The Institution of Chieftainship in Kuki Society
By George T. Haokip
The concept of chieftainship has taken place among the tribal society in the early stage of evolution of their group life. Inter village rivalry or tribal was common in the past. Every one was enemy to each other and the stronger rule over the weak. In such circumstances the need for a strong single authoritative figure was essential to lead them in defending the village.
The need to solve tribal problems be it social, economic or political gave birth to the concept of chieftainship to maintain justice, protect them from external threat, to administer the village and to protect and preserve the established customs of the villagers. The Kuki chieftainship therefore was a historical requirement and his duties was manifold one of which was defence of the villagers. In due course of time he came to be recognized as the village chief. Village chief is a person belonging to younger branches of the family clan and another type is hereditary chief who is the head of the clan.
In this regard Scelumphere writes: ‘Each of the clan has one great Rajah, supposed to be the main branch of the original stock…’ The Kuki traditional form of governance is based on chieftainship. Every village was like Greek city-states. Each village has got a chief Haosa which the Mizo called it Lal, it is hereditary. He is the owner of ancestral lands and is traditionally the repositories of all powers of administration dealing with the village. His rule is autocratic but not despotic.
Chieftainship goes by hereditary succession and this is strictly observed. The first born child mi-upa succeeded as the village chief and inherited his father’s prosperity. In case, the eldest son is incapable the next eldest son would automatically succeed. But, if the chief happened to be without any male issue the succession pass on to the nearest male issue of the eldest surviving brother of the deceased. Succession by youngest son however is practised among Lushai and Hmar Kuki tribes. In any case, a daughter cannot become heir to the father.
Supreme Administrative Head
The Kuki chief enjoyed enormous powers. He possessed executive, legislative, judicial and. His word was law within his Chiefdom and his decision were final. He appoints important posts in the village. The decision of his Upas without consulting the chief cannot be taken as final. The chief has right to dismiss any upa if found incapable. The Kuki chief also enjoys numerous legislative powers. Matter relating to issuing of ordinances, framing of rules and regulation were made by the chief. Villagers who disobeyed were severely punished or expelled from the village. He decides all civil and criminal cases and assumed important judicial roles. He was the supreme judge in deciding all civil and criminal cases of the village.
The village court of justice is composed with the chief as chairman and the council member of the village council. He was also Chiefin-Command of the village army. The success or failure in war with other tribes or villages entirely depends on the chief’s capability. His duty and responsibilities as Commander-in-chief of the village were described by W.W Hunter (1973:60) as:
‘He shall direct in war, he is last in the advance and rear most in the retreat. The messages and errands of Lal are done by his favourite slaves; they are his ambassadors in war. To collect his people or, in fact, to authenticate any order, the chief’s spear is sent by a messenger from village to village. Should the message be hostile one, the messenger carries dao to which a piece of red cloth is attached.’
Privileges of the Chief
Kuki chief is owner of the land within his boundaries and were entitled to receive customary title and tributary privileges. He was paid for the following reason:
1. In due recognition of the chief’s authority and legitimacy over the land ownership,
2. In recognition of service rendered by the chief,
3. In gratification for which they got privileges of enjoying the amenities of village life,
4. As a mark of respect, and
5. To honour head of the clans by the younger chiefs in case of the clan chief.
Payment and tribute received by the village chief
1. Changseo : It is yearly payment of 1 to 5 baskets of paddy by every family for cultivation of the land.
2. Chaoman : When a villager is to migrate he has to pay the migration tax, failing which his property or housework may be confiscated or retained by the village chief.
3. Selkotkai : When a villager sold his cattle outside the village he has to pay the chief a tax of Re 1.
4. Louman : Any outsiders cultivating in the chief land has to pay louman periodically.
5. Gamsan : It is payment to the grief for the lease of the land.
6. Jineiman : Villagers pay marriage tax to the chief on their marriage. The bride too pays in case she marries an outsider.
