“Contact OCS” the telephone operator responded when asked to book an urgent call to Aizawl. One politely reminded the lady that Aizawl was in India and was the capital of the union territory of Mizoram. I was under orders of transfer from Bombay [now Mumbai] to Aizawl and was trying from Bombay to tell the AIR station in Aizawl about the date and time of my arrival at the Kombigram airport in Silchar. This was in the month of October or November in the late 1970s. Actually no one among my friends and acquaintances knew about a place called Aizawl where I was going to spend the next couple of years or more. A colleague helped in locating the tongue-shaped union territory of Mizoram, sandwiched between Burma [now Myanmar ] and Bangladesh.
When we reached the Silchar airport there was no one to receive us from AIR, AizawI. As I later realized that my letter and telegram had reached two or three days after my reaching there. I had to get an inner-line permit from the local administration to enter Mizoram! It was more of an adventure to travel with my wife, a four year old daughter and son below three years by the insurgency -ridden road from Silchar to Aizawl by bus with “inner-line permit” in an army convoy. Forty years later, even today most people have no idea as to where Aizawl is; the roads have improved, insurgency is a thing of the past and there is an airport in Lengpui, a little over 30 km from Aizawl.
So, last week when one heard about the appointment of the President of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] of Kerala, P S Sreedharan Pillai as the Governor Mizoram, one was reminded of Mizoram. Interestingly this is the second Kerala BJP chief within a year to be posted as the governor of the state. Kummanam Rajasekharan had resigned the governorship of the state in March this year on the eve of the General Elections to contest the election. Another Kerala politician Vakkom Purushothaman, a Congressman was also governor of Mizoram from 2011 to 2014.
There seems to be many commonalities between people of Mizoram and Kerala, a fact about which the new governor may feel happy. Both the states have very high literacy rates and women have equal status. Both are football crazy. During my stint in Mizoram even in the remotest villages of Champhai or Lunglei there were teachers from Kerala married to Mizo women. I came across many such couples. One of the richest businessmen in Aizawl was from Kerala married to a Mizo lady. Women enjoy a prominent position in Mizo society and the bride groom has to pay a ‘dowry’ to the bride. If Mizoram has over 87% Kerala has a 20% Christian population. In one of the farthest corners on the Myanmar border there were priests from all religions at the inauguration of a central government project and the Catholic priest was from Kerala. Tapioca grows wildly in Mizoram!
This column is not about the politics behind gubernatorial appointments but about the beautiful, but rather obscure Mizoram- a brief account about its people, culture and society.
My little daughter, the morning after we settled in the Mizoram government guest house, made a few observations-that there are no plain lands but only hills there; that the local people looked different from ‘us’ [she was referring to their physical features], and why there were no crows there! I explained to her that it was an entirely hilly area but there are not many tall mountains. When I said that the people there look different from ‘us’ because they belong to another group or race-the Mongoloid race, she could not understand properly. I didn’t have an answer to her question on crows; later I understood that all birds were scared of coming out in the open as the boys won’t spare them!
Mizoram has a fascinating history. I have no pretension of being a scholar in history and whatever is written here is from books or based on my conversations as a media person with different people familiar with Mizo history. It is believed that Mizos originally migrated from the Chin state of Burma [Myanmar]. There is no recorded written history and whatever information gathered is from legends and oral history. One such legend is that the Mizos originated from “Chhinlung or Khul” which has been interpreted as a cave/rock or hole in the earth. The widely accepted theory however is that they belong to the Tibato- Burman stock of the Mongoloid race. It is also said that there were a large number of tribes like the Lusei or Lushai , Hmar, etc. among the migrants. The generic term for such a group is Mizo and the land they inhabited is Mizoram.
I happened to interview a tribal chieftain Sangliana Raja who was in his eighties or nineties. He sang an ancient song taught by his grandmother which had references from the Bible of Terah, Abraham’s father, who was a son of Nahor, a descendant of Shem [Genesis 11:26-28] and the parting of the ‘’big river’’. This, he claimed was proof enough for the Mizos being one of the lost tribes of Israel. I wrote a tongue in cheek piece on this in The Times of India in 1989 or ’90. Years later, it was reported that the Israel government has accepted that some of the Mizos indeed were from one of the lost tribes of Israel! Interestingly, a large number of Mizos have migrated to Israel and continue to migrate.
The British annexed the Lushai Hills by subjugating the tribes there. After independence, the territory came to be known as Lushai Hill district of Assam and became a Union Territory in 1972 /1987 and a full -fledged state on 20th February 1987.
When bamboo flowered in Mizoram, then Lushai Hills in 1958-’59 a terrible famine locally called “Mautam” hit the area. It was so severe that the Mizo population was devastated. Relief work by the government was considered totally inadequate even as people starved. And people were disenchanted with the government. Therefore, Laldenga, a former Indian Army jawan started relief work as a reaction to alleged government apathy. His relief outfit picked up guns to start a violent insurgent underground movement, the Mizo National Front [MNF] which was banned. The Indian security forces used strong arm measures to quell the indiscriminate killings. This went on till 1987 when the then government led by Rajiv Gandhi signed the Mizoram Peace Accord with Laldenga’s MNF. Without an election Laldenga was installed as the Chief Minister of the state. This ended the bloodiest episode in Mizoram’s history, ushering in enduring peace. Today, interestingly, the MNF is the ruling party of Mizoram, the most peaceful state in the north-east.
One of the most important influences on the people and the state of Mizoram is Christianity. The church is the most powerful institution in the state and plays a pivotal role in the spiritual, social and political life of the Mizos.
I was really impressed by the voluntary community action in Mizoram. There are organizations for youth like the Young Mizo Association [YMA] and women’s organization MHIP. For any social or even political event the members of the YMA do voluntary work. For example during an Assembly election in 1979 at an all party election programme where candidates from different political parties spoke, I had seen the YMA volunteers preparing and serving tea to whoever present there.
Christmas and New Year were the only two festivals which had sanction of the church. During my stay there observation of pre-Christian tribal festivals or ‘Kuts’-like ‘Chapchar Kut’ or ‘Mim Kut’ were considered unchristian by the Church. Christmas and New Year therefore were celebrated with great gusto which started very early in October and went on till January. Men were in three piece suits. Ladies in the latest western attires minus skirts and trousers and invariably used a hand woven traditional “Puan”, a wrap around. Everyone had the latest, imported footwear.
Mizos are natural singers and music reverberates in the hills and valleys. Almost everyone can sing and play the guitar. I found that a small group could sing impromptu in unison and in parts and decide who could sing soprano, tenor, alto or bass. Some of the Mizo choirs are internationally acclaimed.
I had a special invitation for a community feast arranged by the local community during Christmas. A tent was pitched in the open. Almost all the residents of the area including the Chief Minister Brig. T.Sailo and few of his cabinet colleagues were present there. Preparation of the meal comprising pork/chicken curry, cooked with just garlic and ginger, and rice were a joint effort with all the required materials including firewood being contributed by one and all.
Sitting on haunches on the floor around huge heaps of rice on which curry was poured; everyone ate from the same heap. The group sitting next to us included the Chief Minister and our office driver. Unlike elsewhere in the country there was no social stratification or special arrangements for anyone. This exemplifies the social life of the Mizos.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.