Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lessons of History: From Bamboo-Famine to Insurgency in North East Indi

(Book review) (draft only)


Pied Pipers In North East-India, Bamboo-Flowers, Rat-Famine and the Politics of Philantrophy (1881-2007) by Sajal Nag; Monohar, New Delhi, 2008. pp X+ 307, Rs. 780.

A strong connection between famine and ethnic politics has been brought out by a number of scholars in the context of North East India. The economic backwardness of the region concerning famine has been widely discussed in the light of contemporary ethnic political process. Yet, the origin of widespread insurgencies in the north-east region whether in the case of Mizoram, Manipur or Nagaland is an outcome of food shortage during the colonial and post colonial period. However, the impact of famine on the people are generally left out in such discourses. To fill up such academic deficiency, Sajal Nag brought out a serious study on the history and politics around the bamboo famine in the context of Mizoram from the 1880s to the 1960s. Among India's north east states, Mizoram occupies a unique position mainly due to the periodic bamboo flowerings which lead to devastating famines in the region. This eventually led to the Famine Relief Front turned into political party called Mizo National Front uprising against the Indian nation in the mid 1960s. Mizo history from the pre-colonial migration to the encounter with colonialism and their interaction with the European Christian Missionaries and the growth of ethno-nationalism in post independent period were strongly determined by the cyclical bamboo famine. The various famine relief efforts which were made during colonialism by the state were all part of colonial agenda of trying to win over the hearts of the tribal people. In contrast to the colonial policy, the post colonial state ignored the famine in the hills. As a consequence, the socio - political upheaval started in 1966 which lasted for 20 years. Hence, history has provided a great deal of lesson that government interventions become important elements in coping with the famine stress.

Famine was not new to the British, particularly since the Bengal famine. In fact, they were responsible for most of the famines that had occurred in India. (p.63) However, bamboo famine in Mizoram (Lushai Hills) has triggered their curiosity as it was new to them. Bamboo flowering causes two types of famine locally called “mautam tam” and “thingtam tam” – their occurrence usually based on chronological sequences. In local language, Mautam or thingtam literally means bamboos withering or dying out. Tam meaning famine, the famine caused by bamboo is therefore called mautam tam and thingtam tam. According to folk tradition, the two species of bamboo (thing or bambusa longispiculata and mautak or melocanna bambbasoides) that grow in abundance in the hills flower in a cycle of 30 years and 50 years respectively. The bamboo flower soon produces fruits which are usually brown and green in colour. The seeds contain rich protein and are the favourite food of the local rats or Sazu. This is followed by a sudden explosion of rat population in the bamboo hills. The bamboos soon die, leaving the rats without abundant food from the bamboo. The hungry rats soon ravage the entire paddy field and stored grain in a matter of one night ultimately led to famine.

The famine caused by bamboo flowering was recorded for the first time in 1862 and the next bamboo famine which devastated the entire Mizo chiefdoms was recorded in1881-1882 (Military Report on the Chin-Lushai Country, 1881). It was estimated that 15,000 Mizos perished. (p.62) Many people fled to the neighbouring plain areas of Cachar and Manipur. Nag argued that the Mizo tribe who were dependent on jhum agriculture and hunting were helpless and entirely dependent on the external intervention especially in the time of famine. At the same time, colonial government needed to generate knowledge on "savage predators" who continuously attacked their commercial activities in plain areas. Hence, the year 1881 ushered a new milestone in the Anglo-Mizo relationship as bamboo famine opened a new chapter for the production of colonial knowledge on the Mizo tribe. During the time of famine, not only did the Mizo chiefs agree to cease their hostilities but they also allowed the colonials to enter their hill territory to inquire the condition of the famine. Such inquiry enabled the British to gain valuable information on the Mizo chiefdoms. Soon after the colonial government acquired some knowledge, the first series of ‘punitive expeditions’ were launched in 1840 which continued up to the end of of the 19th century. However, the Mizo Chiefs were not easily subdued despite the repeated efforts on the part of the British government from outright war to economic blockade, from burning stored food and standing crop to taking prisoners. Then the British subsequently transformed their punitive expeditions to wars of conquest as “the tribal raids would not cease unless they were totally conquered and placed under 'civilized' administration of the British and culturally transformed through the quietening influence of Christianity”. (p.60) In 1890, the British finally inaugurated their administration in Aizawl, the present capital of Mizoram (Lushai Hills). The remaining Mizo chiefs continued their resistance.

