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Mizoram grapples with change

By Freny Manecksha

In remote Mizoram, Adidas and Benetton showrooms have sprung up. But traditional music, dance and community decision-making are almost dead. Mizoram boasts a literacy rate of 88%. But there are no libraries and cinema halls here. This article explores the dichotomies of a society in transition

It's the year of the mautaim, or flowering of the bamboo, in many parts of the northeast. For the Mizos, this is particularly significant. Fifty years ago, the mautaim triggered events that played a vital role in the state's creation.

Termed 'God's gift', Melocana bambusoides, or the bamboo, propagates asexually and needs no replanting. But every 50 years, it flowers, bears fruit and dies. This phenomenon can trigger a number of unusual natural occurrences like the proliferation of rats or insects such as locusts. In 1958, a proliferation of rats attacked the rice crop, bringing famine to the Mizo hills. That became the catalyst for an uprising against the insensitive bureaucracy in Assam. An organisation, known as the Mizo Cultural Front, metamorphosed into the Mizo National Famine Front. In 1961, under the leadership of Laldenga, the Front morphed into a military outfit called the Mizo National Front (MNF).

The movement for secession grew and insurgency engulfed the region. The Mizo hills were declared a 'disturbed area'. Ordinary Mizos suffered greatly under the Indian army's tactics of corralling villages and forced settlements. IAS officer Lalthamma, who played a significant role in the peace process, says it was the Mizo people who finally displayed their pragmatism, "calculating the cost of suffering" and putting pressure on Laldenga to seek an accord with the Indian government. After protracted negotiations, a historic accord of settlement was signed with the MNF in 1986; Mizoram was conferred statehood in 1987.

In 2007, as the bamboo flowers once again, it is, significantly, the MNF government that grapples with the challenges of governance.

Has peace translated into wellbeing and development for the people of Mizoram? How has this remote geographical outpost adapted to national and global change?

One of the striking features of Mizoram is the co-existence of extreme forms of tradition and modernity. Aizawl the capital resembles many prosperous hill stations, boasting Adidas and Benetton showrooms. But there are no libraries or decent bookstores, and no cinema halls. Literacy rates are the second highest in the country -- 88.49% -- but there is a dearth of technical expertise and an absence of the "scientific temper".

Many of these paradoxes can be attributed to the fact that society here is still in the preliminary stages of transition. The two cataclysmic influences that have influenced Mizo society over the past century are the coming of Christianity and India's independence.

The setting up of plantations in the Cachar belt in the 18th century by the East India Company opened the doors to this remote region. But it was in the 1930s that Christianity spread to the area through Welsh missionaries. The Presbyterian Church set up schools and rudimentary health centres. As Western influences, mainly on dress and music, became pronounced, the church exerted its influence on cultural norms. It disapproved of what it termed "pagan customs" of drinking rice beer and traditional music and dancing. These features of tribal life almost disappeared and it was only after statehood that efforts were made to revive them.

Professor Darchhawna, a historian who established Mizoram's arts and culture department in 1989, has been responsible for reviving some old art forms. He calls Mizoram's present culture "imitation". He explains how, in the case of music (an integral part of Mizo culture), traditional instruments have been replaced by the guitar, gospel singing and playing the organ. Traditional dances that evolved for community participation are in danger of becoming mere concert displays instead of a symbolic expression of tribal life. Even public celebration of the spring festival, Chapchar Kut, once associated with the agricultural rite of jhum-cutting, is now more a state exhibition staged in the capital Aizawl, he says. Darchhawna is attempting to invigorate the old culture by setting up small groups in villages to sing traditional songs and enact plays.

The need to revaluate an older culture is reflected in the writings of C Chhuanvawra, headmaster and noted author. His book Sakei Ngho She pays tribute to ancient Mizo values and the strong traditional system of justice that once prevailed, with decisions taken collectively by the community.

The tussle between two cultures is reflected in a report that appeared in the English daily Newlink in February this year. The Presbyterian Church issued guidelines for the observance of Chapchar Kut. Church members were urged to keep away from "already discarded cultures and pagan rituals" of "drinking and worldly pleasures".

David Thangliana, editor of Newslink, explains that the drinking of rice beer was part of Mizo custom along with animal sacrifice, but, under pressure from the church, prohibition has now been imposed in the state. Although alcoholism and drug addiction do pose serious problems in Mizo society, Thangliana believes that restrictions imposed by the church, its frowning on night life or any kind of socialising outside of its framework, will prove counter-productive for the stifled desires of youth. "There is no cinema in Aizawl, no night life, no recreational outlets like gyms or health clubs. This is only breeding simmering discontent, especially among the youth. The pot of social dissent is soon going to boil over," he warns.

