‘There is Peace in Mizoram Because of Its Brutal Past’

Sanjoy Hazarika talks about Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years, a film he has co-written, which documents the rise of the secessionist movement and New Delhi’s ruthless response to it.

Landscape of Mizoram. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Landscape of Mizoram. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Secessionist movements in the Northeast have had their own reasons and convictions. They have faced their share of deaths and violence and even the loss and sufferings of the common people who were caught in the crossfire.

There have been several reasons behind these armed movements, but one reason has been a constant – the alleged step-motherly treatment inflicted on the region by New Delhi.

The armed movement in Mizoram was also triggered by the alleged inaction of the central government after a famine – locally referred to as Mautam– gripped the area in 1959. It spawned a full-fledged uprising in 1966, which was followed by years of underground activities led by Mizo National Front (MNF) under the leadership of Pu Laldenga.

The Centre’s response was ruthless; the Indian Army reportedly even bombed villages of Mizo – the only instance of such an event in the country and a rare phenomenon across the world.

The Mizo Accord – signed in New Delhi between the Centre, the state and MNF on June 30, 1986 – paved the way for the union territory to become the country’s 23rd state in 1987.

The founder and director of Centre for North East and Policy Research Sanjoy Hazarika. Credit: Facebook

The founder and director of Centre for North East and Policy Research Sanjoy Hazarika. Credit: Facebook

Thirty years hence, the accord has turned out to be the only instrument of state in the entire region that has truly delivered peace.

However, little is available in terms of documented history about the enduring peace and what exactly happened in Mizoram during those years to explain why the state reacted the way it did. A reason for this vacuum has also been the collective silence of the Mizos about those strife-torn years.

In an attempt to essay it, the Centre for North East and Policy Research has created a 45-minute documentary with support from Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years, written by the Centre’s founder-director, Sanjoy Hazarika, and books editor-cum-literary agent Preeti Gill, and is directed by independent filmmaker Maulee Senapati.

Following its premiere in Aizawl on September 14, the film is scheduled to be screened at several locations across the country, including at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi on October 5.

In an interview with The Wire, Hazarika reflects on that important chapter of conflict in the Northeast, which has largely remained unspoken and unwritten.

Excerpts from the interview:

Apart from belonging to the Northeast and someone who has been studying the region for decades, is there any other reason that particularly drew you to Mizoram? 

I have been following Mizoram for the last 46 years. My introduction to the years of unrest and army operations in that state was during my student days, through a young Mizo pop singer who visited my home town Shillong (Meghalaya), about which I mentioned in my book Strangers Of The Mist.

Both of us took a bus journey from Shillong to Guwahati (Assam), during which he related about his father, who was a radio mechanic. He said that during the 1960s, his father was detained by the Indian Army. All his fingers were broken in custody; his father could never work again.

I didn’t know what to say to him. Even if we live in the northeast, we are not much aware of each other’s life, struggles and histories. That story pulled me to Mizoram. It helped me to develop the sensitisation to what the other person had gone through.

What is the kernel of the documentary?

The documentary basically revolves around the understanding of the years of trouble or Rambui in Mizo language. Things are peaceful on the surface in Mizoram now; day or night, you feel secure and safe in any part of the state. But there is a silence about those troubled years of the 1960s, even though the people saw one of the most brutal operations by Indian Army to suppress that conflict and disturbances.

The film looks at what happened, why that silencing took place, why the state reacted the way it did, why there was such extensive violation of human rights by the state and at the transition in the mindset of three generations of people that has enabled peace to endure. The older generation, which was a part of those years, the young Mizos generation, who have only heard of those years through stories told by family elders, and the generation are straddling that cusp. The film tried to bridge the gap posed by the three letters – why – and the five words – what is happening about it.

It also includes interviews with people in the armed forces who were involved in that conflict in some way. The army’s actions were extremely arbitrary [and] insensitive. The officers are now able to look back with the advantage of time and experience. General V. P. Malik and Brigadier B. S. Gill, [who were] posted there at that time, spoke in the film with great frankness, authority and knowledge of experience.

The film has an abrupt end though, there are no real conclusions in it.

A still from the film Rambuai: Mizoram's 'Trouble' Years.

A still from the film Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years.

Was there enough literature and other ready information for the film to draw from? Not much work is seen around that conflict in Indian mainstream knowledge system.

In 2009-2010, the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research – again with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation – put together a research report on the impact of conflict on women in Assam and Nagaland, titled ‘Baring Witness’.

Even though we wanted to include Mizoram then, we couldn’t because we felt that it would be inappropriate to do so as the Mizo voices (on the impact of conflict) were not emerging.

They were silent about the forced internal displacement, why it took place, etc., unlike Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur, where you find the past constantly at the doorstep, as a part of fiction, non-fiction, media reporting. 

However, some things have changed since. Diaries of MNF leaders are coming out, the first Mizo novel in English was published last year. People were beginning to engage with the past. Things have begun to come out in the open after a conference was organised in Aizawl some time ago by activists and scholars on why that regrouping of people took place in the 1960s.

Since people have begun talking, we at the Centre thought perhaps it it is time to revisit Mizoram. Also, many young Mizos don’t know about that part of their history.

However, there was very little literature on those years for us to refer to. Most of what has been published is in Mizo language.

The present documentary is based partly on the work the researchers already did for that 2009-2010 study. Since it was a sensitive issue, we first needed to develop an area of trust to interview people. Those local researchers helped us get some people to whom we could easily go to.

Why do you think there is this long spell of peace in Mizoram? It is the only northeastern state where a peace accord seemed to have worked.

That entire period was acutely painful for the Mizos. Villages were burnt, people were regrouped [and] tortured. People suffered at the hands of both MNF and the army. Come what may, they just don’t want to go back to those years. They just don’t want the young Mizos to return to such a period of time. Mizos have a pragmatic approach to life.

The film was premiered in Aizawl recently. How was it received?

It was screened at the auditorium of the Directorate of Information and Public Relations in Aizawl. It was a packed hall. Apart from the MNF leaders, local scholars and state chief minister Lal Thanhawla, there were about 800 students from Mizoram University. There were many questions from the audience after the film was screened. One scholar said, ‘I have a number of questions (about the period of time) but I am cancelling all of them since General Malik and Brigadier Gill have admitted to the wrong doings, they said the right things.

Mizroman chief minister Lal Thanhawla speaks at the premier of the film Rambuai: Mizoram's 'Trouble' Years in Aizawl and Sanjoy Hazarika. Credit: PTI

Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla speaks at the premier of the film Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years in Aizawl and Sanjoy Hazarika. Credit: Centre for North East Studies

I think it is a film that will open spaces. I think it has helped get a conversation going, has opened the space for it, has enabled a process of bridge-building. Trauma is something that goes if you find a caregiver. Many involved in the conflict are walking around alive; Laldenga’s family is still there.

Besides the script for the film, what else are you writing these days?

I have just completed writing a book that looks back at the northeast 20 years after I first wrote Strangers Of The Mist, a book that covered its conflicts, their histories and the armed groups. It is now time to look at it again, strangers still 20 years hence. Besides, I am leaving the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research to join the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi as its director.