7. Toltheh : Anyone who commits serious crime was fined a jar of rice beer and a pig is killed at the chief’s house.
8. Kihahsel : It means Oath-Taking. The villagers take oath such as biting of Tiger’s or bear’s tooth, drinking of water poured over from barrel of the gun to show allegiance of being subject to the ruler.
9. Khuotha : A one day free labour to the village chief by the villagers.
10. Khuomuol : The villagers build a resting place like in the outskirts near the entrance of village gate where enemies’ heads are displayed.
11. Sahnit : A particular day is observed and the villagers are confined to their home in the events such as occurrence of unnatural death and day mourning was observed. It is also observed in the events of the outbreak of epidemics.
12. Samel : Villagers gave to the village chief the hind leg of the animal killed in hunting.
The village councilors and the chief constituted the village court, Haosa Inpi, the highest court of justice where cases were tried according to customary laws. The chief in council consist of Semang (Comparable to the democratic Prime Minister of today), Pachong ( ), Lhangsam (Foreign Minister with responsibilities of publicity and communication). The modern type of police force was absent in the village. The chief and upas were vested with all the political, military and judicial power. The form of administration in the Kuki society begins from village level to the nation. It comprises Haosa Inpi (Lower House) and Upa Inpi ( ).
Upas: The village council members, upas were appointed by the chief and their duty was to give advice to the chief. Practically the chief would never try any Cases without consulting his upas. They are selected from the villagers who have tact and wisdom. Besides, they should be well verse in upas customary laws and usages of the paople. The upas are appointed from different sections of the people. The chief council was made sure that every section of society is represented. The chief summoned his upas to discuss matter of political importance when receiving proposals from emissaries. He is also accompanied by upas on his official visit to other village. The upas were given due respect in the village and were exempted from payment of taxes to the chief.
Besides, they were given priority to select the jhum site before all the others. Also, when a case is tried a fine of a pig salam was usually fine on the loser of the case. The chief and upas used the animal for their entertainment. The chief also accompanied upas on his official visit to other village. The chief runs his business through the help of upas.
Chieftainship : An Analysis
The Kuki chief enjoys enormous powers. His was the guardian of law and the absolute owner of the village and the land within it. His word was law. He can appoint and dismiss or expel anyone in the village. There was sufficient room for a Kuki chief to become tyrannical but in practice he was governed by the customary laws. The chief acted for pragmatic and useful purposes. The village chief has ordinarily never used his right to deny a resident member of the village, his fair share of plot. He had to protect the interest of the villagers by providing security socially, politically and economically.
His role was to settle dispute, provide care and protection of the villagers. In recognition to his service he enjoyed various tributaries. These tributaries privileges were understood a material ethics of obedience and not exploitative. It therefore would be wrong to equate Zamandari system with Kuki chiefship. The chief was the land protector and not dictator. He was distributor of the land for jhuming purposes. The Kuki chief act on with love like a father in the family. He was the source of customary laws, and the mechanism by which customary laws were interpreted and enforced. In short, the Kuki chieftainship was not exploitative.
The institution of chieftainship is the perennial source of Kuki custom and tradition. It is also their unity and integrity. For the Kukis it is their culture and identity which nothing can replace it. Some theorise it as God’s blessing to the Kukis as Israelite kings were to their people. Their political system too is base on chiefship. It is the pivot around which all their administration and others evolved. The Kuki chiefs were able to protect the interest of the Kukis more than the other chiefs. He plays a unifying role in the society by providing leadership and solidarity.
Various Act such as the Manipur Village Authority Act, 1956 the Manipur Hill Area (Acquisition of Chiefs Rights) Act, 1967 the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform Act, 1960 which empower the State Government to extend the Act to any of the hill areas of Manipur was considered as threatening to the traditional tribal system. The Acquisition of Chiefs Rights Act 1967 aimed at abolishing the rights of the chiefs over land has received wide scale protest. Despite various attempts to abolish the institution of chieftainship, it still survives. The forces of imperialism and Christianity have failed to abolish this institution.
The writer is a research scholar at Manipur University, India.