Tuesday :: Jan 6, 2009

Developing A Framework to Understand and Develop Working Solutions to Major Conflicts: The Case of Mizoram (India) - Part 1

by eriposte

As I explained in the Introduction, the objective of this series is to develop a simplified, generic framework to discuss major conflicts - including their root causes, the conditions under which they continue and the conditions under which they could be resolved successfully in the long term. The example I will use to develop this framework is the violent secessionary conflict in the Indian state of Mizoram that lasted roughly two decades before Mizoram became the 23rd state of India in 1986. The focus of this post is to highlight the origins of the Mizo struggle - the main trigger and the additional, exacerbating factors that eventually ignited the violent conflict between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Indian Government in 1966. (I've collected all references at the end of the post; all emphasis in this post is mine.)

A. Preface

First, a brief refresher on Mizoram itself so that we have some context for the rest of the discussion. As I pointed out in the Introduction, Mizoram is a beautiful, lightly populated, hilly state in eastern India whose economy is largely agrarian and whose climate is temperate. It is one of India's three states (all in the eastern part) where Christians form the majority of the population (~87%  in Mizoram) - the other two being Meghalaya and Nagaland. The main language of the region is Mizo (Tibeto-Burman, with many dialects) although English is used commonly. Most Mizos (translation "highlanders") are believed to be descendants of tribes of immigrants originally from China, and possibly Mongolia, but are reasonably integrated into India today. Interestingly, a large number of Jewish Mizos also claim to be descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Modern Mizoram was originally known as Lushai Hills or Mizo Hills and was located geographically inside what was then the state of Assam (in British India). As this map shows, its presence at the southern tip of the eastern (often referred to as the north-eastern) frontier of India resulted in ~75% [1] of modern Mizoram's state boundary being shared with two foreign countries - Myanmar/Burma in the East/South-East and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) in the West/South-West.

B. After India's Independence (1947-1960)

In the 1800s, the British had expelled a Burmese king from Assam and integrated Assam into British India [2,3]. During the extended British rule of India, the villages of the Mizo Hills continued to be dominated by their tribal chieftains. Over time, there was broad disillusionment with the essentially dictatorial model of governance by the chieftains and in the 1940s, a political party called the Mizo Union emerged to oppose the dominance of the chieftains and to demand democratic rule [1,4]. After Indian independence from the British in 1947, the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution - "Provisions as to the Administration of Tribal Areas in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram" [5] - provided more autonomy and democracy to areas such as Mizoram by creating District and Regional Councils which would include elected representatives to govern the districts and the regions within (Mizoram being a District in Assam at that time). These changes were initially welcomed by the average Mizo, especially the Mizo Union political party, which had aligned itself with the Indian National Congress at the national level and against chieftainship.

Unsurprisingly, in the district and regional elections in the 1950s, the Mizo Union defeated the main opposition party - United Mizo Freedom Organization (UMFO), a party formed by former tribal chiefs and their followers that had for some time even advocated secession of Mizoram to Burma [1]. Some of the laws passed by the ruling Mizo Union created democratically elected Village Councils, reduced the hold of the chieftains and then abolished chieftainship entirely in August 1955. As Nunthara [1] notes (pp. 132-3), "Before 1954, any attempt at stressing cultural variation and ethnic differences was counter-checked by the anti-chief movement...It was only after the issue of chiefship was gone that the political support of the people gradually shifted from [the] internal problem to that of accentuating group identity at all levels." This context is important to note because, there was no broad-based secessionary movement within Mizoram during the immediate period after Indian independence in 1947, although there were political voices calling for more autonomy (statehood, rather than being a district of Assam) and democracy.

