Mizoram: the Devil, property, and identity fetishism

This will be the last post of a week attending to UID in the Northeast. The previous post, mostly for my clumsy misspellings of a fellow blogger’s name but also given substantive differences in how and why to write about Bangladeshi migration, and admittedly different stakes, generated a small bit of dialogue.

If the themes of the week have been national erasure and migrant threat (Assam) and exemplary mass identification (Tripura), the article excerpted below addresses a persistent theme in reportage on the Northeast, combining figures of backwardness, irrational superstition, and the treatment of minority (here Christian) religion. It simultaneously evokes a genre of anthropological writing on the uncanny violence of capitalist transformation. Here, the ontological insecurity girding the terrifying threat of imminent devilry is not the entry into particular wage economies, but the ways the here closely associated UID and census force together the state control of property transfer and UID/census registration. I was initially cautious in reposting the article: the point is not to reprise the cosmopolitan pleasures of my discipline in securing the uncanniness of life on various margins. Or is it?

News photo: the Bible seems to hover over a Mizoram town

Fear of the Devil holding up census in Mizoram
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Aizawl : The fear of the ‘Beast’ or the Devil in the Christian-dominated state of Mizoram has caused almost 1,000 families to refuse to enroll their names in the National Population Register (NPR) taken up along with the Census 2011 here from May 15.
The dread stems from Chapter 13 Verse 17 of the Book of Revelations in the Bible which says “… and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark or the name of the Beast or the number of his name.”
The problem has stemmed from the Unique Identification Authority of India stipulating that none one could buy or sell property without the Unique ID card.
According to adherents of the belief, since buying or selling of property made one a follower of the Beast, one having the UID card, which authorised property transactions, automatically made one a follower of the Devil.
Those refusing to be enumerated belong to the Mizoram Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church of Mizoram.
Champhai District Magistrate Vijay Kumar Bidhuri said when he summoned Lalzawna the leader and high priest of a sect he was told that his religious belief would not permit him to register his name and he was ready to face any punishment.
Serchhip Deputy Commissioner H told that adherents of the belief claimed they had thereligious freedom to disobey the government and were not afraid of punitive action.
“They are not afraid of being prosecuted for their beliefs as they are more afraid of being identified with the Devil,” one enumerator said.
The Presbyterian Church Synod, the highest decision making body of the largest Church in the state on June 13 issued a message to all members asking them to cooperate with census officials as it was the duty of every citizen to do so.
“We (the believers) should not be afraid of the Beast (Devil), rather the Beast should be afraid of us as we believe in God who is more powerful,” the message said.
The Church said that UID was important to identity bona fide citizens of the country and also help in identifying illegal immigrants and terrorists. The Church also condemned people who were issuing booklets about the ‘Number of the Beast’ to terrify church members.
The message of the Presbyterian Church was read out in all church branches in the state, but there were still some who were skeptical, a church elder said.
Enumerators were instructed by District Magistrates of all the eight districts in the state to identify those refusing to cooperate on religious grounds.
The reports lying with five District Magistrates indicated that there were 939 families who have refused to have their names registered in the NPR, official sources said….
District Magistrate Bidhuri convened a meeting for people who refused to cooperate with the census officials on June 11 where only two persons, after being given explanations, agreed to cooperate with officials.
The rest refused to budge from their stand even after the authorities told them that they could be fined up to Rs 1,000 and liable for imprisonment of up to three years.
They were also informed that they could be deprived of their right to franchise, ration cards, works under NREGS and other benefits from the government.
“As they have refused to believe our explanations, we may be left with no other option, but to take punitive action against them,” one official said.
The fear of the Beast is not new among Mizo Christians as many of the sects and cults have refused to enroll their children in school believing enrolment would make them adherents of the Devil.
Many have refused to have ration cards to avail rice at a cheaper rate on the same grounds even though most of them belonged to poorer sections of the society.

