over the years, Foucault has written much on the concept of Power. He felt that power was everywhere; every person and every institution had some kind of power, though not in equal amounts; and it was often difficult to see power in action. Power did not exist by itself but was part of a triangular relationship which included Knowledge and the Self. Knowledge had two forms: Theory and Practice. He did not believe that theories became true or valid with the passage of time. Theories change, because thoughts change, according to Foucault. So also did practices. In practice, we had to do things ourselves and we do things to others. We created practices or drills to follow. Later on, he brought the two concepts together and started using the term Power-Knowledge. Power is exercised through theory and practice of knowledge.
Coming to the question of the self, Foucault studied how Power-Knowledge combined to influence and create people. He used the term Subjectivation to refer to how people were created and controlled through predominantly powerful forces. He also uses the words Technologies of Domination to refer to these controlling forces. So, these controlling forces could be institutions like schools, universities, political figures, pop stars, celebrities and even well-known coaches.
“Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Foucault 93). But very often, people are unaware of these forces. Hence, Power is often exercised as an invisible force that is controlling people. Before he died, Foucault started studying about how people became aware of this use of often ‘invisible’ power and how they started resisting it. This resistance was given the term “Technologies of the Self”, or care if the self, or, as he called it, “Subjectification.”
“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power (Foucault 95). Therefore, “technologies of domination” were ways to control people and make them subject to them; however, “technologies of self” were waays to resist these powerful forces through awareness raising, critical thinking and determining their own values, and in the process, minimising their domination over others.
Changkija’s writings can be studied in the context of this particular theory. She identifies what power is and how it works, the manner in which it controls knowledge and vice-versa and how it is used as a form of social control. To her too, power-knowledge transcends politics because it is accepted as an everyday socialised and embodied phenomenon. No matter, which party comes into power, it is the state as an institution and not the ruling party which yields this power. In a speech given to a group of Naga women, she speaks on the theme “Knowledge and Empowerment” and says that the objective of knowledge and empowerment is “to situate women on the place where we deserve, which is at the centre of the family, community, church and tribal life, politically, economically and socially.” So no matter how lopsided the power equation is at the moment in her native state, bringing women to the centre would be a part of the solution.
Dominant Forces in Naga Society
Nagaland is a patriarchial society. Matters are made worse for Naga women because Nagaland is governed by Article 371 (A) which allows Nagas to follow ‘age-old’ customary laws and traditions in place of the Indian Penal Code. In the name of custom, violence in various forms is perpetrated on women. This violence, which produces deep pain and trauma in the poet, resonates throughout the poems collectively titled Weapons of Words on Pages of Pain (1993). The poet’s note itself starts with the defiant- “To whom it may concern” and goes on to say that she is making a ‘POLITICAL’ as well as a ‘PERSONAL’ statement. The series of poems chronicle the woman as a battered being no matter what role she plays:
“Dowry-less Brides
Penny-less Wives, and
Son-less Mothers
have their
destinies written
on invisible
tongues of flames” ( Changkija, WWPP 3).
Meanwhile the masculine in all his avatars as Man, Husband/Partner, Father and Officer is shown as inflicting violence on the woman. It is ironical that even so called educated and liberal minded men are shown to possess traces of the patriarchal attitude. The violence portrayed is not only of the physical kind. It can also be of the mental and emotional kind. Woman is made to feel inferior in knowledge to man who stands on a pedestal and passes judgement on her. This condescension is battled with in her succinct words:
“I see it nowhere written
that your unironed shirts
deserve my attention
more than my flying lessons” ( Changkija, WWPP 27).
Here she not only attacks the perceived domestic image of women but also affirms her ability to reach for the skies no matter what stereotypical expectations her partner or society may have of her. The violence is also in the unseen bonds of social obligations where a woman is expected to cater to “taste, trends and friends.” However, she doesn’t blame the menfolk alone for the sorry state of affairs. Women are equally to be blame:
‘If Prostitutes and other
“Morally-loose women”
are social evils,
so are “God-fearing
Chaste women”
who have mothered
wife battering sons” ( Changkija, WWPP 6).
So, the power equation is now tilted in favour of “God-fearing chaste women” whose indulgence of their sons have resulted in “morally loose women” and “prostitutes” bearing the brunt of the dominant party’s ( in this case, the God-fearing mothers themselves) anger and judgement. The power-knowledge equation is thus, also perpetrated by women themselves who have internalised the concept of patriarchy. When the oppressed themselves become oppressors, it brings to mind, Foucault’s contention that modern states have stopped enforcing their argument physically to enforcing it psychologically. Patriarchy, as a form of domination has, through subtle forms like customary practices and traditions; social norms and codes; social expectations; and control over individual’s aspirations, succeeded in making the subjects self- govern themselves. Patriarchy, in its often invisible forms, have managed to monitor and control the subjects so much so that unbeknownst to the oppressed, they become the oppressors themselves.
Self- Governance and the Panoptican

