Mizoram currently is gripped with ethnic tension between the Mizo and Chakma communities. The stand-off between the two communities this time is on the question of indigeneity. The fear is that such a divide will not just put the state into a chaotic situation, but trigger violence to which the state itself has become so prone.
Ethnic tension is running high in Mizoram between the Mizo and Chakma communities. The recent tussle is on the question of indigeneity, which unintendedly brings back the troubled relations between the Mizo and the Chakma. Currently, a disagreement is brewing over claims as to who is indigenous between the ethnic Mizo and the minority Chakma community. The claim of the Mizo to being the only indigenous community, which relegates the Chakma community to a non-indigenous status, is refuted by various Chakma organisations.1 Due to this, Mizoram currently is in a state of flux with this squabble over indigenous status.
Even before this, there have been several episodes of inter-ethnic tussles between the Mizo and the Chakma on various fronts. The rapid increase of Chakma population, mostly believed to be due to illegal entrants from Bangladesh, is one issue that sharply divides the two communities. Both sides give their own version of truth, contesting each other’s facts. In order to make sense of the current ethnic tensions, the historical and contemporary issues that divide the two communities need to be revisited. In other words, one has to trace the problem historically and understand it in its historic context.
The recent debate over indigeneity sparked off with the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) (Mizo Student Association) protesting over the inclusion of 38 Chakma and three non-Mizo students under Category I of the State Technical Entrance Exams (STEE) for medical and engineering courses. Under the Selection of Candidates for Higher Technical Courses Rules, 1999 of the Government of Mizoram, seat reservations for Category I are 85% and the remaining 15% is divided between the two categories, II and III. Furthermore, the eligibility criteria for Category I are spelled out in the following way: “local permanent residents of the state,” which is further defined as those who are “indigenous people of the State and have been residing permanently in the State of Mizoram.” The MZP standpoint, therefore, is that Category I is exclusively reserved for the indigenous Mizo community and the inclusion of Chakma under it is an encroachment on the privileges of the indigenous Mizo community.
What has irked the MZP is the attitude of the ruling government on the issue. On 24 September 2014, the MZP took to the streets to protest against what it has termed the “misplacement” of non-indigenous communities under Category I. Initially, while the ruling government remains indifferent to the MZP demand, the arrest of 12 MZP leaders by the Mizoram police has caused widespread anger among the Mizo populace with the voice of protest and support for the MZP cause coming from all corners of the state. This has forced the state government to look again into the matter, followed by the release of the MZP leaders. The protest was then called off by the MZP with the state government assuring to fulfil the demand of the student bodies by making necessary amendments to the existing laws.
As far as Mizoram is concerned, the relation between the two ethnic communities is one of animosity and mistrust. While the Mizo consider the Chakma as “non-indigenous” or, at times, “illegal migrants,” the Chakma lambaste such claims by citing themselves to be the indigenous community of Mizoram. The ethnic divide between the Mizo and the Chakma, therefore, is not a recent phenomenon, but needs to be understood in a historical context. In other words, the present political impasse in Mizoram is an outburst of the long-standing ethnic divide between the Mizo and the Chakma.
Mizoram is the fifth smallest state in India with a geographic size of 21,081 sq km. Having a long and tortuous history, it was one among the last states to be carved out of Assam in 1987, along with Arunachal Pradesh. Before this, it was a district of Assam bearing the name Lushai Hills district (later on renamed as Mizo Hills), until it was upgraded to union territory (UT) status in 1972. The geography of the state is hilly with few plains areas in sight. The state shares its boundary with Manipur, Assam, and Tripura, and its international boundary with Bangladesh and Myanmar. The international boundary comprises the major part of the state border, sharing 404 km with Myanmar and 318 km with Bangladesh.