This article is lodged on multiple sites across the Internet, along with others that tend to share or even sharpen the presumption of the irrational margin. If the Assamese situation often presumes the outsider as duplicating the citizen and her rights, if the broader conversation on UID presumes the generalized figure of corruption duplicating legitimate entitlement either from above or below, here the duplicate—if that is indeed the figure—is an accusation offered not from the center but the margin itself. The state’s enterprise invokes numeration in a way that doubles and  threatens to collapse into the work of the Beast. At stake at first pass seems to be a form of life instantiated within the vitality, in Mizoram, of the Book of Revelation. But how might one take the accusation of the double seriously, for the moment? How does property governance, schooling, and identification come together in such a terrifying way?

It is worth noting the violence of state response, abetted by mainstream churches, tracking and punishing non-registrants. The story is murky: it is not clear how the census and UID are organized in relation to one another, in Mizoram. But the punishment threatened seems wildly unlike the conditions for non-registrants in Uttar Pradesh, say. At first pass, again, the situation seems to be a highly paternalist and racialized legacy of “tribal” administration, setting up a high stakes game of moral certitude in which the equal force of the refusal of state demands to be marked makes more sense.

And perhaps, the materiality of UID is more palpable here in the figure of the Mark of the Beast.

I close with a second, longer piece, more extreme in its condemnation and force, followed by some musings on numbers, fellow Jews, and mysterious chicken.

In Mizoram, the Omen

Jaideep Mazumdar

And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name — Revelation 13:16-17

Kaptawni, a 44-year-old widow who sells second-hand clothes in Aizawl, looks at me with suspicion. “Why does he want to know all these details about me and my family? Is he trying to trick me?” she asks Zodin, the translator. Zodin tries to convince her that I am who I am—a journalist—but Kaptawni is not mollified. I know exactly what she is thinking: am I an agent of the Devil?

Kaptawni is one of the 7,000-odd people in Mizoram who have refused to get themselves enumerated in the census. They are all ultra-orthodox Christians to whom the Unique Identification (UID) card project, a part of the census this time, means a plan by Satan to give humans the ‘Mark of the Beast’ as foretold in the New Testament’s ‘Revelations’ chapter. “The UID card is the first step. Soon, the Government will say that since it can be lost or forged, chips must be implanted in our foreheads or arms. That is what the Bible says will be the Mark of the Beast,” she tells me. My questions make her angry, but it is when we want to shoot her photo that she decides her suspicions are true. “No photographs,” she declares and ends the interview.

The census enumeration started in this deeply religious and overwhelmingly Christian state on 15 May. Soon, a rumour began to float that the UID project heralds the Beast’s rule with everyone receiving a “mark on their right hands or on their foreheads” and without which “no one may buy or sell, save he that had the mark…” The UID, like a US social security number , will at some point be the mark of an Indian, but to Mizoram’s ultra-orthodox Christians it concurs with this line of Revelations: ‘…before the end comes, the number and symbol of the beast or Satan would be distributed to mankind and everybody would be counted by the prince of darkness.’

T Pachhinga isn’t as unreasonable as Kaptawni. The 73-year-old former constable with the Railway Protection Force is willing to talk, and is even ready for a photo. “The UID card will mark us for the Beast. The Bible says that whosoever is thus marked will burn in hell,” he says. Pachhinga belongs to the Presbyterian Church where no one else, including his wife and three adult children, agrees with him. “They don’t understand,” he says. “I know I won’t get the UID card. Maybe I won’t be able to do many things, like bank transactions, draw my pension, get medical treatment or even book a railway ticket. But I’m willing to bear the consequences. I’ve transferred everything in my wife’s name so that my family doesn’t suffer. I’m ready to suffer. I know the Lord will save me.” Pachhinga has a repertoire of Biblical verses to back him. For instance, Revelations chapter 14, verses 9 to 11, which warn against receiving the Beast’s mark.

Kapzuala, 46, an evangelist with the Church of God, another local Protestant denomination, says he’s fine with the census but not the UID project. “I’m opposed to giving my biometric details and being given a number,” he says. He has a voter’s ID card. Doesn’t that also have a number? “The two are different,” he tells me, but refuses to explain why.

