We flew from Delhi to Calcutta over Bangladesh and into Mizoram in a small plane that navigated its way through the clouds between large mountains and finally landed in a small airport – the Lengpui airport, 32 km from the Mizoram capital Aizawl. Lengpui reminded me of other smaller airports I had seen, boutique airports, in the numerous islands of Thailand or the Maldives. Except that Mizoram is no island, it is a highland state – the word Mizo in fact means ‘highlander’ – and Lengpui would not have been built so small if the Mizos could find a larger area of flat ground to build an airport in.
In fact, apart from the size of their airport and indeed, the size of their state, there is nothing small about the Mizos, neither in their hearts nor in their history. The story of the formation of the state of Mizoram has been one of a long struggle against a huge dose of neglect and repression, and the immediate provocation was a large scale famine or mautam caused by bamboo flowering in the 1950s and 1960s to which the state government – till 1987, Mizoram was a part of Assam – as well as the government of India were largely apathetic. So the Mizo National Front (MNF) began its long insurgent battle for the rights of the Mizo people, in the course of which the social fabric of Mizo life was totally changed by village regrouping schemes undertaken by the unsympathetic government, and a large number of people were killed in military repression and aerial bombings – one of the darkest chapters in the history of ‘post’-colonial India. We got a glimpse of what Mizo community life must have been once upon a time when we visited Reiek, the model Mizo village constructed by the government as a tourist attraction. When we went there, an 80 km drive from Aizawl, we were the only tourists that day. I was glad because it gave us the opportunity to soak in the peace of the environment, a peace that had once been so cruelly shattered amidst bombs and gunfire. It has been a while now of course since the gunfire has fallen silent, and a peace accord was signed between the rebels and the government. This accord proved to be one of the most successful peace initiatives, one that has worked in such a big way and lasted for so long. Today, the state of Mizoram has many claims to fame, not the least of which is with regard to its human resources – Mizoram has one of the largest numbers of literate people in India. But literate or not, the people of Mizoram also have very big hearts. They are very hospitable and friendly, and so long as you respect their individuality, they are always willing to welcome you into their midst.
Take for instance, our friend Pu Sailo, director of information and public relations of Mizoram, who invited us to the state and provided us with every form of hospitality we could wish for. Or consider his colleagues, Tetei and Mina, who have become such good friends, and who also helped plan our trip and showed us around Aizawl, giving us the insights which a first-timer like me could never otherwise have acquired. With them we went bargaining at the many markets of Aizawl with their variety of foreign goods, or sight-seeing in the late evening – night falls very early in Mizoram, and the city shuts down pretty early too – to the view point from where you could see the lights twinkling in the chain of hills that make up the city. Walking around the city, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the early evening, we could feel how fresh the air was and experience the thrill of walking on the undulating hilly streets. However, whenever travelling in a car, I couldn’t help but scramble to hold on to whatever I could get a hold of, because the curves are too sharp and the roads so steep that I felt it was a wonder gravity didn’t taken its toll on our vehicle and send it, with us in its belly, sliding downhill, off the cliff and into the deep gorges below.
In the city itself, just opposite the street vendor from where I bought so many additions to my DVD collection of Korean movies, I saw the Assam Rifles headquarters. On the boundary wall was inscribed ‘Assam Rifles: Friends of the Hill People’. Mizoram is one of the few states of the Northeast where the paramilitary force can now perhaps claim to be friendly. However, I did also remember the atrocities being committed by the same force in the neighbouring states, for instance in Assam and Manipur, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 has given it sweeping powers to kill at will, and it exercises that power indiscriminately killing civilians as well unarmed or arrested insurgents. In Manipur, the same force actually claims to be the ‘custodian’ of the people. The Mizos have experienced their share of state and military repression, and today, if they are a proud people, it is because they have fought for every right they now enjoy. Indeed, the Mizoram government website proudly proclaims on its homepage:
Mizoram is our homeland
It is not given or gotten as a gift
It is not acquired by privilege
Or potential contracts
It is not bought with gold or held by the force
No, it is made with us the sweat of the brow
It is the historic creation
And the collective enterprise of a people
Bodily, spiritual and moral
Over a span of generations.
Unlike many other states of the Northeast where there are constant complaints about outsiders – illegal migrants from neighbouring countries and non-locals from other parts of India – coming in to usurp the economic activities and livelihood options of the people of the state, the voices of discontent in Mizoram are relatively muted. For one, many of the illegal migrants to Mizoram come from nearby Burma, and they are ethnically allied to the Mizo tribes. Although there are sporadic complaints of anti-social activities and criminal conduct by these migrants, opposition to them is yet to reach the fever pitch anti-migrant oppositions have assumed in Assam or Manipur, where even ethnic cleansing exercises have been known to have occurred. The number of migrants who come from elsewhere in India is somewhat checked by the Inner Line Permit system, although in many cases this system has proved to exist in name alone. But what I found most admirable about the Mizos is the fierce pride with which they guard their language – anybody who does business in Mizoram has of necessity to learn the Mizo language. Their second option is to be able to communicate with the Mizos in English. Those who cannot communicate in English, have to be at least familiar with that pidgin form of Hindi which is so prevalent in most parts of the Northeast and is entirely different from the Hindi spoken in Northern India. Since I did not know much Mizo beyond a few basic words, I unleashed my Northeastern Hindi wherever English wouldn’t work, and tried to pick up a few phrases from the book my new found friend – nay soul sister – Thari gave me. “Chiangnu” she called me, which means something akin to a soul sister in Mizo and Pu Ruata explained to me that it was a privilege to be accepted into the close knit Mizo community so intimately. I was touched.
Commandant John and his wife Thari, and Pu Ruata and his family all made us feel extremely welcome, and in the dry state of Mizoram, we could never leave their places till we had drunk all the alcohol they offered us, or we would be offending their hospitality. And every time we met them, we would have to shake off their generous offer to spend the rest of our visit with them. We had to move on as we had decided to go see Champhai, a few kilometres from the Burma border. Unfortunately, our trip there was a disaster, with the roads being in a sad state due to continuous heavy rains and by the time we reached the Champhai tourist lodge, we were too exhausted to go any further to the border. The lodge itself was lovely but the rains prevented us from exploring the area around. Exhausting as it was, the highlight of the journey back and forth remained for us the two plain meals of boiled rice, green leaves, bamboo shoots and excellent pork – something Mizoram produces in plenty – at a small homely roadside hotel our driver introduced us to.
When we left Mizoram, we brought back with us a lot of bamboo shoots and smoked pork. I am crazy about the pork from that place; it is as fresh and tasty as pork from the Northeast – where it is the staple of many communities – can get. Little wonder that,because from what I hear, many Mizos love their pigs so much they feed them cod liver oil to keep them healthy. We also brought back so many lovely memories with us, but what we did leave behind was a prayer that the rest of the Northeast should also experience the peace that Mizoram has earned for itself.
(Source: Muse India, Issue 25)