Friday, August 15, 2008

India at 61: What freedom means to me as a Chakma

By - Paritosh Chakma

As India celebrates her 61st year of independence from the British rule, emotions run high in the minds and hearts of every Indian.

At the birth of independent India at the midnight of 14th August 1947, Pandit Nehru spoke about India’s “tryst with destiny”. The destiny, as I understand it, is the ultimate establishment of a real democracy where all are equal and free from wants. Alas, as we all know, this has not been realized thus far. The goal is too far yet…..

What is freedom? The poem of Rabindranath Tagore comes to my mind:

WHERE the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

How true he was but the country failed to awake.

As the whole nation celebrates the Independence Day, today I am disgusted and a bit frustrated by the sorry state of affairs of my community people in the state of Mizoram, which is thought out to be one of the best governed states in the country.

I must pour out my angst and frustrations as a method of protest against the system, the rulers and type of governance which is solely responsible for such a pitiful state of the Chakmas of Mizoram.

In Mizoram there exists an “exclusionist structure” which systematically excludes the minorities of various kinds – religious, ethnic, and linguistic. We seem to extol the “unity in diversity” features of Indian democracy, but the extent of intolerance to “difference” (in religion, ethnicity, and language, among others) is very high in this tiny state in the North East.

The majority must learn to tolerate and accept the different cultures, customs, languages and religious beliefs which the population of Mizoram practices.

But, the truth is discrimination of the minority by the majority is systematic, often state sponsored, endemic and omnipresent.

There has been a tactical shift in the policies of suppression against the Chakmas. The Chakmas no longer face physical attacks or arson of their villages as openly as had been done by the majority in 1990s. Now, the attacks have been more subtle. The “covert assaults” suit to the image of Mizoram as a peaceful and progressive state.

The art of persecuting the minorities has been perfected by Mizoram, not Gujarat which has come under international criticisms for state sponsored massacre of over 2,000 Muslims in 2002. Surely, Mizoram has long ago understood that economic and social subjugation of the Chakmas would be the best tool to assault them – not physical attacks.

As a result of the continued state policies, the Chakmas who are the second largest ethnic, religious and linguistic minority group are the poorest in the state. They live in tattered bamboo houses under unhygienic conditions.

In the modern times, the jhum (traditional practice of agriculture of the Chakmas) has seen a gradual decrease in production due to rapid decrease of fertile forest land. In addition, long ago – perhaps with a strategic point in mind – the government had declared the forests around the Chakma habitations as “reserved forests” depriving the Chakma villagers the right to livelihood. For over two decades the Chakmas have ignored the government’s policies. But now they have begun to feel the pinch. The reserve forests have made the Chakmas vulnerable to arrest and harassment by the police as they would be forced to venture into these forbidden areas. Their vulnerability has ever since increased many fold as their need for more virgin forest lands increased due to rise in the population and decrease in food production.

Also, the policies of the government (however positive) to combat global warming could be disastrous to the survival of the Chakmas. Burning down of forests surely contributes to global warming but in the absence of any alternate sources of livelihood the Chakmas have been totally left in the lurch. I attach to the great importance of preserving the environment, but the government has failed to strike a fair balance between the need to protect nature and environment and the need to protect the Chakmas, who are minority in the state.

The government of Mizoram does not establish schools on its own, it is the villagers who first run schools for years before the government recognizing these schools.

The problem is the poor villagers cannot be expected to be able to fund higher education, including secondary education. In the absence of high schools in Chakma areas, students do not know what to do.

Worst, even the educated Chakma youths do not get state government jobs and are not likely to get because of various Recruitment Rules enacted by the state government which have made it mandatory for the candidates to have studied “Mizo” (language) as a subject up to the Middle School level. Chakma youths who have all the qualifications hence do not qualify. Prima facie this is discriminatory. While a Chakma candidate may be speaking Mizo language fluently, he or she will have to face rejection on the basis of not having Mizo subject upto Middle School standard. While it may be easy to learn the state language for a Chakma, it is not possible for his already graduate to add the Mizo subject in his Class VII marksheet, can he? While one may argue that all Chakmas of Mizoram must study Mizo subject in school level, the problem is what about those who go outside the state for studies. It is a fact that hundreds of Chakma children are studying in schools outside Mizoram where Mizo subject is not taught. It is different matter after all as to why the Chakmas are being forced to learn the Mizo literature subject?

It is not difficult to see how the Chakmas are caught in the net. There are no prospects for higher studies required for getting jobs, and even the educated youths are not likely to end up with a job under the state government due to the discriminatory Recruitment Rules. This means the Chakmas who have already been facing the wrath of economic suppression will remain to ever more struggle for survival. On the other hand, the stalking of diseases coupled with absolute lack of medical facilities in the rural areas will make the Chakmas all the more susceptible to threats to their lives.

Under these circumstances, you do not need to kill the Chakmas en masse like the Hindu government in Gujarat did. The government of Mizoram is giving the Chakmas a slow death with its policies of economic and social subjugation and systematic methods of deprivation, discrimination and neglect, which are undercurrent, imbibed in the very veins of the social and political structure of Mizoram.

This single line may aptly describe the present situation of the Chakmas in Mizoram – “Where the mind is full of fear, how can the head hold high?

The fear comes from the “exclusionist structure” existent in Mizoram.

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