Mention 2021 and almost immediately, the dreaded word “Pandemic” springs to mind. The COVID-19 virus killed millions across the world and there was hardly a country in the world that did not suffer the consequences of the pandemic. But close home, there was another crucial development that changed the lives of thousands, if not millions. I am talking about the military coup in Myanmar, which, in February 2023, will mark two years.
To say that the coup has had huge ramifications would be a tad cliched and well, pretty obvious. But I am more interested in the human costs that the locals (both in India and in Myanmar) have had to pay.
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Within weeks following the Myanmar coup, it became pretty clear that try as we may, India would not be immune to the power shift in the neighbouring nation. Those fleeing the brutal crackdown on the civilian government would seek refuge in India, especially in Manipur and Mizoram. It also became clear that the former, which was going to polls, was far more interested in paying heed to the Central government’s orders about not letting refugees in. Mizoram, on the other hand, made it clear from the beginning: come what may, they would welcome their Chin-Kuki-Mizo brethren with open arms.
By mid-2021, even as India was amid the worst COVID-19 pandemic, the refugees kept pouring in. Mizoram, which after the first twelve months of the pandemic, had ‘only’ 10 casualties, was not so lucky in 2021. But again, that never stopped them from opening their homes, villages, schools and community halls to absolute strangers connected to the locals only via their shared ethnicity.
To say that Mizoram is rather precariously located is to state the obvious. Landlocked from all sides, it shares an international border with both Bangladesh and Myanmar and often, the border regions are in news for the wrong reasons. But that does not mean that the locals have forgotten what it means to be connected to each other. First the locals, then their organisations like the Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), then the state government, all made it clear: we are here to help, and they (refugees) are here to stay. How many state ministers, for example, come on record to explain that refugee students had been inducted in Mizoram schools under the Right to Education? Today, refugees are working in Aizawl, the state capital, and the children are studying, and praying for a better future than the present.
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But in 2022, Mizoram also opened its arms to their brothers from Bangladesh, where they have been caught amid tensions between insurgent groups and the Bangladesh Army. Now, I know what you might think: oh no, not more refugees! But hold that thought for a bit. For now, the number of indigenous refugees from Bangladesh is a trickle compared to those from Myanmar, but what will stop it from turning into a human tsunami?
Talking, intervening, and helping. For now, the Indian government seems to be doing none of the three.
Only yesterday, our Mizoram correspondent Kimi Colney did a fantastic story chronicling the harrowing account of Chin-Kuki-Mizo refugees who left all they could leave behind, walking hungry through jungles, in the hope of reaching a safe haven. But before they were greeted by their fellow people on the Indian side, they were subject to shocking behaviour at the hands of our security forces. But despite what many conspiracy theorists might say, Indian security agencies are impeccable at being disciplined. They rarely, if ever, act on their own accord. So, if they did rough up refugees and/or beat them, it is because they were told to do so. Does it make it better? No. But does it mean we blame them and no one above them? Also no.
The Indian government must intervene because it is the Centre that can issue directions to the security agencies to be more humane in their conduct. It makes no sense that we beat up civilians from the other side because “they are not one of us”. It is great that Silchar is playing host to the Silchar Sylhet Festival. But its significance would be lost if India did not raise the concerns of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo people. Bangladesh, to put it simply, has an extremely questionable record when it comes to ethnic and indigenous minorities. India would fail several thousands of people if this issue is not raised soon.
And last, we must extend humanitarian help. Mizoram’s society, at the cost of slight exaggeration, puts the rest of India to shame when it comes to helping each other. Without any help from the centre, and the state government, the locals can only do so much for so long. And let us be honest: those on the Mizoram side of the border cannot change geopolitics; they can only react and adapt to it. The governments can. And unless India wants yet another issue to blow up, it better act fast.
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