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DOES a successful peace accord ensure peace? For close to two decades now, the Rajiv Gandhi-Laldenga Mizo Peace Accord has been hailed as an example of statesmanship, a triumph of sensible politics which managed to bring an insurgent group, the Mizo National Front, into the political mainstream. Not only did Laldenga become chief minister, meeting at least partially the Mizo aspiration for self-rule, on losing the subsequent elections he and his followers accepted the verdict and did not return to the path of the gun, agreeing to sit in opposition. Surely, this marked a first for a region once wracked by insurgency. On his death Laldenga received a state funeral, celebrated as a patriot, not someone who had taken up arms against the Indian state.

It almost appears that becoming part of the political mainstream implies mimicking the political culture of the heartland. True, there are regular elections. But these are accompanied by the usual horse-trading of legislators, a widespread distrust of the political class, endemic corruption and a general disregard of the problems of the common citizen. If these are markers of normality, then Mizoram is normal. The fact that public money, most of it central subsidy, is squandered with little to show for it does not seem to disturb the rulers in Delhi. All that matters is that ‘insurgency’ becomes a matter of the past. A few hundred crores to ‘buy-off’ local elites is evidently a small price to safeguard ‘the unity and integrity’ of the nation.

Few in Delhi seem concerned about the developments in this far-off, small border state. Mizoram’s parliamentary representation is much too small to influence central politics. It’s people seem too different to impinge on the consciousness of those who man the Indian state. A combination of subsidy and an overwhelming presence of armed forces serves as the ‘carrot and stick’ to ensure peace.

To, however, read the seeming quiet as peace would be an error. Resentment about the role of Delhi runs deep and anti-India sentiments are openly expressed. With little effort to develop physical infrastructure and market links with the rest of the country, it is hardly surprising that the people feel neglected, if not forgotten. Only if there is a violent incident, of the kind that happened in Manipur, do our politicians wake up.

There seems little attempt to bridge the divide between the Mizo and non-Mizo people. With most professional positions occupied by ‘outsiders’ and markets controlled by external capital, the resentment only deepens. The fact that most outsiders continue to see themselves as outsiders, their jobs as punishment postings, hardly helps. Efforts at indigenisation, often through a reservation of positions for ‘locals’, are seem as sacrificing merit and efficiency. And in the absence of a more general upgradation of local capacity and skills, there are no backwash effects. A vast majority continues to feel left out, distrusting not only the ‘outsider’ but also the emerging local elite.

All this may seem par for course. The situation in the newly carved out central Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, both with overwhelming tribal populations and with a history of anti-outsider sentiment, is no different. If Mizoram excites greater attention, it is only because of its geographical location. Given the steady, ‘illegal’ immigration of Bangladeshis, and the consequent changes in ethnic demography, the likelihood of a communal conflagration cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, given the communal-secular grid governing discourse, a rational engagement with the problem seems difficult.

A combination of neglect, low development of physical and social infrastructure, poorly evolved markets, high unemployment and under-employment and the presence of ‘unwelcome’ outsiders makes for an explosive cocktail. More alarming is the veritable distrust of political-state institutions and actors, with civil society virtually hegemonised by the Church and non-state organizations like the Mizo Students Front. With the Church issuing fatwas on matters like illegal bootlegging and the use and sale of drugs, both widespread, and the MSF taking upon itself to discipline offenders, we may be witnessing the growth of a vigilante culture. True, Mizoram today is not troubled by armed insurgency or extortion of the kind common is Nagaland and Manipur. Nevertheless, the growth of non-state formations willing to use force to enforce their dictat should be a matter of concern.

Today, as we celebrate the return of normality in strife-torn J&K, there is need to learn from the experiences of the North East and rework a fresh engagement with the peoples of the region. Otherwise, the seeming quiet may only be a prelude to the resumption of violence. Just crafting peace accords and handing power over to the local oligarchs is insufficient to normalize the social environment, far less ensure a harmonious integration.

Harsh Sethi

 

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