A General’s life as told by an anonymous Chronicler and a master Historian

                                                                                      By Samyak Ghosh and Suraj Gogoi

 

Very few events in the history of Assam have been elevated to the position of a spectacle. The Battle of Saraighat is one such event. A hero-like figure, Lachit Barphukan, emerged out of this battle. The event and the hero has become a hotbed of claims and counterclaims, both from inside and outside. From the inside, the claims to Bir Lāchit have been on the backdrop of Assam Movement, where they needed a hero in their claims to nationalism, among others. One can also find very powerful and wide representation of Lachit in various literary works in Assam, from Padmanath Gohain Baruah to Kabiranjan Saikia, which throws interesting anecdotes for understanding the discourse of commemoration and the emergence of his image.  From the outside, there is an effort to create a valorized figure who defended his society against the common enemy of Hindus—the Mughals. In this light, he has been equated to the likes of Shivaji or Rana Pratap. Such a portrayal of a hero, which is replete with the right-wing colors of nationalistic sentiments, has also found a place around his commemoration, albeit its rejection of such a historic intent whatsoever. Having travelled from local to the national, he has indeed become a spectacle of the contemporary caste Assamese society.

Contemporary sites of memory – public statuary and monuments – carry on with the cultural project of embodying and remembering the narrative of a glorious regional past by squarely locating it in the figure (both physical and symbolic) of the Ahom general Lachit Barphukan. However, as we argue here, through a study of the narratives that are to be found in an unnamed chronicler and a historian about Saraighat, the construction of Lachit Barphukan as the Ahom hero and its later usage by historians like S.K. Bhuyan was not just a twentieth-century production. By offering a close reading of a late seventeenth-century manuscript written in Assamese (We prefer Assamese or Axamiyā to twentieth-century bibliographer’s and philologist’s category of ‘Old Assamese’) we suggest that Bhuyan was strategically using the past in order to claim it as a moment of Ahom pride and glory.

The Assamese manuscript titled Asamat Rām Siṇhar Yuddha (d. 1670) was purchased from a certain Kanthiram Paniphukan by Nagendranath Gogoi on 29 June, 1934. Bhuyan mentions the manuscript in his sources in the Assamese edition of his book on Mir Jumla and the successive Ahom-Mughal encounters. Apart from this there is no mention of the manuscript anywhere in the historiography of early modern Assam. There are 21 folios in the manuscript with 7 lines in each folio. However, it is most likely that some parts of the manuscript have been lost as the manuscript is incomplete and abruptly ends on folio 26 after folio 20 with nothing in between. The survival of the concluding page offers us a chance to date the manuscript – 1592 Saka or 1670 A.D.

The manuscript appears to have been written by an unnamed scribe who accompanied the Ahom army to the battlefield of Saraighat and was a witness to the entire event. From the description of his activities it can be assumed that he along with two astrologers were part of a small group that fought with the Mughal army on the river Brahmaputra. This technique of fighting on the river described as jalajuddha in the manuscript clearly appears as a preferred combat technique by the Ahoms. Some of the other duties of the writer included appearing as the Ahom ambassador or the kataki to the Mughal camp in order to carry messages to and from the enemy camp. It can thus be argued that this short historical account also falls into the category that twentieth-century historians like Bhuyan would categorize as Kataki Buranji.

Written in the manner of a report, this first-person historical account of the Battle of Saraighat provides every small detail about who were in the Ahom army, when they arrived at the battle field and the nature of the combat. The account begins with a long description of the arrival of the baruā, barbaruā, phukan, barphukan, dihingiā barua, hāzarika and others – the various rank holders in Ahom military and administration. The writer reports that all of these various rank holders upon arrival gathered together and conducted a mel – a particular form of Ahom practice similar to holding a court to decide on political and military strategies. He writes that they called upon the protector goddess Kāmākhya and asked her to be on their side during the battle. This account (folio 6) is preceded by a small section where the writer introduces the Ahom general Lachit Barphukan as the ‘younger child’ of Mamai Tamuli Barbarua (folio 4) – […] Mamai tamuli barbaruar putek sarujan lachit barphukan itakhulir (The younger son of Mamai Tamuli Barbarua, Lachit Barphukan from Itakhuli). Yet another interpretation of Lachit is around the etymology of the word. La means son, or the youngest son and Chit means seventh. So la-chit literally means seventh son. Sakarapheti Buranji mentions the names of the seven sons of Mamai Tamuli—Laluki, Lachit, Bhardhora, Onga, Morongi, Baduli and Daukoria. This sits well with the etymology of the word. A more radical narrative is also available, written by Mahandra Bora, of which Nogen Hazarika writes about in Kathi Seleka Buranji, that there is no address of Lachit’s parents. He was found crying in a jungle from where Mamai Tamuli picked him up and raised as his own son.

