Emergence of tribal middle class in Manipur: Colonial and post-colonial period

Published on June 4, 2012

By Lal Dena

1. Historical Background: The hill areas of Manipur were peopled by two major ethnic groups – the Naga and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo, which are sub-divided into about thirty two smaller tribes according to difference in culture, language and customary practices. No clear-cut boundary line can be drawn between the areas occupied by the Nagas and the Kukis as they are all mixed up in all the hill districts except Churachandpur. In the present district of Ukhrul of north east Manipur, though the Tangkhul Nagas are predominant, a large number of Kukis also settle there.

The Senapati district of north Manipur is inhabited by Chiru, Kom, Liangmei, Mao, Maram, Nepali, Paomei, Thangal and Zemei Naga while the two subdivisions of Kangpokpi and Saikul are predominantly inhabited by Kom, Koren and Thado Kuki. In the district of Tamenglong of west Manipur are found the following tribes- Chiru, Gangte, Kom, Koren, Hmar, Liangmei, Rongmei, Thado Kuki and Zemei Naga. The district of Chandel of south east Manipur is again inhabited by Aimol, Anal, Chothe, Lamkang, Monsang, Moyon, Thado and Zo and the Naga tribes appear to be in majority here. The district of Churachandpur of south Manipur is an exclusively Kuki-Chin-Mizo area.

2. Pre-colonial social structure: It is an established fact that the hill tribes, whether Naga or Kuki-Chins have come to their present habitat from different places of China or Southeast Asia through Burma and in different times. The earliest group came came probably between 11th and 13th century and the latest groups by the beginning of the 19th century. In course of their long migratory movement and sojourn at different places, the people had evolved a very stable and time-tested traditional institutions which can withstand the challenges of colonization and modernization.

One prominent traditional institution which emerged in course of their onward migration was the chieftainship. Each village chiefdom was independent from one another. But one strking fact was the absence of any paramount tribal power, whether among the Kukis or the Nagas during the historical period.

It may be noted that every person could not become a chief. Only those persons who had the capacity to lead the people in their struggle for existence and constant anxiety in times of war, ability to command obedience from others, a certain charisma and readiness on the part of his followers to conform to the rules laid down by him, emerged as chiefs. Or such clan leaders who conquered new territories and built new villages were eventually recognized as chiefs. In each chiefdom, there was a village council.

The specific character, composition and methods of functioning of the council deferred from tribe to tribe or from region to region. The chief was the supreme head of the council. The chiefs and the councilors in a sense constituted a privileged group in a traditional tribal society. The village council combined in itself both judicial and administrative powers. It settled disputes and cases, both civil and criminal according to customary laws.

There was no clear-cut class division in tribal society which may at most be characterized as a twofold category consisting of the commoners (cultivators) and the ruling chiefs. The two groups again represented two broad categories of livelihood: the commoners were the producers of food and the ruling chiefs appropriated a part of what the commoners had produced. As a matter of fact, the ruling chiefs practically depended on the labor of the common people. Particularly, the Chin-Kuki-Lushai people, in course of their historical evolution, had evolved an aged-old practice of Busung-sadar which may be considered as a sort of feudal tribute.

According to this practice, every household cultivator within the chiefdom was to pay a certain fixed amount of paddy to the chiefs annually and every hind leg of any animal shot or killed in a trap was also surrendered to the chiefs. In between the chief and the commoners, there was no any other noticeable social group or class. This is to suggest that the concept of class in modern sense is very much conspicuous in its absence in pre-colonial tribal societies.

3. Emergence of tribal middle class: Some scholars question the categorization of the newly emergent educated group as a middle class. They suggest that the newly emergent group may be identified as an ‘elite class.’ The term ‘elite’, according to them, suggests the superior status of its members. It also connotes positions of influence which the newly educated tribal leaders certainly held in redefining traditional values. Moreover, an ‘elite’ is an open group, access to which is not restricted by birth or family antecedents and modern education provides social mobility through which any one can rise up in the social ladder of tribal society.

Another view contends that the newly western-educated group may be more appropriately called a ‘middle class’ because it occupied an intermediate position between the ruling colonial officials and the mass of the tribal population during the colonial period. Today the middle class is subdivided into lower middle class, centre middle class and upper middle class purely in terms of one’s income. Both terms are used here interchangeably to mean the same class.

