About a year ago, Kuki-Chin-Mizo words representing some ethnicities were known to some of us in Bangladesh but did not raise anybody's eyebrows. Only after having restrictions in travelling and tourism in parts of our picturesque Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the name KNF has surfaced to our horror. It denotes Kuki Chin National Front that had formed an armed insurgent group of estimated 2,000 young men and women who demand to be protected as an ethnicity with all elements of development other Bangladeshis deserve and get. It is very well understood that they must be having patronage from their ethnic brethren from across the border or some other international players. CHT incidentally has borders with both India's Mizoram and Tripura and Myanmar's Chin and Rakhine States. Protecting ethnicities with their language, culture, lifestyle, food habits and special ways of life is a modern nation’s obligation and duty. United Nations calls for that.
Then why all of a sudden the KNF had to resort to arms is definitely a serious point to ponder. The more so, when we hear that they are training a radical extremist group named Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya to earn money. Bangladesh forces are seriously tackling the joint menace but even after this armed extremism is taken care of, serious thoughts have to be given to the ethnic minorities issues of CHT. They have to be taken into confidence, brought to the same level of development as their other compatriots and, at the same time, their tradition of ethnicity should be guarded and preserved with care and love. Unity in diversity should be our policy and not total unity by sheer majority.
Now let us put the currently burning politico-military situation a little aside and put some attention into the history of this people. Mizo people are belonging to Kuki Chin tribe and their language belongs to Tibeto Birman group. All the Kuki Chin people were and still are divided into many clans or sub ethnicities. But all of them claim their origin to be Sinlung or Chinglung. Their history, legends and language remained in oral form for centuries. Some of them have written form now for a century and above, thanks to missionary educationists. Sinlung is either a common predecessor or up the river in China wherefrom these people originated. In the beginning, they mostly settled in Chin territory of Burma. Later as their way of living "Zhum cultivation culture" led them, they dispersed in large uninhabited areas of Mizoram, Chittagong Hills and other adjacent areas of India and Burma.
Mizo in their language means highlanders. So, from the Kuki Chin people living in Mizoram under Assam district of British India, the Lushai, Khiangte, Pankgkho, Bawm, Mro, Khumi, Bnei, Menashe, Zomi, Kuki, Mara and others grouped into their common ethnicity. They worked out a common language with the help of the British government who in turn resorted to missionaries. Thus, the Mizos of Mizoram embraced modern life moving away from their primitive lifestyle. The 100% animist population turned to Christianity, mostly Presbytarian and Baptists.
On my recent visit to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram it seemed to me a more western city than an Indian. It is a beautiful hilly city perched in the layers of different hills that make up the city. In the evening when darkness settles in after sunset, the inhabited parts of the city take a mesmerizing look with lights turned on. It looked like a dream city from our Aijal Club room. It is just at the centre of the city and the most happening place. The Rajbhavan was just next door with the Mizoram Legislative assembly at a stone's throw. The national Mizo leader Lal Denga's samadhi is just opposite to the assembly. It was Lal Denga who united and led the Mizo people starting in the 1960s after a famine in the then district Lushai Hills of Assam caused havoc and was grossly mishandled by the government.
Lal Denga's socio cultural movement demanding ethnic and economic rights was met with force and he turned to armed struggle for realisation of their demands. Of course it was fuelled by the then Pakistani government and they used to give the Indian government a very tough time. Lal Denga even formed a Mizoram government in exile running it from Chittagong Hill Tracts. Mizo National Front was so close to Pakistan that their units even fought against the Liberation of Bangladesh - casualties being on both the sides. Finally, after the liberation of Bangladesh, the MNF lost its safe heaven. Indian government also took prudent decision and Mizoram was taken into Central government's hold. MNF was taken into confidence and brought to democratic Indian politics throwing off arms. Finally, Mizoram became a state, Lal Denga being the first Chief Minister. During the trip, I met several persons who or whose immediate relatives were in the ranks of MNF fighting in the CHT. Mizoram is very peaceful now.
We were lucky to enjoy Chapchar Kut, the biggest Mizo festival during our stay. They observe it just before starting cultivation. When their traditional zhum cultivation land is ready, they perform Chapchar Kut, enjoy merrymaking and pray for a good harvest. The whole population come out on the streets in their brilliantly colourful attire, greet each other and hold different competitions. The main performance is of Cheraw Dance (bamboo dance). They prepare festive meals and indigenous drinks. Recently, the state has been declared dry, so one has to be cautious not to be caught drinking alcohol in public.
In Mizoram, there are between 10 and 12 hundred thousand Kuki Chins whereas in Myanmar's Chin state it is about half that number. In Bangladesh, the population of the Kuki Chin ethnicities together may be estimated as not exceeding 300,000. Moreover, Mizos and other Kuki Chin ethnicities live in other areas around the geographical regions mentioned above. They are seen, though in smaller numbers in Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Sagaing and other districts of Myanmar.
Our government should be very cautious in handling the KNF issue. We have to understand that a political or ethnic problem cannot have a military solution. So, we have to segregate Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya and such other forces from the Kuki Chins by whatever means suitable. Then the government should bring the ethnic minorities who had been living in our hills for centuries to negotiating table. Listen to them with patience and solve their problems as per internationally accepted norms.
Let's hope there will be peace in our hills soon and tourism will kick start without much delay.
The writer is a columnist