New Delhi: A recent move by the Narendra Modi government might have failed to make national news, but in faraway Mizoram, it has surely brought relief.
Earlier this week, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj informed the Mizoram government that she had written to the Myanmar government to take steps to protect the Khampat Bungpui, a banyan tree located in the Khampat village in the country’s north-western province. The tree is revered by the Mizos as their family tree.
Swaraj’s letter to chief minister Lal Thanhawla was in response to his request made a few months ago seeking the Centre’s help to urge the neighbouring country to take measures to protect the tree, which faces the danger of being washed away by the river Khampat.
In the letter, Swaraj said, “India has written to the Myanmar government requesting it to protect the banyan tree situated in the outskirts of Khampat village in Sagaing region of north-western Myanmar.” She also mentioned that the issue was raised during the foreign office consultations held this past August.
For nearly a decade, Mizo historians, scholars and concerned citizens from both Mizoram and Khampat, who came together under the organisation Khampat Bungpui Preservation Committee, have been lobbying with the Indian government to help them preserve the tree. Mizo oral history traditions are abound with tales of the banyan tree. In 2007, the state’s association of musicians also held a huge concert in Aizawl around the need to preserve the Khampat Bungpui.
As per Mizo legends, their forefathers, while migrating from China in the 17th century to the Kabo Valley in Myanmar, planted the tree at Khampat around which they settled. However, the dominant Shan tribe drove them away from the region, leading the Mizos to move further west and arrive at what is Mizoram today.
Mizo elders claim that their ancestors “vowed to return to the place”. In the 1940s, a large number of Mizos did resettle around Khampat, which is today a Mizo dominated area in Myanmar. Mizos can also be found in the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh.
In the late 1980s, in an attempt to politically unite all the ethnic Mizo tribes residing in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, an umbrella organisation called Zo Re-unification Organisation (ZoRo) was formed in Aizawl.
Mobilised by ZoRo under its president R. Thangmawia, several Chin groups expressed their willingness to become a part of the Indian Union after the 1988 democratic uprising in Myanmar.
As per an Indian Express report last year, Mizos in Mizoram, including former chief minister, T. Sailo, marched to the international border as a sign of solidarity with the Chins. However, “India never responded to the Chins’ call for merger although Chins in various parts of the Chin state hoisted the Indian national flag”.
The report said, “An alarmed Myanmar government, meanwhile, responded to the declarations of the merger with India with a heavy military build-up in the relatively peaceful Chin Hills, with Chin groups reporting a host of associated atrocities subsequently.”
Last year, Thangmawia (79) – a former minister of the ‘Mizo Government in Exile’ formed under the leadership of Pu Laldenga – was found dead in a hotel in Geneva. He was there to take part in the eighth UN session on the rights of the indigenous people.
On October 14 this year, ZoRo released a statement thanking Lal Thanhawla for writing to Swaraj about protecting the banyan tree. “We hope that the action will have a far reaching impact on strengthening bilateral ties between India and Myanmar and the bond between the Mizos in India and Myanmar,” the statement said.
Speaking to The Wire from Aizawl, present ZoRo president, R. Sangkawia said, “The tree is extremely important to us. Ours is an oral tradition. By using this tree, we are able to trace our history. It is heritage for us.” On asked about how the tree could have survived so many centuries, Sangkawia said, “The mother tree is long dead but the present tree is an offshoot of it. It is in the same place by the river.”
Sangkawia, also the head of the preservation committee, told this correspondent that he would visit Khampat this December along with a few Mizo youth. “The committee received a letter from the state chief minister informing it about the India government’s move. Since it is an open border, we don’t need any special permission to visit Khampat. We will now form a group of young members and pay a visit to Khampat Bungpui.” This will be Sangkawia’s maiden visit to the banyan tree.