Evolution of Kuki Chieftainship Through Customary Laws – Its Modern Conceptuality

Published on December 31, 2010

By Priyadarshni M. Gangte
Traditional political life of the Kukis is deeply rooted to their customary laws in their society. The socio political institutions are closely entrenched with other institutions. Their system of political institution is based on Kinship relations and is termed as a mere “Social Organisation” distinguished from “Political Organisation” of civilized community (Lewis Henry Morgan: Ancient Society, London, 1877, pp 65-67).
Similar views were expressed by Durkheim (Emile Durkheim:  Elementary Forms of religious Life, London, 1915) and Malinawski (Boris Malinawski: Freedom and Civilization, London: 1947; pp 263-266), whose authority on the primitive people is undisputed. They contended that primitive State was not tyrannical, as is supposed to be, to its subjects because they were always a body of people related by bonds of kinship and relationship, by clanship and age grades and that they spoke of themselves as a group where practically everybody was related, in reality or fictitiously, to everybody else. Customary Laws governed and regulated these relationships and ties of fraternity which emerged thereof.
Schapera (Issac Schapera: Government and Politics in Tribal Societies, London; 1963; pp 14-15) contended that political system among primitive societies was based on kinship relation and that each tribe claimed exclusive rights to the land it occupied. (The tribal areas are often governed for all practical purposes by the customary laws. Normally a Customary Law or the other had jurisdiction over the village administration, village officials and ever the village boundary. The authorities therefore exercised their customary laws over the villagers or their kinship based society whenever disputes arose or in due course of performing right rites and rituals.)  
All people living therein were subjects to the chief,  as head of the local Government, and only by moving away or migration could they escape his control. Outsiders might not settle in his territory without chiefs’ permission, who rehabilitated them wherever he wished. Thereafter, they, the settled outsiders, became his subjects. In case they disobeyed him they were expelled. He not only regulated the distribution and use of the land but also decided the fate of his subjects on the basis of customary laws.
MacIver (R.R. MacIver: The Web of Government, New York: 1965; p. 165) said with conviction that in primary sense a tribe was “community organized on the basis of kinship who usually claimed to have descended from a common ancestor” and that “tribal Government was characteristic of simple society” and “was equivalent to Primitive Government.”

Chieftainship is a very powerful secular Institution based on kinship structure for the purpose of village administration which is the highest and independent political unit. (T.S. Gangte: The Kukis of Manipur: Gyan Publishing House, Delhi, 1993; pp. 125-126). According to Customary Law, the office of Chieftainship is hereditary passing from father to eldest son among the Thadous and to the youngest among the Lushais (Ibid). In the case of Lushai, however, it has been changed from youngest to eldest in recent times. (Col. J. Shakespear : Lushai Kuki Clans: 1912; p. 42). It was very salutary as the process of fragmentation continued to erode not only the material possessions of the Chief but also the viability of his position as a chief (Mrs. (Dr.) N. Chatterjee: The Mizo Chief and His Administration: 1975, p. 2).
It is associated with the concept of ‘UPA’ or man on the direct line of the senior descent (Ibid). The epithet ‘UPA’ is, therefore, conferred on a person by way of reverence, and a great deal of veneration is attached to it. ‘UPA’ is the only person who can become chief. Thus, ‘chief’ is synonymous with ‘UPA’. Similarly, corresponding to ‘UPA’ the term ‘NAOPA’ stands for the junior man who cannot in the normal course of the customary law become the chief. He can become so only with the full consent of the chief, as also with the concurrence  of  Council  of  ‘Ministers’,  or  ‘Elders’  of  the village, which is known as ‘Semang-Upa’, ‘Pachong’, or ‘UPA’ in Lushai collectively. Before a ‘NAOPA’ can become the chief, certain formalities and obligations are to be gone through as per Customary Law.

