Grip of chiefship on the Kukis

Lunminthang Haokip *

HOW CHIEFSHIP CAME ABOUT: The issue merits a heated debate till the sun goes cold. To the Kukis, chief-ship is age-old. Long before democracy replaced monarchy in India, in the Kuki-inhabited regions of the sub-continent’s North Eastern States and its military-ruled neighbour, Myanmar’s north-western frontiers, a unique method of hill-village governance evolved out of environmental compulsions.

Good or bad, the situation in the tribal settlements demanded a semblance of self-rule in the near-total absence of proper connectivity to better-civilised societies. That’s how every Kuki village had a chief in the helm of administrative affairs, and the ancient land a chief and his villagers could possibly lay their hands upon came under a particular chief-ship. Attachment to a particular chiefship bound by clannish ties and blood relationship.

CHIEFSHIP OF THE PAST : The joke that strikes a chord with the informed citizenry in the hill districts of Manipur is, “Be cautious when you walk on the roads, neo-rich chiefs are learning how to drive. You may get hit”.

The punch of the joke that saner thought leaves unsaid, is implied on the upward mobility of purse-prodded chiefs, who, thanks to the initial glut of funds in employment guarantee scheme, madly went for consumer durables like a motor car. Such a craze was usually associated with a passion reserved for religion. Some village chiefs felt ill-at-ease to drive four wheelers at their advanced stage of ageing.

Like Yuppies of NW India, the scheme-savvy heads of villages may enjoy the powers and privileges granted in doses by decentralized planning. But when it comes to authority over their subjects, they are no patch on the system-backed original village chiefs of the distant past. Like in the case of the CEO of a Private Ltd company, it was suicidal not to fall in line with their whims and fancies in backblock management, then.

THE CUSTOM-BOUND KUKI: Clannishness was, and still is in lesser degrees, to the hill landlords as casteism was and is to mainland India. The effects of the ills are as chilling. Exercising absolute authority over land-holdings within his bounds, and his tight grip over life-sustaining pastoral productivity sector, a Kuki chief’s lording was as good and as bad as a that of a Rajput landlord in north India.

A flip of the fingers can send domestic servants of the moustached masters tottering for cover. The Kuki chief, in his hey days, did not lag much behind. His word was law and in-law deals could be clinched or detached at will. The illogical but mandatory slaughter of the unclean pig to clean up a house ‘dirtied’ by bloodshed is an unfortunate example of the accident of tradition.

The very belief that a bloodied floor can be wiped out clean by the butchery of an animal that enjoys wallowing in the mire of mud. The Scripture warns of this practice in no uncertain terms, “But He answered and said unto them, Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?”

GENERATIONAL CURSES : One can understand the bullying ways of the ruler, and the trembling subservience of the ruled, in the pre-Independence (India) era, over land and customs. Might was right then. But what is unfair is the imposition and tolerance of pre-Christianity curses like male-centric inheritance laws, sub-clan-based new-village creation norms, fine systems, mandatory show of allegiance to clan-heads, laws on marriage and divorce etc. among Churched village-folks.

This staunch beliefs and practices that run counter to Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything that is in it...”, not only jeopardizes the sense of belongingness to a sub-Nation unification process, but also blunts the cutting edge of many vital Bible verses like, “Henceforth, know ye no man after the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16)”.

Despite rapid globalisation, the Kuki chief-ship neither looks East nor West in transaction of human affairs. With defiant nonchalance, it insists on inspection and application of the near-insane insinuations of the past, whenever a key decision over a serious dispute is to be taken.

THE WESTERN INFLUENCE : The crossover missionary labours of the western Christians in the 19th and early 20th centuries paid off rich dividends. The early Mission preachers of the Gospel doubled up as social reformers too. The valour of the Kuki fighters, exhibited with trademark pride in the 1917-1919 rebellion against the British rulers, had negative historical ramifications to their own isolation in administrative creaming.

But they could not achieve an encore in matters of religion. Ironically, the muzzle-loader trigger-happy community’s failure to shoot down the onslaught of Christianity, ultimately, set the progressive pace of development of the mind.

Education, imparted with the larger motive of evangelisation of the then heathen and hidden natives, made them change their outlook, and moved them to stick their necks out on the look from the narrow apertures of ‘pagan culture’, for progressive western culture. In matters of housing, dressing, worshipping, marrying, singing and merry-making, the once kinky Kukis, never looked back ever since. No regrets there.

