Mizoram’s turnaround can show the rest of India’s Northeast what a cease-fire can do. But with peace here, progress must not take too long.
Ironies abound as we get off the Boeing at the airport that services Aizawl, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. Accompanying us in the hold is the body of a Mizo soldier who had died in a bomb blast in faraway Srinagar. Stands have been erected for the crowds that had gathered to receive the body. The bagpipes strike up, a ceremonial guard presents arms, medals flash in the sun, and a mountain of wreaths soon pileup on the coffin. The first wreath is laid by the state’s home minister, Tawnluia, the former commander-in-chief of the Mizo National Front(MNF) and veteran of the 20-year insurgencyagainst ‘India’. The MNF were in power only for a year after the 1986 accord that ended the insurgency, but were voted back in theNovember 1998 elections.
There is little flat land in Mizoram, and the airport is located a tortuous hour-and-half drive from Aizawl. The town suddenly comes into view on a ridge as a surprisingly extensive urban sprawl, housing almost a third of the state’s population of around 800,000. Mizo settlements have always been located on hilltops, and many of them grew with the clustering of villages during the insurgency. The funeral procession wended its way through narrow streets to the soldier’s home, with the crowds lined four deep. On benches in the drawing room overlooking the deep valley below, Chief Minister Zoramthanga, Laldenga’s number two in the insurgency, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the local army brass for a two-hour condolence meeting. The grieving mother, who had remained stoic and calm since the airport, finally brokedown. Speeches were made, psalms sung, gongs struck, and one of the relatives who had accompanied the body thanked the army for looking after its own, saying it was an honour to die for one’s country.
I asked Bualhranga, an influential former insurgent who now runs the Peace Bookstore on the noisy main street of Aizawl, with the ubiquitous Marutis careening up and down outside, whether he thought the long years in the jungle had been worth it. “Definitely,” he replied, adding, “The Mizo community is today a fact. People should come here just to smell the fresh air of peace.” He was referring to the neighbouring states of Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, which continue to be riven with insurgencies and ethnic strife.
The chief minister argues in a similar vein: “We decided on peace because the people said it was the honourable thing to do. You don´t kill the patient to cure the disease. And I tell Advaniji (L.K. Advani, the federal home minister), ´Every rupee you give me gets spent on development. Whereas, of every rupee you give Nagaland and Manipur, 50 percent goes to the underground, including half of the police director-general´s salary´.” Zoramthanga is big on the ´peace bonus´. He says he is often asked to intercede with the Nagas and others on behalf of peace, but that so far he has not complied. He is firm on what he believes: “They must be shown, not told, what peace can buy.”
The Mizo insurgency had its roots in the economic hardship and political isolation inflicted by Partition, which cut off the Lushai Hills (then a district in Assam) from the trade route to the sea at Chittagong. The introduction of Assamese as the official language in 1960, and the perceived failure of the Assam state government to anticipate the famine caused by the periodic efflorescence of bamboo in 1959, resulting in an explosion of the rodent population which then destroyed the crop, were more proximate causes. The Mizo National Famine Front was set up in 1960 and gained huge popularity. It launched a daily paper edited by Laldenga, a former havildar-clerk in the army, and in 962 emerged as a full-fledged political party, the MNF, dropping ´famine´ from its name. The precipitating factor for the insurgency was the disbanding of a battalion of the Assam Regiment in 1964 following a charge of indiscipline. This was an additional blow to Mizo sensibility, but it also provided disaffected recruits for the Front. The MNF took over Aizawl by surprise on the night of 28 February 1966, declaring Mizoram independent.
