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