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Northeast Echoes
Aerial view of a city in Mizoram

Call of blue mountains

Mizoram is perhaps the greenest state in the Northeast. That is what the aerial view tells us. From a distance the mountains of Mizoram do take on a bluish hue. Each time one visits the state there is always something one takes back as a keepsake. This time I learnt that it is the Mizoram Peoples’ Forum (MPF), a citizens’ watchdog, which is the lead protagonist in the clean election campaign in the state and was able to curtail election expenses to the minimum. There are of course other pressure and interest groups that have pooled in to take on this humungous task. This convergence of civil society is characteristic of Mizoram.

Mizoram’s political and social discourses are a class apart. Here is a state where the battle of ideas rages unfettered. Though on the face of it it appears that the Church has absolute control over peoples’ lives, that is hardly the case. Human beings will be human beings. They respond better to libertarian ideas than to diktats. If the Church had such an all-pervasive influence then conformity rather than divergence would have been the order of the day. But moving around in Mizoram you sense that there are divergent views on issues.

What is mind-blowing is Aizawl’s expansion. Mizoram has a population of a little more than a million and Aizawl must be nurturing about three lakh people, according to rough estimates. Building space is naturally dwindling. Since landowners cannot expand their building horizontally, they have expanded vertically. You see six or seven storey buildings perched precariously on hilltops or constructed against a rock face. Yet Aizawl is in Zone V of cities listed in the vulnerable seismic zones.

A visitor once remarked that if an earthquake of about 9 on the Richter scale should hit Mizoram, then most people would be buried under the debris and die of suffocation. I asked some of the elders why the government has given building permission for such unstable structures. They said, “In Mizoram we trust in God, not in human disaster management skills.” That’s some faith, I thought to myself.

But the fact remains that urban migration is taking a toll on Aizawl. However, despite this huge population one observed a high degree of cleanliness in the town. The municipality is obviously doing its job. And surprise of surprises, while states like Meghalaya and Nagaland do not have an elected municipality, the Mizos elected their ward commissioners last November and have a functioning municipality.

Gender-bender

Another surprise! In a state known for its strongly embedded patriarchal moorings, of the 19 ward commissioners elected, six are women, thereby making it a one-third representation of the other gender. Come to think of it, in Nagaland women have recently had to go to court to fight out a space for themselves in the upcoming municipal polls. In Meghalaya, there is an enduring resistance to the very idea of holding elections to the different municipalities on the plea that they violate Article 243 of the Constitution, which states that municipalities cannot be extended to scheduled areas. And while we are debating these silly points, garbage is getting the better of us and almost entering our living rooms. So in this matter, at least, Mizoram is one up on all of us.

Mizoram is also the first state in the country to have crafted a ‘land use policy’ and to have creatively tackled the problem of jhumming by making it more sustainable instead of destructive. The state realises that jhum fields are the only sources of organic farm products, from pineapples to bananas and vegetables to rice. Also, jhum fields allow for multi-cropping, which is good for the soil. Mizoram has also successfully implemented the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) and controlled soil erosion through plantation of alder trees to hold soil and fix nitrogen into it.

On record

Mizos are hardworking and meticulous about record keeping. The educated lot believe it is their duty to write books for posterity. Every third person you speak to has written three, four or six books. A civil judge, Dr Lalremchhana, says he has written 22 books. Most tribes are bad at recording events and worse at sitting down to write a book. I was quite impressed by what Lalneih Zovi, an associate professor of public administration at Mizoram University, has done during her tenure as chairperson of the Panchayat Mahila Shakti Abhiyan (PMSA), which actually spearheaded the movement on political representation of women. Zovi has documented every activity of the organisation during her tenure, including money spent for various programmes and activities undertaken. This is a rare feat. It usually does not happen. The small and major accomplishments of women’s movements in the region remain largely unrecorded.

Interestingly, at a consultation held to discuss the progress of the repatriation of Bru people displaced from Mizoram after a series of ethnic violence, it was heartening to see a senior judge, a government officer, representatives of the Young Mizo Association and the Mizo Zirlaii Pawl, the equivalent of the Mizo Students Federation, and the leaders of the Bru Displaced Peoples’ Forum sitting together to thrash out differences without any ill will, although the tension was palpable.

Issues of ethnic identities, homelands, political assertions by different groups are hot potatoes in the Northeast. Questions such as who has the first right to a particular geographical space and whether ethnic minorities need to remain only voters within a state or whether they also have the right to throw up political representatives are contentious issues, often defying solution.

Ethnic conflict

The Mizo Zirlaii Pawl were recalcitrant about the repatriation issue. They insisted on the 1995 electoral rolls for identifying the genuine Bru residents of Mizoram, alleging that those in the camps in Tripura today include the Bru/Reang people of Assam and Tripura. But the government representative, David Lalthangliana, officer on special duty, home department, contended that an electoral roll is not a static document and that it lends itself to change nearly everyday. This is because there are inclusions of new names after claims are preferred and deletion of names of deceased persons.

Hence the government was using the 2005 electoral rolls as a basis for identifying the displaced Bru population. It must be said to the credit of the Mizoram government that they have worked out a very clear and coherent road map for resettlement of the Bru people in October 2010 and are following that in letter and spirit. For a country that has no official policy on internally displaced persons , it is strange that the Bru people are categorised as such.

It bears mention that there are nearly 2.5 lakh IDPs who had to flee their hearths and homes because of various ethnic conflicts in Assam and they continue to languish in relief camps. Why is P. Chidambaram, who has given a diktat to the Mizoram government to rehabilitate the Bru people, using a different yardstick when it comes to the IDPs of Assam? Is it because the Bru people have a strong champion in the person of Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, which could turn the Bru issue into an international spectacle? The IDPs of Assam, unfortunately, have no interlocutor.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)

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