In 1911-1912, a periodic bamboo famine struck once again in the whole region of Lushai Hills under the British rule. Side by side with the government, Christian missionaries who entered the hill in 1894 provided relief work amongst the starving Mizos. A detailed description of the British and Christian Missionary relief works are found in both the third chapter and the fourth chapter. In the third chapter, Nag argues that the British used the famine relief work as a site for politics of paternalism in Lushai Hills. He wrote “The mautam gave the British, the opportunities to showcase their paternalistic image....what 50 years of warfare could not achieve, one year of famine relief did” (p.152). As a result of the famine relief work, the Mizo chiefs soon realised that the white master was their saviour. In the author words “this paternalistic image of white people was gradually reinforced with the establishment of British power in the hills”. (p.152). Based on numerous records on both colonial rulers and the missionaries, Nag substantiated his argument in the fourth chapter stating that famine provided a site for the politics of humanitarianism in Lushai hills as both colonial government and Christian missionaries played pied pipers role. By arranging famine relief, it made them completely dependent on the administrative machinery. (p.216) The British Government was the new order and Christian missionaries through their work helped people to accept and adjust to the new order. According to the author, “They changed the tribal perception that the colonial administration was an alien government and made them feel as if it was their own. While the British made the colonial conquest of the Lushai, the Missionaries, by transforming them morally and culturally, consolidated the conquest.” (p.217)

The fifth chapter stresses on the fact that the bamboo famine in independent India was used as a site for ethno-nationalism. The next bamboo famine occurred in the post independent era of 1959-1960 which was a very critical period in Mizo history. When the British left the Mizo hills, it remained isolated and underdeveloped. Moreover, this period also witnessed rapid expansion of the fear of losing cultural identity going hand in hand with social and political crisis. Politically, Mizo Hills became an autonomous district of Assam in 1952 and the institution of chieftainship was abolished with the aim of democratizing the political condition in the hills. Lack of communication from the mainland India resulted to regionalism with an uncertain future for the Mizos.

Based on their experiences in the past, precautionary measures were initiated as early as 1950. The Anti-Famine Campaign Organization was formed in 1951 with the aim of preventing famine in the hills. On 29 October 1958, the Mizo District Council passed a resolution cautioning the government (Assam) to sanction relief funds. However, the government of Assam rejected the request on the ground that such predictions of famine were only tribal superstition. True to their prediction, standing crops were devastated by millions of rats in 1959. Majority of the people who were fully dependent on jhum agriculture for their subsistence were subjected to starvation. The Assam government finally responded when the news of the crisis was well circulated. However, supply could not be furnished because of poor modes of transportation (the only roads available could be accessed by Jeep). In the following year, the famine became worse in almost every part of the Mizo Hills.

Earlier in 1946, the district ruling party, Mizo Union agreed to merge with the Indian Union. However, the bamboo famine had an overwhelming impact on the political condition of the Hills. Famine left a scar on the people’s psyche that the government failed to provide relief work during the previous bamboo famine. Feelings of negligence and marginalization from the government developed rapidly in the post famine period. Khondker comment on famine policies in pre-British India firmly applied in the Mizo context as he stated that “there is a moral responsibility on the part of the government to ensure the subsistence needs of the populace. And failure to discharge this obligation is viewed as a breach of an unwritten contract raising serious questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of the government.” (Khondker, 1986, p.25) The Mizo Cultural Society was formed in 1958 which eventually changed its name to the Mizo National Famine Front with the outbreak of Famine in 1959. The front began as a voluntary organization offering social services to the people. The educated middle class were frustrated because of the Assam government’s indifference to the Mizo hills. Hence, the need of a new platform pushed the Front to organize a new political party called 'Mizo National Front' (MNF) on 22nd October 1961. A memorandum submitted to the prime minister on 30 October 1965 clearly reflected the people’s perception on government relief work in the Mizo hills; “During the fifteen years of close contact and association with India, Mizo people have not been able to feel at home with India or in India, nor have they been able to feel that their joys and sorrow have really ever been shared by India. They do not, therefore feel Indian…. Therefore, the Mizos demanded the creation of Mizoram, a free sovereign state to govern itself to work her own destiny and to formulate her own foreign policy”. On 28 February1966, the famous Mizo insurgency movement started in North East India. The insurgency lasted for 20 years, ended in 1986 which took more life than during the course of the previous Famine.