Why did the accord that ended the migrants´ insurgency succeed when so many other accords have fallen by the wayside and allowed the fighting to continue? Part of the explanation lay in the Mizos´ sheer weariness with war. Partly, it was the creation of Bangladesh, which denied the MNF sanctuaries across the border. Beyond that, recalls Boulhranha, “There was just no way we could stand up to the Indian army all alone. The Chinese promised us modern arms, but we had no direct land access. Pakistan was not interested in our achieving independence, so they would not allow us free and open use of Chittagong port and allow arms to be shipped through East Pakistan. All they wanted was to use us to tie down the Indian army.” Even after the creation of Bangladesh, about 700 insurgents held out for 14 more long years in the jungle, on the trijunction with Burma and Bangladesh, continuing their sporadic attacks on the Indian army. Finally, the accord was signed.
Reverend Thanzauva, one of the many Mizos who gave up careers in other parts of India to return to serve his people at home, thinks he has an understanding of the deeper societal reasons behind the return of peace. He had been researching how Christianity provided Mizos with the ideological basis for coping with change while at the same time co-opting and preserving much of Mizo culture. The Nagas tend to be guided more by emotion, whereas Mizos are quick to communicate and learn, are more ´rational´ and oriented to consensus, he says. The reverend adds, “We are regarded as a bit dull, unlike the Nagas who are more cheerful — it must be the American influence! If you were to produce a play, the Naga would make the liveliest actor, the Khasi from Meghalaya the best orator, and the Mizo the best organiser —he would have to be made the producer.”
As Reverend Thanzauva would agree, the deeper sociological explanation for the advent of peace perhaps lies in the homogeneity of Mizo society. Unlike in Nagaland, the advent of Christianity and education at the turn of the century led to the voluntary merging of many sub-tribes and cognate groups with the dominant Lushais. The development of a common language and of the first dictionary, as well as introduction of the Roman script by the missionaries, were crucial to the process of ´de-tribalisation´, and the emergence of an evolved Mizo identity. While this identity led to nationalism and the insurgency, it also enabled the Mizos to speak with one voice when the time came to seek peace.
While splits did take place among the insurgents, and some intellectuals emerged above-ground before others, eventually a single leadership did prevail under Laldenga, who felt his backing robust enough to strike for peace. The other states of the Northeast have not been so fortunate. The Nagas, for instance, have about 12 tribes with different languages, and the insurgents seem eternally divided between the Isaac-Muivah and the Kaplang factions (both sets of leaders originating, incidentally, from outside Nagaland state —Manipur and Burma, respectively). What one Naga tribe agrees to, the other is almost compelled to oppose. As Zoramthanga says, “There is no one there to say ´Hey guys, enough is enough´.”
The much-vaunted Mizo organisational skills were in display at the annual conference of the Young Mizo Association (YMA), held over the winter in Champhai, near the Burmese border. Thousands of YMA members from all over the state, and many Mizo role-models from outside, were housed and fed by the local inhabitants for three days. For those who could not trudge through the slush (caused by unseasonal heavy rain) to reach the huge tent where the convention was centred, the proceedings were fully televised on CNN (the Champhai Network News).
The speeches ranged from the need to improve the quality of education to how to move with the computer age, now that Mizoram had overtaken Kerala as the most literate state in India. Sermons on the importance of preserving Mizo cultural integrity were interspersed with songs by groups of smart men and women in colourful western outfits tailored for the occasion. An attractive young woman came to the podium to humorously disparage people who dip their biscuits in tea, or talk too long over other people´s phones. (In the same vein of self-improvement, the editorial in the local Highlander was devoted to the virtues of punctuality.)
In order that the conference could begin on time, hundreds of villagers had worked through the night before, helping clear a landslide that had blocked the road from Aizawl. This was all in the true spirit of Tlawmngaihna, the ancient tribal code of ethics that the YMA is seeking to keep alive. The code calls for self-sacrifice, endurance and serving the community without calling attention to oneself. I noticed the director of the state´s Transport Department standing at the entrance in the slush, himself distributing a charter of rights for bus passengers. Out of respect for the non-political nature of the organisation and so as not to steal the limelight, the chief minister made it a point to sit patiently through the first morning´s proceedings. When his turn finally came to speak, he was introduced in Mizo literally as a “Big Invitee”. He began by saying that he was neither big (he is rather short) nor an invitee, but a local of Champhai, which is his home and constituency.
