Flavours of ethnicity in North East India

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes of Love, Hate and Friendship is a personal memoir by Nandita Haksar, from her childhood during the Nehruvian era to the present. Haksar recounts her culinary journey, as a human rights activist and lawyer in search of answers to the fundamental political questions that have arisen during recent contorversies over food— what can we eat, who can we eat with, what foods are forbidden or denigrated, and what all this says about our country. She explores how our tastes and attitudes to food are shaped by our caste, race, gender and class, exposing the prejudices and bigotry that have fueled battles aroud food, while celebrating the diversity of cultures and cuisines in India.

Following is an extract from the chapter 'Flavours of Class, Caste, Religion and Ethnicity' of the book.

I did not associate poverty and famines with the Northeast region so when I first learnt that the roots of Mizo insurgency lay in famine I was really shocked. They lie in the famine of 1958, which is called the bamboo death. The Mizo uprising and insurgency lasted twenty years.

Normally, the bamboo is a symbol of long life and good fortune. But once in every twenty-five and fifty years, the bamboo blooms and fruits. This attracts millions of rats. The rats first feast on the bamboo flowers and fruits. When they have finished, they turn to the crops and within a day or two all the crops are devoured. And people are faced with famine.

The short famine is called ‘thingtam’ and the long famine is called bamboo death or ‘mautam’. The history of Mizoram, in a way, begins with mautam when the bamboo flowered in 1958, and there was a terrible famine in the Mizo Hills, then a part of Assam.

The famine pushed the Mizos into the jungles for survival. They had to leave their homes in search of food and lived on roots and leaves, but many simply died of starvation. Neither the Government of Assam nor the Government of India responded to the anguish of the Mizo people. They did not send any relief and the entire country was totally ignorant of the sufferings of their fellow citizens.

Mizos are a people who have always relied on their own strength and self-reliance. Many people raised money and organized relief for their own people. Among them was Pu Laldenga, a clerk in a bank and the secretary of the Mizo Cultural Society. He converted the cultural society into the ‘Mautam Front’ and very efficiently organized famine relief for the rural areas.

By March 1960, the Front renamed itself as the Mizo National Famine Front. Adding insult to injury, the Assam Government tried to impose the Assamese language by making it the only official language of the state. The Mizo National Famine Front dropped the ‘Famine’ from its name and converted itself into a political organization. The MNF was born on 22 October 1961. It began by demanding the unification of all the Mizo areas in Assam, Manipur and Tripura under one administration. When there was no response to their demands, the Mizo National Front launched their movement for an independent, sovereign Mizoram. The armed insurrection began on 28 February 1966 with attacks on the government installations at Aizawl, Lunglei, Chawngte, Chhimluang and other places. And on 1 March 1966, Laldenga declared independence for Mizoram.

During the counter-insurgency operations, the Indian security forces uprooted people from 516 villages and put them into concentration camps. This meant that 80 percent of the population of the Mizo Hills was made homeless. Officially, this was called regrouping of people in ‘protected and progressive’ villages.

On 5 and 6 March 1966, the Government of India bombed the city of Aizawl with Toofani and Hunter jet fighters. This was the first time India used her Air Force to quell a movement of any kind among her citizens. Hundreds of bombs reduced houses, schools, markets, churches and even hospitals to ashes. Miraculously, just fifteen people died in Aizawl, but that was because most of the 10,000-odd residents of the hill town had fled when fighting between the Mizo nationalists and Indian security forces began.

Many people still remember the scary sight of planes and of bombs exploding in huge balls of fire and devastating their neighbourhood. Mizo historians have preserved the shells that were dropped at that time and have documented the events of those days.

The Prime Minister at the time told the Indian Parliament that the planes had dropped only food packets. The Assam Government exposed the lie. The Assam Government sent a fact-finding mission consisting of three members, all of whom were Khasis from the Khasi Hills district (which later became Meghalaya): Stanley D.D. Nichols Roy, Hoover H. Hynniewta, and Lok Sabha MP from Shillong, G.G. Swell. The team collected a lot of evidence about the bombings and their report is part of the Assam Assembly proceedings.

Finally, after two decades of resistance, the Government of India and the Mizo National Front negotiated a settlement called the Mizo Accord. The Accord was signed on 30 June 1986. On 20 February 1987, at a public meeting at Aizawl, a proclamation announced that Mizoram would be declared a full-fledged state of India. Pu Laldenga became the first chief minister. If you go to Mizoram they will show you a place called ‘Laldenga London’. These are the caves in which the Mizo leader hid when the Indian Government thought he was in London.


The Nagas live in much more fertile areas and most have not suffered famines or droughts in the past. In their society, the richest man is one who has the most grains and cattle. But he does not get the respect of society till he has given it all away.

In the past, the man (yes, not a woman) who was given the highest respect in Naga society was one who gave away his entire wealth in a series of feasts to the village. It could be up to thirty feasts. After that, he and his wife were given the honour of erecting a special kind of pole, or the right to wear certain kinds of ornaments or a special shawl.

One of my most prized possessions is a plain white shawl given to me by the villagers of Oinam in the Senapati district of Manipur. I remember that when the village elders gave it to me, I was truly overwhelmed. They gave me the Feast of Merit shawl in 1991 at the end of my four-year-long court battle against the Indian armed forces for committing human-rights violations during a counter-insurgency operation codenamed Operation Bluebird.

Despite the fact that the final hearing was over in 1992, the High Court has not given its judgment in the case. I have decided that I will wear the shawl the day the judgment is delivered.

I have not yet worn the shawl.

Written by Nandita Haksar, The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship was published by Speaking Tiger in June this year. This extract has been republished here with permission from Speaking Tiger.
Nandita Haskar is a human-rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer. She has represented the victims of army atrocities in the North East India, Kashmiris framed in terrorism cases, migrant workers and refugees seeking asylum in India. She is the author of several books, including Nagaland File: A Question of Human Rights (co-edited with Luingam Luithui) (1984) and The many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present day (2015).