We travel to Kolasib, 100 km north of Aizawl, to meet Hmingropuia. He is a leader of the group campaigning against the UID project. He’s not opposing it in its entirety. “My only objection is to the allocation of numbers to those who are enrolled or enumerated. That is the number of the Beast,” he says. Hmingropuia used to be a primary school teacher, but drives an auto-rickshaw now. He has a driving licence which has a number, but that is alright. “The UID card will be a multi-purpose card,” he says. “It will be necessary to buy and sell property, just as is said in the Bible. Also, the UID project is part of a global exercise to enumerate people and households—the UN’s World Population & Housing Census. This is exactly what the Revelation says about the number or symbol of the beast being distributed to mankind and everybody being counted by the prince of darkness.”

Most Christians in Mizoram find this ridiculous. “They’re fanatical Christians with extreme views. They don’t understand the Bible and the Prophecies at all,” says former Minister Rokamloua, a church elder of the Dawrpui Presbyterian Church at Aizawl. C Lalnuntlinga, editor of Christian Outlook, a non-denominational religious monthly published from Aizawl, has carried articles against these rumours. He says, “Good and true Christians have nothing to fear from the Beast or Satan. There’s no danger to them.”

Professor C Nunthara, vice-chancellor of the Shillong campus of William Carey University, has also written against it. “There is absolutely no connection between the UID Project and Biblical prophecies. I have explained that repeatedly in articles,” he says. The Presbyterian Synod issued a statement on the same lines. Church elders and pastors have tried speaking sense and the Government has held seminars to clear misconceptions, but it has not helped.

Strangely, while it is believed the UID is Satan’s project, the Beast by logical extension is not the Indian Government. “It could be the US or UN or some other very powerful entity,” Hmingropuia says. “Both are globally powerful and influential. The Bible says Satan would be a powerful king who rules over the world.”

“How about China, an emerging global superpower?” I ask him.  “Very likely,” he says, warming up to the idea.

Then he sees the camera and his mood turns agitative. We try to cajole him into a photograph, but he won’t even be clicked from the back. Abruptly, he starts talking of his past. “I used to drink a lot and was a street fighter till six years ago. I bashed up many people and was also behind bars.” It’s a loud hint which we take—and leave.

Grateful to the reporter for the courtesy at least of his travels and interviews, I am frustrated at the illiberalism of his honesty and presumptions of backwardness. So three last thoughts.

1) The cosmopolitanism of rumor: what is at stake, for some interviewed, is a sense of risk tied to identification as a globally penetrating form, tied to occult fears precisely in the conjunction of its massive scale and its intimate fixation on, and soon in (the implanted chip) the body. The voices of reason argue: but it is simply a number (thus, paraphrasing Michael Taussig, the devil and identity fetishism). You use numbers and allow yourselves to be used by them all the time. What is the difference here, with UID? But the proponents of UID have long given it magical qualities, the vehicle to end corruption and eliminate poverty through de-duplication. In opposition, then, we have the terrifying double, far more terrifying than the film double of Manu I discussed in an earlier post on the film Duplicate.

2) The number, the mark: I recall a drunken conversation, some years ago, with Martha Selby and Daud Ali, in a Mylapore bar, on the mysterious enumeration of Chicken 65. Many others over the years, variously inflected by intoxicants, have had similar discussions on this South Indian non-veg classic and its name. This led Martha and I to discuss a project on the life of numbers. Perhaps this is my first stab.

3) The sect, the Jew: The relation of sectarianism to duplicating claims, in Mizoram, is not particularly new. I have long followed claims by my Mizo and Manipuri co-religionists to Jewish “rights of return” to settle in Israel, dismissed by many guardians of authentic Jewishness. As in Andhra Pradesh, Jews tend to appear in particular zones of intense post-mission sectarian Christian millenarianism. But if there is a particular local history to the sectarian, in Mizoram, it is again and again articulated to something of far greater scale, whether the deferred promise of Zionism or the embodied threat of the imminently universal mark.

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2 thoughts on “Mizoram: the Devil, property, and identity fetishism

  1. Pingback: Bodo-Muslim Violence and the Question of Identity Cards for Assam: Security as a Negative Condition | followuidai

  2. Pingback: Tripura redux: Old-age pensions, Aadhaar, and the publicity of inclusion | followuidai

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