PROXIMITY TO THE EAST: The Kuki chief-ship is a paradox by itself. It somehow legitimizes the vast stretches of hill land a village settles in and feed themselves from. Habitually resistant to the meticulous land-holding systems, demarcation of possession of land was defined by natural boundaries like rivers, ridges, gorges and footpaths. The simple short-cut way was put to practice for ages. Natural objects were cited to settle inter-village boundaries when a dispute arose.

Virgin slopes where various short-term plants can be grown to bear fruits of prosperity are available a dime-a-dozen in the districts bordering Myanmar. The “Look East” policy promises a ready market for horticultural products in the ASEAN cities through the Eastern corridor via the newly constructed AH-1 and its link- roads. Most portions of the Trans-Asian highways had been multi-laned and paved to take on international trading thoroughfare. North East India, thanks to similarity in features and cultures, fortunately has no problem establishing a people to people trading rapport with ASEAN Nationals.

THE CHINA FACTOR: The emergence of China as a wholesaler of every household need and a buyer of valuable forest products, albeit in shady deals, of India, will also force the Kuki entrepreneurs of NE India to rubber-neck towards the East. Two Asian Highways routed from China through upper and eastern Myanmar had already flooded Tamu, Namphalong and Moreh market with trade items at irresistible prices.

The present closure of the erstwhile border trading hub of Namphalong, due to the National crises in Myanmar, affects the economy of many families who made a living out of the international buy & sale paradise. On the flip side, chief-ship and its traditional fixation takes the under-developed community in reverse gear.

Undemocratic impositions on helpless landless inhabitants sub-divide a main village into many more hamlet villages which are counter-productive in premature stages. Some are still-born. Horticultural plants and pucca houses are the casualties. The former never grow fully; and the latter get dismantled frequently.

LICENSE TO THRILL: Chief-ship carries the burden of clan-receptive and change-resistant negative social elements democracy and Christianity can do nothing about. Nothing delights a well-heeled Kuki brother than being declared the chief of a new village or being issued a gun-license to.

To him, the two are ‘licenses’ to thrill. He is happier to be a ruler of three households than be a title-less and voice-less subject in a 100-house village. The tragedy is that every man in the small village thinks alike. All wish to be a chief one day, if not by hook, then by crook. So, at the slightest provocation, a rebel-without-a-pause, equipped with a imaginary cause to call quits, is born.

A fine for breaking wrong-doing is often made a excuse to either shift base or create a hamlet village. No wonder, a Kuki village with 30 houses is looked up with awe and considered a highly well-behaved entity; many big villages notwithstanding. The bitter truth of the matter is that, the smaller the size of the village is, the more complicated the problems they are saddled to handle.

THE BIBLICAL REMEDY: Looking East or West is not the optional end. The best to look at, to remedy the social malady of village fragmentation in a world where numbers and size matter, is the God-Man from the Middle-East, Lord Jesus, who said, “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:27).

This singular verse, applied in letter and spirit, will change the face of backblock Kuki villages and society. A chief’s role is of multi-tasks. A good chief must be the chief donor, chief runner, chief orator, chief servant, chief forgiver, chief promoter all rolled into one restless soul with a heart of gold. All these attributes can not be endowed in one man.

So, he has to evangelize his village using the Word of God. A believer is much easier to be tackled during crisis than a hardcore atheist. Chief or no chief, an individual can’t keep everyone happy. So, the chief should be “shrewd like a serpent and harmless like a dove (Matthew 10:16).”

If he can’t be so, he has to imagine a lot and cultivate a sense of humour. Because imagination is given to man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humour, to console him for what he is. Right?

A PARADIGM SHIFT IN APPROACH IS DESIRED: Like it or not, chief-ship is here to stay. Government recognizes the chief as the lowest functionary in a hill district democratic set-up whose mistakes can, of course, upset the whole. His performance or non-performance will impact the big picture.

Concerned thinkers are invited to share their ideas in the media so that a more potent village administrative guideline may come up to replace the obsolete present. A paradigm shift in approach is desired. We need to formulate Acts and Rules that would aptly address the basic social structures and super-structures that hinder our natural, human and financial resources from peaking.

Let us take positive steps to do away with the generational curses that stand between what we should have been and what we actually are. Unless, we use our Scriptural knowledge and academic brilliance to make our villages more liveable for gen-next, posterity will, one day, blame us for having used our heads only to keep our earlobes apart.

* Lunminthang Haokip wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an IAS (Retd)
This article was webcasted on October 07 2022 .

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