C. Language

India is the most linguistically diverse country in the world and language has always been an integral part of cultural identity for the diverse inhabitants of India. At a national level, Indian politics has long been dominated by leaders who more often than not hailed from populous, Hindi-speaking, central, western & northern parts of India. After Independence, there was a strong movement at the national level by some leaders to force the various Indian states to accept Hindi as the official, national language. Thankfully, due to the vision of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and more importantly, Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister), there was major counter-pressure against this movement. As Guha pointed out [11]:

After [Partition into Indian and Pakistan] the promoters of Hindi became even more fanatical. As Granville Austin observes, 'The Hindi-wallahs were ready to risk splitting the Assembly and the country in their unreasoning pursuit of uniformity.'56 Their crusade provoked some of the most furious debates in the House. Hindustani [an amalgam of the Sanskrit-derived Hindi and the Persian/Arabic-derived Urdu] was not acceptable to south Indians; Hindi even less so. Whenever a member spoke in Hindi, another member would ask for a translation into English. 57 When the case was made for Hindi to be the sole national language, it was bitterly opposed...


The Assembly finally arrived at a compromise; that 'the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in the Devanagari script'; but for 'fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement'.59 Till 1965, at any rate, the notes and proceedings of the courts, the services, and the all-India bureaucracy would be conducted in English. [pages 119-120]

Clearly, that was a band-aid that was put on the explosive language issue and India would eventually be forced to revisit the band-aid later to prevent violent riots and secessionary threats. But with tensions high at the national level about the imposition of a non-local language on the states, it should be no surprise that in Mizoram, the imposition of Assamese as the official state language would receive widespread disapproval. As Nunthara noted [1]:

The passing of Assamese as State language in July, 1960 had added to the already tense situation in Mizoram and the other hill areas of Assam. It was because of the Assamese-Bengali linguistic violence that Capt. Sangma and his supporters were able to mobilize hill politics resulting in the formation of APHLC [All Party Hill Leaders Conference, a party that the Mizo Union eventually joined]. (page 139)

D. A State for the Nagas

In the meantime, trouble had been brewing in the neighborhood of Mizoram. The Naga Hills - another distinct tribal area neighboring Mizoram and also within Assam at the time - had been unstable since Indian independence. By 1960, the Nagas got their own state within India after a period of civil disobedience and violent conflict [13]:

When the British East India Company took control of Assam in 1826, they steadily expanded their domain over modern Nagaland. By 1892, all of modern Nagaland except the Tuensang area in the northeast was governed by the British. It was politically amalgamated into Assam. The Christian missionaries played an important part in converting Nagaland's Naga tribes in Christianity.

After the independence of India in 1947, the area remained a part of the province of Assam. Nationalist activities arose amongst Naga tribes, who demanded a political union of their ancestral and native groups damaged government and civil infrastructure, and attacked government officials and civilians from other states of India. The Union government sent the Indian Army in 1955, to restore order. In 1957, the Government began diplomatic talks with representatives of Naga tribes, and the Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang frontier were united in a single political entity that became a Union territory - directly administered by the Central government with a large degree of autonomy. This was not satisfactory to the tribes, however, and soon agitation and violence increased across the state - included attacks on Army and government institutions, as well as civil disobedience and non-payment of taxes. In July 1960, a further political accord was reached at the Naga People's Convention that Nagaland should become a constituent and self-governing state in the Indian union. Statehood was officially granted in 1963 and the first state-level democratic elections were held in 1964. 

The lessons from Nagaland were not lost on the Mizos. As Nunthara notes [1]:

The declaration of Nagaland as the 16th State in August 1960 also gave impetus to the Assam hill leaders and the APHLC leaders' resolution to fight for a Nagaland-style state. This was practically supported by all the hill political parties including the district branches of the [Indian National] Congress...Nehru's proposal to offer a 'Scottish Pattern of Autonomy,' designed to have an autonomous body within the Assam Government in February 1961, ...was not accepted by the APHLC... (page 139)

Thus, by the early 1960s, the stage was set for tensions within the Mizo Hills for some level of independence - at least, statehood. The India-China war of 1962 put the APHLC's plans in abeyance and over time APHLC started losing credibility in the eyes of its supporters. However, a new and more serious issue was brewing, in parallel, which would finally ignite a conflict.

E. Famine of 1960

The last straw was the aftermath of the great "Mautam famine" [6] of 1960. As explained by Dhar [7]:

WHEN the bamboo flowers, death and destruction follow, goes a traditional saying in Mizoram, the tiny hill state in northeast India. Way back in 1959, bamboo flowering in the State set off a chain of events that ultimately led to one of the most powerful "movements" against the Government spanning over two decades.

