Ethnic Nation Building: Chin-Kuki-Zo Trail

Published on April 8, 2010

By Lalthlamuong Keivom
I sincerely thank the organisers- Kuki Research Forum (KRF) and Sinlung Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Organisation (SIPHRO)- for inviting me to be the Resource Person in this seminar, which I believe, has been organised at lightning speed. I have accepted the invitation promptly but fully knowing that I am neither an expert on the subject nor a politician in a term or meaning we commonly understood and attached these days. I am a nationalist and to a great extent, an internationalist too because of my profession and family standing, and a keen student of history, especially contextual history.
Today, I am going to share with you some of my personal readings of our ethnic history. As you know, ours is a proto-nation, a nation in-the-making, in a cocoon. Our ethnic group living in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh is conservatively estimated to number about 2.5-3 million. We have two full-fledged federated states, Mizoram in India and Chin State in Myanmar.

Though we claim to have our ancient roots in China, our recorded history began barely one and half century ago after the advent of the British colonialist in our then undefined region where we lived independently in our city-state-like villages with little or no contact with the outside world except when we raided our neighbors occasionally. The British stopped all these for the better, imposed law and order and introduced uniform administrative system. Then, the missionaries entered our lands to sow the seeds of the Gospel and education that quickly germinated all over. Soon, majority of our people became Christians, learned the magic Roman alphabet and came to possess a script through which we could penetrate the world of knowledge.  For good or for bad, our encounter with the British and the new religion turned our world upside down and opened up new vistas. Many of the good things we have inherited as also the many ills our society has been suffering from are the outcome of the visible and the invisible imbalances created by this abrupt change.
The greatest harm the British Raj did to us was the bifurcation of our inhabited areas into different administrative units under their divide-and-rule policy. This seemed to matter little until formal borders were drawn up and we suddenly found ourselves all divided up as we are today in three different countries. On the eve and immediately after India’s independence, the newly formed political party with common agenda to bring our ethnic group under one roof in the form of ‘Greater Mizoram’ raised strong voices against this unholy divide but to no effect. This was followed twenty years later by a much louder armed protest which plunged Mizoram into darkness and miseries for twenty years. In fact, unpardonable damage had already been done to us in 1935 when The Government of India Act, 1935 was passed by the British Parliament which completely separated not only Burma from India but our people living across the borders of the two countries. 
Our fate was decided without our consent and we have been stucked with it ever since. Can we undo it?  I believe, we gather here to-day to find an answer. It is the dream of every self-respecting people to have freedom to decide and determine their own fate. There is no permanent boundary on earth. Histories are written and re-written and boundaries are drawn and redrawn at the bidding and will of the people.  The mighty Soviet Union was undone in 1990 and 15 States including Russia came out from  its gigantic ruins.
In what way and shape our vision to become a nation with our own space will continue to evolve is any body’s guess. We can assume that the strategies and modalities we have to adopt in realizing our dream, and what will be its final manifestation, and most important of all, our very own survival, will be determined by various internal and external factors within and outside our control. Whatever be the case, it is important to know that our destiny lies in our own hands and we create our history by our doings and undoings. If we want a respectable history, we must write carefully with united hands as history written in divided hands is senseless. One thing we must remember is that cultural unification will have to precede any form of political realization. The latter cannot be achieved without the former. This calls for a common name and a language, the fevicol of a nation.
With this haphazard introduction, let us briefly survey our present situation and suggest some possible steps that we should consider and take, with special reference to Manipur, whenever appropriate.

Political Scenario
In 1996, I wrote Zoram Khawvel-4 which dealt with national identity and the key factors in nation making with special reference to Chin, Kuki, Mizo/Zomi (Chukumi) of which our ethnic group is variously identified. Of the many books I studied on the topic, I like the most Anthony D. Smith’s books on nationalism in which he categorised national identity into two models- western or civic model and non-Western or ethnic model. In his book National Identity he listed six main attributes of ethnic community which are 1. a collective proper name 2. a myth of common ancestry 3. shared historical memories 4. one or more differentiating elements of common culture 5. an association with a specific ‘homeland’ and 6. a sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population.
A quick look at these attributes will confirm that excepting point no. 1 of which we have atleast three, if not more, collective proper names depending on where we live, we fit into this category perfectly. Of the three collective names, the first two were assumed names given to us by others and the last by ourselves.  But there are many tribes within these groups who have preferred to be identified as distinct tribes and accordingly registered themselves as such in Government of India’s Scheduled Tribe list, thereby further complicating the meaning and interpretation of the generic terms given above. This is a divide and rule policy applied by us to ourselves because of ignorance and lack of political vision. It is a lethal dose for self-destruction. Small is not beautiful in national politics and for survival. Thinking small and acting foolish is courting disaster. But why did we do it?