Zoramthanga is, after all, a politician and he had his reasons for attending the convention. He knows that that the YMA is more influential than even the church — virtually every Mizo belongs to it, whereas the church has been weakened by sheep-stealing and other inter-denominational conflicts. The YMA is said to be largely responsible for the fact that Mizoram has the cleanest elections in all India. Among other things, the Association has got all the parties to agree to ban feasts and refreshments during election time, and has come out with guidelines for voters on what qualities to look for in candidates.
The YMA is primarily a service and security organisation, regarding the entire societal arena as its stomping ground. It helps out with funerals and weddings, especially of the poor, rebuilds homes damaged by fire, sends out search parties for those missing in the jungle, and increasingly, with the spread of drug abuse, provides counselling services. In emphasising communitarian values, the Association may seem to be fighting the odds in a moderni-sing world, but it seems to be making headway. If anything, YMA activism can sometimes get out of hand, as when members invade the privacy of a home to search for drugs, or evict a stubborn tenant, or reform a “bad hat”. Or when a family would prefer to mourn the loss of a loved one in privacy.
The indigenous Jew
While Mizoram has a vibrant civil society, the society´s weak underbelly is exposed when one considers that, economically, the state remains totally dependent on federal subsidies. Less than 10 percent of expenditures of the state are raised locally. Like in all the northeastern states, Mizoram´s people do not pay central income tax, and the state sales tax has only just been introduced, amidst much grumbling. The easy money that came in during and after the insurgency created a get-rich-quick class of contractors and rentiers.
But along with the ´peace-bonus´ to kick-start development, the MNF is making a populist virtue of self-sufficiency (“we can´t be proud when we are hungry”). Zoramthanga has grand schemes to utilise the bamboo wealth of Mizoram, including the import of Taiwanese technology to heat and compress bamboo to increase it; strength as building material, for export to other states. However, everyone is short on details of the project. Horticulture is also being encouraged, although teak cultivation is not being pushed as much as one would imagine. Apart from the long gestation period for this traditional forest product of the North-east, the unspoken fear seems to be that if teak is promoted, it comes part and parcel with importation to labour to maintain the forests and harvest the wood.
This understandable concern for ´cultural purity´ could, on the other hand, be keeping out a whole host of labour-intensive technologies. For, labour suppy is indeed short Mizoram is still very sparsely populated and farmland is to be had for the asking from village councils. About 20,000 Chin, who are ethnically indistinguishable from the Mizo, are reported to be working as farm hands, maids and workers at the handloom ´factories´ of Aizawl producing indigenous wear. Roadside contract labourers are mostly tribals from Bihar and Orissa, and skilled construction workers Bengalis from Assam.
The state government implements, and wants to retain, the Inner Line Permit (ILP) restrictions which have long been a defining feature of travel in the Northeast. Aizawl believes that the ILP helps maintain control over the presence of outside traders and import of labour. However, the ILP is no longer an obstacle for ´genuine´ domestic tourists, defined informally as someone who can afford to come in on the thrice-weekly flights from Calcutta. The northeastern states are understandably ambivalent about mass tourism, although there is talk of encouraging ´adventure´ tourism (i.e. trekking). Overseas tourists wanting to visit Mizoram still need the separate Restricted Area Permit (RAP) issued by the federal Home Ministry, although the state can now issue one for 10 days, for Aizawl only, to organised groups of at least four.
One meets the occasional individual tourist such as the American-Israeli writer doing a story on the large number of Mizos (at least 10,000) who claim that they are one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel that headed east in AD 70. The claim is based on a traditional Mizo chant that refers to “We, the children of Menasseh” (also the name of one of the tribes) and a number of funerary, marriage, and other practices refrred to in the Old Testament which Resemble Mizo practices. I asked the writer what he made of the phenomenon, and although he said he was keeping an open mind, he thought it might be a case of “mass self-delusion”. As a savvy young Mizo visiting from New York told me, “We are all Jews. It´s just that we don´t know it.” Some Mizos on tourist visas to Israel do manage to get Israeli citizenship, but only after getting officially converted, mostly by Rabbi Avichail. He heads Amishav, an organisation that specialises in tracing the lost tribes.
