Northeastern View | Resurgence of Zo reunification demand bares the high costs of New Delhi’s border closure decision - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | Resurgence of Zo reunification demand bares the high costs of New Delhi’s border closure decision

May 26, 2024 10:00 AM IST

New Delhi needs to look beyond its narrow exigencies in Manipur, where the state government has been seeking border closure for its own vested interests.

On May 16, the Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO), a Mizoram-based civil society organisation, organised a unique public rally in the state’s Champhai district, bordering Myanmar, to protest the Indian government’s decision to fence the India-Myanmar border and suspend the Free Movement Regime (FMR).

Champai: People take part in a rally against scrapping of the Free Movement Regime (FMR), at Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate, at Zokhawthar village along India-Myanmar border, Mizoram, on May 16 (PTI FILE)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Champai: People take part in a rally against scrapping of the Free Movement Regime (FMR), at Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate, at Zokhawthar village along India-Myanmar border, Mizoram, on May 16 (PTI FILE)(HT_PRINT)

Held in Vaiphei and Zokhawthar villages, people from both sides of the border gathered to participate in coordinated demonstrations. During the event, the organisation’s general secretary, L Ramdinliana Renthlei, issued a rare warning. "If the Centre continues its plan to fence the border and ditch the FMR, the youths will have no other alternative but to take up arms again,” he said.

As startling as the threat appears, it reflects the frustration of communities living along the India-Myanmar border over New Delhi’s decision. It also shows how dearly they hold the open border to their existence. But what is ZORO? Whom do they represent? And can border closures really trigger violent uprisings in the Northeastern border states?

A fractured homeland

ZORO is a pan-Zo integrationist group with a single-point agenda: to advocate for the merger of all areas in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh that are inhabited by kindred “Zofate” tribes. These include the Mizo of Northeast India’s Mizoram state, the multiple Chin tribes of western Myanmar’s Chin State, and Chin-Kuki tribes in eastern Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts area.

ZORO was established in Champhai in the summer of 1988 under the banner of the “Zomi Reunification Organisation” as a loose alliance of all Zo people around the world. In 1991, the term “Zomi” was replaced with “Zo” for broader appeal. Two years later, a different set of Zo leaders spawned another congruent organisation – “Zomi Reunification Organisation (ZRO)” – in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. There is little difference, however, in the core objective of both groups.

ZORO has been advocating for its cause not just in the India-Myanmar-Bangladesh region, but also internationally. Over the last three decades, it has delivered briefings on the need to unify the Zo people at relevant UN platforms, such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. ZORO considers the resolution passed by British colonial administrators during the Chin-Lushai Conference of 1892 to administratively integrate all Zo people in the Chin and Lushai Hills (modern-day Mizoram) as the basis for its current integrationist programme.

However, due to the postcolonial development and consolidation of Zo areas in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh as separate political and administrative units as well as the Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986 which gave full statehood to Mizoram under the Indian Union, the integrationist agenda lost steam. Mainstream Zo political leaders made an attempt to reconcile with their distinct national identities.

Revival of Zo nationalism

Perhaps belying expectations, the integrationist strand of Zo nationalism that ZORO represents has now sprung back into mainstream politics, at least in Mizoram. This has happened in response to two events – the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur where Meitei majoritarian interests have undermined Kuki-Zo rights; and the recent decision by the Narendra Modi government to seal the India-Myanmar border, which the Zo people view as a colonial-era disruption of their shared ethnocultural geography.

In fact, the integrationist agenda has now spilt out beyond a narrow civil society space into mainstream Mizo politics, with both the former and current ruling parties – Mizo National Front (MNF) and Zoram People's Movement (ZPM), respectively – using it in their electoral campaigns last year. In February, when the current Mizoram assembly passed a resolution against the planned border fencing, the sitting home minister from ZPM, K Sapdanga, argued the Zo people “have been dreaming of reunification under one administrative unit someday.”

ZORO’s recent rally against the fencing and FMR suspension wasn’t the first one. Citing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), which India voted in favour of, it registered its displeasure in January, even before the union home ministry made the formal announcements. Therefore, the organisation sees the centre’s decisions not merely as an administrative obtrusion, but as a political assault against indigenous rights.

Need to review decision

Therefore, by sealing the India-Myanmar border, the Modi government risks looking like a modern-day version of the British colonial administration whose cartographic misadventures and irresponsibility ended up partitioning so many ethnic lifeworlds in India’s Northeast.

New Delhi needs to look beyond its narrow exigencies in Manipur, where the state government has been seeking border closure for its own vested interests. The Modi government should urgently revisit its decision to fence the border and withdraw the FMR if it wants to avoid fomenting wanton instability and violent non-cooperation in the border states.

While ZORO’s threat of violent uprising may not translate into an actual insurgency, it reflects the extraordinary discontent of frontier communities whose cooperation and understanding are critical to Indian national security interests. If things do go south, Mizoram might lose its much-cherished sense of stability and calm – to the detriment of both the Mizo people and the Indian state.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

 

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