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The Lamka Times

Monday, March 22, 2010

Northeast Echoes

'Most tribal societies are very possessive about their cultures and wish to project the best to the world'

An insulated domain

After Kerala, Mizoram is the state with the highest literacy rate. Surprisingly, the state does not have any English daily newspaper. Earlier there was a sort of broadsheet called Newslink, which has now gone kaput. The reason they say was lack of readership.

Mizoram is a fairly homogenous society where people speak the same language. With due respect to the Mizos, there are observers who term them as insular. Mizos can easily exclude outsiders out of their conversation without batting an eyelid. Those of us who have lived in boarding schools and grown up with Mizo friends would know what I am talking about. Love for one's language and culture is never a discredit. But an inordinate obsession for that culture to the exclusion of others may not be such a good idea in a world whose borders are shrinking. Moreover, a healthy exchange of ideas is the only way to progress.

While the Mizos may not feel any great loss about the absence of a newspaper in the English language because they can all read the local language newspapers, it is the rest of the world that wants to understand Mizoram, to know what Mizos think, to understand their world view and to learn something about their cultural moorings.

Closed culture

A study of people and societies has always engaged sociologists and anthropologists across the universe. But from what one has been able to gather, very little has been written about the Mizos by non-Mizos. We might say this is good but such writings cannot be as objective as when our histories and cultures are written about by people outside of our societies. A glance at the national and regional newspapers is enough to tell us that not much goes out of Mizoram for others to read.

While news agencies like PTI and UNI do have correspondents in Mizoram, they report on politics and other news stories. But this is not how a society interfaces with others. Every society produces writers who interpret the society to others and to themselves. Granted that most tribal societies are very possessive about their cultures and wish to project the best to the world, the truth is that only those societies with the courage for self-introspection can progress on a positive trajectory. The more we insulate ourselves from others the more likely we are to develop institutions that are oppressive and regressive.

Let us look at the Young Mizo Association (YMA) which is viewed by every Mizo as the hallmark of everything good and noble because of the social responsibilities that the organisation takes upon itself. But does any Mizo dare to critique the YMA? I am afraid not. So we have a sort of oligarchy here too as we have in other tribal societies.

If the Nagas, Khasis and Garos have traditional institutions that are exclusive and parochial, for the Mizos, the YMA represents that exclusivity and parochialism. Is the average Mizo happy about the way their society is regulated? Maybe, some are, but many aren't. The question is whether those who are unhappy with the way in which their personal lives are regulated by social diktats can voice their dissent without consequences. At this point it is difficult even for educated Mizos not to tread the path chalked out by such social institutions.

Coming to the media and how Mizos interface among themselves, one learnt from conversation with Mizo friends that the electronic media is very vibrant in Mizoram. Television audiences send text messages and regular feedback to the respective news channels. They lambast the government and point out acts of corruption happening in districts, blocks and villages. This informs us that Mizo society is actively engaged in the modern political and democratic processes and they understand the power of the media.

Women's rights

But what about the social sanctions? What is the position of a Mizo woman? In the light of the 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in state Assembles and Parliament, how prepared is the Mizo woman to come out and claim her rights? It is not easy for women who have grown up in the lap of patriarchy to suddenly leave those moorings behind and take to politics like a fish takes to water. However, that will eventually have to happen. The point is whether Mizo women want political empowerment. The reason one poses this question is because one hears so little about what Mizo women think. But why only Mizo women? It is difficult to get anyone from Mizoram to speak at seminars and workshops outside their own state. It would be safe to assume therefore that there is also a certain amount of academic insularity apart from social and political padding.

Mizo women are enterprising business promoters. In some parts of Shillong they run roaring businesses selling stuff that come across the Myanmar border. They bring most of the products all the way from Mizoram. This requires no mean skill, plus grit and sweat. If they can do all that, what makes us think they will not venture into politics? The point is they need to make a start somewhere. They need to grab the moment. Mizo women need to start now.

There are many attributes that Mizo society can be proud of. Of all the tribes they are the most hardworking people. They have come out on top in most careers. There are some outstanding scholars and academicians who can hold their own in any national or international gathering. Mizo society has produced a number of civil servants both from the administrative and allied services. There are no dearth of doctors, engineers and IT professionals. In terms of commerce, the Mizos show good transactional skills. Recently, Mizoram got into the Guinness World Records for their cheraw dance where 10,376 dancers performed with such joy and pride.

Restricted life

Yet there is something very restrictive and regulatory about life in Mizoram. The church has an almost claustrophobic hold over people's lives. Drug addiction and alcoholism in a state declared officially dry and highly religious are ambivalence that is difficult to reconcile. Not that drug addiction is endemic to Mizoram. It is a problem that besets all of the Northeast. But while other societies attribute drug addiction to the unresolved traumas of adolescence, the Mizos are ruthless in dealing with drug addicts. The society is almost unforgiving with them. Drug addiction is seen through the prism of a moral paradigm only when actually it is an illness that afflicts the psyche. It requires sensitive handling, not societal reprimands.

There are vigilante groups in Mizoram which have taken it upon themselves to be moral policemen. Such action is undemocratic. Mizos do not generally welcome anything written about their societal aberrations in a language that others can understand. They believe in internal regulations and external cocooning. An English language media would pry into societal affairs, which would reach out to a larger audience. Already there are enterprising young Mizos engaged in media and communications work based in the national capital. They want to penetrate the bamboo curtain in their home state. Will they succeed?

This is a million-dollar question. But the Mizo people have to learn to reach out and to appreciate that progress comes when cultures intermingle. Nothing about human behaviour is pristine. And culture is nothing but learned human behaviour over a period of history.

This little known state needs to be known and studied by its neighbours and by the world.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)

The Telegraph

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