It must be said that under the circumstance there is no scope for growth of political leadership among the ‘NAOPA’ to become the ‘Chief’, unless specifically desired by the ‘UPA’ to develop and groom his ‘NAOPA’, (T.S. Gangte: op.cit p.125)  literally meaning younger brother, for leadership, or chief whatsoever.
Chieftainship manifests, therefore, in the rights and privileges handed down to the ‘UPA’ and these prerogatives are institutionalized in village organisation and the Customary Laws, through the system of Chieftainship called ‘HAOSA’ in Thadou and ‘LAL’ in Lushai to mean chief of the village and its Council of Elders (Ministers). Thus chieftainship has come to stay as an institution which is the perennial source of customary laws, and the mechanism by which such laws are interpreted in the social system that makes them a living force enabling to maintain their identity inheriting a rich cultural heritage (Ibid : p.127)
Administrative Structure and Functions (wherefrom customary laws flow):

As per the customary laws a village is an independent political unit among the Kukis and the Chief called HAOSA of the village and his Council of Ministers are the political leaders (Ibid : p.126). Administrations of justice, enforcement of executive function, maintenance of social practices and customary law, including religious performances are the areas of village administration under the Chieftainship and his Council of Minister. Thus a Kuki village is an important administrative unit.
The village administrative organisation is normally structured as given below in the box, which normally leads to the exercise of power as vested with the customary law:
















(Council of Ministers or Elders)
























(Speaker or Secretary)



























(Bachelors’ Dormitory)




(Village Labour Corp)



















(Senior Group)


(Middle group)



(Junior Group)


(Learner or Errand Group)

Source : T. S. Gangte:
# The Kukis of Manipur : 1993; p.126; Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi.
‘Haosa’ (Chief)

‘Haosa’ or ‘Lal’ is the office of the Village Chief. It is hereditary, passing from father to the son (T.S. Gangte: Op. cit.; p. 126).  Among the Mizos, and unlike the Nagas, ‘Haosa’ has the absolute right of ownership over the entire land of the village (Ibid). The villagers have no right over the land whatsoever. Even if a villager, who is generally a ‘Naopa’ wishes to establish a new village, he can do so only with the permission of the ‘Haosa’.
The ‘Haosa’, howsoever, absolute his right over the land might be, normally allows, in consultation with his Council of Minister, (Thangtindal: Ancient Polity of the Gangtes: 1988, p.2), the villagers to cultivate and  utilise  as per their requirements. But the villagers have to pay to the ‘Haosa’ in return for such privileges in the shape of tributes called ‘Changseo’, even part of hunted games called ‘Saleng’. (Goulienthang: A short Chronological Account of Mizos: 2001: p.30). ‘Changseo’ is payable annually after harvest. The ‘Haosa’ is also entitled to free labour called ‘Khuo-Tha’ (Ibid) of each villager once in a year.
Together with such rights, the ‘Haosa’ has certain obligations over the villagers. In return to the services rendered by the villagers, free of cost, and the tributes paid as token of loyalty, recognition, obedience and solidarity, the ‘Haosa’ has to protect their interests by providing security socially, politically and economically. It is also the bounden duty of the ‘Haosa’ to see that every villager is protected from external aggression and danger. Ideologically investigated it reminds us of Rousseau’s social contract theory.
The ‘Haosa’ system is indeed very similar to the Social Contract Theory of Rousseau (Jean Jacqueu Rousseau: The Social Contract: 1712-1778) who enunciates that rights imply duties. By this system both the villagers on the one hand and the ‘Haosa’ as the chief on the other, are in duty bound to fulfil their rights and obligations towards each other.

