This paper is a researcher’s travelogue. It narrates Snehashish Mitra’s journey to some of the towns and markets along the Mizoram-Myanmar border. The stories, of travel through the hills and valleys and encounter with the people and commodities, depict the porosity of the Indo-Myanmar border. These stories also draw our attention to issues like cross border migration, overlapping ethnicities and the nature of frontier urbanization in Mizoram.
For my research assignment on ‘frontier urbanisation’ in Northeast India I had to undertake fieldwork in a town by the border in Northeast India. The town of Moreh in Manipur, located along the Indo-Myanmar border has received considerable attention till now. Therefore as I looked for an alternative town on the Northeastern borders, my peers suggested me to visit the town of Champhai in Mizoram. Mizoram is one of India’s eastern most state which shares border with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Champhai town is the headquarter of Champhai district, which is situated within 30 kms from the Indo-Myanmar border. Mizoram was the only state in the region which I didn’t visit until then, which acted as an added impetus while duly obliging the suggestion.
Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram is located around 20 km from the Lengpui airport for which the private cabs charge Rs 1000. Fellow traveler Robert Malsawma, who is a Mizo contractor based in Aizawl, offered me a lift in his car when he came to know I was alone and was on my maiden trip to Mizoram. Conversation with him and his family members proved to be very informative. I learnt the etymology of Aizawl (Ai means a local fruit and zawl means plain in Mizo language), and the fact that Mizo names of the male members end with ‘a’ and that of female members end with ‘i’, for example Vanlalruata and Vanlalruahii. Mizos are affiliated to the broader group of Zo people under which multiple tribes are spread across Southeast Asia, though the categorization is contested by different tribes within the fold in different time periods. One of the prominent travel etiquettes of Mizoram is that vehicles will honk only when it’s the last avail. The adroitness of the drivers is scary at times when they confidently inch past newcomers like us from the plains, who expect car-honks at every junction. My friend Engkima from Mizoram University introduced me to the local Mizo cigarette known as Zozial, made from locally grown tobacco. Across the streets in Aizawl men and women were mostly smoking Zozial rather than the packed cigarettes imported from outside.
[Cover image: A local market by the highway between Lengpui and Aizawl selling mostly locally grown products.]
The next day I left for Champhai town. This time I was given a lift by Robert’s relative Sangtea Zote. En-route we crossed some of the beautiful towns and settlements such as Khawzawl, Keifang and Seling. The settlements in Mizoram are highly consolidated when compared with other states in the region due to the village regrouping scheme undertaken by the Indian Army to counter the Mizo Nationalist Uprising.
[Road construction near Seling, between Aizawl and Champhai.]
While travelling through the hills on the way to Champhai, one could witness multiple activities like jhum cultivation and stone quarry, the former for the sake of sustenance, the latter for the purpose of supplying the increasing constructions mainly related to infrastructures. Another visible aspect along the journey was the functioning of multiple development agencies of Government of India. The recently formulated ‘Swacch Bharat Mission’ was widely promoted and the presence of public urinals at regular intervals was noticeable.
[Local market supported by NABARD.]
Upon reaching Champhai, over the next few days I conducted my fieldwork by visiting multiple government offices, collecting data, and interviewing businessmen, government officials. While every respondent was more than helpful, the most memorable instance occurred when I witnessed a seizure of 220kg pangolin scale consignment in the office of the excise department. The consignment was bound for Myanmar where it would fetch Rs 70,000/kg and from where there onwards it would most likely make its way to China where the price rises to Rs 1,00,000/kg. The drug peddlers were apprehended at the Champhai police check post, they were two Mizo women from Myanmar. The porous border between Mizoram and the Chin state of Myanmar makes smuggling of arms, gold, drugs (mostly heroin) and wildlife organs, a profitable venture. As most of the cross-border trade activities are informal in nature, smuggling becomes difficult to contain. Moreover the commonalities of ethnicity and religion on either side of the border make it difficult to gauge the citizenship of people. One of my respondents in Champhai, a local school teacher said
The population of Champhai is around 35,000 out of which 35% are of Myanmarese origin. You can gauge the origin particularly during Christmas when they go back to their native places in the Chin state to celebrate. They also manage to get hold of the ‘pemlekha’, a letter certifying their earlier place of residence by the local headman, which has to be submitted to the local unit of Young Mizo Association (YMA). We are unsure about how to react as they share our ethnicity and religion. Also they speak the Mizo language considerably better than us, like it’s in the written text.