Mizoram’s population, according to the 2011 Census, is 10,91,014 making it the second lowest populous state in the country. The capital Aizawl is overpopulated, inhabited by 37% of the state’s total population, making it one with the highest number of people residing in urban areas. Of all the states in the country, it also has the highest tribal population, 94.4% of the total population (2011 Census). These tribes constitute the Mizo and other minority tribes such as the Chakma and the Bru. While the Mizo are found to inhabit all the eight districts of the state, the Chakma are found mostly in Lawngtlai, Lunglei and Mamit districts. There are also other ethnic groups such as Gorkhas who form a minority.
Administratively known as Lushai Hills during the colonial period, till it was changed to Mizo Hills in 1954, the state has passed through various stages of political development. It recovered from violence after 20 years of persistent armed conflict between the government security forces and the Mizo rebels, which ended after the signing of the Mizo Accord in 1986. The granting of statehood, or the upgradation of the Mizo Hills from a UT to statehood, was meant to cool down the secessionist goal of the Mizo National Front. On 20 February 1987, it was formally upgraded to the 23rd state under the union of India.
The Mizo–Chakma Tussle
Ethnic tension between the Mizo and the Chakma has deep historical roots; a brief review of the history will help us understand the current stalemate. At the same time, the postcolonial nation state formation and the partition of British India also contributes to the current ailments. It is also noteworthy to mention that both the communities, despite the ethnic and cultural differences, share certain commonality. For instance, both communities have ethnic kin inhabiting a contiguous geographic region across national borders. At the same time, they both occupy a marginal position in all the nation states (India, Burma, and Bangladesh) they are attached with.
The first encounter between the Chakma and the Lushai was recorded in 1871 when the Chakma queen Kalindi Rani joined hands with the British to suppress the Lushai chiefs.2 The then Chakma ruler aided the British by providing 500 collies to the British army who were waging their military expedition from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This was the reason for which a small tract of land from the CHT along with its inhabitants was made a part of the Lushai Hill district after the merging of North and South Lushai Hills districts under one administration in 1900 (Talukdar 1988; Singh 1994). Another instance is the entry of the Chakma into Lushai Hills under the Labour Transport Corps in World War II, with a large number of them staying back without returning to the CHT (Prakash 2008: 545). Apart from this, the settlement of the Chakma was done on the basis of temporary residential permission given by the British. For instance, one Chakma chief named Debicharan was given a temporary permission in 1933 by the British to set up a village with 15 households. Government order No 4 of 1933–34, which lays down the permission for the same, reads as follows:
Debicharan is allowed to settle with his 15 houses in the land of Lukisuri, … In the event of Dibicharan committing any misdemeanour, he is liable to be turned out on being given a month’s notice (Nunthara 2000: 54).
In subsequent years to come, Chakma villages sprouted up in Lushai Hills, but mostly under the close watch of the British.
The continual incursion of Chakma into the then Lushai Hills and the wave of migration from the CHT was strictly regulated by the British. The policies adopted by the British then not only differentiated the two communities on ethnic lines, but distinguished them as indigenous and foreigner/settler. For instance, while the Lushai and their kin tribes were levied `2 as hill house tax, the Chakma were levied `5, the same as for foreigners. There was already an institutionalisation of indigenous and non-indigenous communities crafted by British policy. Such policies were indeed a general practice under colonial rule in the North East. While the British undoubtedly fixed the tribes within a certain spatial order (Baruah 2008), far from this, it has created an idea of not only territorial belonging, but also of non-belonging as is evident in the case of Chakma communities.
Furthermore, numerous notifications were issued by the British political superintendent effecting orders for controlling the Chakma settlement in Lushai Hills. One such was an order issued by Major Mccall that the settlement of non-Lushai, particularly the Chakma and the Tippera should strictly be prohibited (Mccall 1980). Such an approach continued to resonate in British policy towards the non-Lushai in the years to come. An excerpt of the order by E S Hyde, the political superintendent of Lushai Hills in 1944 makes this clear:
owing to the large number of Chakma now settled in South Lushai Hills, most of whom have considerable families, no further application for settlement will be considered but for the most exceptional reasons (Tribal Research Institute 1996: 43–44).
