Nationalism in the vernacular: Why Roluahpuia's book on Mizo nationalism is a must read 

Aizawl: Around thirty people were seated at the plush blue seats on the second floor of Aijal Club, Ruby McCabe Hall around 11:30 am on Monday. At the door stood Roluahpuia, the author of ‘Nationalism in the Vernacular: States, Tribes, and the Politics of Peace in Northeast India’.

Soon, it became clear that this was not just another book release.

In his opening remarks, Mizoram University Professor Jangkhongam Doungel explained how this was the first in-depth, research-based book on Mizo Nationalism published at an international standard. 

Wearing a subtly-checked white shirt, Roluahpuia held a diary where he noted down every speech being made at his book release function like a dutiful student. One might expect that the first Mizo scholar to receive a fellowship at Harvard would exude a certain suave demeanour, but the author, now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Roorkee, remained as diligent as a dedicated student on their way to achieving their first, major milestone.

The back cover gives a clear picture of the 195-page book which took ten years for Roluahpuia to complete. It “provides a new angle to the understanding of nationalism by looking at the popular support and participation of ordinary people in the construction of Mizo nationalism – in short, the vernacularisation of nationalism…Drawing from multiple sources, the book – through the rich oral narratives and archival material, including government and media reports – shows how Mizos have remained active agents in asserting and claiming their rights to define ideas of nationalism in their terms by making them distinctively Mizo.”

In his speech, Roluahpuia talked about the book’s journey. As a young boy, he said, he was inspired by his father who could often be found with his nose buried deep in Mizo books. As a college student, he realised there was a lack of books authored in English by Mizos: books one could refer to. All that was there was authored by the British and non-Mizos, which were not always articulate. 

Motivated by his experiences, Roluahpuia decided to embark on a significant endeavour. He dedicated himself to the study of the Rambuai (which translates to the troubled land and refers to the years of the freedom struggle of the Mizos) years to such an extent that he earned the moniker “U Rambuai” from the people. After completing his MPhil and Master’s degrees, he proceeded to pursue a doctoral degree in 2014.

Born and raised in Churachandpur, Roluahpuia made his inaugural visit to Mizoram in 2013, followed by a second trip in 2015 when he commenced his fieldwork.

Encountering numerous challenges, he found himself in unfamiliar territory, grappling with unfamiliar directions, struggling with the local dialect, and spending nearly two months frequently lost. Roluahpuia started spending ample time with the dictionary and ventured across the length and breadth of Mizoram to gather information for his research. His hard work paid off, and he was granted a doctoral degree in 2017 from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. 

He especially drew inspiration for a book when he became a recipient of the Arvind Raghunathan and Sribala Subramanian Visiting Fellowship (2018-2019) at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University. At the Harvard Library, he came across books in the vernacular Mizo language and was more inspired than ever to have a book published in English based on his studies. 

Despite an initial setback, Roluahpuia persevered after his book proposal to Oxford University Press was met with rejection. Undeterred, he decided to send the proposal to Cambridge University Press, which, to his delight, approved it and granted him a two-month timeframe to complete the manuscript. However, unforeseen circumstances arose. The global pandemic and his mother’s battle with cancer caused unavoidable delays. Nevertheless, after a decade of relentless dedication, the book finally came to fruition in 2023.

Speaking of the inspiration that drew him to this topic, Roluahpuia said, “The heartbeat of nationalism lies in oral culture.”

He also emphasised how it is important to give heed to non-MNF (Mizo National Front) nationalists as it is often only the MNF who are given heed in nationalism stories due to their armed struggle for Independence. He stressed that nationalism belongs to everyone and is shaped and articulated by ordinary Mizos. 

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The author, who dwells on oral culture to understand the mass mobilisation and the nationalist sentiments of the Mizos, explained, “Songs have no boundaries, and it deconstructs the identity of the people,” he said, explaining how the same songs echoed in the hills of Lamka (Manipur) and in the Lushai hills (Mizoram). 

Taking the example of how there was only All India Radio as a means of accessing mass media during the Rambuai years and how the oral culture played a role in helping the people express their sentiments, the author said, “We fall back to the oral culture in situations where we are unable to express ourselves through print.”

The book’s core focus is highlighted on Page 6 in the Introduction chapter, “This book situates hnam hla and the rise of hnam consciousness among the Mizos of Northeast India. It argues that the idea of ram leh hnam (territory and nation) and hnam consciousness is pivotal to understanding Mizo nationalism.”

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