The mode of report from battlefield is certainly not without any dramatic effect. In fact, the entire account is replete with dialogues where the Ahom generals are shown as pledging in an impassioned manner before they take on the Muslim army. In such a section referred to above (folio 6) the Kataki writes,

1590 Saka: Sakalo patromantrigane palidiya mel korile: sabe kamakhya seba kori: barmage: mao: rangalekhanikhaidiya: sakalo karrakśakara: eibulisebakore: seisamajetepratigya korile: maranatpaserangakile: eihengdaneretakkatim: pasehedebatalaijanam: 

All the ministers and the soldiers together conducted Mel: They prayed to Kamakhya: asked her blessings: Oh mother: In the battleground: protect us all: Having said this they praised her: And in that society (of generals and soldiers) they vowed: In the face of death in battlefield: We will cut to pieces using this hengdan (the Ahom sword): In the next life [after this] we will be born with the gods.

Such passages extolling the bravado of the Ahom generals are present in almost every extant folio. However, the most interesting aspect is the manner in which they are narrated. One can note similar style of narration in Bhuyan’s Assamese account of the Battle of Saraighat which too uses dialogues in creating a dramatic tale of Ahom heroism. The mention of hengdan in the manuscript – the Ahom sword resembling a long blade – is particularly significant. Materials like hengdan along with the gamosa (the Assamese cloth worn around the neck) became the symbol of Ahom maleness and nationalistic bravado during the twentieth century. Thus, even in histories written by Bhuyan and others the hengdan of Lachit Barphukan was represented as a weapon of Ahom glory in face of the marauding enemy.

The Ahom ambassador in his short historical account takes utmost care in mentioning every detail about the armor of the Ahom army in the battlefield of Saraighat. Folio 6 ends with a long catalogue of the various war gears of the baruā and hāzarika. In folios 7-10 he provides a vivid account of the strategies of planning the war and combating the Mughal army both in land and water. It appears from his description that the Ahoms preferred to take on the Mughal army in water since this was a difficult and unknown terrain for the later. Thus, water warfare and the buruj (the small boat like structures on which the army was stationed) played an important role in favor of the Ahoms in the Battle of Saraighat. The ambassador also provides sketches of the war plan that chart out the position of the army (folio 12) in the battlefield. These details were later used by Bhuyan in order to flesh out his dramatic tale of the indomitable Ahoms and their resistance in face of the Mughals.

Folios 13-20 provide daily accounts of the battle – both in land and in water. These are lively descriptions of what the ambassador scribe terms as thalayuddha (combat on land) and jalayuddha (combat on water). It is quite clear from these descriptions that the Ahom army had quite an eclectic constitution. Almost everyone from the hāzarikās, barphukans, pandits, bhakats to ganaks and others fought against the Mughals in this battle. The mention of bhakats (folio 13) is particularly important here as the people known by this designation were mostly disciples associated with the various Vaishnava monastic centers in the region. Their presence in the Ahom army has seldom been paid any attention whatsoever (recently, Indrani Chatterjee has documented the presence of monastic militia in northeast India).