This notification was issued in order to check the increasing presence of the Chakma in the then Lushai Hills. In 1954, K G R Iyer, who was then the deputy commissioner of Lushai Hills, also issued a Standing Order on the same lines:
It is hereby notified for information and strict compliance by all chiefs and Headmen in the Lushai Hills district that no influx of Chakma and Tripuras will be allowed without the prior permission in writing of the Deputy Commissioner, Lushai Hills. Serious notice will be taken if any chief/headmen fails to report the names and particulars of new arrivals (Chakma and Tripuras) in his jurisdiction (Tribal Research Institute 1996: 48).
The policy of the British has had long-lasting imprint on the contemporary politics in Mizoram, which now determines the Mizo perception of the Chakma as “foreigners” or “settlers.”
The partition of British India into India and Pakistan, and the breakaway of Bangladesh from Pakistan have aggravated the problem further. The Chakma, who comprised the majority ethnic communities in the CHT, suffered from numerous forms of marginalisation under both, the Pakistan and the Bangladesh regimes. The displacement due to Kaptai Dam in the early 1960s and the continued cultural and religious persecution along with the political instability in the CHT has forced them to enter into the Indian side of the border. This has caused much resentment in the host state, such as in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh which are alarmed by the continual rise of their population.3 Such demographic invasion and the abnormal rise of Chakma population in Mizoram allude to the increasing ethnic tension in the state.
Within Mizoram, the political aspirations of the Chakma often create hiccups for the Mizo in the past too. The demand for the upgrading of the current Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC) to a union territory status, or inclusion of all Chakma inhabited areas into CADC further created tension between the two communities. Such demands unintentionally awakened the Mizo community, which began to be wary of the increasing Chakma presence in Mizoram. The increasing population of Chakma is seen as an outcome of demographic invasion from Bangladesh, adding fuel to the existing tensions. The fear of numbers, both large and small, has the potential to ravage ethnic relations creating violence and political disorder that most north-eastern states are not alien to.
The relationship between the Mizo and the Chakma has been always a hostile one. Colonial and postcolonial nation state formation adds to the complexity of the issues. As for Mizoram, the current ethnic tensions are a clear manifestation of the increasing presence of ethnicity in the political space. The entry of the indigenous debate is the latest example to add to the already widening gap between the two communities. As is evident in the case of the North East, the politics of indigeneity is strongly related to the control over resources, particularly land and economic opportunities. In the same way, the Mizo–Chakma ethnic tension equally resembles such politics.
The current controversy and debate over who is indigenous in Mizoram has left both sides sticking to divergent positions. While the claim of the MZP to being the only indigenous group of Mizoram is based on their claims to being the original inhabitants (natives) of Mizoram; the Chakma position their indigenous claim on the basis of their Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Most Chakma organisations, like the Chakma National Council of India (CNCI), claim that the Chakma inhabited the western part of Mizoram since time immemorial, a claim not supported by any records. The drawing of a boundary on ethnic lines and the isolation of one ethnic group within a definite geographic territory was part of the careful administrative strategy of the British. This has not only put an end to inter-tribal warfare and raids, but also introduced the notion of territory vis-à-vis their identity, which hitherto was unknown to them.
As for the MZP, only indigenous Mizo communities are entitled to benefits under Category I. The government promise of amending the law has caused widespread resentment from Chakma organisations that see such a move of the government as “unconstitutional.” They equally claim the Chakma to be an indigenous community of the state of Mizoram, which is blatantly rejected by the MZP. The allegations of Chakma-based organisations defy the MZP standpoint, which narrowly defines the Mizo as the only indigenous community of Mizoram, while the Mizo allege that the Chakma are “illegal settlers” in Mizoram. As for the MZP, the Mizo who are the indigenous communities of Mizoram should not only be privileged, but their rights should not be encroached upon. Such claims and counterclaims not only polarise both the communities, but also rekindle the fear of ethnic violence.