3.1: Impact of colonial administration: The emergence of tribal middle class was a colonial creation. The formal contact between the British colonial rule and the hill peoples can be said to begin at the beginning of the 19th century. In dealing with the hill peoples, the colonial officials adopted paternalistic attitude which was confined to the formal recognition of tribal chiefs who formed an integral part of colonial administration. In the wake of colonial administration, there came the opportunity of government services and small contract works and of course earning as labourer was already there.

The subsistence barter economy was gradually replaced by monetized economy. To serve the needs of colonial establishment, recruitment of petty clerks, interpreters/translators, vaccinators, lam subedars or lambus were being made. Thus the colonial period saw the beginning of some people becoming rich and the introduction and extension of colonial administration in the hill areas of Manipur is the precursor for the emergence of tribal middle class in the hitherto classless tribal society.

3.2: Introduction od modern education: Closely connected with the colonial establishment were the Christian missionary who played a very important role in the establishment of schools which provided a material basis for the emergence of a new western-educated group. William Pettigrew, the first missionary, opened the first school in the hill areas at Ukhrul on 19 February, 1897 with 24 boys. Another 20 boys from a nearby village 4 miles south of Ukhrul joined the school later.

Slowly, few other boys from neighboring areas as far as Churachandpur and Tamenglong also joined the school. The first products of this Ukhrul School soon spread throughout the length and breadth of Manipur hills serving in different capacities as clerks in the sub-divisional headquarters of Churachandpur, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.

In the meantime, another Welsh missionary, Watkin R.Roberts, who was then working at the Welsh mission medical clinic at Aizawl came to Senvon and his undenominational mission soon covered the whole of Southern Manipur. Education being the most powerful instrument of Christian proselytism, almost everywhere there had been mushroom growth of schools and the once ignorant tribal masses also had began to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

On the northern side, the American Baptist mission had shifted its mission station to Kangpokpi with a leprosy hospital there. In this way, the missionary movement had assumed a new dimension covering elementary medical education and other philanthropic works also. But conspicuous was the deliberate negligence of secondary education for which a tribal student had to go to the valley or other neighboring states for further studies. Opportunity for education and earning money was open for all in the hills. Whoever could afford to get elementary education was believed to know even the number of a tree-leave by putting his foot at its ground. Thus out of this newly educated group emerged teachers, evangelists, new church leaders (pastors) and political leaders.

3.3: Tribal middle class: Its orientation and ideology: Having explained the historical roots of tribal middle class, let us now look into their behavior and ideology. The colonizers and the Christian missionaries taught the newly emergent leaders that they were ‘backward’ and should accept the colonial rule as beneficial. This is the argument which was carefully used for justifying colonial occupation. The missionaries thus taught the people that they were ‘savages’ and should accept new concepts of Christian ethics and western values without even examining whether there was anything of permanent value in the culture and traditions of the tribal society.

One of the main objectives of the missionaries was to train native workers and operate through them. Every new convert was under obligation to abandon his old faith and habits and to give up his tribal hair-cut and to adopt the European hair style. What was most crucial here was the change in their mental outlook. The western-educated group looked at Europeans as models and tended to become pro-western in outlook and attitude. They also began to look with disgust at their own culture through the glasses of their new masters who framed the syllabus and content of the teaching they received.

The profound but devastating psychological effect the colonial rule and mission education had on young men educated in their schools cannot be ignored. These young men felt and preached that their ancestors were ‘headhunters’, and made other young men ashamed of their past, their way of living, their tradition and culture. They also felt that the ‘western’ people and their so-called ‘civilizing mission’ had brought them into the ‘light’. This is not to ignore the fact that the impact of western civilization upon the people was only skin-deep and mere acceptance of superficial western values does not make one ‘civilized’.

One contradictory situation in which the new educated group was caught was that they were still bound by some traditional values and customs. Their main problem was, therefore, the simultaneous adaptation of two mentally contradicting elements: one ‘traditional’ and the other ‘western’. In the process, they were neither western nor traditional but an incorporation of both.