Folklore apart, scientists say that the strange phenomenon of bamboo flowering, called "gregarious bamboo flowering", causes ecological havoc. The bamboo plants die after flowering and it takes a few years before bamboo plants produce seeds again, leaving bare exposed soil — which could be disastrous in mountainous states — and also leading to food scarcity, since animals depend on bamboo plants. The second factor is that rats feed on the flowers and seeds of the dying bamboo tree. This activates a rapid birth rate among the rodents, which leads to the huge rat population feeding on agricultural crops in the fields and granaries leading to famine.

The famine of 1960 was devastating to Mizoram's largely agrarian populace [8]:

After eating bamboos seeds, the rats turned towards crops and infested the huts and houses and became a plague to the villages. The havoc created by the rats was terrible and very little of the grain was harvested. For sustenance, many Mizos had to collect roots and leaves from the jungles. Still others moved to far away places, and a considerable number died of starvation. In this hour of darkness, many welfare organizations tried their best to help starving villagers. Earlier in 1955, the Mizo Cultural Society was formed with Pu Laldenga as its secretary. In March 1960, the name of the Mizo Cultural Society was changed to 'Mautam Front'. During the famine of 1959–1960, this society took the lead in demanding relief and managed to attract the attention of all sections of the people. In September 1960, the Society adopted the name of Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF). The MNFF gained considerable popularity as a large number of Mizo Youth assisted in transporting rice and other essential commodities to interior villages.

F. Mismanaging the Famine and the Devastation

The disaster of the famine was compounded by the inadequate response of the Governor of Assam and the (Federal) Indian Government [6]:

Records from the British Raj indicate that Mizoram suffered famine in 1862 and again in 1911 [Eriposte note: Some species of bamboo flower every ~48 years or so; 1959 was 48 years from 1911; we are now 48 years from 1961 and here we go again], after the region witnessed similar bamboo flowerings. In each case, the records suggest that the flowering of the bamboo leads to a dramatic increase in the local rat population. The increase led to raids on granaries and the destruction of paddy fields, and subsequently to a year-long famine.

The 1958–1959 Mautam resulted in the recorded deaths of at least a hundred people, besides heavy loss to human property and crops. Some elderly villagers in the undeveloped more traditional region, recalling this event, have claimed that their warnings based on folk traditions were dismissed as superstition by the Government of Assam, which then ruled what is now the state of Mizoram. It has been estimated that around two million rats were killed and collected by the locals, after a bounty of 40 paisa (approximately 1 US cent according to present-day rates) was placed on each. However, even after the increase in the rat population was noted, preparations by the government to avoid a famine were limited.

The feeling that the State Government of Assam was ineffective was multiplied by the feeling among many Mizos that the Indian Government was also indifferent to their plight. The famine thereby exposed some serious structural problems in India at the time, as discussed in the next section.

G. Out of Touch and Weak

First, the easternmost part of India - often referred to as the north-east (NEI, for short) - is largely mountainous and many parts have been historically remote or difficult to access. In fact, many of the states in the NEI are land-accessible to mainland India only through the state of Assam, adding to the somewhat unique cultural demographics of this region [9]:

Except for Assam, where the major languages are Assamese and Bengali, and Tripura, where the major language is Bengali, the region has a predominantly tribal population that speak numerous Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic languagesHinduism and Christianity are the predominant religions in this region. The proliferation of Christianity among the Seven Sister States sets it apart from the rest of India. The work of Christian missionaries in the area has led to large scale conversion of the tribal population. Christians now comprise the majority of the population in NagalandMizoram and Meghalaya and sizeable minority in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The bigger states of Assam and Tripura, however, have remained predominantly Hindu, with a sizeable Muslim minority in Assam.


A compact geographical unit, the Northeast is isolated from the rest of India except through the Siliguri Corridor, a slender and vulnerable corridor, flanked by alien territories. Assam is the gateway through which the sister states are connected to the mainland. Tripura, a virtual enclave almost surrounded by Bangladesh, strongly depends on AssamNagalandMeghalaya and Arunachal depend on Assam for their internal communications. Manipur and Mizoram's contacts with the main body of India are through Assam's Barak Valley.