The author ends his brief discussion on a sporadic Mautam that returned in 2007-2008. The author's main emphasis is on the fact that the former rebel group now run the state government has failed to implement effective ways of organizing famine relief works. During the author’s field trip in Mizoram, he sensed widespread discontent. He noted that “almost all sections of the population were unhappy with the way a prospective famine was being politicized and its fund being misused.” (p.289) Although recent period witnessed the transformation of market economy, development particularly in the agricultural scenario is far from adequate. It is a hilly area with most of the villages being inaccessible to road transport. There is very little infrastructure on which relief work can be organized, roads are primitive, and the economy is primarily based on primitive mode of production i.e Jhum cultivation. Apart from these considerations, bamboo famine is a natural calamity, but the severity is also determined by the social and economic forces that reflect the general rural poverty. Basing on Nag observations, the present crisis in Mizoram demonstrates three underlying messages – first, the internal weakness and regional backwardness of the state as in comparison with the plain areas of India. Second, it demonstrates the poor standard of living conditions particularly in rural areas. Third, it also undermines the effectiveness of government action on precautionary measures, response and relief action in the course of bamboo famine.

The way Nag utilized colonial documents in shaping the entire book is amazing especially in the context of north-east India, where re-reading of colonial thought is limited. However, his lack of incorporating local sources (for instance oral tradition gives numerous references to famine) and lots of mispronunciations and spelling mistakes (including glossary. p.291-292) on local language in the book may irritate the native language speaking scholars. Otherwise, this book will be a good read for those who are interested in exploring the history of north-east India in general, Mizoram history in particular.


Khondker, H.H (1986) Famine policies in pre-British India and the question of moral economy in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Vol.9, No.2.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Macro Effect

No.1: Tah hi chuan Macro Mode ka hmang lo. Cannon, EOS 1000D, lens: EF-s 55-250mm f/4-5.5 IS ka hmang a. A thingkung hi a sang angreng a, a tawp rat thlengin ka zoom a. Duhang takin a fiah tawk lo niin ka hria. Tuipui (Darzo kai) a awm a ni a. Kawl Taitaw niin an sawi.
No 2: Hei hi S.Vanlaiphai khawtawp lam, Sangau kawng bula Sangha dil bula ka lak a ni. Sakawr hmarcha a ni. Thak tha ve tawk a ni a, hmarcha thak dan nen chuan inang lo lutuk ringawt mai.
No 3: Samtawk a ni a, Sap samtawk an ti deuh kher...S.Vanlaiphai a mi a ni.
No4: Rannung che peih deuh ho hi lak fuh a har hlein ka hria. Lens -55mm hmangin macro mode pangai tawpa lak a ni.
No6: He hnim hming hi ka hre lo. A par hi tetak te te an ni a. Macro mode hmanga ka lak a ni.
No7: He pangpar hi a hmiang ka hre tlat lo. Tourist Lodge, Chaltlang Aizawl a an khawi lai mek a ni.

Scooty leh Aizawl Nula

Tun tum Mizoram ka han haw chu, Scooty alo tam tawh hle mai. A bikin hmeichhia ten an intihhmuh thar hle niin a lang. Nula tamtak tan thilawhawm tak tur a ni. Ni 28 Nov 2008 khan Millenium bul lawkah thian kawm pahin ka ding a, reilote ka din chhung ringawt pawhin an lo tlan hnem hman hle!!.Camera:Cannon EOS 1000D, Lens: EF-s 55-250mm f/4-5.6.

Nula tamtakin scooty an hman lai hian nula tamtak pawh kein an la kal tho bawk..

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rape in Mizo society: whose fault is it anyway?