Tradition held that we all came out from a cave with a big stone lid called Sinlung/Khûl somewhere in China. Conjecturally, the presumed ancestral homeland could have been located somewhere in and around the Stone Forest near Kunming in Yunan Province  in China during the Nanchao Dynasty. With the collapse of the Nanchao  rule, many tribes fled its stranglehold, some heading southward like the Karens, the Siams (now known as Thais) and other kindred tribes and the rest towards the west like the Shans, the Burmans, the Kachins, the Arakanese, the Meiteis, the Naga group of tribes, the Zo group of tribes and many other tribes now inhabiting the north-east India. The first major dispersal from Yunan took place in early 9th century A.D and the second wave between 13th-14th century. The Burmans’ first known settlement was established at Kyaukse near Mandalay around A.D 849 and then moved to Pagan on the eastern bank of Irrawady where the Burman King Anawarahta in A.D 1044 founded the famous kingdom known as Pagan Dynasty. The modern history of Burma (Myanmar) began from here.

After our settlement in the Kabaw valley and dispersal from the Chin Hills, our forefathers in batches moved out and settled in clan groups in different hill locks. Because of lack of communication, each group started developing their own form of speaking and gradually formed themselves into new dialect groups. Consequently, they began to treat each other as belonging to another tribe and therefore different from each other. This tendency to highlight and give more importance to our dialect affinity than our ethnic oneness is our national curse that has been afflicting us. Many of us have become worshippers of our respective dialect groups at the expense of the growth of our ethnic unity.

