07 / 2011
The Hmars are an indigenous tribal people in Northeast India. With the entrance of Christian missionaries in Northeast India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, modern elementary education was introduced to the Hmars, which awakened their socio-economic, cultural and political consciousness. Since 1951, they have been officially recognized as a tribal group by the Indian constitution (which uses the technical term Scheduled Tribe or ST). However, the area in which they live is not yet recognized by the Constitution (specifically the constitution’s Sixth Schedule, which lists official tribal areas), so they have little power in terms of self-governance and land rights.
According to the 2001 Census of India, there are approximately 83,400 Hmar speakers. However, there are many Hmar people who do not speak the language. It is very difficult to count the total number of Hmars because of their dispersion and settlement in different states of northeast India (including Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, with much of the population concentrated in the borders between these states), the classification of several Hmar clans as separate tribes, and the vagaries of census operations. Very rough estimates put the total Hmar population at about 200,000-300,000.
Hmars are generally considered to be part of the larger Mizo ethnic group. Hmars were the first settlers in what is now the state of Mizoram (“land of the Mizo people”), as can be seen by the Hmar names of many villages and rivers in the Champhai area of the state, bordering Myanmar. With the arrival of other Mizo groups, the Hmar spread out to other parts of the region. According to the 2001 census, the total Hmar population in Mizoram is 18,155, although this figure may overlook Hmars who do not speak the Hmar language.
This article details the movement for a separate Mizoram state and the struggle of Hmars within that state. Initially, many Hmars supported the Mizoram movement; however, when the state was finally created, Hmars found themselves marginalized. The Hmar struggle to maintain their culture, their language, and their autonomy continues to this day.
Towards the end of British rule in India, there was a grassroots movement in the Lushai Hills (now Mizoram, then a part of Assam) against the chieftainship system that was exploited by the British administration. This led to the formation of the Mizo Commoners Union in 1946, later renamed Mizo Union (MU). The next year India gained Independence, and in 1952, the Lushai Hills Autonomous District Council of Assam, a body with significant governing powers, was formed and soon after abolished the chieftainship system. The governing body was renamed the Mizo Hills District (MHD) Council in 1954. The MU also demanded the unification of all Mizo-inhabited areas into a single administrative unit, and various units of the MU were set up outside MHD. However, the demand for integration remained unfulfilled.
In 1959, another political movement in MHD gained momentum. The Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF), which later became Mizo National Front (MNF), protested against the indifference shown by the Assam government in handling a serious famine in the area. The main objective of the MNF later became self-determination and the establishment of ‘Independent Zoram’ comprising all Mizo-inhabited areas. This movement culminated in an armed rebellion in 1966, followed by years of underground activities. After several rounds of negotiations, the MNF signed the Mizo Accord with the Government of India on June 30, 1986. And on February 20, 1987, Mizoram became its own State under the Constitution of India; however, it did not include Mizo-inhabited areas outside MHD.
Hmar Political Movements in Mizoram
Hmars living outside the MHD took active part in the MU- and MNF-led integration movements. However, much to their discontentment, neither of these movements addressed their hopes and aspirations. In the 1950s, various Hmar political organisations were founded such as the Hmar National Congress (HNC). In 1958, HNC and Mizo Union (Manipur) members merged to form the Hmar National Union (HNU). The HNU demanded the integration of all Hmar-inhabited areas in Manipur and Assam (including the Lushai Hills) into a single administrative unit.
The HNU movement was supported by the Hmar people in what would become Mizoram, and various units were established there. Later, resentment among the Hmar in Mizoram increased due to the exclusion of Hmar-inhabited areas from the newly created State, as well as the discriminatory, neglectful attitude of the Mizoram government towards Hmar areas within the State. Hmars living in northern Mizoram had little access to basic amenities like health, communication and transport facilities. According to Hmar activists, the Mizoram government pursued a policy of Mizo chauvinism and forced assimilation. Demanding recognition of Hmar rights was considered to be an attempt to disturb and destabilize Mizo unity and the process of building Mizo ethnicity.
In July 1986, just after the signing of the Mizo Accord, some Hmar leaders in Mizoram formed the Mizoram Hmar Association (MHA), which was later renamed the Hmar People Convention (HPC). The HPC spearheaded a political movement for self-governance of the Hmars in Mizoram in line with the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) of the Lai, Mara and Chakma communities in Mizoram. The HPC also contested in Hmar-dominated constituencies in the Assembly Election in 1986, but none of its candidates were elected. However, the main objective for the HPC in contesting the election was to awaken Hmar sub-nationalism in the Hmar-dominated areas of northern Mizoram.
In 1987-88, the HPC submitted memoranda to the Governor of Mizoram, the Chief Minister of Mizoram, and the Prime Minister of India, demanding the creation of a Hmar ADC in Mizoram comprising all the Hmar-dominated areas in the north and northwest, in order to safeguard the rights and privileges of the minorities as envisaged in the Constitution of India. Their memoranda highlighted imbalances in the planning and execution of development projects in the area, as well as discrimination and threats to the existence of their identity, culture, tradition and language. They also argued that a new ADC for the Hmars would pave the way for better, more efficient administration and economic development.