“While a murderer destroys the physical frame of the victim, a rapist degrades and defiles the soul of a helpless female." - Justice Arjit Pasayat

Rape occurs everywhere in the world; the Christian dominated state of Mizoram is not an exception. The word ‘rape’ or ‘sual’ literally means ‘criminal assault (on women)’ or to ‘commit rape upon’ and was included in the first Mizo-English dictionary drafted by JH Lorrain. Pre-colonial practices of Nula zen (a form of sexual abuse) and mi hur zawn (public punishment of whore/public rape) have been declared illegal since the early part of 20th century by the colonial rulers. A number of Sexual offences and penalties were recorded in the first Mizo customary laws (A monograph on Lushai Customs and Ceremonies1927) drafted by colonial ethnographer N.E Parry. During the colonial period, all rape cases were to be reported to the superintendent of Mizoram (Lushai hills). “Rape however is very rare indeed in these hills. A genuine case of rape is unmistakable, as the girl would at once rush to chief and complain and he would send her straight to court.” Rape may not be common in traditional society, though other forms of sexual offences were widely known. If not, Mizo customs may not deal so much about sexual offences. It is said that rape was very common during the insurgency period (1966-1986) but there have not been any specific records of any rape incident.Hence, rape is not a new trend in the Mizo society. However, the nature of rape has been widespread in the recent decade.

Recent official statistics have clearly shown that rape constitutes a growing social problem in Mizoram. According to a ‘crime clock’ prepared by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), rape occurs every 29 minutes. A case of cruelty by a husband and his relatives was recorded every nine minutes in overall India. In Mizoram, out of a total population there were 78 rape cases in 2004 recorded by the CID crime branch of Mizoram. According to police records, the crime rate against women steadily increased between 2001 to 2003. While cases registered in this respect were 114 in 2001, this rose to 136 in 2002 and to 219 in 2003. The increased rate placed Mizoram as the second highest crime rate against women in the NE states. On an average, police register one case in three days.

It is difficult to document incidences of rape due to the social stigmas attached to it. Rape incidents are hardly ever reported to officials. If the news reaches the ears of the Mizo Women Organization (MHIP), protest movements are organized, either in the district or state level. Media, political parties, other social organizations and interest groups immediately express their concern but only in words. However, the women organizations or Human Rights Law Network step forward to pressurize the government to implement new laws or regulations, lest the issue may die out before the next rape incident takes place again.

According to Section 376 (A, B, C, D) of the IPC, punishment can be given to the culprit for imprisonment of up to 7 years. However, there are many instances where a rapist was not even jailed for a year or worse in some cases, not even for a month. Because of the flexibility of law, the accused easily gets bail. The rapist continues his life in both private and public spheres. Moreover, the case remains pending in courts over and over again.

What is the reason behind many rape cases not being reported to the authorities? Bianca Son (daughter of Dr Vumson, a well known Mizo historian) says, “Rape is not reported because of the profound emotional pain and stigma attached to it, fear for the safety of family left behind and lack of ordinary support systems leave women without recourse”. In some cases, the victim’s family and the rapist’s family meet and settle the case out of court. Lalzarliani, Secretary of Mizo Women’s Organization (MHIP), Sub Headquarter, narrates in this context “The women’s organization always wants to help the rape victims but we can’t! There are several instances where we propose to move the cases to court, but many a times, the victim and her family withdraw because the rapist’s family and the victim’s family agree on a settlement. Marginalized people are helpless”.

Misuse of the Christian ethics could be the reason too. The New Testament says, ‘Love thy neighbors as thyself’ (Mark 12:31). A couple of years ago, a teenage girl was raped by a co-villager in the southern part of Mizoram. The rapist and his family soon rushed to the victim’s house and asked for forgiveness in the name of Jesus. Strongly influenced by Christian ethics, the victim’s father agreed so the case was not reported to the court. Jesus may forgive but the Law does not.

Lack of awareness is one of the main reasons of rape in Mizoram. Recently, NEWSLINK (an English newspaper published in Mizoram) on Monday, September 11, 2006 reported , “In the village of Lengpui, a young man was accused of raping a 10-year old mentally challenged girl, which was followed by another minor girl being raped by a close relative. The report stated that the accused had raped the girl on four occasions and that despite repeated warnings, the man had again laid hands on the girl on September 2, 2006”. “Why repeated warnings”? Why was the case not reported the very first time it happened? This clearly shows the pathetic order of society.

