THE town of Saiha, as it is shown on maps, perches precariously about 1,500 metres above a low valley in Mizoram. It takes two days to reach this remote sentinel of the East from Aizawl, with the occasional break for meals and an overnight halt.
Saiha is a dot that’s smaller than most other dots on the map, which tell us of the places and regions that make this planet what it is. The approach to Saiha is marked by rugged countryside that is sparsely populated and rich in unending bamboo groves and both semi-tropical and deciduous vegetatation. The hill ridges are part of the great chains which form the spine of the state; the jungles grow along the roads, making for a visual treat but sighting the next stretch is much more difficult as branches and tall grass bend and wave their way across macadamised paths.
This is surely a paradise for guerrilla warfare. Little wonder too that Mizoram has one of Asia’s fewcounter-insurgency training centres, at a little place called Vairangte. It’s located up near the border with Cachar and the Assam plains, and to it come soldiers and officers from the United States, Australia, Britain and other parts of Europe.
There were never any clear victors in the Mizo insurgency but the losers were visible as they are in any conflict situation, be it Kashmir, Nagaland or Sri Lanka: the ordinary people. It was the pressure of ordinary folk, through the Church and other groups, as much as that of the security forces which helped the Mizo National Front of Laldenga to come to an honourable peace with New Delhi and their own Mizo brethren.
Saiha is close to the tip of the political boundaries that form the trijunction of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, as Mizoram, shaped like a spearhead, plunges into the hills and forests of the frontiers of South East Asia.
Despite the hills, the convoluted topography ensures that Saiha, the capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council, can be seen from another ridge at a distance of nearly 40 km, en route from Longkhlai, the capital of the Lai Autonomous District Council. There is a third autonomous district council to the west, the Chakma Autonomous District Council. The last named is one of the poorest areas of Mizoram and the North East. District Councils were set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to enable tribal communities to develop economically, culturally and politically in the manner that they wished. But there have been major problems.
Each complains of the lack of representation in the government services, in education opportunities, in training skills for industrial employment. Each has a different yet similar story of alleged discrimination by the majority Mizo tribe, as do representatives of the Hmars and the Paites, other groups which are also demanding autonomous district councils so that they can run their own affairs. But they can’t: financial and political control rests with Aizawl, the biggest district which hogs more than 60 per cent of state funds. The district councils say that they are starved of money and cannot even implement central government schemes sanctioned for them because these funds must be routed through the state government.
Indeed, ironically, the complaints by the Maras, the Lais and Chakmas are similar to the grievances of the Mizos against the Assam government in the 1950s and 1960s. The Khasis and Garos had voiced similar resentment. The Mizos have their own state as do the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos with Meghalaya but they’re still clashing with each other on who gets more of the financial cake.
In some cases, as that of the Chakmas, basic facilities of government do not exist. First of all, frequent travellers on the road connecting the Chakma capital of Mamla Nagar (this is what they call it; the Mizos call it Chwangte) is a back-breaking exercise. Little wonder, then, that hardly any heavy transport vehicles (read buses and trucks) ply the roads.
This road is the responsibility of the state public works department while the narrow but brilliantly built national highway No 54 which takes up from the steamy, overcrowded, messy plains to the twisting and turning bends of the hills and their clear, fresh air has been built and maintained by the army’s Border Roads Directorate Organisation. Landslides are frequent in the furious monsoon rains but are cleared at a steady peace by the BRDO.
Not to speak of banks, there isn’t even a sub-treasury. When asked to set up a branch in the district council, the State Bank of India demanded that the council pay for its security.
The council sends its cashier to Lungleh, about 120 km on that hellish highway, to draw money. On one unfortunate day in July, there was not enough cash at Lungleh so the poor man had to travel another 220 km to try and cash the cheque at Aizawl only to be sent back to Kamala Nagar — it hadn’t been countersigned by a senior member of the council. The Chakma District Council has no hospital, not even a post office.
The Maras, some distance away, make their views known quite openly. They resent the fact that in the list of Scheduled Tribes, they are still defined by an older name, Lakher, while in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, they are referred to as Maras! The case of the Lais is even more poignant. They are called by this name in their council area but are called the Pois in the Scheduled Tribes list, a name that angers them deeply.
The Maras are a community of about 50,000 persons who live predominantly in the district council area but also have kin in neighbouring Myanmar. And they are very sensitive about place names as well as how they are officially called. As soon as you enter Maraland, the spelling of their capital changes: it’s no longer Saiha. That’s a Mizo name, we are told, signifying nothing. It is Siaha, a place where the tusks of an elephant fell after it died.
There are other small groups demanding recognition and inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes List. One is the Paite, with a population of about 60,000 in eastern Mizoram. Their demands for inclusion goes at least back to 1980, when they addressed memoranda to Indira Gandhi, seeking this right. Despite backing from the current chief minister Zoramthanga, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
It does not take much for these changes to be brought about. The Home Ministry and the tribal affairs ministry need to put their heads together and act quickly. These are small communities but they are strategically placed at the trijunction of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Arms, smuggled goods and people flow with ease across this region. Myanmarese insurgent groups camp on the Indian side of the border. Indian intelligence agencies prowl the hills and towns. In this little place, great games are played.
The demands of Mizoram’s small groups can be met within the existing constitutional, economic and political framework: central funding for local governance; reservations in jobs at the state level; recognition of groups in the Scheduled Tribe list to name the basics. Otherwise, the growing but dormant frustration in this strategic end of India could create a fresh nightmare. It may not take much to defuse the current situation — small interventions, sensitivity and the simplicity of foresight and wisdom.
Surely, it does not require an insurgency to help New Delhi and Aizawl to see this?
~ By Sanjoy Hazarika
New DelhiI (Sep 12, 2001)
The author, formerly of the New York Times, is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.(when this article was published).
(Courtesy to The Statesman Newspaper, this article appeared on Sep 12, 2001 in the stated newspaper on its EDITORIAL COLUMN. )
(Original link at http://www.thestatesman.net/page.arcview.php?clid=3&id=17485&usrsess=1. Last updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006)