State Violence, Hmar Militancy and an Uncertain Resolution
To remind the Central and State governments of the neglect that had been shown to them, the HPC organized a 24-hour bandh (general strike) on March 28, 1989. HPC supporters blocked the movement of vehicles at Sailutar, 133 kilometers from the state capital of Aizawl. To counter the bandh, the government of Mizoram declared a firing order and deployed the Mizoram Armed Police (MAP), who rounded up HPC supporters from their homes and attacked them with the butts of their rifles, batons, and machetes. The HPC then called a 144-hour bandh on April 16, 1989. During this bandh, more militant members of the HPC set off bombs, burned offices and bridges, and stole guns. The Mizoram government redeployed the MAP to suppress the movement by assaulting the HPC bandh supporters even more brutally, torturing and arresting even those who did not join the bandh. Many were seriously injured. The MAP also launched a manhunt that compelled the HPC volunteers to flee into the jungle for fear of police brutality and torture.
The atrocities committed against the HPC supporters made HPC leaders rethink their approach, which up to that point had been democratic and, apart from a few isolated incidents, non-violent. They decided to counter the MAP offensive by forming an armed wing, the Hmar Volunteer Cell (HVC). The first armed confrontation between the HVC and MAP occurred on May 16, 1989 at Moniarkhal in Cachar district of Assam where two HVC cadres and one MAP sub-inspector died. The armed confrontation continued until 1992, when HPC representatives and the Government of Mizoram mutually agreed to hold ministerial level talks. After multiple rounds of talks, a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) was signed between the Government of Mizoram and the Hmar People Convention (HPC) in Aizawl on July 27, 1994. Armed cadres of the HPC surrendered along with their weapons in October 1994.
The MoS was signed to grant autonomy to the Sinlung Hills Development Council (SHDC) for social, economic, cultural and educational advancement of the people under its jurisdiction, but the council was not given political autonomy. After the MoS was signed, a series of meetings were held between representatives of HPC and the Mizoram government to discuss the implementation of the MoS. It was agreed that the SHDC would comprise the areas where Hmars made up a majority of the population. The HPC objected to the area of the SHDC proposed by the Mizoram government, and a Commission was appointed to conduct verification of the Hmar population in the HPC Demand Area. The Commission submitted its report on August 1, 1996, and the SHDC was officially formed on August 27, 1997. However, the demarcation of the SHDC area has not been settled, nor has the Hmar language been introduced as a medium of instruction in the SHDC areas. Meanwhile, the state has used a divide-and-rule policy by exploiting the internal differences among the HPC leadership and interfering in Council elections. With no statutory powers and limited funding, the Council became largely defunct.
A New Militancy and New Negotiations
At the time of the MoS signing in 1994, some of the HPC leaders and cadres rejected the proposed deal as a political blunder, broke away from the main HPC, and formed the HPC (Democratic), which has continued an armed movement for autonomy within Mizoram to this day. In the beginning of 2007, the Mizoram government initiated a series of steps to bring the HPC(D) to the negotiating table. Mizoram Chief Minister (CM) Zoramthanga delegated Chaltonlien Amo, a Hmar politician from Manipur, to broker peace talks with the HPC(D). The HPC(D) responded by demanding tripartite talks between the central government, the HPC(D) and the Mizoram Government.
In November 2009, the HPC(D) submitted a memorandum to the Home Minister of India urging the Indian government to immediately initiate tripartite talks addressing the long-cherished political aspirations of the Hmar people in Mizoram. HPC(D) also demanded the creation of a Hmar Territorial Council (HTC) in the State of Mizoram within the framework of the Constitution of India. It also stated that it would not compromise the territorial integrity of the State of Mizoram and had no intention of breaking away from it.
In February 2010, under the initiative of the SHDC, a meeting of Village Councils within the SHDC area was held. In the process, a peace committee was formed to broker talks between Mizoram government and the HPC(D). The committee representatives met the Mizoram CM in April 2010 and urged him to initiate peace talks with the HPC(D). In October 2010, the HPC(D) approached the Mizoram government, which agreed to a negotiation. On November 11, 2010 after an exchange of views between the representatives of Mizoram government and the HPC(D), a Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreement was signed at the State Guest House, Aizawl by the HPC(D) and the Government of Mizoram for an initial period of six months.
The ground rules were mutually agreed upon to ensure an effective SoO in the common interest of finding a peaceful political solution in Mizoram. It was agreed that a Joint Monitoring Group with equal representation from the HPC(D) and the Government of Mizoram would be set up to enforce an effective implementation of the SoO ground rules. It was further agreed that the HPC(D) would have the liberty to appoint any respectable person(s) to assist them in their dialogue with the Government.
However, the Hmar-Government of Mizoram political talks soon hit a roadblock. The peace dialogue could not be started as scheduled in January, due to a plethora of differences as the Mizoram government questioned, among other things, the inclusion of non-Mizoram citizens as representatives of the HPC(D). With the non-extension of the SoO period, which expired on May 11, 2011, and without any proactive interest on the part of the Government of Mizoram in extending the SoO period and resuming the peace dialogue, the HPC(D) declared that the SoO no longer exists.
The Hmar political movement in Northeast India has never aimed to break up Mizoram or disassociate Hmars from Mizo ethnic nationhood. Rather, it aims to strengthen the ethnic Mizo nation as a whole, to preserve and develop its distinct cultures and traditions, customs, dialects and languages, and to protect its ethnic interests, identities, land and natural resources. To end a prolonged militancy in Mizoram and to address the long-pending and unfulfilled political aspirations of the Hmars, there is an immediate need to accept the rightful demands of the Hmar people in Mizoram by setting up an autonomous administrative body under the purview of the Indian Constitution. Eventually, such an administrative setup would ensure the protection of the identities and cultures, land, and natural resources of the State of Mizoram.
This article is available in French: La lutte des Hmars pour l’autonomie au Mizoram en Inde
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