‘As Mizo as I could be’: Territorial gatekeepers and the social suffering of Chins in Aizawl.

Zion street.JPG

Lallian Thangsing complicates the idea of being a Mizo (a native of the Indian state of Mizoram) with the aid of the displaced people, the Chins.

Popular Mizo media has increasingly showcased the idea of being Mizo in a way that represents the embodied ‘high’ culture and cross-border connections through economic, symbolic and objectified capital (Bordieu, 1986) that Mizos have appropriated. These enactments have been critical markers and “cultural strategies” for the Chins, as they mostly live in dire poverty in Aizawl, and these “cosmopolitan embellishments” are seen as qualifiers in their everyday social engagement and negotiations with the state. Although not strenuously imposed, the embodied modern culture has the ability to generate new meanings in the everyday practice. In the present discourse, the Mizoram government sanctioned festivals namely the Zo Fest, Chhinlung Cultural Fest and Zofa Cultural Fest which are celebrated beyond the borders of Mizoram. These exclusive fetes are viewed as one of the ways for upholding the continuity of shared historical identity between the Mizos and Chins.

The commonplace ‘pervasive narrative’ of Chins fleeing their homeland due to the violent oppression by the Burmese military Junta after the political coup and hosted by Mizo is constantly at play (Son & Singh, 2016). On the contrary, the patronage of the aforementioned fete has masked the different episodic ruptures and disturbing past that contest and mar the fraternity. I locate these issues of conflicts and contestations after the July incident in 2003 where a rumour regarding a rape incident by a person of Burmese origin spread like wild fire across Mizoram and led to mass deportation and physical torture of Chins by the state government and police. Some of them fled to places as far as New Delhi while others sought refuge with their relatives in the villages in Myanmar.

A form of violent gatekeeping was launched by the non-state actors, predominantly by YMA (Young Mizo Association, a non government civic institution with the highest number of members in Mizoram) and interestingly only after the violence escalated that the state authorities directed the law agencies to prosecute the Chins under the Foreigners Act of 1946. What is distinct here were the ways in which the state authorities devised new modes of controlling subjects. In a similar vein, Poole’s (2013) argument on the Eritrean state reveals how the state has developed ‘new’ gatekeeping strategies that operate in and through porous borders and which encompass transnational kinship networks as agents. The events in Aizawl suggest that the state authorities attribute a lackadaisical position towards the Chin during their mass deportation and the YMA rhetoric come in handy for driving out the Chins. As reported by the Chin Human Rights Organization, the Chins were unwittingly entangled between the vested interest of state’s two political parties namely the Indian National Congress and Mizo National Front who want to use the Chin population for as vote bank where they are duly accepted and rejected over time. (Biaklian et.al 2004)

At present, the numbers of Chins have seemingly decreased in Mizoram as political situations are assumed to have improved in Myanmar’s Chin state. However, a substantial number of Chins are still in Aizawl. During my fieldwork, I wanted to enquire about whether the Burmese Chins living in Aizawl were able to exercised their agency, besides their coping mechanisms in the prevailing situation of subordination and occasional threats of violence.

An interrogation of this process necessitates an ethnographic fieldwork, as it is accompanied by an inter-discursive connection of events that informs and also questions these seemingly convivial relationships. One of the challenges for me as a researcher was unearthing the unsettling accounts of suffering in the aftermath of deportation. This therefore highlighted the need for further interrogation of the popular myths and taken-for-granted assumptions  and brought to light the obscure operations of power and control. While referring to the suffering subjects, Robbin’s (2013) suggests that it is possible to delineate multiple lines of inquiry, although small or marginal  may be poised to come together in a new focus on how people living in different societies strive to create the good in their lives. The Chins assertion of the term ‘Chhulkhat Chhuak’ (common ancestry) to the pan-Zo identity does provide an alternative space for rebuilding trust, inclusion and acceptance. However, they are fearful of being deported again because of their legal status. While endeavoring to be part of the Mizo culture and striving for the some good in their lives, these performances involved an elusive path which later points to a form of cultural violence. However, this is not to suggest that Chins do not integrate with the Mizo society.

