Friday, June 26, 2009

Lalthanhawla's Singapore Bomb On Racism

By Subir Bhaumik

Did Mizoram chief minister Pu Lalthanhawla cross his Laxmanrekha at Singapore this month when he spoke at the the local Waterweek festival ? I would imagine, the answer is yes and no. We have no transcript of his speech - or a written copy, so Lalthanhawla can always say he was misquoted by the media - the usual escape route for publicity-seeking politician who shoot their mouth a bit too far. But Indian diplomats in Singapore do confirm that much that has been attributed to Lalthanhawla was actualkly said by him. The Mizoram chief minister, whose Congress party staged a grand comeback by sweeping the state assembly polls this year, said three things, according to the diplomats who were present. He said people from Mizoram and Northeast were victim of discrimination elsewhere in India, that people elsewhere in India did not even think they were Indians and that he was as much an Indian as anybody else in this country. He somewhat overstepped his limits when he used the word "racial discrimination" to describe the troubles people from Northeast faced elsewhere in India.
I see nothing really wrong with his remarks. It is true most of our Mongoloid-looking brothers and sisters are not seen as "proper Indians" elsewhere in India. Many in Delhi or Bombay or down south would mistake them for being Nepalis or Chinese. They also face a lot of trouble in places like Delhi, where a large number of Northeastern girls have been raped, molested or taken advantage of. Their distinct and somewhat westernised lifestyle and clothes often give our "mainland" brothers the wrong impression - that they are easy to have. And they face this because they are seen as different. It is a lot of ignorance and quite a lot of bias that goes to create such a situation. Even Shahrukh Khan understood (In Chak De India movie) this problem when he potrayed the trouble faced by the two tribal girls from Manipur in his world-beating Indian woman hockey team - initially these two girls were told by the heavy and huge Punjabi defender that they should have learnt Punjabi before they came to Delhi.
The neglect of Northeast by successive Indian government is further compound by the way the people of mainland India look at the region. So Lalthanhawla clearly spoke the truth when he said that he was seen as a Nepali down south and that he was as much Indian as anybody else. What he perhaops did not say but could well have is that he had to pay the price of being an Indian - specially as a Congressman in the days of the MNF separatist insurgency when Mizos loyal to India were killed or harassed.

But Lalthanhawla made the mistake of context. He said all he did before an international audience and in the context of the racist attacks on Indian students in Australia.
The Australians deserve the strongest condemnation for what is happening in that country and it is not expected that a senior Indian politician, wherever he comes from, will help them get off the hook by an off-the-cuff remark. Lalthanhawla and many, many of his Mizo brothers, one must remember, are beneficiarcies of the Indian system. He has been the chief minister and scores of Mizos now man important positions in Indian bureaucracy, police and other public services and the armed forces.
But I have a much bigger criticism to make. Lalthanhawla should look within his own society in Mizoram to see how racism pervades his own state. The Mizos fought India for twenty years to get freedom. They finally settled for a separate state. But look at the way they treat their own minorities - the Chakmas, the Brus and the rest.

That is what late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi reminded MNF chief Laldenga in 1987 when Laldenga pushed for abolition of the Chakma district council. "If you Mizos want justice from India, give justice to your own minorities, the Chakmas," Rajiv Gandhi reminded Laldenga. Look at what is happening to the nearly 30000 Brus (Reangs) who have been driven out of Mizoram by the likes of the Youngnmen Christian Association - for nearly twelve years, successive Mizoram governments have refused to take them back saying they were not Mizoram residents. That is a big lie. I was in Tripura and witnessed personally the first exodus of the Brus when they first started fleeing West Mizoram into Tripura's Kanchanpur area in October 1997. I know for a fact that most of these Brus are long term residents of Mizoram. But Lalthanhawla's predecessor Zoramthanga clearly told me in a BBC interview in 2002 - "These Brus are Reangs, they are from Tripura, they have their Rajas, they are not Mizos.
Ofcourse they are not Mizos. But who said all residents of Mizoram have to be Mizos. They are Lais, the Maras, the Chakmas, the Brus and the Chins in Mizoram - they are not Mizos but they are residents of Mizoram. No Mizo political party has any sympathy for them. All Mizo political leaders behave as if these minorities dont deserve even the right to stay in Mizoram. Government employees there can strike off the name of even a former Chakma minister of Mizoram government S.P.Dewan from the voter's list.
The minority grievances against Mizo racist domination gave way to greater unity among themselves and their organisation even demanded the creation of a Union territory in South Mizoram by uniting the Pawi, Lakher and Chakma district council.
So Pu Lalthanhawla, before he started blaming India for not doing justice to Northeast, should get his act together on the minority issue and give justice to the Chakmas, brus and the rest of the non-Mizo minorities. Charity, Pu Lalthanhawla, begins at home. Take back the Brus from Tripura and give them back their lost homes before you blame Indians for "racial discrimination" against Mizos or Northeasterns. Atleast mainland Indian people can be blamed for ignorance when they think you are Nepali . But Mizos know their minority - and the chief minister should take the lead in giving them justice if he feels so strongly about racial equality.

Photos : Survival International, Biplob Rahman, Unicef and PTI

(Subir Bhaumik is the BBC's East India Correspondent and a known Northeast India specialist)