No state for Chakmas: In Mizoram, a minority battles for rights against a former minority

Shyamal Bikash Chakma

 

Last week, Buddha Dhan Chakma, the only Chakma minister in the Mizoram government resigned, alleging racial discrimination against students from his community. In his resignation letter, he mentioned the case of four Chakma students who had cleared the National Entrance and Eligibility Test but were denied seats in medical colleges.

The Chakmas are a minority Scheduled Tribe in Mizoram. The state has seen long running tensions between the majority Mizos and members of non-Mizo tribes. But this is the first time any minister has resigned over it.

The resignation of the minister from a marginalised community raises some pressing questions. In the decades post Independence, Mizos had risen up against the Indian state, and against the government of undivided Assam, to struggle against neglect and discrimination. It took years for Mizos to wrest their own state. But have the oppressed now become the oppressors?

When the bamboo flowered

Post Independence, the Mizo Hills had reluctantly joined the state of Assam, though they were governed by their own district council under the Sixth Schedule. The terms of the merger with the Indian Union stipulated that they could opt out of it after 10 years, if they choose to.

The “Mautam” or “bamboo death” of 1959 was a turning point for the Mizo political struggle. Once in 48 years, the bamboo plant flowers, drawing out rats in droves, spelling disaster for crops. That year, the mautam led to starvation, disease and death.

As both the Central and the Assam government seemed indifferent to such misery, anger against the state hardened. The Mizo Cultural Society, formed in the 1950s, was turned into the Mautam Front in 1960, with Laldenga as secretary. Later that year, it was renamed the Mizo National Famine Front, which rapidly gained popularity.

Meanwhile, Assamese politicians began to talk of removing the special provisions for the Mizo Hills. The same decade saw the rise of Assamese jingoism. It was expressed through language nationalism and in December 1960, the state government passed a bill making Assamese the official state language.

These developments consolidated the Mizo movement for self-determination, drawing together members of the tribe living in the Mizo District Council and outside. By October 1961, the Mizo National Famine Front had morphed into the Mizo National Front, under the leadership of Laldenga, with the goal of forming a sovereign, independent state.

The Indian state did everything to suppress the movement, including launching air strikes on Aizawl in 1966. After nearly three decades of struggle, the state of Mizoram was formed in 1987.

The minorities within

At the same time, ethnic minorities in the Mizo Hills, such as the Chakmas, Maras and Lais, struggled to secure their rights and identity. On April 29, 1972, the Chakma Autonomous District Council was formed under the Sixth Schedule.

This created simmering resentments among the majority Mizo community. After the Mizoram Accord of 1986 was signed, Laldenga pressed the government to dissolve the Chakma council, but to no avail. As sociologist Paula Banerjee writes, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi addressed a rally in Aizawl saying “if the Mizos expect justice from India as a small minority, they must safeguard the interest of their own minorities like the Chakmas”.

Political scientist Ranabir Samaddar writes that, between 1986 and 2000, 21 private members’ resolutions were submitted in the Mizoram legislative assembly, urging that the Chakma council be dissolved. He further states that the Chakmas are seen as the “enemy tribe” by hardline Mizos.

In the 1990s, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a Mizo student organisation, launched an agitation similar to the anti-foreigners movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union in the 1980s. Unlike the Assam agitation, the Mizoram movement did not get much media attention. But it did lead to physical violence against the Reang and Chakma tribes, the burning of houses and the displacement of thousands.

A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights describes how, in August 1992, about 380 Chakma houses were burnt by organised Mizo mobs. In January 1995, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl served “quit notices” to Chakmas who had entered the state after 1950, asking them to leave in six months. The report also details how thousands of Chakma names were deleted from electoral rolls in the state. In January 1996, 2,886 Chakma voters were struck off the rolls in Aizawl district alone. In some cases, entire villages were left out after a few individual complaints.

Who remained on the electoral rolls, and who got left out, was essentially decided by hardline Mizo activists, enabled by the state government. “The Mizoram Police remained mute spectators,” says the human rights report.

It was in this context that Chakma social leaders demanded the creation of a Union Territory for the community. In response, the Central government in 1997 set up a Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions, which then recommended the extension of the autonomous district council. Then Chief Minister Lalthanhawla successfully manipulated a Chakma minister in his government, who issued a press statement denying that the Chakmas had ever demanded a Union Territory.

