Review: Nationalism in the Vernacular by Roluahpuia - Hindustan Times
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Review: Nationalism in the Vernacular by Roluahpuia

ByThangkhanlal Ngaihte
Mar 01, 2024 10:51 PM IST

A look at the insurgency in Mizoram, that lasted for two decades until 1986, and how the oral culture of the Mizos played a positive role in their emergence as a people

It is conventional wisdom that the lack of textual culture among the tribes of the North east puts them at a serious disadvantage not only in terms of their own development, but also in relation to other people groups. The Naga nationalist AZ Phizo, in his so-called plebiscite speech of 1951 rued the Nagas’ many missed opportunities in the past due to non-availability of written record as evidence and vowed that “…from now on, we shall put everything into writing. We shall see to it that our talks do not end in mere words.”

A picture taken in Mizoram on 05 September 1967. (HT Photo.)
A picture taken in Mizoram on 05 September 1967. (HT Photo.)

260pp, ₹1550; Cambridge University Press
260pp, ₹1550; Cambridge University Press

The Nagas, under Phizo’s leadership, went on to fight for independence from India. The Mizos followed suit 15 years or so later. There were numerous insurgencies in the North East, but these two remained the only mass-based armed movements for independence. Both failed to succeed, but it’s no accident that Nagaland and Mizoram came to be endowed with the most extensive autonomy rights amongst states in India, barring pre-2019 Jammu & Kashmir.

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As for written records, there is now a relatively large body of literature on the Naga insurgency – scholarly works, memoirs, testimonials, biographies and fictional writings. Whether Phizo’s entreaties have anything to do with this is unclear, though. As for the Mizos, not as much. Hence, Roluahpuia’s new book, Nationalism in the Vernacular: State, Tribes, and the Politics of Peace in Northeast India is a much welcome addition to the sparse literature on the Mizo movement.

The author is a young Mizo academic, who teaches sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee. His book is a testament to Mizo resilience as they endured the rambuai (Mizo for “troubled land”) insurgency period (1966-1986). Paradoxically, the book argues that it was the Mizo’s creative use of their oral cultural resources which helped them cope and sustain themselves as a people through that dark time.

The book has seven chapters with the introductory one providing an overview. Chapter two takes a broad look at the “tribal question” in India, with special reference to the North East while the next one focuses on the formative years of Mizo nationalism, a period before the advent of the Mizo National Front (MNF). Chapter four is about the MNF-led movement for independence. The next chapter engages the state’s repression in response to the insurgency, the collective punishment meted to the population and the Mizo counter response to it. Chapter six critiques the idea of a peaceful Mizoram in the post-accord period. It rues the absence of the ideas of restitution and reconciliation, and points to the neglect of the common people’s contribution to the movement.

The thrust of the book is on the oral tradition and culture of the Mizos and the positive role this plays for the emergence of the Mizos as a people. As a political campaign and mobilisational tool, the oral culture took a two-pronged trajectory. Firstly, there emerged numerous patriotic and nationalistic songs which resonate with the common people. These songs were communicated and learned orally rather than in written form. As a close-knit Christian community, church congregations are part of the daily routine and community singing engenders fellow-feeling. The author classifies these songs into hnam lha or nationalist songs, party lha (songs composed and sung as tribute to political parties) and rambuai lha (songs that gave expression to anguish and suffering during the troubled insurgency period).

A view of Aizawl (HT Photo)
A view of Aizawl (HT Photo)

Reading this book, I’m reminded of the ever-popular verse published by Bertolt Brecht in 1939 as Europe braced for war yet again: “In the dark times / will there also be singing / Yes, there will also be singing / about the dark times.” The Mizos sang through their rambuai years which helped them cope with their suffering. The medium of songs, transmitted by word of mouth rather than text, was also ideal as it helped them dodge censorship and restrictions placed on written texts.

Secondly, Mizo elites succeeded in reframing and reconstructing the idea and appeal of the nation in local terms and idioms. Terms like zalenna and ram leh hnam domesticate universal ideas of freedom and nationalism and make them distinctively Mizo. This is what vernacularisation of nationalism and politics is all about.

This vernacularisation accounts for what may be called the Mizo exception in terms of growing nationalist consciousness among the people. Scholars of nationalism have long thought that for nationalist ideas to gain traction among a population, certain criteria, like print culture, literacy, industrialisation and a level of material prosperity need to be present. These factors were more or less absent in the 1950s when the Mizo people, imbued with nationalist fervour, transcended their narrow clan and village solidarities to embrace an inclusive Mizo, or Zo nationalism. Zo is the self-ascribed root identity of the tribes, who were called Lushai in present day Mizoram, Kuki in Manipur, and Chin in the Chin Hills area of Burma during the colonial period. Nomenclature remains a contentious issue amongst these people even as they all agree that they are of the same ethnic stock. As the author points out, it was in 1954 that, in response to a vibrant popular movement, the Lushai Hills were renamed as Mizo Hills and the traditional institution of chieftainship was abolished in favour of grassroots democracy. The lively contest that played out between the two dominant parties at that time, namely, the Mizo Union (MU) and the United Mizo Freedom Organisation (UMFO) made for a delightful read. The MU stood for the abolition of chieftainship and the integration of all Zo-inhabited lands under Indian democracy while UMFO favoured integration with Burma and a retention of chieftainship. The contest played out lyrically through the medium of songs and counter songs and was the perfect dance of democracy.

Author Roluahpuia (Courtesy the author)
Author Roluahpuia (Courtesy the author)

The book critiques existing literature, which focuses narrowly on the MNF-led movement. The chapter that discusses the pre-MNF period in the Mizo nationalist movement forms the most insightful and informative part of the book. Many people believe the aspiration for the territorial integration of all Mizo/Zo-inhabited lands in India, Burma and Bangladesh, a demand that the Mizoram CM Lalduhoma recently broached to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has its origins in the MNF movement. In fact, the book points out, it was in 1947 itself that the Mizo Union submitted a memorandum to the Bordoloi Committee setting out a precondition for the Mizos’ integration with India: political autonomy and the ethnic and territorial unity of all Mizo-inhabited areas under one administrative unit.

This is a valuable addition to the literature – and the most comprehensive accounting yet – on the Mizo movement. Having said that, there are quite a few repetitions which could have been edited out. But that’s a minor grouse about a book that’s insightful and enjoyable. If you are one of those wondering how Mizoram came to be so invested in the ongoing civil conflict in Manipur between the majority Meiteis and the Kuki/Zos, this book provides a good background.

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte is assistant professor of Political Science at Churachandpur College, Manipur and PhD candidate at Mizoram University, Aizawl.

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