Custom Duty

Published on May 14, 2005

By Thathang

May 14, 2005: In my contemporary Kuki community, dual systems exist. One is based on what can be called a Christian paradigm, and the other is based on what can be called an indigenous paradigm. The indigenous paradigm has its roots in a self-indulgent clannish outlook, and is based on a simplistic, yet overcomplicated philosophy.

The outlook is hierarchical, and guided by unwritten rules, customs, procedures, and guidelines. These are learned primarily by example and through the oral teachings of elders. Invoking the spiritual realm through prayer is essential throughout this process. For most of us, this is part of a whole that prescribes a complex, and yet uniform way of life. An evaluation of the Kuki way of life should first bring out the paradox of a poor people living with a declining set of resources. We are considering a people who may have begun to fall off the map. Especially when our deaths can be conveniently settled with a pig, a few trinkets, and a handful of cash. And more so when it is done in the name of custom.

The concept of crime and punishment in the traditional customary-legal sphere is used to appease the victim, to balance the wrongdoing, and to reconcile the offender to the community by paying a debt to society. But it does not specify how much and how far. It focuses on one aspect of a problem: the act involved. In these circumstances, it would seem plausible to deduce that unlimited fines and punishment would serve as a maximum deterrent against any wrongdoing within the community. But we have indeed lowered our defences to levels that border between the inane and the extraordinarily obtuse.

Instead of asserting our solidarity as members of an indigenous tribe, we tend to interact within various self-enclosing groups-family, clan, village, neighborhood, etc. Group norms guide individual behavior, and also display a high need for social approval. Disgrace is the primary instrument with which society enforces conformity. The group often determines a person’s identity and status. As a result, most are subjected to immense family and community pressures.

Within Kuki culture, the adherence to custom takes precedence over the individual. Loyalty to custom is highly valued, and responsibility is generally considered to fall upon the eldest male of the family rather than the group in its entirety. It is more often than not that the eldest male bears an added and unwanted burden for the fulfillment of customary obligations. Kinship ties are sometimes manipulated to accommodate these social realities. Because of the primacy of custom, obligations to one another are wide, varied, and powerful. Kuki custom favors centralization of authority on the premise that people are generally submissive and obedient to their elders. Projecting a paternal image, the high priests of custom securely occupy the top of the authority pyramid.

Power is personalized and finds expression in the compulsory apparatus of custom. It derives its legitimacy from informal or even traditional sources and also from the reality of the unchallenged power it commands. At the local level, tribal authority has come to play an increasingly important role. It assumes a near absolute right to command obedience. But in the absence of a clear definition of roles and guidelines, there is ample room for oversights and underplays. Perhaps the embrasures within it have diminished its correct role and function for repair and restoration. Especially in matters related to life and death.

Even the apex body, the Kuki Inpi is very much a house divided on narrow clannish configurations – a configuration that reflects powerful myths and a long-lived series of egotistical events. The diameters between confrontation and communication is periodically played out in secondary zones, where different concepts of the same culture confront one another, and where personal differences become more pronounced and strained. Where it should have served as a modern-day Kuki House of Representatives, it has become an outlet for the chauvinism that is inherent in most parts of our basic nature.

The notion of custom is confronted with a choice. In connection with the common man, it means the concentration of power, the localization of virtual or real governing authorities. In this sense, the center is in the village authority as embodied by the chief.

It may soon be in Lamka, the capital of the most numerous settlements of the clans, and secondarily in Kangpokpi, Moreh, and so on. But this notion has another more essential and elusive meaning, which points to the places where people are constituted through the creation of civic consciousness and the collective resolution of the contradictions that divide it. Is there then a uniformity of thought, even an emergent one?

Nothing is less certain. And if not, a new thought process is yet to be defined, and there is no public sphere or customary sphere beyond formal appearances. Although an evaluation of Kuki customary laws has meant that identities and ways of life have remained intact, there has been no visible evidence of these customs providing the remedies for the various evils that plague it. It has not provided for a reduction in wrongs or provided insurance against it.

There is an important yet simple lesson to learn again and again: that enacting customary laws is not an end in itself. Custom will work for us only if we work on changes that will secure not only our past but also our present. And maybe show us the way to a better tomorrow.