What is significant here is that the Christian missionaries educated the people and trained native workers who began to regard themselves as belonging to a more or less different category and assumed new leadership as educators, administrators, spiritual leaders, political leaders, etc., thereby disturbing the traditional social organizational structure and also affecting the economic interests of the traditional leaders.

In fact, at the initial stage, there arose a conflict between the two leaderships: the traditional leaders upholding the existing institutions and practices and the new leaders tending to condemn traditional values though they were still bound by the very same traditional values and customs. Both of them, however, played more or less the same roles. The new leaders acted as a bridge between the colonial administration and indigenous population by serving, apart from their normal duties as teachers and preachers, as translators or interpreters particularly during the First and the Second World Wars.

As new political consciousness dawned upon the people at the beginning of the 20th century, new political leaders began to question even the very basis of colonial domination. With the acceptance of democracy as a form of government and consequently, adult franchise, they began to negate colonial administration and question the rights and privileges of the traditional leaders who were dubbed as ‘lackeys of the colonial government’. This is not to say that they were opposed to perceived ideals and principles of western institutions. In fact, it was through the acceptance of these ideals that they claimed their right to leadership. As a result they lacked firm legitimacy in the society in which they lived.

Whatever legitimacy they claimed, tended to become ‘alien’ (without firm traditional roots). They, like the church leaders, denounced tradition as a basis for legitimacy. They were against the colonial personnel and traditional leaders but not western ideals and principles. In their fight against the colonial rulers and their close collaborators (the traditional rulers), the political leaders appealed to the sentiments of the people by forming various ethnic based political parties. Such parties exerted a strong appeal and there was inevitably a popular reaction against traditional leaders.

The political leaders demanded democratization of traditional political institutions, which meant the abolition of chieftainship and village councils with their feudal-like servitudes such as the busung-sadar and forced labor. The Mizo Union movement (1946-1948) in Manipur and Mizoram was a case in point.

3.4: Modern tribal middle class in Post-colonial India: Though the progress of education was slow in the hill areas of Manipur, a second generation of tribal elite had emerged in tribal society in the 50s after India’s independence in 1947. Growth of modern education and monetary economy went together hand in hand. The Government of India also introduced the scheduled system through which those section of people who are born in a caste-ridden Hindu society are classified as ‘scheduled castes’ and those tribes outside the caste system are included in the category of ‘scheduled tribes’ with a fixed quota of reserved posts for entry into the civil services, legislative assemblies and parliament.

Out of these second generation tribal elite, different types of new leadership had emerged. New political leadership cutting across existing state boundaries had demanded right of self-determination and in some extreme cases even secession from India. New professional group who entered into government services through reserved quota began to constitute the top class and cream of the tribal population. At the same time, a host of theology-oriented church leaders and the nouveau riche from among the business communities and contractors formed themselves into a powerful group which cannot be easily reckoned with.

The third generation children of these tribal leaders could now afford to get better opportunities to study even outside the state of Manipur. So in course of time these educated people are firmly placed in government jobs and as a matter of fact, many of them began to enter into All-India services such as civil service, police service, medical service, engineering service, forest service, etc. Again the fourth generation children of these central services holders or nouveau riche, being born and brought up in metropolitan cities, begin to join the best colleges and universities in the country and can even compete with non-tribal candidates in the all-India competitive examinations.

Elite marriage is also confined to the families of similar status and thereby building the solid base for a permanent middle class in tribal society. The competition is also no longer between the children of this class and the children of the interior villages in the hills; but is now among the children of the same middle class families themselves. Therefore while the reservation system is acting as a means for bringing up the weaker section to the level of other advanced section of the society, it is at the same time creating a new privileged group within the tribal society.

3.5: Modern tribal middle class vis-à-vis Tribalism or Detribalization: Surprisingly the tribal middle class in the post-colonial period are caught in two self-contradictory situations. While they are in the process of detribalization, they are at the same time advocates of tribalism. As a matter of fact, tribalism emerges in a situation where tribes and tribesmen are vanishing. This is to say that tribalism flourishes among the detribalized middle class which includes politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, doctors, church leaders, wealthy businessmen and contractors.