Many writers having a superficial knowledge about the men and affairs try to draw a similarity between the ‘Haosa’ and the ‘Zamindar’ and often jump to a conclusion that the system of a ‘Haosa’ is despotic. Of course, there is sufficient room for a ‘Haosa’ to become a despot and tyrannical, but such things are rare.  Despite such possibility of being so dreaded by the villagers, there are thousand and one ways by which such a situation can be averted due to interaction of forces within the system. The villagers are at liberty to leave the village and migrate elsewhere in case the ‘Haosa’ is found failing in his duty to protect interest of the villagers.
Notwithstanding the inherent defects associated with the ‘Haosa’ system which the Kukis cannot do away with the ‘Haosa’ system has come to stay as a perennial source of custom and tradition, in that, in spite of the onslaught of modernism and advancement in all walks of life, they are able to inherit a rich cultural and traditional heritage. The Haosa system has its bases on the proper interpretation of the customary law and tradition, and it is binding upon the people.
Unlike the Naga tribes of Manipur, who have no permanent and strongly established secular head of a village, the office of which is usually held by an elected man called ‘Gaonbura’ for a specified term, similar to the Nuer tribes of Africa, who do not have a permanent Chief of the village other than the Leopard-skin clad Chief (E.E. Evans-Pritchard: NUER: 1940:p.172), who, though wields a great deal of influence and acts as a ‘go-between’ to settle disputes (Ibid, P. 6), the Mizos have a very solidly established institution of Chieftainship who, being the ‘Upa’ of a particular clan or lineage or sub-lineage, is considered to be the fountain-head of all customs and retainer of tradition, yet like the African Nuer, the Kuki political structure is segmented into lineages which are diverging branches of descent from a common ancestor.

Observations of Carey and Tuck (Bertram S. Carey and H.M. Tuck:  The Chin Hills : 1932, p. 201) on the Mizo chief is interestingly worth taken note of. They said that Thadou chief might be wanting in qualifications and that there might be many of other families his superior in ability, but, unless he was physically quite unfit to his position, there was no danger of his being supplanted, and the usual course was for the elders and advisors to assist him in his rule. This was basic consideration of chieftainship which had a strong grip for efficient administration. The British knew it well and gave cognizance to it as part of their administrative machinery till 1947.

Today in India chieftainship has become a misnomer since this institution was abolished by an act of law. There exist two sets of people among the Thadou and Lushai Chiefs wherein the traditional leadership is provided by the chiefs and their clansmen. Sometimes they could not adjust to this new situation of abolished chieftainships. On the other hand, commoners saw a new ray of hope to move in their social hierarchy and asserted themselves through organized ethnic activities which came in direct confrontation with the Institution of chieftainship.
This gave birth to the nomenclature, Mizo, in place of Lushai and controversy over the ‘Kuki’ terminology, mainly because of politicization of tribal society by the proletariats, resulting in emergence of new ethnic appellation and division of homogeneous cohesive village communities under the leadership of the chief into heterogeneous ethnic groups right from the village level to the highest social elites, aspiring for separate and multifarious identities.

Andre Betteille: Caste, Old and New: 1969: p 139, New Delhi ). One of the most serious social discordant notes that took place for reason mentioned above was between the Singson chiefs and the Hmar commoners which took place from mid 59 lasting till mid 60 that rocked the age-old social harmony and tranquility, resulting in the burning down of many Singson villages where Hmar commoners lived in peace under their Thadou Chiefs who dared not return to their villages till date. The damage done to the good relationship between the Thadous and the Hmars was due to non-conformity with the customary laws and was a direct manifestation of adverse influence brought about by modernism in the name of development.

Customary Laws Made Manifest

We are aware of the fact that the customs are not customary laws per se. They help us at the performance level. Rituals through constant usage may become part of customary laws because they need to be performed during the course of holding on to traditional values. Customary laws therefore emerge as an institution in itself which is referred to time and again. It has become part and parcel of the state/social system.

Semang-Pachong or Upa

The institution of ‘Haosa’ presupposes the existence of ‘Semang Pachong’, in Thadou, or, ‘Upa’ in Lushai, Council of Ministers or Elders of the Village. It has to work through the Council which assists in his day-do-day administration (T.S. Gangte: op. cit. p. 124). This Council is composed of persons of wisdom, integrity, knowledge of customary law and its interpretations etc. and is nominated by the ‘Haosa’. Special representation is always given from the minorities and the poor villagers in the Council. The Council members assemble and make deliberations. They remain in office as long as the ‘Haosa’ is pleased. Social, political, economic, judicial matters etc. are dealt with by the Council.
The main mechanism through which the Council exercises its administration is interpretation of the customary laws (Ibid). The ‘Haosa’ as the Chairman or Head of this Council presides over the meetings. Members of the Council are exempted from payment of all kinds of tributes levied on the common villagers in token recognition of their services (Thangtindal: op.cit; p.3).

