Who Is A Mizo?

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

Professor Joy L. K. Pachuau leaves us much wiser—and deliberate—with her deep submersion into tribal identity formation and forms, which she meticulously sketches using the Mizo tribe (her tribe) to work with. Its immediate impact held me with the very preceding sentence when I had to gather much thought to question the accuracy of seeing the Mizos as one tribe, or, instead, as a collection of tribes that form one mega-community. The title of the book is self-evident—’Being Mizo: Identity and belonging in Northeast India’. What seems inconspicuous, though, is her nuanced yet unique chart of navigation, which even the fastidious reader can easily miss, when she veers away from the traditional academic slant while, as well, refusing to simply please, as a Mizo herself, a community that admonishes against even the slightest criticism on its culture.

Though temptations to draw parallels with my own tribe—and believe me, they are numerous—hover incessant, we must begin with what Miss Pachuau calls the unique and hence difficult placement of the Northeast region from both a geographical and historical context; and that the roots of its forceful merger with India had little to do with the Indians themselves, but rested entirely with those of the colonial ambitions of the British Raj under which the region was to give itself into submission, contrived by such theses that bore titles with words like ‘uncivilized and backward’, ‘lack of political awareness’, ‘isolation’. Such attempts by the colonizers, however, were not wholly ferocious. Genuine schemes to integrate the tribal residents with the outside world were concocted, with sufficient care given to the preservation of the local cultures, even resulting in agreements with village chiefs. Which brings me to an essential entity that Pachuau draws us to.

Prior to colonial influence, the area that we today regard as the 23rd state remained a collection of hills ruled by chieftains, with clashes among clans not uncommon. Here Professor Pachuau treads with caution. The rather casual reference we make today in what we call the ‘Mizo People’, she argues, is a consequence of British colonial intervention. To the earliest foreigners, the hills south of the Cachar plains were christened ‘the Lushai Hills’, bearing to the fact that the Lushais made up the largest tribe within the area. This is to say that the state as we see it today has a multitude of tribes (Paites, Hmars, Brus, Chakmas, Maras, Lais, Pangs, and many more) whose association with the word ‘Mizo’ remains fuzzy and controversial. The Inner Line created by the British—to demarcate areas by drawing geographical lines—was introduced in 1873. Dr. Pachuau makes clear that this was the first step towards the crystallization of a Mizo identity. She alludes us to the memorandum—which one can interpret as a Declaration of Independence—submitted in 1965 by the Mizoram National Front (a political party founded in 1961 with Laldenga as its leader, who later became Mizoram’s first Chief Minister), where it read out a demand for the sovereignty of the Mizo people owing to their unique administrative procedures, customs, culture, language, social life, and religion. In declaring so, she says, the Mizo people, as of 1965, had assumed their unique ‘identity’ as a given (‘primordial’ is the term she resorts to). Her contention takes us to what she calls a crystallization of identity that came as a result of actions and interventions that must be traced back to the 19th century, and more importantly, one that continued even to the day the declaration was made. In a manner I found rather impressive, Miss Pachuau guides us about this variance through two channels in particular: religion, and the customs surrounding death.

(c) Amazon.in

If the initial political and geographical touches of the British, like the Inner Line, had done their part in sheltering the various tribes under a common governing umbrella, the Christian missionaries, now with the benefit of an established central State, had an even more consequential effect on strengthening the identity of the people as one cohesive ethnicity. The various tribes, before the introduction of Christianity, had their own subscription to mythologies that, though slightly varied, had central to their beliefs the ideas of malevolent spirits, animal sacrifice, and an afterlife. It came to the realization of people like Frederick William Savidge and James Herbert Lorrain, the first Baptist missionaries in the region, that the gospel of Christianity when preached in a direct tone with Christ as a savior of sins garnered little appeal to the animistic tribesmen. A bridge had to be installed to reconcile myth with Christendom. It was only when Christ was presented before them as a liberator from evil (malevolent spirits) and consequently an acceptance in Him as a promise to the afterlife that the tribes were willing to embrace the new religion with a more disposed attitude. This, though Miss Pachuau does not make explicit, can be used to obtain the precursor to what she eventually lays down as the notion that evolved decades later, that because of the malleable nature of Christianity and its amalgamation with traditional concepts, it was untaxing to establish the dictum that seemed to dogmatically guide Mizo thinking—the deeply ingrained idea that to be a Mizo, one had to be a Christian.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that this transition from animism to Christianity was nothing but plain sailing. Revolts, suspicions, and even apostasies, as Pachuau narrates, were severe. But with the institutionalization of Christianity, she leads us to the fate of tribes like the Brus and Chakmas, for whom this conversion has only been partial and relatively recent, causing conflicts in their identity, which have subsequently led to public discourse especially in recent years over citizenship and rights. Another case in point is that of the Lais with an autonomous district of their own at the southern tip of the state though spread out across different parts of the state. Outside their district, they are known predominantly as Pawis. Professor Pachuau notes that though the Lais choose not to consider themselves Mizo, the Pawis do not pledge to similar attitudes. Her thesis draws us to the Baptists Missionary Society who were the ones to bring Christianity to the Lai community, carrying with them their Mizo culture and language. Then, over time, a section of the Lai community broke off from the larger denomination to create their own religious subset, which had extended its role to that of Lai culture restoration. As one would rightly conclude, those who remained with the broader Mizo set (largely the Pawis) kept with them their broader Mizo identity. Such outlines are ample throughout the book.