In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the indigenous masses, they tend to uncritically imitate modern values and life-styles. More crucial, all of the members of the elite have left their ancestral land to settle in town or cities. In this way, disparity between the elite and rural masses has also become wider than before. They also tend to look with disgust at their established traditional values and customs. What is important is the change in their mental outlook. They think and act as other non-tribal urbanized people do, beginning to impose upon themselves heavy bourgeois values.

In a sense, every professional tribal is detribalized as soon as he leaves his tribal area. He begins to live in different kinds of social groupings, earns his livelihood in a different way and comes under different authorities. But the question is: is he really free from the influences of his tribe? In this connection, Gluckman argues that urbanization does not necessarily disrupt tribal solidarity. It is true that a tribal who lands up in a town or city, becomes isolated from his ethnic environment. But it always happens that even there he continues to live with his fellow tribesmen and this can strengthen his communal or tribal ties(Markovizt: 1970).

For instance, different tribal groups settle permanently in different parts of Imphal, Guwahati, Bangaluru, Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai, etc. Even in those metropolitan cities, they continue to organize themselves on the basis of tribes or communities. Because the spirit of tribe always exists as traditional law on cultural rituals and rites regarding death, intergenerational social relationship, leadership and the positions of elders and youth in society. Ethnic-based political parties or voluntary associations are always the visible operational arms of tribalism. These are again instruments for the development of ethnic nationality.

Very often, the leadership of these ethnic-based parties or associations is drawn from the detribalized elite who at the same time form a part of national elite in a wider context. They identify themselves with the state and its government. Yet, as and when occasion demands, the detribalized elitists use these parties or associations to protect or promote their own communal interests. For this reason, they are unable to separate themselves from the wishes of their kin and the demands of belonging to their tribe. In a way, “tribe affects the individual at a very personal level. Tribe is touchable. Tribe is not mysterious. Tribe has a face. Tribe is nurturing. Tribe has tradition and culture. Tribe is the clear answer for many people to the question ‘who am I?”(B.S.Aswal,2012:95).

To a great extend, tribalism is the outcome of conflicts between segments of detribalized elites in a pluralistic society. Because of the very nature of inner contradictions inherent in the class relationship, one ethnic group always tries to dominate or compete with the other tribal group. A ministry or government, in which one ethnic group is dominant, is often suspected to favor that ethnic group at the expense of others. In this way, we see both competition and conflict for power and position among rival ethnic groups.

According to Peter P. Ekeh, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, tribalism is the direct result of the dialectical confrontation between the two publics: primordial public and civic public. The primordial public is closely identified with primordial groupings, sentiments and activities. Whereas the civic public is based on civil structure: the military, the civil service, the police, etc. The leaders of the primordial public should not be confused with ethnic leadership. They want to channelize a great share of resources from the civic public to individuals or to his community as they can.

The protagonists of tribalism strengthen the positive value of ethnic loyalty. They also create in many cases, cohesive groups much larger than those that existed in the pre-colonial era. For instance, the concept of Nagaisation is still an expanding and unending process and some tribes who are more akin to the Kuki-Mizo groups linguistically and culturally, are now in the process of being Nagaised. Among the Kuki-Mizo groups also, the search for a more accommodating nomenclature is still on and options opened for them are: Kukiaisation, Zomiasation or Mizoaisation. The Paites, the Vaipheis, the Zous, and Simtes, etc. tend to opt for Zomi. Whereas the Hmars in and outside Mizoram prefer to identify themselves as Mizo by still retaining their identity as Hmar. The Gangtes, as a matter of fact, have recently merged with the Mizos.

In the final analysis, tribalism, good or bad, ensures ethnic loyalty which in its turn, provides for the tribal people a sense of their identity and the values of their culture and tradition. At the same time it also provides a material basis for political and socio-religious separatist movements. Even church organizations are based on tribal lines. The whole tragedy with most of the tribal Christians is that their ethnic loyalty often transcends their commitment to Christianity. The majority of them are tribals first and Christians second. In this way, the process of tribalism and detribalization are dove-tailing in a changing tribal society today.

The writer is professor of History in Manipur University, India.

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  1. min

    new term TRIBAL MIDDLE CLASS.. a simple foolish pertinent question who are/were/is the middle class and who were/are/is the Upper Class?