Mizoram Scene
A study of our history shows that potential core clans or tribes appeared in our domain from time to time like the Thados, the Suktes, the Zahaus, the Kamhaus etc but none so were as successful as the Sailo clan. By their wisdom and foresight, the Sailo clan stood united in the face of challenges and adversaries and soon almost the whole of the present Mizoram State fell under their sway. They unified various kindred tribes under their rule, introduced uniform code of administration and social and moral codes of conduct and mobilised the disparate tribes into one linguistic and cultural community conscious of themselves as a force with a historical destiny.        
The outcome was that when the British came the Sailo chiefs won victory in defeat by carving out of their domain a separate autonomous Lushai Hills District named after their tribe. On this soil prepared by them consciously or unconsciously, Zo nationalism and identity began to grow slowly but surely. Though people from the Lushai Hills were then classified as Lushai, one of the Zo tribes, majority of the inhabitants belonged to other Zo tribes such as Hmar, Lakher (Mara) Pawi (Lai), Paite (Tiddim), Ralte etc., and amongst them they unmistakably addressed to each other not as Lushai but as ‘Mizo’ (a man of Zo or a Zo-man) and they used this terminology to cover all Zo descent. Some writers have translated the term ‘Mizo’ to mean ‘Hillman/Highlander’ but this interpretation may not stand a close scrutiny. The intrinsic meaning appears to be much deeper and therefore should not be deduced by attaching locational connotation to the term.  
Whatever be the case, the term ‘Mizo’ quickly gained popular acceptance in Lushai Hills as a common nomenclature for all the Zo descent. Consequently, the name of Lushai Hills was changed into Mizo Hills and when it attained the status of Union Territory and later Statehood it became ‘Mizoram’, a land of the Mizos.  This was the first time in Zo history that their land or territory had been named after their own given name. It may be pertinent to mention here that the nomenclatures like ‘Chin’ and ‘Kuki’ are derogatory terms given by outsiders to the Zo people whereas ‘Mizo’ is a self-given name which is dignified, honourable and all-embracing. It now virtually stands as the collective name of the Zo descent.  And Mizoram can claim a pride of place as a land where every Zo descent is fully integrated in ‘Mizo’.
The formation of Mizoram is indeed a partial answer to the Zo peoples’ search for a political identity, a formal recognition of their existence. It is the first time in the Zo history that a full-fledged State has been named after its own given name. It is also for the first time that a core state has been established through and around which Zo reunification is destined to evolve and grow.  In fact, the first Zo State was born in the name of Chin Special Division in 1948 when Burma became independent but being divested of power and funds from the start, it has never come up to be able to play the role of a core state. Besides, it is a state torn by tribalism and clanism with a babel of tongues. Their lingua franca is Burmese and not a Zo language. It is interesting to note that, even here, the most understood language is the ‘Mizo language’ though the actual speakers are small in number. 
The British rule had a tremendous impact on Zo politics. On the negative side, they divided up all the Zo inhabited areas under different rulers and reduced them to a status not deserving to be reckoned with.  On the positive side, they established law and order which provided the Zo  people an opportunity to consolidate themselves in their respective areas and to interact with each other more widely under a settled administration. Christianity which came along with the British flag and the introduction of  elementary education wherever the missionaries set their feet opened up new vistas and hopes. It produced a new kind of people who could not only read and write but reduce their feelings and knowledge into a written word. They were the elites and intelligentsias who played an important role in national rediscovery. They reduced in writing their past histories, myths and legends, folklores and folk-songs, customs and traditions which reminded the simple folks that they were a ‘nation’ with an enviable past, a glorious history and culture and that they should rediscover themselves again.
A greater force in the process of Zo integration has been the Christian faith, which in fifty years turned Mizoram into a Christian land. The newly zealous Zo converts took it as their privileged burden to tell the Good News to their kindred tribes and many had volunteered to go to the heathen Zo areas to preach the Gospel. These apostol-like preachers carried the good tidings along with new christian hymns in Lushai dialect which the Welsh and Baptist missionaries employed as the vehicle to spread the Gospel. As a result, Lushai dialect quickly developed and spread and the first Bible translation and many other pioneering publications among the Zo tribes were in Lushai which subsequently came to be known as ‘Mizo language’, a language perhaps ordained and destined to become the link language of the Zo people. Wherever Zo preachers carried the Gospel and new churches were planted, they also implanted Zo-ness, thus paving the way for a re-unification. Therefore, next to their common ethnic root, Christianity has become the most important bonding force of the Zo people. A Zo professing any other faith except the traditional religion (animism) is considered by majority Zo Christians not only as a renegade but an alien. Being a Zo and a Christian is like a two-faced coin.
When India gained independence in 1947 and Burma in the following year, the politically conscious Zo leaders of Mizoram were in a fix. By then, two political parties namely Mizo Union and United Mizo Freedom Organisation (UMFO) had already been born with the latter in favour of merging with their kindred tribes in Burma which they believed would ensure a better chance of their survival. The original founders of the Mizo Union were staunch nationalists in favour of self-determination of some kind of which they were not clear. A few months after it was formed, Mizo Union was torn asunder by the machinations of highly ambitious educated leaders who resorted to populist politics,  hoodwinked the innocent and unsuspecting peasant folks, captured the Mizo Union party leadership and presided over one of the most crucial moments in Zo history without a vision and an agenda. The result was lingering disillusionment that exploded in armed rebellion twenty years later.
Whatever the differences in the visions of the political leaders of the day, they were and are always united in one thing: ZO INTEGRATION. The Mizo Union representation before the President of the Constituent Assembly, inter alia, included amalgamation of all Zo inhabited areas to form Greater Zoram (Zoland). With this vision in mind, the Zo leaders,  on the eve of India’s independence, signed a declaration amounting to conditional accession to the Indian Union in which a provided clause was inserted to the fact that the Zo people would have the right to remain with or secede from the Indian Union after a period of ten years.  The Mizo Union conference at Lakhipur on November 21, 1946 which was attended by many Zo representatives resolved unanimously that all Zo areas in Burma and India including Chittagong Hill Tracts be amalgamated to form a Greater Zoram State. It is thus cleared that Zo re-unification issue has occupied the minds of the Zo leaders right from the time of India’s independence.
The most widespread Zo re-unification movement came in 1966 in the form of an armed rebellion spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF). The main objective of the MNF was to declare Zo right of self-determination and to establish ‘Independent Zoram’ for all the Zo inhabited areas. The movement rekindled national sentiments throughout Zoland and many youngmen from all corners of Zoland joined the movement and fought for  Zo rights. Mizo Integration Council and later Mizo Integration Party was formed in 1970 with its headquarters in Churachandpur, Manipur. This party was the progenitor of Zomi National Congress (ZNC) born two years later and its offshoot Zomi Re-unification Organisation (ZORO). Under the banner of ZORO, the First World Zomi Convention on Re-Unification was held at Champhai from May 19-21, 1988 which was attended by representatives from Zo inhabited areas.

The armed struggle for Zo independence lasted twenty years and peace returned in 1986 when Mizoram attained Statehood. Since then, non-violent movement has replaced the armed struggle and Zo reunification movement continues.

