A Nation Under Different Nomenclatures

Published on July 7, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Asian Tribune – July 7, 2008


When invited to write an article for the ‘The Chin Student Journal’ on the topic I am passionate about, varying thoughts begirded my mind. Of the umpteen important issues, the impact of nomenclatures on the Chin-Kuki-Mizo people was one unparalleled subject.


Historically, our people were independent from foreign domination. In the evolving process of international politics, we have been dispersed in different parts of the world – notably in Bangladesh, Burma and India.


Our history has been passed on orally with little or no written records of our own. The chieftainship was a cardinal institution. This intrinsic system is still practiced in Manipur and some adjoining states in the northeast India. It was abolished in Chin state in 1948 which became the genesis of Chin National Day.


We are a small group of people approximately 2 million population (only an estimate figure). The judiciary system we had corroborated the significances of mosaic culture and custom in our society. Villages were administered by chiefs from heads of clans.


An online dictionary.com defines nomenclature as “a set or system of names or terms, as those used in a particular science or art, by an individual or community, etc.”


There often betided arguments and counter arguments whenever nomenclature question had been broached. Lucubrating our history, one should neither be stupefied nor petrified; there had been feuds between families, clans, inter and intra-villages. At many instances, the affrays ended with internecine repercussions.


The fact that the same people are known by different names is a consequence of colonialism and influence by others. Traditionally, we were identified by clan or village names. When outsiders came into contact with us, they called us the way they saw or understood us. The western writers recorded us as Chin in the Chin Hills, Lushai in the Lushai Hills and Kuki in other parts of northeast India.


For the sake of administrative convenience, the Burmese government vaguely identifies 53 sub-ethnic groups under Chin nomenclature. The groups in alphabetical order are: Anu, Anun, Asho (Plain), Awa Khami, Chin, Dai (Yindu), Dim, Gunte (Lyente), Gwete, Haulngo, Ka-Lin-Kaw (Lushay), Kaung Saing Chin, Kaungso, Khami, Khawno, Kwangli (Sim), Kwelshin, Lai, Laizao, Lawhtu, Laymyo, Lhinbu, Lushei (Lushay), Lyente, Magun, Malin, Matu, Meithei (Kathe), Mgan, Mi-er, Miram (Mara), Naga, Ngorn, Oo-Pu, Panun, Rongtu, Saing Zan, Saline, Sentang, Taishon, Tanghkul, Tapong, Tay-Zan, Thado, Tiddim (Hai-Dim), Torr, Wakim (Mro), Zahnyet (Zanniet), Za-How, Zizan, Zo, Zo-Pe, Zotung. Many of the spellings here are different from what the locals use.


Although these people belong to the same mongoloid stock and speak Tibeto-Burman languages, any in-depth analysis could escalate into controversy.  On the other side of the border in Manipur state, the Indian government recognizes them as three separate ethnic entities: Kukis, Meiteis and Nagas. Despite having a common tribal heritage, Meiteis are categorized in general category population while Kukis and Nagas are placed in tribal category.


In Chin state of Burma, people from Halkha, Falam and Tiddim townships constitute the bulk of our population. In Mizoram, the Lushais (Duhlian dialect speakers) are the majority; and in other parts of northeast Indian states, particularly in the state of Manipur, the Thadou dialect users form the majority.


The term Mizo became popular in the 1940s with a view to uniting all the people in the then Lushai Hills. The introduction of the Lushai Hills Autonomous District Council in 1952 led to the abolition of chieftainship in Mizoram.


As India was closer to independence, the Mizo Union (formerly known as Mizo Common People’s Union) demanded that the Chin-Kuki-Mizo people inhabited areas adjacent to Lushai Hills be included in the new state. The move was challenged by United Mizo Freedom which advocated for Lushai Hills to join Burma after independence.