The same Lalthanwala is unable to placate the Chakma cabinet minister who resigned this week. Now, he seems to be echoing Mizo groups, denying that there has been discrimination but asserting that his government would not welcome “illegal migrants of Chakma or other communities”. The sentiments in play are old: Mizo nationalism and anxiety about so-called foreigners. But, unlike in the 1990s, these have tipped into racially discriminatory policies.

Over the last few years, the state government has repeatedly tried to tweak its selection policies for higher education and government services to favour Mizos at the expense of non-Mizos. Though these discriminatory policies have been stayed by the court, the state government perseveres. Various Mizo organisations also demanded that the Chakma minister be sacked and Chakma candidates be barred from contesting state elections.

Where is Mizoram heading?

Indeed, such discriminatory treatment has spread to various aspects of governance, including development programmes. Central schemes like the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme and the Border Area Development Programme, for instance, are always channelled towards dominant groups while other beneficiaries are left out.

Journalist and human rights activist Suhas Chakma points to other exclusionary practices: to get government jobs, for instance, candidates are required to have studied in the Mizo language till Class 8. He further states that “no Chakma has cleared Mizoram Civil Services Examination since the creation of the State of Mizoram in 1987”.

Mizo jingoism has targeted not only the Chakmas but also members of the Reang (Bru) tribe. In 2009, for instance, acts of arson wiped out Bru homes in the state and stalled the return of 33,000 displaced Brus who had fled earlier bouts of violence.

In Mizoram today, non-Mizos are treated with suspicion. Notions of citizenship and belonging to the land have drawn lines that exclude them. Are the Mizos, a minority which once struggled from the margins of the Indian state, visiting the same injustices on the minorities in Mizoram?

The author is a doctoral scholar in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is an editor of Pangsau.

 

The article was first published in Scroll.in. It is reposted here verbatim, for wider dissemination.

Ticking Hydro-Bombs and Life in the Brahmaputra Valley

Dr. Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri

IMG-20170827-WA0018

NE India finds a beautiful combination of valley-range relationship. If lofty mountains like the Eastern Himalayas force the monsoon to yield orographic precipitation; there is further supplementation to the big rivers by the glacial melt. A huge amount of water and sediments constituted of heavier bed-loads and finer suspended loads are being carried continuously by different streams and rivers related principally to the Brahmaputra River system. As per the recent estimates, sediment yield of the Brahmaputra is 852.4t/km2/yr which is the highest in the world (Latrubesse, 2008). With a mean annual discharge of 21,200m3/s, measured at Bahadurabad in Bangladesh, Brahmaputra is the seventh largest river in the world (Tandon and Sinha, 2007). The complex source-sink relationship of the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal connected by the massive Brahmaputra River system has suddenly become highly vulnerable due to the proposed and ongoing construction of some of the biggest dams and hydro-power projects (Fig. 1).

arunachal district and dams

Fig. 1. Proposed sites of big dams and the associated ‘Hydro-bombs’ in the Arunachal Pradesh. Work has already begun in some of the sites. Life in the upper Assam valley is in dire straits. (Source: Neeraj Vagholikar, Sanctuary Asia)

An estimated capacity of 60,000 megawatt electricity generation is targeted (Lahiri &Borgohain, 2011). How big is this number? The present day need of electricity at its peak hour for the entire NE India is less than 5000 megawatt. Then, why so much of hydro-electricity generation is targeted? The answer is simple and can be found in the colonial legacy of the area. The people living in the place for centuries were never considered as stakeholders of significance whenever big issues involving big capital like energy sector came into the forefront.

