Roluahpuia, left, the Mittal Institute Raghunathan Family Fellow, discusses the importance of song and vernacular in the history of the Mizos in Northeast India in a seminar chaired by Sugata Bose, right, the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs in the Department of History at Harvard University.

The landlocked, extreme northeastern region of India is connected to the rest of the nation via a corridor of land — sometimes as little as 12 miles or so in width — sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It’s a place not often discussed in the news, made up of several states far removed from mainland India’s social, economic, and political norms. Mizoram, a state in this region, is home to the largest concentration of tribal communities in all of India, where colonial rule and the violent partition of British India in 1947 has left a deep legacy of division — both in territory and in peoples.

Roluahpuia, the Mittal Institute’s Raghunathan Family Fellow, is a native of Manipur in northeast India, and for the past few years has delved into research about the Mizos, a tribal people of the Mizoram state who have documented their experiences with crushing famine and political insurgency through song. In a talk chaired by Sugata Bose, the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University, Roluahpuia discussed his exploration into the Mizo nationalist movement in northeast India by analyzing the songs and different genres of music created by the Mizo people in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Music Inspires an Uprising

Angered by the Indian government’s lack of effective support during the great famine that plagued Mizoram in the late 1950s, secessionists within the Mizos began a political insurgency. In 1966, the Mizo National Front (MNF) was established with the goal of creating a sovereign state for the Mizos, independent from India. Attacks were carried out against government facilities in several districts within Mizoram, which were met with suppression and airstrikes by the Government of India. After two decades of conflict and social unrest, the 1986 Mizoram Accord was signed between the Indian government and the MNF, putting an end to twenty years of violence.

Roluahpuia has researched and analyzed many songs that were written and popularized during this era, from those championing a push for independence — “Rise up to protect your territory” — to those of a sadder element, mourning the loss of homes and communities during a federally mandated relocation of the Mizos. Through songs and vernacular expressions, the Mizo insurgent community sought to reframe ideas of nationalism in their struggle for independence. 

“Oral culture is indispensable in understanding Mizo nationalism,” remarked Roluahpuia. “In looking at orality, I depart from existing studies on Mizo nationalism through a focus on vernacular expressions, such as ‘zalenna,’ which means freedom … and how [these expressions and call-to-arms are] articulated both in text and in songs.” Through song and the development of a secessionist vernacular, the Mizo community had an emotional means “to overcome counterinsurgency and violence,” Roluahpuia explained.

Songs Tell a History of Grief

The insurgency led to a “grouping” of northeast India, whereby the army forcibly relocated people from their communities to larger villages — while bombing numerous locations. From that experience came a new genre of music, expressing the struggles of the Mizos to deal with the emotions that came from their relocation.

“Grieving songs emerged as a response to the counterinsurgency and violence,” Roluahpuia described. “Song is significant to understand how the culture of orality survives and sustains itself, even in times of hate, violence, and terror. In other words, it was in songs that the experience of violence was recorded,” Roluahpuia explains. “Songs composed … during village grouping … more or less convey similar sentiments that reveal the trauma of [being removed from the] place of their roots so brutally. Their repatriation elsewhere … is [emphasized] by nostalgia and longing for their original homes.”

Through the stories they tell in song, Roluahpuia describes how the Mizos convey the grief of their experiences. “There is a strong sense of anguish and unbearable loss and yearning for the past … songs about grief and loss of their home,” he explains. “Violence compels them to tell stories through their songs during the regrouping era.”

With the 1986 Mizoram Accord, the insurgency of the Mizos — and the counterinsurgency of the government — ended. Today, the Accord is known as a successful case of counterinsurgency. But Roluahpuia explains that there’s a more sinister ending: “The Accord relied on excluding the violent experience of the Mizo people and ignoring its consequences.”