In fact, it is commonly believed that the Ahoms and the Vaishnava monastic disciples were for most of history antagonistic to one other. However, if we look closely into the history of Ahom-Vaishnava history, we will find that a large number of the paiks or the foot soldiers of the Ahoms shared a deep connection with the monastic centers. They were an integral part of this devotional world and swore allegiance to the Vaishnava preceptors and gurus. Thus, it is not quite unlikely that the bhakats could have been drawn to the army in order to fill in the ranks in the battlefield at a time when both men and arms were needed in increasing numbers. However, it could also be true that the Ahom ambassador scribe (much like Bhuyan) mentioned them in order to portray the picture of a warrior society where every male member (from various ranks of social life) came together in fighting for their land and the sovereign.

This short historical account written in Old Assamese occasionally uses Sanskrit ślokas in the middle of the narrative. These are used primarily as embellishments and maybe in order to depict the learning of the writer. Folio 19 has a particularly interesting account of an Ahom kataki (perhaps someone else other than the writer) meeting with Ram Singha in the Mughal camp. In his typical style of narration, the writer uses dialogues but here the speech is quite unlike anywhere in the manuscript and he describes this as ‘farsirmāt hindurakṣar’. We do not know if the writer knew any Persian at all but one can be certain that he was using words as he heard during his interactions in the Mughal camp (and hence the prose reads quite imperfect) in order to write what he calls the speech of the Persians or farsirmāt. The mention of hindurakṣar is particularly important because Bhuyan would later use the exact same word for the various Assamese script forms (there were four such script forms in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Assam).  We have not come across any other seventeenth or eighteenth-century manuscript that uses the word. It is highly likely that Bhuyan stumbled upon it in this manuscript and took this to be a representative term for the premodern Assamese script forms.  Thus, as we see here, it was not just information but even common prejudices and ideas that linked Bhuyan and the unnamed Ahom scribe and their respective historical accounts of the Ahom-Mughal encounter.

Undeniably, Lachit Barphukan is a symbol of Assamese nationalism and has gained popular currency. The story of his valor in the Ahom-Mughal encounter has been retold in multiple ways and included in school textbooks. Radio also played a significant role in popularizing the valor of Lachit among the general masses. Lachit Barphukan, a play written Prabin Phukon became one of the popular ones being broadcasted by radio in Assam, along with plays such as Maniram Dewan, Kushal Konwar, Piyali Phukan, Lavita and Tikendrajit. The use of hengdan as a symbol of his valor has also found its expressions in autonomy and identity movement of the Tai-Ahoms. The idiom of Lachit has been re-articulated by a certain kind of narrative that constructs him as a ‘national hero’ and even relegates Ahom-Mughal encounter as one between Hindu and Muslim. Earlier this year, the Governor of Assam, Banowarilal Purohit relegated Lachit to ‘savior of Hindutva’. Given such contours of discourse, re-visiting the archive becomes necessary to understand and explain events such as Saraighat and similar such events that have come to be told, narrated and appropriated in multiple ways.

Appendix

The victory of the Ahom army over the Mughals has long been a part of a long commemorative culture. The mode of remembering the event through the construction of sites of memory gained momentum with the emergence of Assamese nationalism in twentieth century.  However, not all materials associated with commemorating this event belong to twentieth-century Assam. In this section, we present two such material sites of commemoration (in metal and stone) and a document (in agar bark) that date back to late seventeenth-century Assam.

The first is an inscribed bell-metal canon that dates back to 1682. The inscription is in Sanskrit but in Old Assamese script forms. The canon dates back to the time of Swargadeo Gadadhar Singha and records the defeat of a Mughal army at the hands of the Swargadeo’s army. This battle was fought after the famous Battle of Saraighat and was probably not as significant as the former. Nonetheless, the victory of the Ahom army was memorialized in the inscription. It is currently located in the Assam State Museum in Guwahati (ASM 284).

The second object is a stone inscription that dates back to 1667. This was found in Fatasil, a region located in Guwahati, Assam. It is a particularly curious object because it seems that the inscription was made sometime during the course of the long battle that went on for more than a year. However, this was done at a point when the Ahom army was sure of their victory over the Mughals. The inscription is in Old Assamese and it mentions Lachit Barphukan as Nāmjani Barphukan. It is currently located in the Assam State Museum in Guwahati (ASM 416).