Bangladesh and Burma
I also ran into a 30-person delegation from the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose members sounded very enthusiastic about trading directly with Mizoram along the Karnaphuli river that flows down to Chittagong (through the reservoir of the Kaptai dam in the CHT). Setting up the trade route would require little investment, in the form of some motorised barges, and would save about 300 km of road travel by way of Assam. Bangladesh obviously sees a market for itself in the Northeast, and in Mizoram they recognise a stable state to form the commercial beachhead. From Mizoram, they would import bamboo, ginger and other spices. The Mizos, for their part, point out that the price of ginger rises from INR 3 in Mizoram to INR18 by the time it reaches Silchar in Assam for export to Bangladesh. They blame the middlemen, and feel their state economy could do much better if they could export directly.
Trade with Burma is ´informal´ but very significant —an estimated INR 5 billion a year. This trade is also very much visible, as you constantly pass heavily-laden trucks groaning up the hill from the border river that runs fast and clear in a beautiful valley near Champhai. The trucks carry consumer durables, many of them from China and Thailand, as well as used diesel engines, and rice. Most Mizo homes have TV sets and other gadgets that have come through Burma.
Going the other way across the frontier from India are pharmaceuticals, baby food, cattle penises (headed straight for the Chinese market). The only official crossing for overland trade between Burma and India is between Tamo and Moreh, over in Manipur. There has been talk for years of adding Champhai, by building a bridge over the river, but the Burmese are reported to be undecided on the alignment of the road to Mandalay. Just as likely, they are fearful of democratic influences spreading to the Chin state, as well as making it easier for the separatist Chin National Army to find refuge in Mizoram. (The unstated policy, despite talk of increasing Indo-Burmese cooperation to control insurgency, is to allow the Chins to cross over “as long as they bury their weapons and behave themselves”).
While trade with Burma no doubt creates jobs for some porters and truckers, most of the traded goods from either side are of distant origin, with few linkages or advantages to the local economy. Trade with Bangladesh would be of much greater benefit to Mizoram, for the latter would not then feel ´used´ merely as an entrepot. Goods would be traded exclusively between the state and Bangladesh.
Like the other northeastern states, Mizoram has a drug problem amongst its youth, but it would be wrong to link this with the Burma trade as in the case with Manipur. While some heroin does come in from across the border, and has led to the spread of AIDS through the use of infected needles, most of the 20,000-odd Mizo addicts inject concentrated doses of prescription drugs available legally. There is some debate as to whether lifting prohibition on narcotic drugs would provide a safer alternative, and the YMA itself no longer espouses prohibition, but part of the explanation for the young Mizos´ turn to drugs may lie simply in the almost claustrophobic lack of space for sports and recreational activities in Aizawl, which would provide the young with an alternative to church and funeral-going.
Yet another explanation is one that is provided by Lalfakzuala, the president of the Women´s Association. She says that while the Mizos are a virtually classless society, gender relations have a lot of catching up to do. Traditional macho attitudes persist (“a woman is like a bamboo fence, to be changed every year”). The Christian Marriage Act does not apply, for Mizo customary law is protected by the accord. Lalfakzuala feels that the drug problem is partly a consequence of the fact that while a father neglects the kids, the mother does not enjoy enough authority to take his place. Nevertheless, as Rev Thanzauva points out, the church has succeeded in curbing drug use among the better off, a success that he is hopeful will percolate down the class structure.
As with other social challenges that have emerged now that peace is here to stay, Mizoram´s civil society is working on the problem of substance abuse. As always, once the political problems are solved, there is the need to deliver income, employment and quality of life. If the state of Mizoram is to stay well ahead of the rest of the country, it is the economy that now needs working on. If that is tackled successfully, Mizoram will be well on its way.