Who is responsible for rape and what are the various causes of rape? I will not go into detail on the various studies ranging from The Feminist theory, The Social Learning theory and The Evolutionary theory drawing various causes of rape. This has been debated in the academic field and media for many years. In Mizoram, society blames mostly the girl or the girl’s family for not taking precautionary measures. Even the biggest organization, the Young Mizo Association (YMA) is currently targeting the fashion oriented teenage girls. The same view is also put forward by officials. According to Sub-Inspector, Lunglei District Police headquarter; “the current generation are healthier and flooded with hormones, and are overwhelmed with sexual desire. The desire for a certain kind of sex can in some individuals lead to the rise of the level of compulsion. Some people are unable to stop themselves from some type of sexual activity, even if that activity is illegal, hurts others, and is self-destructive. If the girl does not dress properly, chances are increased. Many girls are not aware of this, which gives the rapist a better chance. So, “girls are responsible for their rape” he said. Perhaps, he did not realize that rapes are common in Muslim countries where burkha system is prevalent. Further he says “when the case comes before us, many are not real rape cases, some girls are only pretending”. The same argument is also put forward by the C.Laldina SP CID Branch, Aizawl. “Of course, there are many under aged rape incidents, which should be prevented and the police are taking those casse seriously but many of the rape casse reported to the police turn out to be farce after police investigation”.

Why are many rape incidents not registered as rape cases? First, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is incomplete in defining rape law. Rape is defined in India as intentional, unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent. The touching of the female’s sex organ, without the penetration of the vagina, cannot constitute rape under the IPC. Rape, however, is not sex; it is a crime, and it is a crime of violence. Sakshi v. Union of India, the National Commission for Women and the other organizations suggested revision of the definition of rape law in India. Now, the law has been discussed, debated and revised. Hopefully, it will be implemented very soon.

Secondly, the system of trial in a court room is problematic. It is likely that girls are helpless in a patriarchal society. Liankunga, a Mizo IAS officer currently posted in Patna, Bihar narrates the story, “I have a private lawyer friend, who is currently practicing in Aizawl. Sometimes he may get the culprit as his client. Shrewdly, he may ask a number of questions, which a girl may shy to answer in a court room”. If the girl is unable to answer, the opposite party definitely wins.

There are a lot of misconceptions on rape that prevail in the Mizo society. Men forcing themselves on women just to satisfy their sexual urges or using the excuse of girls not dressing properly are baseless accusations and misconceptions. This should be corrected. Men, even husbands have absolutely no right to force his wife for sexual intercourse. Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983: Section. 376(A) punishes sexual intercourse with wife without her consent by a judicially separated husband. A woman's body is not the property of a man, and he is not entitled to touch her unless he gets permission.

There have been numerous debates on the subject of rape in Mizoram but the points that have been discussed and brought out in the open are often very narrow. Recently an extremist viewpoint on rape has been suggested in the February 2007 edition of Zofa Digest which stated, “Mizoramah pawngsual tam lutuk hi a hahthlak ta hle mai. Sorkar hian hremna dan thar siam se, til lak phalsak mai se atha lo’ng maw?” which can roughly translated as, “Rape cases have increased rapidly in Mizoram in recent years, the government should implement strict rules to punish the rapists, it would perhaps be recommendable if the culprit were castrated.” But this view may not necessarily provide a better solution. On the other hand, another question may arise – to what extent has an extensive study been done on this particular subject and to what extent have precautions been taken? In Saudi Arabia, gays and thieves are either hanged or their hands are cut off but this is not effective in reducing the prevalence of these crimes. At the various levels, a systematic study on rape needs to be conducted.

Traditional definition based on Mizo customary law of sexual offences may not be relevant in the present context, neither is it compatible with the existing formal laws. Moreover, more problems arise because Mizo customary laws in relation to sexual offences are not properly revised and are yet to be codified. (Rev.Khuanga, 2006:1)

Ignorance is the main cause of the issue despite Mizoram having the second highest literacy rate in India. Few efforts have been taken by the Government and NGOs who have conducted several seminars on rape issues in Mizoram, mostly on urban space. However, in reality, it hardly reaches the lower section of society. Hence, there is an urgent need to raise issues pertaining to awareness of rape and precautionary measures. Rape victims should be encouraged to report themselves to authorities and compensation should be given. Punishment for the rapists should be severe depending on the case. After all, people should realize that this incident can happen to anyone, even to their own family members. Then only, people will realize how important it is to educate themselves on fighting against this pernicious crime.


Rev.Khuanga; “Relevance of Customary Law and Justice in the Changing socio-Economic context of Mizoram” in R.N Prasad & P.Chakraborty (Ed); Administration of Justice in Mizoram, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 2006.

Study on Child Abuse India, 2007 (Ministry of women and Child development, Government of India)