The third is a folio from the manuscript Asamat Rām Siṇhar Yuddha showing the sketch of a combat plan made by the unnamed Ahom chronicler. The manuscript as mentioned above dates back to 1670.

pic 1

Figure 1: Inscribed bell-metal musket. Picture courtesy: Author.

pic 2

Figure 1.2: Stone inscription mentioning Lachit Barphukan and his victory over the Mughal army. Picture courtesy: Author.

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Figure 1.3: Folio 12 showing the combat plan from a seventeenth-century Assamese manuscript.

Picture courtesy: Author.

**The source of the feature image is Zeenews.

Languages of Gifting

Gifting is a political process and an event in itself. We ought to ask if a bridge, a hospital, a dam, a research institute, among others, can be a gift to society. One would notice that in India, the language of a gift has become central to the inauguration of any infrastructural project. Be it the Bhupen-Hazarika Setu (the longest bridge in the country) or the Sardar Sarovar Dam or an agricultural institute, we seem to have a distinctive language of them being gifted to the people. What is this new language of gift in Modi’s New India? Or, can one attach such a language to infrastructure and nation-building, historically speaking? What does it do to the common sense of people? What does it do to our understanding of our government?

Gifting is a very common practice in human history. Apart from being an economic and cultural encounter, it also signifies a multitude of things. It symbolizes an action and is signified by an object which makes gifting possible. Gifting also results in the crossing of social boundaries. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ study of gifting in an archaic society focused on the significance of the practice of gift in human society and it follows that gifting builds networks and flows across social groups of a variety. It involves and signals a condition where the obligation to give, receive and reciprocate is available, and although our common sense perception of gifting can be very individualistic, it invariably is only a practice that is possible due to a larger social and cultural contours that are at play. Gifting, thus, is more than action. It is a process embedded in larger social, cultural, economic and cultural worlds.

Speaking at this point of history, or even if one takes into account that kind of imagery we have from movies or advertisements, our primary memory of gifts are located around birthdays, marriages or some form of celebration that bring together our friends and family around us. Even Narendra Modi couldn’t help but gift himself and to the nation the Sardar Sarovar dam on his birthday! One would also remember not too long ago when Modi gifted the longest bridge to the people of India. Gifting is as much an event as it is a process.[1]

Returning to Mauss, one would find that gift is never free. One can add that beyond reciprocation, there are certain costs tied to it—human, ecological, environmental and cultural. Displacement by dams touches all those aspects of social life without which life cannot move on. The reciprocation is maintained by making this gifting process an event of his own. An attempt is being made to remember just Modi, not the government or the state. This is just the first part of the kind reciprocation process that Mauss spoke of, generated out of gifting process. The other aspect successfully promoted by Modi and his government is that of the call of the religious, spiritual and historical categories on the eve of the event. An invocation of river gods and other mythic figures are infused to sediment a kind of belonging in this process of gifting, drawn from the domain of larger Hindu culture. Such an act creates a kind of bond, which in the long run may work towards maintaining his political discourse and the agents and agendas of the right-wing government. Seemingly, they stand likely to gain from the reciprocation of the receiver of a gift, here of infrastructure of a variety.

Among others, gifting creates a memory and a sense of solidarity. It enters the mnemonics of our present and affects the public psyche. Such affects are ordinary but powerful. One is made to believe that they are part of the process and existence of the very infrastructure itself. It creates a new everyday. Our desires, needs, and wants undergo stimulation. Gifting in this case also becomes symbolic, attached to an individual, to a party or to a nation.

Infrastructures can also be alienating. It creates margins that become seditious in the eyes of the state. Gifting is a language that is used in many ways to displace loss, tears, and suffering of hundreds of people. For those who have lost lands due to dam construction and aren’t rehabilitated, such gifting is an irony, at the very least. No amount of gifting can make up for their losses. Losing land means a return to poverty and homelessness. Hence, inside the veil of the language of gifting of infrastructures, such as Sardar Sarovar dam or Bhupen Hazarika Setu, one can locate new margins and forcefully orchestrated marginality.

Grounds that make up the everyday are constantly in flux and shifting. Gifting in this manner adds to such a complex, where there is an attempt to create a utopic, euphoric and maybe even real presentation of the powers, limits, and resources of the state. It is the darkest of ironies if not the ‘worst returns to laughter’.