Manipur Scene
Now let us turn to Manipur. What is our politics today? It is dialect politics at the ethnic level and election politics at the party level. Both have as their backbone underground elements, the Frankenstein monsters we have created but do not have the magic wand to control them. We have been caught in our own folly and hoisted in our own petard! Self-centeredness has consumed us. Like Cain, we say “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Madness has taken over us. We fight and kill each other and make a public spectacle of ourselves.  If we cannot be our brother’s keeper, we do not deserve to survive as a nation.
We talk of nationalism but we glorify and practise clannishness and parochialism. The largest group amongst us in fact had the best chance and opportunity to bring about a political status and entity no less important than Mizoram and the Chin State. They held territories much bigger than anyone else as a reward of their support to the British penetration. But the house unfortunately is a divided house, fighting within itself and its so-called constituent members and has failed so far to carve any niche anywhere. It needs to reinvent itself and set its house in order, not by the force of arms but by a change of mindset.
What do we do then? So long as we love to embrace our folly, we will continue to head for destruction. But the moment we realize the futility of our folly and decide to face evil bravely by placing the common interest of our ethnic group over clannish considerations, things will change for the better. We can then unitedly face the dangers lurking around us and save ourselves from being swallowed up. We must stop ourselves from remaining instruments to preside over our own funeral at the grave dug out by our foolish hands.

Socio-Economic Scenario
We have no means to support ourselves economically. Like most states in the north-east, we are depending on the center’s largesse. But whatever fiscal support we have received so far from Delhi, a large chunk of it is ploughed back to the mainland India from where we get almost all our essential and critical supplies. The rest has gone to different educational institutions outside the state where many keep their children for studies. The outcome is that we have become more indebted, more dependent, more corrupt and more restive day by day.
Besides, Manipur state has no capacity to absorb the hundreds of graduates we have churned out every year. Successive ministries in the past had wasted most of their precious terms to form ministry after ministry but had little time to run the government and tackle the explosive socio-economic situation. Political leadership is totally bankrupt and the moral fabric is in tatters. So what do the educated unemployed have to do? They either have to go outside the state to find jobs or remain in the state to indulge in senseless agitation and crimes to bring more misery to the people who are already groaning under the weight of our own folly.
The crux of the matter is that whether we like it or not, we have to look increasingly beyond our state for education and employment. In this regard, persons who have studied outside the state have, in terms of linguistic ability and competence, a much better chance of getting employment than the one brought up at the State’s corrupted educational institutions.
It is high time we realize that the small states of the north-east with little or no economic and industrial infrastructure have very limited capacity to absorb its unemployed youths and that they have to find employment for them elsewhere. However, this realization is not enough. We must prepare the youths so that they can compete others, if not excel them. This naturally calls for revamping and reorientation of our educational system and curriculum contents to suit the job market. We cannot survive politically unless we survive economically.  To feed a hungry man with an empty can of nationalism is meaningless; so is politics without economic content. Bandh only breeds more bandh and poverty; and poverty breeds degeneration of all kinds and extinction and not survival.

Cultural Scenario
I now come to the most sensitive part of the scenario. Given the fact that for economic compulsions our youths and all the capable hands have to chance out to advance their prospects, what guarantee do we have they will continue to maintain their distinct identity and culture and that they will not get lost in the ocean of more progressive and established cultures?
We are a people highly susceptible to stronger cultural influence and even while rooted at home in our poorly lit thatched roofs, many of our youths love to ape western, if not the Bollywood, style of living, dress and music, speak in degenerated English, dabble in drugs and all forms of addiction and think and act like zombies. If they get lost so quickly even while at home, how will they survive an onslaught of city life and culture? How many generations of the children of officers studying and living outside our community survive culturally and continue to speak, read and write in our mother tongue and value our culture? We do not last even one generation!

The Prognosis
This is where the danger lies. The ten tribes of Israel who formed the Kingdom of Israel had a bitter taste of this experience after their Assyrian exile in 722 BC and got lost, completely assimilated and submerged in a matter of few generations. But the tribes of Judah and Benjamin helped by the Levites who established the Kingdom of Judah at Jerusalem survived the Babylonian exile of 608 BC, returned in two batches after 150 and 164 years numbering about 125,000, rebuilt their Jerusalem and till this day stand proudly in the comity of nations. But remember this, they lost their Hebrew in the process! When they returned from exile, they came back with a Syrian-based language called Aramaic, the lingua franca of all South West Asia those days, a language spoken at the time of Christ in Israel. It does not take more than 50 years to bury a language into oblivion.
What was the magic key to their survival? Could we also draw useful lessons from their experience? The first Israeli nation, more than a million strong, was born and brought up during their 430 years sojourn and exile in Egypt. How did they survive? As we move out of our hearths and homes because of economic and other compulsions to work and live in different stations amongst a sea of strangers and exploiters, we must remember that we step into a mine of extinction and therefore be careful. If we have to survive as an ethnic entity and a nation, we must sink our petty squabbles for the common good and take a cue from the Israeli experience. If we do, we survive, if not, we perish.

Lalthlamuong Keivom (L. Keivom) is a retired Indian diplomat. This paper was presented at a seminar on “Ethnic Nation Building: Chin-Kuki-Zo Trail” at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on April 5, 2010.

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