This concept of self-governance is the linchpin of Foucault’s theory of modern power. In the medieval ages, power exercised by the king or monarch, which Foucault calls “Sovereign Power”(Discipline and Punish, 1975) was overt and obvious. Criminals were publicly tortured and punishment was inscribed on their bodies. However, modern states have changed this punishment into a more subtle one, to the point that it has become invisible, which he calls “Disciplinary Power” (Discipline and Punish, 1975). To emphasis his point, Foucault examines a new type of prison conceived (but never actualised in its totality) by British social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s Panoptican (1791) was a circular prison with cells around the external walls and a watchtower erected in the centre. The theory was that inmates would assume that they were being watched and thereby, eliminate the need for many, or any prison guards. The panoptican induces a sense of permanent visibility of all inmates, which ensures the functioning of power. More people could be monitored and controlled using less manpower. Instead of violence, they used rules, procedures and regulation of behaviour. Even the guards themselves are subject to surveillance for they were subject to administrative control. The guards become the guarded. Power, thus, is relational, whereby the actions of some help to guide or direct the possible field of action of others. Power being a series of relations where individuals interact with each other like a group of small magnets spread out on a surface not quite close enough to one another to clump together. Each magnet has some vector force that exerts some kind of pull or influence. When the magnets are shifted, new relationships are created. So, power doesn’t exist in one force alone, but all movements within a field contribute to the relational totality of power. Thereby, power is a set of actions upon other actions.
Resistance through Writing
It is not only patriarchy that is subject to this critique. Changkija also writes on the power relations between the Nagas and the Indian government, the Naga public and the insurgents, and the Naga public and State politicians. This power equation can be a shifting entity which favours the group wielding power at the moment. In the poem “Monsoon Mourning”( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 3), she talks about the “sweet assurances of strangers from lands/alien to my soil”, of the “false saviours from lands/foreign to my ancestors” and of the “sophisticated sapience/of savants from lands/extrinsic to my conscience.” None, be it the Indian statesman, foreign missionary nor the intellectual, in her opinion, has brought a solution to the problems of her people. Her trilogy- “Of a People Unanswered- I, II, III” ( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 29-31) are scathing expositions of the inadequacies of the integration/development/independence jargon indulged in by the Indian/State Government as well as the Insurgent groups.
She writes of violence and murder, sometimes shouting in anger- “Go ahead, shoot and blast us/ to eternity” (Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 35). Sometimes it is in the form of a cry- “Stop, please stop this endless nightmare/ wherein I read of another shot dead, another apprehended, another tortured and maimed” ( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 34) . While writing against violence, she gives a commentary on all forms of injustices and imbalance of power in her society. This writing is an act of resistance, seeking to balance out the existing power structures.
Restoration of Power Balance
In traditional Naga society, in spite of being considered second class citizens, the women were often used as peacemakers. Even during war a Naga woman had the liberty to visit her parents who belonged to the enemy’s village. In this way she was given immunity which made it possible for her to become a mediator. This ‘neutral woman’ was called ‘Phukhareila’ in Tangkhul. According to R.R. Shimray:

In bygone days, when head hunting was practised, women played a vital role in saving lives of men. A woman was like an Ambassador and also a mediator if talented. She enjoyed full diplomatic immunity. Nobody could lay hands on her. She was called the Peace Maker, the bearer of the torch of peace and the Red Cross bearer of Naga Inter Village war…. The neutral lady (Phukhareila in Tangkhul), boldly entered the battlefield and intervened in the fighting of the warriors of the two enemy villages. At the intervention of the Phukhareila the fight was stopped…. Her intervention meant stopping of the war. Intervention by Phukhareila meant not only a truce but the end of the war” (Shimray 168).”
Would it be too farfetched to compare Changkija to a modern-day Phukhareila who boldly enters the thick of the battlefield in order to intervene and bring an end to war/conflict situations? But this time round, the war is not only in the physical domain, it is the battlefield of the mind as well. Unlike olden days the foes are many, some seen, some unseen; the warring forces have multiplied, each group standing its ground. But like her predecessor, her words will be her tool. It will be a double-edged weapon because she can now not only speak but also write, education having given her a tool that her forebears did not have. She ventures beyond the peacemaking brief and by sheer will and intellect, transforms the traditional role into a modern day, fiery avatar. Her words are truthful and incisive without taking any sides. She need not be schooled on the histories that led to the unending battles because she has been a ringside witness to them for years. She will not be wearing a “mekhala”( a traditional woven skirt worn by Naga women) nor “a pretty Pale Pink/ankle-length Calico dress/with frills, flounces and lace,/dainty Milk White strappy Stillettos/to match it” (Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 14). Nor will she ‘find warmth in/silk, satin and laces” (Changkija, WWPP 26). But as required by the times, she will “break out of the mould,/abandon the stereotypes,”( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 14) and get into her working clothes. She chooses to do this because:

“Our brothers are at war
Our land is awash with blood
Our rice fields need tending
Our children caring
Our sick healing
Our streets cleaning
Our enterprises running
Our home fires burning” (Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 14).
This neutrality of position is not to be confused with lack of clarity of thought or to a confusion of who is wrong or right.. It is also not to be confused with “sponsored empowerment” (Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 15). She refuses to be a token of ‘empowered’ women. She is very clear about what she is writing about. She is also very sure about the gravity of her task and the dangers that come with it. But being cut out from a “different type of stone,”( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 15) she knows she has the grit and determination to face her task head on. And if tomorrow, in contravention of all universal rules of truce, she is ‘terminated’ while carrying out her assigned task, she will not be defeated. For,

“If tomorrow
my body
is riddled
with bullets,
I shall not be dead.
Nor will I
be defeated and silenced.
The event
would only mean
the capitulation
of those who
cannot think
beyond the AK-47,
The event would only mean
the recognition
of the impact
of my words
over those who elect.
Unlike them who
pull the trigger
I am not
for hire,
All my words
are for free.
So, if tomorrow
my body
is riddled
with bullets,
I shall not be dead.
Nor defeated
or silenced” ( Changkija, Monsoon Mourning 21).


Changkija, Monalisa.
Weapons of Words on Pages of Pain
Dimapur: Write- On Publications,1993. Print.

Monsoon Mourning
Dimapur: Write-On Publications, 2007. Print.

“ Towards Knowledge and Empowerment.” Yaongyimsen, Mokokchung, Nagaland. 25 April 2007. Address.

Foucault, Michel.
The History of Sexuality: An Introduction.
Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Shimray, R. R.
Origin and Culture of Nagas
New Delhi: Somsok Publications,1985. Print.

(Courtesy: Dimapur Government College Journal, Volume 1, Issue 4, 2017-2018, Refereed Journal, Heritage Publishing House, Dimapur Nagaland. With permission by A Sentiyula)