Campaigning against the big dams all over the world has already reached such a proportion that none of the advanced countries intend to raise even a single big dam in their own territories fearing sharp resistance from different corners of the civil society. It has already been recognised that leave aside all negative impacts, if alone the ecological alteration is considered, post-dam scenario offers a no return situation. However, for the third world countries, pedagogy for the oppressed takes a ‘U’-turn (See: World Bank, Water and Development, 2010). Official documents, more or less all over India, are tailored according to the needs of the big capital investors, take hardly any time to issue NOCs; suggesting routinely huge benefits at little costs. But as soon as the moments of vast devastation comes, the bogeys of ‘extreme events’ (Ziegler et al., 2014) (hence, lack of adequate administrative preparedness); ‘inattentive or callousness of the lower level stuffs’ are raised to divert the woes of the sufferers. The sufferers narrate their experiences before the TV channels; hearts of the safer spectators melt; donations pour in and one party shouts the mismanagement in supplying relief and the party in the power boasts of their promptness in reaching the flood affected people. However, during the mock shows of TV battles, it is concealed that every year, with addition of new big dams, increasing numbers of hydro-power bombs are planted and at some points of time these are supposed to blast. For most of the big dam constructions, the down-stream impact of probable ‘flash floods’ were never studied in detail. But even a gross estimate can reveal the magnitude of havoc. Let us take a simple example. We have mentioned above the mean annual rate of water discharge measured through the Brahmaputra is about 21,200 m3/s. Let us consider a tributary river through which lesser than one hundred times of this volume flows which is say, 200 m3/s. If a dam suddenly releases water accumulated for just three days, the volume of water is about 5.2 × 107 m3. What does it literally mean? It simply shows that a field 10km long and 1 km wide becomes submerged under 5m (single storied building) high water column within minutes. One can well imagine its impact. The incubating dangers in big dams are nothing but the ticking hydro-bombs – who can deny it? Big dams are an immediate threat to the life of the Brahmaputra valley.

This will be the right place to have a quick look of ‘life’ in the Brahmaputra valley. Though Brahmaputra valley is famous for the ‘Assam Tea’ to the external world; the richness of its natural resources are present in very diverse forms on the surface and at different depths of the subsurface. If tea, different varieties of rice and citrus plants are there on the open space for everybody to see; there is limestone at shallower depths; coal at a little more depth and then oil and gas in the depth range of 1.5 – 5.0 kms. Thanks to the British Raj which made very cautious moves to keep the original inhabitants of the place away from its meticulously planned enclaves of economic activities where labourers from different places of India were brought to till and farm the ‘Lords’ Gardens’ following the similar colonial policies practised in the West Indies Islands and elsewhere like Mauritius.

The British rulers made considerable efforts to explore (Rennell, 1765; Wilcox, 1830) and develop waterways because river transport mechanism was the cheapest among all types of transport systems. Railway tracts were laid down with equal enthusiasm where connectivity through water ways was not possible. Strangely, even after the constitutional power transfer in the August 15, 1947; semi-colonial and semi-feudal socio-economic structure was maintained and preserved in the most sacrosanct manner by the Indian state which treated the NE India a ‘remote place’ from its perception of the mainland India (A simple example is, an ONGC employee posted in the NE states gets a ‘remote area allowance’). A remarkable difference between the ‘British Raj’ and the ‘Swaraj’ was, waterways were not managed properly by the ‘Swarajwallahs’ and a costly roadway transport system was encouraged to appease principally the truck and other motor car lobbies belonging mostly to the ‘cow belt’ of India. Subsequently, the roadways deteriorated a lot which helped to consolidate the ‘remoteness’ discourse and ever-inflated price tags for even the most essential goods like potatoes and onions.

The local political machinery is treated by the Indian state as an equivalent to a municipal board which is practically dissociated from the management and decision-making on most of the major resources like oil, coal and tea. In annual budget reports, the accountancy of what exactly is taken away from the state is hardly mentioned. The highlights of the matter mostly show a small basket of revenue collection and a huge basket of ‘grants from the centre’ and the people belonging to the state are made to believe that unless certain ‘grants’ and ‘doles’ come from the ‘centre’, it may collapse at any time. To ensure the ‘security of the people’ the ‘strong centre’ should be given a ‘free hand’ to explore and exploit different mineral and oil resources and the lately added item the ‘Water resources’.

During the ongoing period of unprecedented length of global recession when the safer heavens of big foreign capital investments are shrinking at a very faster pace; any market expert, whatever might be her/his political affiliation; will admit that the hydro-power sectors promising a sustainable rate of super profit for a century in ideal situations and at least half a century for even the most conservative estimates, is highly tempting. Thus, in spite of getting continuous signals of the magnitude of dangers from the big dams, the canards of developments by constructing big dams are continuously been raised by the official political class in power. They have sold themselves to the whims of the corporate class. Right at the moment, the people of the Brahmaputra valley vis-a-vis their relationship with the projects of big dams seem to stand as described by two social scientists in a slightly different context about 180 years back:

“…veiled by religious and political illusions, it (Read: the big capital) has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (Marx & Engels, 1848)

(The author is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Geology, Dibrugarh University, Assam and the editor of South East Asian Journal of Sedimentary Basin Research. He brings in a rare element of interdisciplinary research, between natural and social sciences. He is also associated with Natun Padatik, as an Associate Editor, and can be reached at siddharthalahiri@dibru.ac.in)

References:
Lahiri, S.K., Borgohain, J., 2011. Rohmoria’s Challenge : Natural Disasters, Popular Protests and State Apathy, Economic and Political Weekly XLVI ( 2), 31-35.

