In between Myanmar’s two erstwhile capitals Yangon and Mandalay lies Zayawaddy Grant, a cluster of villages and a small township.
At first glance it is no different from any other small town in this country, that not too long ago was closed to the rest of the world.
A wide concrete highway cuts through and all around are strikingly green pastures and small, rain-drenched rolling hills. Cycle-rickshaw drivers wearing conical hats with pom poms line the streets.
Look closer though and the difference is apparent. Tucked between traditional wooden Burmese huts raised on stilts are two-storey concrete homes that could belong to any Indian small town.
Wearing traditional Burmese shirts tucked into lungis and savouring samosas and jalebis at tea stalls are many Indian faces, while sari-clad figures rush about holding hands of children returning from school.
Numbering over 70,000 in Zayawaddy town and surrounding villages, they are the descendants of farmers brought by the British from India — mostly from Bihar, but also Uttar Pradesh — to cultivate land in these parts. In the years that the military junta ruled Myanmar with an iron thumb, they largely escaped the authorities’ attention and have now become Myanmarese citizens.
The Little India here has a Hindu Kalyan Sahyog Samiti to take care of religious affairs, Hindi is taught to children at a sprawling Gandhi Hall and in nearly a hundred schools, a temple with idols of Shiva, Lakshmi and Radha-Krishna draws many faithfuls, and there is an RSS branch to “liaise” with the authorities.
An idol of the Buddha is also housed in the temple, “to show respect to the local religion”.
Around 1,500 of the Indian descendants are Muslims.
One of the elders and leaders of the community, 73-year-old Shiv Das Verma, says farmers from UP and Bihar were the first settlers on this land.
“The first batch of 3,500 farmers was brought in 1889, and then another 4,000 farmers joined them in 1902.
The land was a dense forest then and they were told to cut down the trees and start cultivation.
We have heard accounts of tigers, elephants, pythons, Cheetahs and bears roaming these lands, and sometimes attacking the first settlers,” he says.
A sugar factory considered Myanmar’s first was later started here by the British as sugarcane is one of the staple crops here.
The farmers were brought by Raja Keshav Prasad Sinha of Dumraon (from Ara, Bihar), who had been gifted 20,000 acres of land in and around Zayawaddy for services rendered to the British, on a 30-year lease.
He handed over the land to his dewan, Harihar Prasad Sinha, who took charge of cultivating it under the supervision of the British.
“Farmers from Bihar were invited here. There were some families who came from UP as well, mostly Azamgarh,” says Shiv Das.
According to him, only those who could count till below 100 were selected.
“Even those who made it to 90 but failed to get to 100 were signed up,” says Shiv Das.
His own family came from Ara. Even the teachers for the local schools were brought from India, again with the instruction that they not teach children beyond Classes III-IV.
Many children stayed in primary sections despite 10-12 years of schooling.
“This was done so no one could get educated,” says Shiv Das.
He also talks about an “inspector” by the name of Pandit Lalu Ram Pandeya being brought in to ensure the smooth running of proceedings. As the population grew and the Indian community came to occupy as many as 40 villages, these were divided into four tracts named Jaipur, Ramnagar, Sadhugaon and Gopalganj.
In 1965, when all business concerns, land, banks and schools, including those owned by Indians, were nationalised by the Burmese government, around 2,000 families from here went back to Bihar.
Hira Prasad Verma, 91, the oldest living person in Zayawaddy, is still fondly called Masterji by the locals.
“When the schools were nationalised, I had no choice but to retire. I used to teach Hindi and the government made it clear that no Hindi was to be taught in schools,” he says.
Hindi classes back in schools
Hira Prasad remembers attending both the visit of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to Zerawaddy during WW II, when he came with his INA troops, as well as late Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s trip to the town.
“A lot of people had joined the INA, so had I,” he recounts. Much has changed since the ‘60s though. Shops, businesses and land, all have been handed back to the community.
“A hundred schools in the area now have Hindi classes. However, while the Indians are now Burmese citizens, they can’t take part in the country’s politics.
“Of course there are some Indians who have won local village-level elections,” says Hindu Kalyan Samiti president Ashok Kumar, “but we too don’t want to threaten the Burmese.”
The RSS itself functions under the name of Sanatan Dham Swayam Seva Sangh.
“Yes we watched the Indian elections closely. We get Tata Sky here now so we feel more connected to India. There were celebrations here when (Narendra) Modiji won, ladoo bate the (sweets were distributed),” says 63-year-old Siyaram Verma, who has been to India only once, in 1987, when he visited relatives in Patna.
“It was a frightening experience to be honest,” Siyaram smiles. “I had never seen so many people in my life! I couldn’t even cross the road, my cousin had to hold my hand and help me cross.”
Not many here have been to India even once.
Indian Ambassador to Myanmar Guatam Mukhopadhyay says that is likely to change once the Imphal-Mandalay bus service is in place.
“People living in Zayawaddy would simply need to travel a short distance to Yangon and can reach India easily.” – From the Indian Express