Suraj Gogoi

(This article was first published in Indian Cultural Forum)


[1]I grew up in a village called 5 No Shantipur in the sub-division of Sadiya, just two kilometres away from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border in eastern Assam. We would meet many people from Arunachal in schools, markets, or even as co-passengers, sharing a boat over river Lohit, among others. In such encounters, many become friends and are invited to each other’s’ festivities. One such festival is known as Solung which is celebrated among the Adi community of eastern Arunachal. Apart from being offered the usual delicacies in the festival, one also receives a piece of meat, wrapped in some kind of leaf or paper, and if willing to carry back home, even some local liquor. It is a very typical practice of gifting and a way to thank and include the ones from the invited family who could not attend the Solung. Such encounters are not only instances of crossing boundaries of contiguous ethnic communities but also underline structural homology of hills and plains.

A Response to Mizo Student Union, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

The Memorandum submitted by the Mizo Student Union of JNU, to the Prime Minister of India on 1st September 2017 is, to say the least, shocking and banal. It is nothing but a message of ‘hateful propaganda and sensationalism’. It needs to be scrutinised, every word and sentence, because it lacks not only any humanistic and ethical concerns, but even worse, drives home a propaganda and a wrong articulation and presentation of history. The memorandum seems like an extension of the chauvinism of the Assam Movement that they faced, which has entered a new wave in articulating the other as the outsider or their enemies. What we can see from the memorandum is nothing but a case of the rising xenophobia and hitlerism in the state of Mizoram.

The Union is embarrassingly wrong when it writes that the Chakmas do not share any common history, ancestry, customs and traditions with the Mizos. For all we know, both are Jhummis! That’s hell of a cultural sharing, is it not? The Union also seems to assume the existence of Mizoram state, with clear distinctions between the categories of Mizos and non Mizos, and with fixed spatial boundaries as early as the early nineteenth century. Their argument that the recent protest of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) of some Chakma students entering in a MBBS Programme has to be seen in the light of the fear of the ‘illegal’ and unnatural growth of the Chakmas in the state of Mizoram is unabashedly shameful. On the one hand, they seem to quote articles from the Constitution, at ease, but when it comes to the Chakmas they become a common enemy, with no rights whatsoever. The union appears to be fond of conspiracy theory which determines anti-minority sentiments in other parts of the country. It provocatively suggests that the Chakma Autonomous Council was formed to weaken the Mizo National Front. However, here, they safely ignore the question of rights.

One might ask, do such statements from an organisation claiming to fight for minority rights, seated high up in the ivory towers of the most reputed academic space like JNU, one of its kind? The answer is no. The social in Mizoram is influenced, controlled by many non-state actors–MZP, Young Mizo Association (YMA), Presbyterian Church and so on. They run a parallel government in the state, and this is not an exaggeration. Interestingly enough, the Union echoes the same spirit of these non-state actors in regard to the population figures of 1901 to 1941, which is even denied by the Mizoram government in its response to the National Human Rights Commission in 2014. Such narratives produced by the Union, are in tune with the way these above mentioned Organisations place themselves in the social life in Mizoram. They practice a kind of necropolitics which is borderline violent.

The constant creation of the categories of the insider and the outsider is a typical case in point here. They speak of chauvinism and jingoism that have become normalized in the everyday experience for the Chakmas in Mizoram. If the Union wishes to speak of history, we should also point out to the fact that the Chittagong Hills Tracts(CHT) is an area home to the Chakmas. Part of the CHT is in Mizoram, hence technically, if we were to adhere to that logic of ecological fixity of identity, one has to go back to how the boundaries were drawn. It was done by the British and their cartography, not the Chakmas. The dam that flooded their land in Bangladesh, led to a treaty which is constitutionally approved. Will the Union be willing to take the debate to those quarters?