To make easier for the reader the transition to the second channel, Dr. Pachuau introduces us to the idea of ‘veng’, roughly translated as locality, a concept among the people that extends far beyond the simple idea of residence. If religion worked at the macro level of identity genesis, the veng, in an idiosyncratic way, defined the individual. Professor Pachuau plays clever by starting with the idea that ‘death’ has its inclusion in Mizo identity in as paramount a manner as the events—while one is alive—that precede it. Confounding as this immediately reads, we are quickly given in with her argument that the Mizos, as individuals, identify strongly with their respective vengs, to the point where a sure question between two strangers will include asking each other’s vengs. Even family lineages, she goes on, are traced readily to one’s locality. That said, deaths in a certain veng are, within minutes to a few hours, publicly announced to fellow locality residents by the Young Mizo Association, an organization (vital to the Mizos) founded in 1935, whose functions range from stipulating societal rules to leading death rituals. A failure or delay in passing news of deaths even among friends is regarded a cause for deep embarassment, and consequently a call for apology. The YMA, in reporting a death, would set up at the home of the deceased a notice board reporting his or her name, age, as well as the date, time, and cause of death. Rules to mourning and burial are also adhered to quite strictly—death in a locality other than one’s own required sending the body to its respective veng; burials were done almost always on the same day as the death. In Dr. Pachuau’s glaring words, ‘death….ties an individual to a specific locale, completing his/her sense of belonging. In the process, it demarcates a veng mi, ‘a person of the veng’, and thereby a Mizo from an ‘outsider’.’

(c) YouTube

And to hold my prose accountable, I also must mention the buai years that Dr. Pachuau boldly touches on. The Declaration of Independence by the Mizo National Front in 1965 laid grounds for a two-decade armed struggle against the Indian State ending only in 1986 with the signing of the Mizoram Accord during Rajiv Gandhi’s rule. The Declaration was, in addition to its claim of the cultural uniqueness of the Mizo people, a detest of the Indian State’s cold apathy towards the great Mizo famine in the late-1950s. Taking action to their struggle for independence, the MNF attacked several Indian para-military installations (the Assam Rifles being their prime target), blocked roads, bombed bridges, looted the Treasury, and captured several important towns (like Kolasib and Champhai). In response, the Government of India carried out five air raids on Aizawl and re-captured the lost towns. Refusing to surrender, the insurgency saw its forcible passage into the rest of the 60s with the Indian State having to employ village relocations towards the major towns, most notably Aizawl. This harsh and painful period the Mizos today remember as the buai lai, or the troubled years, a memory that they to this day seldom wish to recall. As Professor Pachuau powerfully phrases it, ‘there is a silence on the subject on the part of the Mizos, despite the visible evidence of its impact in daily life, in the way villages are located, and the vast changes in the demography of towns and villages.’ She follows this with an explanation that strikes one’s earlier impressions of history hard. The MNF was seen as the great Liberator, a force with valor and courage. The Church, on the other hand, sought peace with the Indian State and even had much to do in rallying the population in agreeing with the Peace Accord. The MNF gave in to the pressures towards surrender and even took part in the first elections of an Independent Mizoram state in 1987. In the following decade, an ambivalence sprouted when the Mizos were to resolve both their loyalty to the sacrifices of their freedom fighters as well as their submission to the Indian State in favor of peace (as well as funds from the Centre). One must give her the due she has earned in confronting this ambivalence without any ambiguity.

This 250-page book carries the reader sinuously yet cogently, in a way reflecting the anfractuous roads of the state itself. And like the bumpy ride up the hills, there are many moments that jolt the reader. Other moments bring with them delight—archaic Mizo names like Taishena, Mungthanga, and Sainghinga; the prose’s adherence to the Oxford comma, a rarity in writings these days (it was, after all, published by Oxford University Press); and also meeting for the first time with the earliest local magazines that carried names like ‘Mizo leh Vai’. There are, of course, instances that Miss Pachuau brings one to slight baffle, and maybe concern, take, say, her startle at veng dynamics when she states, ‘it struck me that, for Mizos, locating an individual either with a family or with a veng was extremely important,’ a response you would expect from one who, perhaps, might have never had their experience with the Mizo community. One longs, as well, to have had included the transcribing of the Mizo script, or the often studied impacts of the most recent wave of globalization and technology and capitalism, and even the influence of other northeastern tribes in recent decades. But otherwise, Professor Pachuau lives to her reputation, and one can profess with much conviction that this work will endure and pave the way for a more open and honest uncovering of a section of human history that has for so long had only terse glimpses from the rest of the world.


Author: Resem Makan

Resem Makan is an Economics PhD student at the University of Washington. Before this, he was at the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi) where he studied Quantitative Economics. He grew up in Nagaland, Aizawl, and Shillong, and thus feels a part of everywhere.

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