Such narratives depict the dilemma among the Mizo society in Mizoram with regards to how to reconcile with the presence of their ethnic brethrens from their neighborhoods. As the narrative suggests, the Young Mizo Association (YMA) plays an influential role in the Mizo society. Just beside the circuit house where I put up, a mike was put on a pole through which the YMA would convey important news and availability of government schemes. I was invited to attend a death ceremony organized by the Bethel YMA unit of Champhai, the YMA was in charge of logistics and arrangement of the ceremony which was well attended by the residents of the locality.
[Seized pangolin scale in the excise department office in Champhai.]
[View of the outskirts of Champhai on a sunny day.]
[A mike installed in one of the neighbourhoods in Champhai. ]
Zokawthar is the village on the Indo-Myanmar border which is situated within 30kms from Champhai. The 30 km trip to Zokawthar was a travel on a non-existent road and it was an open space subjected to nature’s wills which we were traversing. Recently the World Bank has sanctioned funds for construction of the road and work has started in several stretches. However it’s during this journey I came across a migration pattern about which I was unaware of. John and Joseph were my co-passengers in the car which leaves from Champhai at 7am for Zokawthar. As I got to talking with them, I figured out they could converse in English. John hails from Champhai and Joseph Hlap from Falam district in the Chin state of Myanmar. Both of them were studying theological studies for 6 years in Kerala and had returned home only after completion of their course. While both of them are Mizo, Joseph said he belong to the Falam tribe which falls under the broad ethnic umbrella of Mizo. For Joseph it was nearly a 6 days journey from Cochin to Falam by train and roadways, comprising of a 2 night train journey from Cochin to Guwahati, followed by a 15 hour car ride to Aizawl. Joseph said that many Mizos from Myanmar are studying and working in India, mainly in Southern India and he is particularly fond of Bengaluru.
Upon reaching Zokawthar we crossed over to Khawmawi village in Mynamar by crossing a bridge over the Tiao River. The weather was much warmer than the hilly Champhai as Zokawthar-Khawmawi has a valley like topography. We were greeted by the Burmese women sporting tanakha on their face which is supposed to prevent sunburn and the Burmese male adorning lungis. Khawmawi has multiple liquor shops which are frequented by customers from Mizoram as liquor was banned in Mizoram till 2015 and thereafter rationed. From Khawmawii one can visit the Rih Dil lake which holds a special place in Mizo mythology as the deceased soul is supposed to visit the Rih Dil lake before departing for heaven. As we parted I exchanged my contact with Joseph, he assured me that I can stay at his place if I visit Falam.
[River Tiao flowing between India and Myanmar in Zokawthar.]
[Liquor shop in Khawmawii village, Myanmar.]
[Diluted Borders: A portrait of Aung Saan Suu Kyi in a shop in Zokawthar, Mizoram.]
The day after, I embarked on my return journey to Aizawl. This time we stopped in Kawlkulh ‘O’ Point to have our lunch where I had the staple ‘chow and voksa’ (rice and pork). The fellow travelers understood English but were uncomfortable when it came to speaking, regardless they asked about my purpose of visit and from where I am from in Mizo, and guessing their tone I replied using common English words like office, work, good, etc. They offered me local fruits and herbs which were supposed to help in digestion of the food. Some of the car drivers conversed with me in broken Hindi, though they would listen to popular English numbers throughout the journey. They would show a sign of appreciation when I would offer them a cigarette from a cigarette pack, which I had to buy reluctantly in Champhai as loose cigarettes are not sold in Champhai.
Being one of the few states in the region which has witnessed sustained peace, much has changed in Mizoram after the armed Mizo Nationalist Uprising against India Movement which concluded with the Mizo Accord. Perhaps much more will be changing in the coming days with increased cross border trade and communication. An improved infrastructure would also enhance the interests of tourists who desire to explore the highland societies. The recent victory of the soccer club Aizawl FC in the I-League was a testament to the nurturing of the indigenous talent in Mizoram over the last few decades which was possible due to the dual factor of infrastructure and sustained peace. As a Ghoti (hailing from western parts of Bengal) Bengali I have always been a supporter of Mohunbagan FC. However, when Aizawl FC hosted Mohunbagan FC in the decisive fixture, I found myself cheering for the underdogs on paper. Perhaps it was the aftereffect of the warm hospitality offered by the Mizos throughout the journey in Mizoram, while at the back of my mind it played out that achieving the victory in may partially overturn the wrongdoings faced by the Mizos during the days of Mizo Nationalist Movement. On my way back to Kolkata, I managed to fly in a packet of Zozial back home, to share it among my known-circle, as one of the many things that Mizoram has to offer.
All the photos are by the author.
Snehashish Mitra is a doctoral candidate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He has been associated with the Calcutta Research Group and has worked on multiple issues of Northeast India over the last few years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is an outcome of the research project titled Social Mapping of Logistics, Infrastructure and India’s Look East Policy conducted by Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group in collaboration with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.