Latrubesse, E., 2008. Patterns of anabranching channels: the ultimate end-member adjustment of mega rivers. Geomorphology 101, 130–145.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party, Translated in English by Samuel moore in 1888 from the original German text, 38-39.

Rennell, J., 1765. A general map of the River Baramputrey, from its confluence with the Ifsamuty near Dacca towards Assam, India Office Library and Records, London, UK.

Tandon, S.K., Sinha, R., 2007. Geology of large rivers. In: Gupta, A. (Ed.), Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management. John Wiley & Sons, pp. 7–28.

Wilcox, R., 1830. Map of the Brahmaputra and Ichamati Rivers. Reduced and drawn by M.H. Dias, India Office Library and records, London, UK

Ziegler, A.D., Wasson, R.J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y.P., Sati, S.P., Juyal, N., Nautiyal, V., Srivastava, P., Gillen J., and Saklani, U.,2014. Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness – the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Writing North-East

North-East of India or India’s North-East is essentially an idea of space. It is a hybrid space, with each community that makes up this region having a distinctive history of their own. The structural homology of the hills and the plains presents us with a social world that is both complex and contested. The various complexities and contestations that are witnessed in contemporary North-East are manufactured by various actors with their own agendas. Phenomenons such as insurgency, counter-insurgency, uneven-development, autonomy demands, floods, natural resource extraction, Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), inter-ethnic conflict, inter-religious violence and festivals, among others, make up the everyday social world in the North-East.

As far as historical accounts allow us, the different communities that are home to the North-East, migrated into the region at some point or the other. Pangsau Pass, located in the Patkai hills, forms one among the many entry points of communities into the North-East. We wish to use Pangsau as a symbolic and historical entity to draw attention to the shared history of critical crossings and human interactions.

The idea for Pangsau is rooted in our collective efforts to understand India’s North-East from diverse perspectives, with the help of individuals from multiple backgrounds. While specific state or issues remain the core focus of research that activists and scholars engage with, thinking of those, in terms of the region, throws questions which have no simple answer. The inability of the national media to report about the region is a truth beyond doubt. Alternative media platforms have either become commercialised, or limits itself to specific questions or parts of the North-East. Pangsau intricately captures the fluidity, hybridity, creolised processes, migration history, cultural, economic and political exchanges, among others, that constitutes the North-East as a region. In its essence, it seeks to recover the life-worlds and multiple experiences of various communities of the region, and archive common and possible universal grounds that make everyday life possible. This blog attempts to implicitly bring out the various concerns and commitments of the region.

We welcome contributions in the form of articles, commentaries, fiction, poems, photographs, essays, videos, cartoons, and memes, among others to reflect on the following questions and beyond:

Is there any difference in everyday life from the colonial to the post-colonial government in the region? What has been the nature of state-making in India’s North-East? How are social boundaries formed, maintained, transgressed and crossed in the region? Will there be a New North-East, concomitant to the invocation of ‘New India’ by Narendra Modi? Who defines indigenous and autochthonous in the North-East? Who envisions and finalises the measurement of North-East’s legitimate history? What is the role of ethnology and anthropology in museumization and governing the people and their land? Why are indigenous models of development bypassed in the development of the region? Are people in the North-East still a ‘known’ category, if so how and why? Is the scholarship that reflects, articulates, and defines the North-East adequate? How does one deal with the egoistic and Mein-Kampf like literature and action that are home to the North-East? Who are the ‘Others’ in the various states of the North-East? What is the nature of relationship and interaction of the ‘great-traditions’, ‘little traditions’, and the syncretic world of beliefs? Are cultural debts that make up broader identities and inter-ethnic agro-cultural-complex such as Assamese, Meitei or Mi-Zo acknowledged with humility? These are some of the questions that stir our collective interest in the region and its specificities.

We look forward to your contribution, and hope that together we can re-think, re-articulate, write, read, discuss and debate about the various issues and life-worlds of India’s North-East and beyond.

Thanking You,

The Pangsau Collective