To return to their notion of legal and illegal immigrants, it is public secret that the MNF harassed and killed many Burmese people belonging to the Mizo-Kuki-Chin group, back in the 80s, to which the Mizos claim their ancestry, history and roots. The YMA appreciated such acts from the sidewalks. Those Burmese, now, forms the backbone of the economy of Aizawl. Most traders who bring back goods from Burma and other parts of Maniland Southeast Asia, are primarily Burmese. However, they are accommodated into the larger Mizo society. Why is the Chakma community forcibly kept outside the larger conglomerate of Mizo society?

Hate produces ‘concrete others’ (Benhabib 1996). ‘Chakmas’ can be categorised as concrete others in contemporary Mizoram. Otherisation and hate is made available, for there are well-defined categories of who are ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (Hage 2006). In a way, the other make the self more pronounced, even defines the self. As Taylor (2001) defines, how the whole notion of defining oneself is constructed when one knows what is good or bad for oneself.  The Chakmas are prevented from experiencing any belonging–cultural and social–in their everyday. Infact, their bodily disposition, mental and material presence is questioned. Their everyday is incomplete without receiving hatred and othering.

Journalist like Sanjoy Hazarika and the whole brigade of son of the soil, khilonjiya academicians of North-east, gave statistical excuses, in creating a fear of minorities growing large. The Union’s point here is not an aberration and is in perfect sync with such chauvinist standpoints on history and politics. We would like to highlight an instance where statistical excuses are exercised in order to justify the actions of chauvinism and jingoism.

A history of a differentiated taxation, levied on the Mizos and Chakmas respectively, is used as a tool to suggest that these two communities in-fact are different from each other. Accordingly, Chakmas are considered as foreigner because they were levied a tax of five rupees by the British, whereas the Mizos and their kin tribes were levied only a sum of two rupees This account is to be found in the letter that the Superindent of Lushai Hills Shri. S. Barkataki, wrote: D.O No. II-7/50/56-8 dated Aijal 11th October 1950 to R.V Subrahmanian, Secretary to the Government of Assam for Tribal Affairs. It is a fact that Mr. Barkataki was neither a historian nor an ethnologist or anthropologist. Hence, such factual errors were corrected by his former officer, Mr. KGR Iyer, IAS, Mizo District, with his report vide No. GP.21/55/56 dated Aijal the 27th October 1955, which was submitted to the Government of Assam. The Mizos conveniently ignores and hides such historical documents and facts, on one hand, and on the other, goes on circulating only the documents such as that incorrect letter, which states different taxes being levied. Infact, Mr. Barkatai himself admitted on a later date that he had no knowledge about the Chakmas being the indigenous people of Mizoram. Even then, how can one drive home the point that one ought to be treated as different, just because the tax levied were different. Is it not a colonial way of discriminating or a kind of divide and rule?

The mistake of Mr. Barkataki was an organised attempt in order to project a community in different light. He acted under the orders of a Mr. A. Macdonald, the Superintendent of Lushai Hills who thought that declaring the Chakmas as indigenous people will lead to losing of income for the government of Assam. He writes that, “If the Chakmas are treated as non-Lushais they will be liable to pay house tax at the rate of Rs 5/- and also other taxes such as Court and Stamp duties which will bring in an additional revenue of over ten thousand annually. I am in favour of adopting this course”. However, it was Mr. A. Macdonald himself who with his Order No. 734-47G of 29 April 1946 had declared that the Chakmas are the natives of the Lushai Hills just like the “Lushais” or Mizos. This makes it clear that the Chakmas were accepted as natives, by 1946, however, in the contemporary frame of politics, in Mizoram and in student spaces such a Mizo Student Union of JNU, a repeated attempt is being made to criminalize them and even suggest that they are the root causes of disharmony in the state.

Hence, the colonial government, with the help of local administrators, managed to create a deliberate categorization and mis-representation of a community and thus aimed at economic gains from so called non-economic areas. Similar accounts are seen, which justifies the Assam Agitation, the political contours of student bodies in Arunachal Pradesh, the Nellie massacre, Bodoland violence, among others, and constantly re-produce statistical exercises and excuses.

Pangsau Collective

 

References:

Benhabib, S (1996). Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hage, G (2006). Insiders and Outsiders. In Beilharz and Hogan (eds.), Sociology: Place, Time and Division, Oxford University Press.

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.

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