Last week, Buddha Dhan Chakma, the only Chakma minister in the Mizoram government resigned, alleging racial discrimination against students from his community. In his resignation letter, he mentioned the case of four Chakma students who had cleared the National Entrance and Eligibility Test but were denied seats in medical colleges.
The Chakmas are a minority Scheduled Tribe in Mizoram. The state has seen long running tensions between the majority Mizos and members of non-Mizo tribes. But this is the first time any minister has resigned over it.
The resignation of the minister from a marginalised community raises some pressing questions. In the decades post Independence, Mizos had risen up against the Indian state, and against the government of undivided Assam, to struggle against neglect and discrimination. It took years for Mizos to wrest their own state. But have the oppressed now become the oppressors?
When the bamboo flowered
Post Independence, the Mizo Hills had reluctantly joined the state of Assam, though they were governed by their own district council under the Sixth Schedule. The terms of the merger with the Indian Union stipulated that they could opt out of it after 10 years, if they choose to.
The “Mautam” or “bamboo death” of 1959 was a turning point for the Mizo political struggle. Once in 48 years, the bamboo plant flowers, drawing out rats in droves, spelling disaster for crops. That year, the mautam led to starvation, disease and death.
As both the Central and the Assam government seemed indifferent to such misery, anger against the state hardened. The Mizo Cultural Society, formed in the 1950s, was turned into the Mautam Front in 1960, with Laldenga as secretary. Later that year, it was renamed the Mizo National Famine Front, which rapidly gained popularity.
Meanwhile, Assamese politicians began to talk of removing the special provisions for the Mizo Hills. The same decade saw the rise of Assamese jingoism. It was expressed through language nationalism and in December 1960, the state government passed a bill making Assamese the official state language.
These developments consolidated the Mizo movement for self-determination, drawing together members of the tribe living in the Mizo District Council and outside. By October 1961, the Mizo National Famine Front had morphed into the Mizo National Front, under the leadership of Laldenga, with the goal of forming a sovereign, independent state.
The Indian state did everything to suppress the movement, including launching air strikes on Aizawl in 1966. After nearly three decades of struggle, the state of Mizoram was formed in 1987.
The minorities within
At the same time, ethnic minorities in the Mizo Hills, such as the Chakmas, Maras and Lais, struggled to secure their rights and identity. On April 29, 1972, the Chakma Autonomous District Council was formed under the Sixth Schedule.
This created simmering resentments among the majority Mizo community. After the Mizoram Accord of 1986 was signed, Laldenga pressed the government to dissolve the Chakma council, but to no avail. As sociologist Paula Banerjee writes, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi addressed a rally in Aizawl saying “if the Mizos expect justice from India as a small minority, they must safeguard the interest of their own minorities like the Chakmas”.
Political scientist Ranabir Samaddar writes that, between 1986 and 2000, 21 private members’ resolutions were submitted in the Mizoram legislative assembly, urging that the Chakma council be dissolved. He further states that the Chakmas are seen as the “enemy tribe” by hardline Mizos.
In the 1990s, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a Mizo student organisation, launched an agitation similar to the anti-foreigners movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union in the 1980s. Unlike the Assam agitation, the Mizoram movement did not get much media attention. But it did lead to physical violence against the Reang and Chakma tribes, the burning of houses and the displacement of thousands.
A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights describes how, in August 1992, about 380 Chakma houses were burnt by organised Mizo mobs. In January 1995, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl served “quit notices” to Chakmas who had entered the state after 1950, asking them to leave in six months. The report also details how thousands of Chakma names were deleted from electoral rolls in the state. In January 1996, 2,886 Chakma voters were struck off the rolls in Aizawl district alone. In some cases, entire villages were left out after a few individual complaints.
Who remained on the electoral rolls, and who got left out, was essentially decided by hardline Mizo activists, enabled by the state government. “The Mizoram Police remained mute spectators,” says the human rights report.
It was in this context that Chakma social leaders demanded the creation of a Union Territory for the community. In response, the Central government in 1997 set up a Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions, which then recommended the extension of the autonomous district council. Then Chief Minister Lalthanhawla successfully manipulated a Chakma minister in his government, who issued a press statement denying that the Chakmas had ever demanded a Union Territory.
The same Lalthanwala is unable to placate the Chakma cabinet minister who resigned this week. Now, he seems to be echoing Mizo groups, denying that there has been discrimination but asserting that his government would not welcome “illegal migrants of Chakma or other communities”. The sentiments in play are old: Mizo nationalism and anxiety about so-called foreigners. But, unlike in the 1990s, these have tipped into racially discriminatory policies.
Over the last few years, the state government has repeatedly tried to tweak its selection policies for higher education and government services to favour Mizos at the expense of non-Mizos. Though these discriminatory policies have been stayed by the court, the state government perseveres. Various Mizo organisations also demanded that the Chakma minister be sacked and Chakma candidates be barred from contesting state elections.
Where is Mizoram heading?
Indeed, such discriminatory treatment has spread to various aspects of governance, including development programmes. Central schemes like the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme and the Border Area Development Programme, for instance, are always channelled towards dominant groups while other beneficiaries are left out.
Journalist and human rights activist Suhas Chakma points to other exclusionary practices: to get government jobs, for instance, candidates are required to have studied in the Mizo language till Class 8. He further states that “no Chakma has cleared Mizoram Civil Services Examination since the creation of the State of Mizoram in 1987”.
Mizo jingoism has targeted not only the Chakmas but also members of the Reang (Bru) tribe. In 2009, for instance, acts of arson wiped out Bru homes in the state and stalled the return of 33,000 displaced Brus who had fled earlier bouts of violence.
In Mizoram today, non-Mizos are treated with suspicion. Notions of citizenship and belonging to the land have drawn lines that exclude them. Are the Mizos, a minority which once struggled from the margins of the Indian state, visiting the same injustices on the minorities in Mizoram?
The author is a doctoral scholar in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.