What is of interest here are the claims of two officially recognised ST communities claiming to be indigenous. In India, despite the government refusal to grant indigenous status to its ST population, tribals consider themselves to be indigenous to the land they inhabit. It is, therefore, not surprising to see Chakma organisations claim their indigeneity on the basis of their ST status. While the Mizo–Chakma indigenous claims reopened the debate on the question of indigeneity, the issue is far more complex than this.
Taking the case of the Chakma alone, their status within the North East itself has been quite unclear and highly contested. As already noted above, after their displacement from Bangladesh, those resettled in Arunachal Pradesh till today are demanding citizenship rights. This has further caused much tension and an uneasy atmosphere between the host population, that is, the Arunachal tribes, and the Chakma themselves. With no intention of returning to their ancestral territory, it has led to a series of mobilisations within the indigenous communities to prevent Delhi from granting them such status. This is because the indigenous Arunachalis fear losing political power and economic (employment) opportunities, and a demographic imbalance that may turn them into a minority in their own land under the hegemony of those whom they clearly see as foreigners (Singh 2010: 17).
The question of indigeneity and the claims for indigenous status often are rooted in such issues when it comes to the North East. It is the same kind of fear and apprehension that found its expression in the case of Mizoram. The focal point in the tension between the Mizo and the Chakma, therefore, is clearly a manifestation of struggles for control over resources. At the same time, the current tension is also an outburst of the long-standing issues between the two communities. As a result of this, both communities have become intolerant of each other. The ethnic unrest needs to be understood in the context in which the politics of indigenous claims is made in the North East.
The stand-off continues with the latest stay order issued by the Gauhati High Court on 24 June 2016. This was in response to the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Mizoram Chakma Students’ Union (MCSU) against the Mizoram (Selection of Candidates for Higher Technical Courses) Rules, 2016, which reserves 95% of the seats for Category I, with 4% for Category II, and 1% for Category III candidates. The stay order has also halted seat allotment under the new rules for the recently announced examination results (Government of Mizoram 2016). Prior to this, the Mizoram government came out with a new amendment in April 2015 that already relegates the Chakmas to Category II. The 2016 rules have further affirmed the same, and have uprooted the question of indigenous status as claimed by the Chakma community. These new sets of amendments make distinction on the basis of ethnicity and define indigenous and non-indigenous status accordingly.
So far, while the Chakma student bodies hail the high court order, the Mizo student bodies are still silent on the matter. However, the confrontation between the two student bodies on the issue of indigeneity has reopened old issues as well as the long-standing divide between the two communities. This has made the state prone to ethnic violence. Amidst this, it is then pertinent to bring in that the state quota in medical and engineering seats is 176 and 121, respectively. The interesting fact here remains that the Chakma have been getting seats under Category I, with their numbers gradually rising from 2010 onwards.4 This increase is what alarmed the MZP, which believes that Category I is the exclusive preserve of the indigenous community alone and only the Mizo are entitled to it. This has exposed how indigenous claims are rooted in the struggle for resource control. It is then clearly observable that the struggle for resources, however limited they may be, is a precursor to the eruption over the issue of indigenous status in Mizoram.
1. One such organisation is the Chakma Law Forum (CLF), Bangalore, which contests the idea of the Mizo being the only indigenous community of Mizoram.
2. The British conducted a military expedition in 1871 in the Lushai Hills in an attempt to suppress the Lushai chiefs. This military expedition was carried out in response to the raids committed by the Lushai chiefs. Known as the Lushai Expedition (1871–72), it was carried out in two columns, with the Southern Column carried out from CHT, now in Bangladesh.
3. In Arunachal Pradesh, there are now increasing divisions between the indigenous tribal community and the Chakma who were rehabilitated in the state way back in the 1960s. The simple reason for this division is that the Chakma population, numbering in the range between 60,000 and 70,000, is numerous compared to most of the indigenous tribes in Arunachal Pradesh.
4. For details on this, see Government of Mizoram (2014).
Roluahpuia ([email protected]) is a doctoral student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, North East Regional Campus, Guwahati.
Article Source: EPW