‘As Mizo as I could Be’:

One of my interviews was with the parking fee collector Pu Muana, a man in his mid fifties who has been living in Aizawl for the past 25 years but had to flee due to forced labour in Myanmar. His story is a testament to the suffering, pain and agony as manifested in the excerpt of the interview given below:

During the mass deportation, I was beaten up by young men at Chandmari locality asking me to leave the same evening […] then I fled to a village with just a sack of clothes […]. While cutting timber in the village bordering Manipur and Mizoram, I slowly realised I have had backpain possibly because of the beating and later I was unable to work. You know you are useless as nobody welcomes you if you cannot work in the fields or cut timber in villages, I […] came back to Aizawl with my wife and two kids to look after when situation turns normal. We work from 9am to 9pm except on Sundays. We took membership at Methodist church as the Presbyterian church is full of politics and I am unable to contribute. The church proceedings are in Mizo and I am still part of the Mizo population, speaking Mizo and a member of YMA. But in Mizoram, the term foreign is widely used even by common people.

Time and again foreigners’ identity have entailed subordination and violence. While navigating for alignment and membership in pursuit of good, the idea of being ‘Kristian Mizo’ (Christian Mizo) which has a long tradition reflects the identity of Mizo, as a territorially anchored community (Pachuau, 2014).

Consider the conversation I observed between two Chin women and a man at the outskirts of Aizawl. I was on my way to a place where Chins from Teddim were concentrated, and I had to pass through a small river where three of them were washing clothes. At first they talked in the Mizo dialect. The man who has been directing me to the place convinced them that it was not risky, and assured them that I can be trusted. From then on the conversation switched to Zomi Teddim dialect. The precarious hold on life as a result of fluid ethnic identities makes the refugees emotionally unstable, and fear the state as evident from the conversation.

It is intriguing to be witness to the experiences in which poverty and inequality, the telos of a long process of impoverishment, instability and violence, are conflated with ‘foreignness’. Very often this subtlety is not really a question of impulse, but rather a mode of perceiving and identifying differences. I argue that part of the problem lies with the ways in which the term culture is used, as the idea of culture often explains one’s authority and proximity to that culture. For instance, deception is said to be part of the culture that Chin migrants bring with them. Abuses of cultural concepts are particularly insidious in the discussions of suffering in general and of human rights abuses more specifically; and cultural difference is one of the several forms of essentialism used to explain assaults on dignity and suffering in general.

For Chins, a membership of the social organizations like YMA is seen as leveraging their positions on their everyday social relationships and not least to being a member of the Presbyterian Church. In Aizawl, being a member of the Presbyterian church does entail’s a moral code of decency, respectability and hierarchy. These become problematic for the Chins, as sweeping generalisations challenges those who are not at par with the prevailing moral standards and codes of behaviour. Gatekeepers like YMA intervene in such situations and the rhetoric of foreignness comes alive again. The imposition of cultural essentialism which more or less conforms to the idea of Kristian Mizo (Christian Mizo) overlooks heterogeneity as the assumed collective characteristics do not necessarily hold true for all the members in all circumstances.


Biak Lian, V., Mungleng, A., & Sutthiphong, K. (2004). Assessment report on Burmese refugees in Mizoram Chin Human Rights Organization. New Delhi: Chin Human Rights Organization.

Bourdieu, P. (2011). The forms of capital.(1986). Cultural theory: An anthology, (1): 81-93.

Pachuau, J. L. (2014). Being Mizo: Identity and Belonging in Northeast India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poole, A. (2013). Ransoms, Remittances, and Refugees: The Gatekeeper State in Eritrea. Africa Today 60(2): 66-82. Indiana University Press.

Robbins, J. (2013). Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good., In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) Royal Anthropological Institute. (19):447-462.

Son, B., & Singh, W. (2016). The Chin State-Mizoram border: Institutionalised xenophobia for State Control. In O. Suu-Ann, Myanmar’s Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes: Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds. Singapore: SEAS-YusofIshak Institute. 354

Photo by Lallian Thangsing on 20-11-2017 at Zion street, Aizawl.
Lallian Thangsing is a PhD candidate at Tata Institute Social Sciences, Guwahati and can be reach at lalliant@gmail.com.

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