The genesis of the Mizo National Front was a crisis that went unheeded in the mainland as well as in the North East. And it ended in a peace accord that became exemplary in solving insurgency in the North East.
But the scar that the two decades of strife left on the Mizos, a homogenous ethnic group, lasted for years that followed.
The documentary, Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years, looks back at the blood-stained past of the state and inquires about the impact of the upheavals on the future generation.
Directed by Maulee Senapati and produced by Sanjoy Hazarika and Preeti Gill, the documentary is an initiative by the Centre for North East Studies (C-NES), New Delhi.
“The documentary is a step towards starting a conversation on the issue. Not much has been said about the 20 years of conflict and torture in the state,” said Hazarika after the screening of the film in a city hotel recently.
In the documentary, Hazarika, the interviewer, asks the youth what effect the MNF movement had on them during their formulating years. While some said there was an unsaid silence on the issue that restricted them from forming their views at a younger age, others wanted to forget the past and invest in a brighter future.
However, the armed struggle thatprompted the Indian Government to retaliate with equal force traumatised the older generation. The case of massacre, in which the Indian Air Force was sent to butcher a bunch of hungry and desperate villagers, still haunts the elderly in Mizoram.
Villages vanished, youths were tortured and people, who hitherto lived as a close-knit community depending on jhum cultivation, were forced to migrate to other northeastern states.
As the former MNF leaders introspected on the movement, two senior army officers, now retired, admitted to the mistake of the army strategy used during the crisis. One of the officers even went to the extent of supporting an MNF member’s wish for an apology from the Indian Government for the sake of long-term peace.
Hazarika also interviews the family of Laldenga, who led MNF and later became the chief minister of Mizoram after the peace accord was signed. As a former MNF member hints at the banality of the movement that had to end without “true freedom”, Diki Laldenga, the leader’s wife, argues that there were resentments among the Mizos but in the long run, the peace accord proved to be the right direction.
Many in the audience, like documentary filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya, felt that the film should have had gone into the depth of the subject. “We had travelled extensively during the shoot of the film. We had also visited the places where once there were villages. However, we had just 44 minutes to deliver our message,” explained Hazarika.
A word of encouragement came from another city-based filmmaker and professor at IIM Shillong, Sanjeeb Kakoty, who lauded Hazarika’s efforts to open up discussion on the issue. He also hoped that more works would be done on the topic. The film will be screened next at the Literary Festival in Bangalore in October.
The Shillong Times caught up with Hazarika, who grew up in the hill city, after the screening of Rambuai and spoke on various issues in the North East, including protests for Inner Line Permit in Shillong and the ensuing ballot battle in Meghalaya. Excerpts from the interview:
Has NE become more a stranger to India now than before?
No people are aware of the culture, music and tradition of various ethnic groups in the North East. Many youngsters are moving to the mainland for work, studies etc. Well, how deep the knowledge is about the region is questionable. But we have to also see how people in the North East behave with those living in the mainland.
About Shillong, the demand for ILP is again getting louder. Will these groups go too far to create the spectre again?
The issue crops up before every election. There is nothing new about it. The movement for ILP is not sustainable. Everybody has equal rights and there are special clauses which protect the rights of the indigenous people. It is basically how you treat people.
Do you think like Mizoram, peace accords in other states should also work?
Peace accords can work if they have a buy in from three significant groups: the principal stakeholder, which is the government at the Centre and state levels; the opposing group (especially if they are united and not divided, otherwise divisions will spawn charges of sellout and further splits when agreements are reached) and CSOs or those seeking to build long-term peace and stability without self-interest. The last point is very important. The role of women in this entire process is critical and often missing. That is what we need to ensure — that peace processes and narratives are not driven by a patriarchal hierarchy but include the voices of those who often suffer the most in times of conflict — women and children.
What are the C-NES projects on the anvil?
Right now our hands are full but one proposal is a research-led study on the trade and economic policies that are driving the Act East Policy and what difference it is making on the ground, if any, as well as connectivity to the neighbourhood.
We are also doing a project on the Brahmaputra water basin with SaciWaters that looks at how local communities view key issues of water management. The Brahmaputra is a space, if one can call it that, that has enchanted, challenged and been very much a part of me for all my life.
I’d like to travel down the river again, stopping in place after place to understand how things are changing in the lives of the people who dwell on its flood plains, how are their lives changing, their cultures of music and economic sustenance, the songs they sing, the clothes they weave; also the ecosystems the Brahmaputra nourishes and how government planners and politicians are getting it completely wrong in turns of controlling and managing our water resources. Maybe a film, or several films or essays or photos and a photo essay. It can be many things.
You have written extensively about time zone. With the Centre rejecting as unfeasible what is your opinion?
There has been extensive research by many people on the necessity of a different time zone and based on this the suggestion was made. A person travelling from Delhi or anywhere in the mainland to the North East would gain business hours if the time zone is changed. Also, a separate time zone will also help push forward the present government’s Act East Policy because the North East is closer to those neighbouring countries than the mainland.
What are the aspects/areas in the NE which need to be more in focus?
Those which are in focus such as failing or fractured infrastructure need to remain in focus, especially in terms of delivery of projects and time lines. Corruption needs to be tackled firmly but I don’t see that happening and a process of accommodating different ethnic and political viewpoints by turning first to dialogue not to the gun as a first resort.
I would really seek to impress upon people that the issue of illegal migration and Bangladeshis should not be mixed up with that of migrants and settlers from other parts of India. It should not be mixed up also on the basis of religions composition. These are completely different issues.
There’s been so much emotion and rhetoric on this issue that it’s difficult to think rationally on it — Bangladeshis are those who came after Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Not before. Secondly, we need to understand that a lot of the political pressures that are building up in the NE not just Assam are over land disputation and the perception of land as not just a resource but the foundation of ethnic and identity mobilization and formation.
In every significant challenging situation in the region, you will find that pressure on land as a finite resource sought after by many different groups. Those with money power and political clout — as well as weapons ( the region is awash in illegal small arms and no one seems to be doing anything about controlling this vast, lethal trade) — call the shots. But it would help to note also that many of the accusations about illegal migrants and land pressure flow form the fact that settlers (many of whom have been around for generations, not just decades) use the land as part of a market economy: for growing surplus food/crops/products and connecting field to markets for purposes of profit; many local communities on the other hand still grow for their own needs and there’s little that’s changed in the cycle of self-sustenance and enduring poverty. This is another key reason for internal confrontations over land.
Are you watching the events in the run-up to the polls in NE states? What are your views on Meghalaya?
Let’s see how the next months go.
Which project(s) is close to your heart? What is your dream project?
The project on the boat clinics (www.c-nes.org) on the Brahmaputra which reach nearly half a million people with healthcare on the islands of the Brahmaputra. I conceived, designed, developed and implemented it and led it for years arranging a tie-up with NHM and the Assam government so the stakeholders have a buy-in. I am deeply grateful for the way our teams work so hard with such dedication and courage through the year, in fair weather and foul. This is the way to cover the last miles for a million people if not a billion. Then there’s the Brahmaputra community radio station (BCRS) in Dibrugarh which has won national and international awards — run by a dedicated team with little training in journalism but one of the best in the business, broadcasting in three languages.
I am planning to write a book on the Brahmaputra and have completed one on the North East which essentially looks at the region and its neighbourhood 20 years after I wrote Strangers of the Mist. And I’d like to write a book on Mizoram.
Do you think tribals in the NE are better off than those in the mainland?
They are. People in the North East are more educated and conscious about their rights. They are in control of things. The tribals in other parts of the country like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are worse off.