During the days of Mizo National Front, our people from different quarters joined the movement in one way or another. However, a dream of amalgamating different geographical regions was unsuccessful. With the formalization of Lushai Hills into Mizoram state on February 20, the Lushai Hills became a unit of the Indian Union in 1987.


The terminology ‘Mizo’ which is more or less synonymous to ‘Zomi’ simply means hill people. Similarly, the term ‘Kuki’ is believed to be an Assamese or Bengali word meaning hill people or mountaineers. In other words, both Kuki and Mizo nomenclatures denote hill people. The origin of ‘Chin’ is convincingly not defined yet, though there are a number of theories.


In the context of Manipur, according to earlier British ethnographers, the Kuki group consists of 22 tribes: Aimol, Anal, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Hmar, Koirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamkang, Maring, Mizo (Lushai), Monsang, Moyon, Paite, Purum, Ralte, Simte, Sukte, Thadou, Vaiphei and Zou. Due to socio-political benefits attached to it, new tribe(s) recognition may be in the offing.


As per 2001 census, the Thadous form the single largest unit of tribal population in Manipur. Though outsiders call or know them as Thado or Thadou, some clans within the group are hesitant to identify themselves as such, and thus becoming one most contentious issue and divisive force impeding the unity and progress of any Kuki national movement.


In 1946, an ethnic-based political association called Kuki National Assembly was formed by the non-Naga tribal groups of Manipur. Later, not pleased with alleged Thadou dominance and supremacy, the non-Thadou groups began to look for a more democratic association which gave birth to Khulmi National Union in 1947. Until today, despite belonging to the same family, a wedded relationship cannot be established.


Also in Manipur, seven tribes fall under Naga appellation: Angami, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Mao, Maram, Sema and Tangkhul. In recent years, some Kuki tribes have seemingly been assimilated into Naga fold partly due to geo-political advantages, and also partly due to the Naga armed movement.


While their brethrens have had a statehood status under the aegis of Chin in the Chin Hills and Mizo in the Lushai Hills, the Kukis are stressing the need to come together and demand their inhabited areas in the form of state or autonomy – with particular reference to a Kuki state demand in Manipur.


Given that India is a burgeoning democracy, our people in India are advancing academically and politically. Perhaps, they may have produced more educated individuals, governmental and non-governmental officials than our people from Bangladesh and Burma combined have procreated. Among others, we can see some outstanding individuals who have been elevated to ambassadorial posts.


Generic terminologies such as Eimi, Khumi, Laimi, Zomi, Zo et cetera are also gaining momentum endogenously. On the other hand, there are others who are tenaciously inclined toward the names we are internationally known with. There are also pockets of population who tend to identify themselves distinctively. In every sub-group, elements of both extremism and moderatism exist.


It is not an awry phenomenon to identify ourselves with different names depending on our local or regional dialects. Nonetheless, context or geographical connotation is something that cannot be easily done away with. In Burma, people will continue to call us Chin; Mizo in Mizoram, and Kuki in other parts of the northeast Indian states, particularly in Manipur.


People who prefer Chin refer to all our people when they use the term. Similarly, people who prefer to use either Kuki or Mizo mean to include the same people. Likewise, when names such as Eimi, Khumi, Laimi, Zomi, et cetera are used in local dialects, they refer to all of our people.


The bottom line is that as long as we disagree to agree on having a common platform, our people will remain divided under different nomenclatures despite knowing the fact that we are of one family. If this pattern is to continue unaddressed, future generations could be drearier.


I charily chose this polemic but pivotal subject to inculcate the hearts and minds of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo students and youngsters around the world. No academic research findings will suffice unless our consciences convince us to come together under one nomenclature. Otherwise, we will have to bury ourselves bickering over this.


Finally, let me end by quoting a line from my 2006 Chin National Day message: “Going to school with the eventual aim of making money is good, but it is even better if one can go to school for building his intellectual capacity and enhancing self-confidence in this competitive global village.”


Note: The article is circulated with the permission of CSU North America for wider audience.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).