(Recall that in the 1950s and 1960s, India's communication infrastructure, even for Government officials, was poor - with reliance mostly on traditional postal services for most communication).

Second, compounding the demographical and geographical disconnects was a more serious problem - the political disconnection between leaders at the national level and locals in distant regions of India. As I pointed out earlier, even though India is an enormously diverse and complex country, at a national level, Indian politics has long been dominated by leaders who more often than not hailed from Hindi-speaking, central, western & northern parts of India. Especially in the decades following independence, there wasn't a lot of national representation for local leaders from the NEI. Taken together with the demographical and geographic disconnects, this led to the undesirable consequence that many national political leaders were often out-of-touch with the real socio-economic needs of the states in the east/north-east (among others). This led to a lack of not just knowledge and understanding of local issues, but also a poor level of direct local engagement in the NEI by national leaders, leading to negative consequences in terms of long-term political instability and violence [10]. 

Third, and equally importantly, beginning in 1966, India began what was perhaps the most challenging decade of political instability in its history. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been a pillar for India after Indian independence, died in May 1964, shortly after his Government had already been weakened by a disastrously humiliating war with China in 1962 and by growing internal strife in the various corners of India (especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, Punjab and Kashmir in the north and in the Naga hills in the NEI). His successor, the respected Lal Bahadur Shastri died shortly thereafter in January 1966. Thus, by the beginning of 1966, the death of two respected leaders in short succession left a gaping hole in national politics. This was also a period where the Indian economy was in severe danger of stalling, especially after a poor year for agricultural output beginning in 1965, and serious concerns over a possible balance of payments crisis [12]. The power vacuum was filled by a relative novice - Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru - who inherited the governance of the most challenging, complex and largest democracy in the world during a period of increasing instability and economic crisis.

This dangerous confluence of conditions, and the Indian weakness (especially in the NEI) that was gapingly exposed by the Chinese just two years ago, were ripe conditions for secessionist forces to rear their head. It was in this atmosphere that the rechristened MNFF - now the Mizo National Front (MNF) - began to voice demands for Mizo independence from India, leading up to the start of violent insurgency in the Mizo Hills in 1966.

H. Religion and Ethnicity*

The concerns over language and the very negative aftermath of the famine also played into the MNF's ethnic and religious appeals to the Mizo community [1]:

...political articulation, to a large extent, especially after [the] 1960 famine situation, rests on the stress on the differential variation between ingroup and outgroup. This was facilitated by the failure of [the] Assam Government to take relief measures to the famine-stricken Mizo people reenforcing the condition of distrust towards outgroup members. The MNF leaders had been able to exploit this on the basis of the relative strength of the qualities of the Mizos as against the cast-ridden Hindu society. It is not thus, the material domination alone that the tribals fear, but also cultural domination in the sphere of religion where most of the Mizos are Christians and shun the caste system and the Hindu society in general. Examples of cultural degradation of the Kacharis of the Cachar district of Assam and the Tripuris of the Tripura state have been readily available to the MNF leaders. The MNF leaders, thus, preached the social and cultural danger of remaining a part of India, particularly taking good care to emphasize the destructive elements of Hindu culture to the Mizo Christian community. All in all, the MNF leaders stressed the ethnic differences of the Mizos...(pages 196-197)

(*UPDATED 1/7)

In the next part of this series, I will discuss the start of the insurgency and the key factors that kept it going for roughly two decades.


1. C. Nunthara, Mizoram, Society and Polity, Indus 1996.

2. Assam - Wikipedia.

3. British India - Wikipedia.

4. Author unknown, The Mizos, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

5. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India.

6. Mautam - Wikipedia.

7. A. Dhar, "Trouble Blooms", The Hindu, March 2005.

8. Mizoram - Wikipedia.

9. Seven Sister States - Wikipedia.

10. Seven Sisters - Global Security.Org

11. R. Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, Picador/PanMacmillan 2008.

12. A. Panagariya, India: The Emerging Giant, Oxford 2008.

13. Nagaland - Wikipedia.

eriposte :: 6:53 AM :: Comments (3) :: Digg It!