The church is omnipresent in Mizoram, its activities providing the crux of social life. But, while collectivism gives people a sense of social security and an umbrella in times of distress, it also fosters attitudes of conformity. "There is no room for any social dissent or questioning of the system in Mizo society," says Angela Ralte, a young woman graduate from the Delhi School of Social Work. Ralte is director of the Centre for Peace and Development, a civil society organisation that handles child rights and issues related to youth. She explains how the church's imposition of values precludes a rights-based approach to societal problems. "You have a biblical attitude like 'spare the rod and spoil the child', which can result in corporal punishment and even abuse." There are incidents of sexual abuse of children, there is a high rate of crime against women and very poor economic security because, under tribal laws, women cannot inherit property, she says.

A major cause of concern for Ralte is the total absence of skilled professionals, special educators and counsellors to work with women and children. It is difficult to set up a clinic or a centre, she says. Another area of concern is that uniformity and the prevalence of a mono culture prevents any intellectual stimulation or debate. "Look at the way there are protests and stirs over the Taipaimuk dam in Manipur. Here there is nothing," she says.

According to headmaster Chhuanvawra, literacy levels in the state are high but the education system is flawed and merely exam-oriented. There is no environment of questioning, pupils show no inclination towards reading, and there are no libraries to foster such an interest.

Besides values, the church also supplanted some of the tribal institutions -- notably the zawlbuk, or bachelors' dormitory. Like the morungs of the Naga tribes, the zawlbuk was the main body of the Mizo village meant to enforce community discipline and delegate responsibility. Each veng, or village, had its own zawlbuk in which boys between 10 years and adulthood resided and shouldered duties like fetching water, chopping firewood and following tribal rituals like ensuring the hearth was always kept burning. The zawlbuk gradually withered away when the powers of the chiefs, who administered the dormitories, were taken away. In its place, another organ of social control was set up -- the Young Mizo Association (YMA), founded by a missionary in 1935. The YMA is a strong community structure that provides emotional support to its members especially during times of bereavement; its members also play a pivotal role in maintaining law and order. But its approach to issues concerning the community is often conservative. At times it can infringe on individual liberties.

Ralte and Thangliana say the YMA, in its zeal for community policing, breaks down the houses of drug addicts or those believed to be harbouring Myanmar refugees. Puii, a young woman who works with the excise department in Champhai, reveals that there is extreme fear of the YMA in her town. Vulnerable sections like single women distilling country liquor for a livelihood are made scapegoats, while those with social status are ignored.

One distinguishing moral concept dating from pre-Christianity days that still holds sway is tlawmngaihna. While there is no exact translation of the word it is described as a "moral force that requires one to be hospitable, courageous and unselfish". In our interactions with a cross-section of Mizo society -- from farmers to IAS officials -- we were conscious of this spirit that makes it almost mandatory to help others. This and voices of concern about moral fibre amid consumerism and a rapidly-changing world show that the Mizos themselves are very conscious of the winds of change and how they can best adapt to them.

How centralised management destroyed community governance

While Christianity has played a major role in influencing Mizo culture, it was Independence and the creation of an Indian nation that unravelled its socio-economic fabric. Perched high in the Lushai hills, the Mizo tribes had remained immune to outside influence until the advent of the East India Company and the plantation of hill forests in the 1840s. The British followed a system of indirect administration, allowing the traditional system of chieftainship by the Sailos, insisting only on an acknowledgement of their authority and payment of a nominal tax.

The imposition of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in 1955 dissolved the chieftain system. District and regional councils were set up and given law-making powers over the management of land and forests, jhumming, the slash-and-burn cultivation that is central to the Mizo economy, use of water for agriculture, establishment of village or town committees, including issues of public health and sanitation, inheritance of property and social customs.

Dengnonna, a former IAS officer, explains how, under this impact, the moorings and psyche of the Mizo people were totally destroyed. "An essentially egalitarian society in which the leadership of the chiefs had evolved through merit, and in which they were forced to rule in a democratic manner was replaced by a system in which one 'elected' members," he says. The imposition of schemes totally alien to the tribal ethos destroyed the true community spirit that had prevailed. He points to the regulation of jhumming as an example. Under the chiefs, land for jhum was allotted annually and jhumming was regulated so that the forests were protected. Today, it is the village councils that are given the power to allocate land by letting villagers draw lots. But the absence of regulation, uncontrolled fires and arbitrary allotment of land has meant that two-thirds of the forests are depleted or degraded.