Customary Laws govern appointments of officials and their powers till the offices exist. Officers are products of customary laws but not vice-versa. (P.M. Gangte: Customary Laws of Meitei And Mizo Societies. Akansha Publishing House, New Delhi, 2008: p.271).
Position of the Public under Haosa
In fact, Kukis have a tendency of continual hindrance in the economic development. Due to frequent migrant a big village is often reduced into a small village. It is difficult to chalk out an action plan for the improvement of the village and even the developmental schemes of the government cannot be implemented. Moreover, there are some villages whose Haosa are despotic and tyrannical, one can live in the village only as the Haosa pleases. All the plots for jhuming and household belong to the village chief.
The villagers are in good book of the Haosa as long as they please him and they are justified. The moment the villagers incurs the displeasure of him, he is alienated. The chief has so much power to exercise on the village and villagers have nothing to say and they are equated as orphans without parent( Satkholal Neishal: Reformation of Chieftainship, Directorate for Development of Tribals & Backward Classes, Manipur, at Bir Computer Printing Works, Lamphel, Imphal, 1995, P.1). Moreover, the villagers are landless without having permanent ownership of land for jhum and homestead. As a result of which they cannot work with interest and they have no peace of mind.
However, the concept of ownership of land is maturity and their institutional patterns of land control are being elaborated into a definite system. People have developed a sense of a territoriality. Over a period of time, communities have witnessed a transition from community centered relations based on contract. In this regard, Singsit (Dr. Seiboi Singsit: Traditional Forestry Management of the Thadou-Kukis, Akansha Publishing House, Delhi, 2010: p.155) has contended that earlier cultivated land was mainly community owned, the cultivator enjoyed temporary ownership being co-existence with the operation of land. The products of the land were however, the property of family. Thus, in case of land, the community or the clans of community had the legal personality and in case of  income the family was the legal person (Ibid).
The Kuki communities whose social institutions are influenced overwhelmingly by tradition and customary laws have a strong faith in ‘Chieftainship’ has effectively managed their administrative affairs as well as in the dispensation of justice. As a matter of fact, the institutions of chieftainship being vested with the power and authority to resolve and settle all disputes; whether be it major or minor including criminal and murder related cases  which occurs between different individuals or groups within the jurisdiction of the communities has been dealt with in accordance to the customary laws; thereby impacting a huge administrative relief for the authorities of public administration from involving themselves into the affairs of these communities.
Thus, the administrative system of Kuki under the Chieftainship is comparatively laudable as it is unlike with other communities whose  traditional and customary laws unable to provide a system of support to the public administration to the extent of managing their affairs on daily walks of life.
Given this fact narrated above, the so called axis of  rider ‘Chieftainship’ being  bondaged with the age old social institutions of the Kukis, even in this modern age  it deserves an appreciation for those intellectuals,  political parties, social workers and civilized societies rather than simply looking upon it as an obstacle on the anvil of land reforms in the tribal areas just for a cause of legal right or title over ownership of land  for individual without deeply considering the substantial contributions it has made to the public administration, and until an alternative framework to substitute this social institution of Chieftainship is framed in a democratic manner and acceptable to communities.
The writer, who has authored several articles and books, is a lecturer in the history department at Damdei Christian College, Manipur, India. She is the wife of late Thangkhotinmang Sielpho Gangte (T.S. Gangte), a well-known sociologist in the Kuki society.

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  1. Jalencha

    Any single write-up/Article on this customary subject – Kuki Chieftainship / HAOSA / LAL – is always refreshing for the readers.

    SADLY though, this old & substandard institution has been a CURSE for our society through the years. 90% of these Haosas have only acted like Land Owners as found in the Socialist Revolutions.

    The sooner we do away with this social evil, the better we fare in the days to come.

  2. Jalencha

    Any single write-up/Article on this customary subject – Kuki Chieftainship / HAOSA / LAL – is always refreshing for the readers.

    SADLY though, this old & substandard institution has been a BOON for our society through the years. 90% of these Haosas have only acted like Land Owners as found in the Socialist Revolutions.

    The sooner we do away with this social evil, the better we fare in the days to come.