A vacuum of leadership and imposition of policies that are at variance with the ethos of tribal life were primary reasons for the Mizos' feelings of alienation that eventually led to the insurgency of the 1960s. "When a very small community suddenly realises that it has to live with a much, much larger community, the instinctive defence mechanism, natural in all animals including human beings, tells it that it is in danger. It does not really matter whether the danger is specified in any real sense. It can be abstract. But this state of mind is enough to provide a fertile ground for breeding insurgency," says Dengnonna. He adds that the Assam state government and the bureaucracy totally failed to understand the aspirations of the Mizo people during the famine of 1958. Today, even with the creation of a Mizo state, there is still no correlation of vision between the common man and the rulers or politicians, including the Mizo National Front (MNF). The pumping in of massive funds post-insurgency, and ambitious plans and packages given by the Centre for the northeast, have not translated into effective development. It has only led to corruption. "There is talk of IT, but where is the power? How can you implement it when the superhighway cable stops in Guwahati?" asks Dengnonna.

Citing more examples of lack of planning, he says a thermal plant was built in Bhairabi at a cost of Rs 120 crore. But it does not function because it is economically unfeasible as fuel costs are too high!

R N Prasad and A K Aggarwal, professors at Mizoram University, in a book, Modernisation of the Mizo Society, point out how the Indian government's soft policy of reconciliation led tribal communities in the northeast to believe that the entire task of looking after their welfare devolved solely on the Union government. They lost their spirit of self-reliance. The 'no tax' policy saw the emergence of the Mizo capitalist, and the income-multiplier process has caused widening income differences with adverse effects on the social, political and economic life of the people.

According to David Thangliana, editor of the English daily Newslink, the social unrest is evident in the fact that in the past two years around seven groups of citizens and farmers have been formed to demand their rights and to fight corruption. There are at least 40,000 unemployed registered in a population of 8.9 lakhs, although Thangliana believes the percentage is much higher.

One significant struggle is that of farmers, as agriculture is the main occupation in Mizoram with over 80% of the population dependent on agricultural activities. We met some Saitul farmers near Aizawl who have begun a nascent movement to assert their rights. They explained how, with land availability shrinking, the size of plots for jhumming is getting smaller. Both the present MNF government and the previous Congress government initiated policies for settled farming. But, as the farmers explained, these efforts remain unsuccessful because the larger, more crucial issue of land distribution has yet to be sorted out especially as settled farming requires at least two hectares per farmer.

Besides foodgrain, efforts are being made to grow cash crops. But Mizoram's landlocked position is a major handicap. It lost its traditional markets -- Bangladesh and Myanmar -- after Independence. The old waterways through the Karnaphuli and Daleshwari were closed. The only road link with the rest of India is through Cachar in Assam. High transportation costs make it difficult for agricultural produce to be sent down to other markets. There is talk of linking Mizoram with ports in Myanmar through waterways and highways, but L T Pudaite, a former IFS official who has been advocating a 'Look East' policy, says it will be a long-drawn-out process because dealings with the Myanmar government take very long.

Mizoram has a rich biodiversity and prospects for enterprises based on floriculture and horticulture appear bright. But Pudaite, who now heads a civil society organisation for tribal welfare, warns that market linkages will need to be thought out very carefully and long-term policies kept in mind before the simple farmer is urged to make the switch to planting cash crops. Thangliana, whose paper often takes up and highlights the cause of farmers, illustrates the consequences of such lack of planning. Under the previous Congress government, farmers were persuaded to grow large quantities of ginger that does well in the region. Unfortunately, with no easy access to markets outside Mizoram and with only one cold storage facility in the entire state, large quantities of the ginger were simply dumped by angry farmers and left to rot.

The Spice Board has expressed its interest in turmeric cultivation, and the present MNF government has been actively pushing it, as turmeric is very easy to grow and is resistant to several pests. But the market linkages for this crop, says Pudaite, require complex management in the drying process. "You need different techniques depending on whether the turmeric is to be used for pharma purposes or for kitchen use," he explains. Before Mizoram can become a spice- producing state, the issue of market linkages will have to be sorted out to provide the right kind of drying processes. This will require coordination by various agencies.

Angela Ralte, a young woman who heads the civil society organisation Centre for Peace and Development, is wary of the entry of large companies in the agro-processing business because she believes the Mizo government is not sensitive enough to social issues even as it handles economic matters. She is nervous that simple farmers may be lured away from traditional methods into contract farming without any safeguards in place, and that this could have tragic results, as has happened in so many other parts of India.

(Freny Manecksha is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007