Traditional village administration of the natives of North East
- with special reference to Zeliangrongs -
- Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *


Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (African Political System) have divided the societies into two groups; one group has government—central authority, administrative machinery, and judicial institutions—in which power does correspond with wealth and status. The skeleton/framework of these societies is the administrative system; the societies are mixtures of different peoples; their rulers control an organized force to uphold their authority.

Such are the kingdoms of the Southern Bantu. And the other set, typified by the Nuer and Tellensi, does not have or lacks government in the above sense; there are no sharp divisions in rank, status or wealth; the segmentary system is the framework of the political system. Here, a state is defined by the present of governmental institutions. On this basis it may be held that the first group of societies as primitive states and the later as stateless societies. However, the above political typology would not cover the present study.

Sir Henry Maine and L. H. Morgan have taken it for granted that all human societies have governments. This view is held also by some other scholars. But modern scholars have sometimes denied that government does happen everywhere. For instance, Radcliffe-Brown says, 'there is no organized government in an Andamanese village' and Bronislaw Malinowski, that, 'political organization does not exist among such people as the Veddas, the Firelanders, and Australian natives.'

Fortes and Evans-Pritchard have defined government as 'centralize authority, administrative machinery, and judicial institutions,' and Bronislaw Malinowski also holds the view that, 'political organization implies always a central authority with the power to administer regarding its subjects, that is, to co-ordinate the activities of the component groups.' Although the Nuer and Tellensi have chiefs (like Leopard skin chief of Nuer) and among the Andaman Islanders, 'the affairs of the community are regulated by the older men and women;' 'in each local group there was usually to be found one man who thus by his influence could control and directs others.'

The views expressed by the scholars are impossible to find in all tribal societies systems of government. However, it is generally established that government in its formal aspects always involves direction and control of public affairs by one or more specific persons whose regular function that is.

Isaac Schapera observes, "By a political community I mean a group of people organized into a single unit managing its affairs independently. Each community also has its own territory and an official head or chief." According to K. E. Read, political action expresses the internal identity and unity of the group on the one hand and the external identity which it assumes towards outsiders.

The internal identity is expressed in the prohibition of force within the community, or by sanctioning the 'illegal' use of force by the 'corrective' use of force on the part of the community or its agents. The external identity which the community does assume towards outsiders is expressed in the use of force in war. Within the boundary of the political community there is an acceptance of a common law and mechanisms for enforcing the common law; outside the political community there is no such common law, but there is action in the form of war. Though, there is also linked with other neighbouring groups/villages by ties of historical tradition, intermarriage, corporation in major ceremonies and trade.

The Zeliangrong people lived in the villages and their attachment to the village and village lands is very strong. The real political unit of the Zeliangrong is the village with its definite territory, a well knit social system and religious organization. Each Zeliangrong village consists of at least two exogamous clans for the purpose of marriage and ritual practices. The Zeliangrong polity is democratic in nature however gerontocracy, the rule of elders is the form of their village government in which the public opinion is an important factor in the process of decision making. Moreover, the opinion of the clans' heads is also counted.

In their long history, the Zeliangrong polity did not grow beyond their village. However the internal political and social structures were uniform and similar with little local variation. "A Kabui owes no duty to the tribe; he enjoys no rights as a member of the tribe; it affords him no protection against an enemy, for as often as not his worst enemies are those of his own village or tribe. He acknowledges no tribal head either in matters of religion or in secular affairs." Therefore, the village is the autonomous political, social, economic and cultural unit.

Each Zeliangrong village is ruled by Pei (council of elders) headed by a chief known as Nampou. The Pei has elaborate functions and duties. The main functions of the Pei are administrative, military power, religious, and judicial. The legislative function of Pei is less because there are already well set of unwritten customary laws, which seldom require amendment. The decision given by the Pei which is the apex body of the village administration is final. No members of the village even the Nampou can go against the decision of the Pei. No other village also has the right to interfere in the internal affairs and decision of the Pei.

The Pei is the supreme body for the entire village administration. It does maintain peace and social cohesion and decides the dates of agricultural process such as selection of sites for cultivation, felling the trees, burning the fields etc. The Pei fixes the date, days for festivals, the day for mass hunting, fishing and also announces the Neihmei, gennas in the village; and it strictly puts in force it. The Pei has the authority to make a decision on any important subject and the decisions turn into law in the village.

The authority of the Pei is based on the customs and it puts into effect the customary laws. However, the Pei rarely moves away from the general customary laws of the community dealing with the law of person and property and religious matters. In the distance past, the Pei maintained almost independent relation with other villages and the outside world.

In a Zeliangrong village, there are different social institutions based on sex and age gradation. These institutions (Then) are supervised by the Pei. At the time of establishment of the village, the Pei established the social institutions like Khangchu, boys' dormitory, Luchu, girls' dormitory, Ganchang Kaibang, house of elders, Mathenmei Kaibang, house of married women and Kengja Kaibang, house of old women for smooth functioning of the village. There is no separate house for the social institutions.

The Pei therefore, appointed owner of the social institutions. The institution of boys' dormitory occupies the central figure in the village with a view to purvey village defense and institute of cultural learning, where the future of the village society is built and from which the village obtains security. It is the responsibility of Pei to keep firmness and harmony in the functioning of these institutions.

And it can be stated that the strength and ability of the village as a military force, culture, religion and social discipline depends on the quality of the members of the dormitories. In addition, the Pei also maintains village paths, ponds, and repairing of them, construction of new paths, cleaning of the village, making bridges across the streams and rivers.

In general all decisions of the Pei are to be executed by the Khangchu members. Maintenance of community granary and grave-yard of the village is another notable feature of civic administration in the traditional villages. This kind of arrangement in the village is important for sanitation and civilized of the people. The idea of constructing a separate granary in isolation from the dwelling houses is to prevent fire incident in the village, and which indicates the wisdom of village administration, found in the past. In short Pei looks after the welfare and prosperity of the village.

Each Zeliangrong village is a self sufficient unit. Rice was and is the staple crops of the Zeliangrong. The main occupation of the Zeliangrong is shifting cultivation of rice. Unlike the other Naga tribes, the Zeliangrong like the Kukis practice shifting cultivation due to their geographical location and it usually demands a vast land for the same purpose. The Pei has overall control over the whole economic activities of the village. There is a three-tier system of land ownership in every Zeliangrong village.

They are the Nampou, owner of the village (either clan or the village community land), Rampou, (intermediary owner of land within the village land which may be individual families or clans) and Laopou, holders (tillers) of plot agricultural field. As an authority, the Pei regulates the transfer/sale of land within the village. It maintains the village forests and decides on the selection and allocation of the forest lands for jhum cultivation in a particular year.

It also fixes the rental fee in the form of paddy to be paid by the tillers of the agricultural land to the land owner, Rampou and the Nampou. In general, the Pei gives no consent to transfer or sale the village land to outsiders. But the sale of a plot of land to a Zeliangrong of other village is possible if it is permitted by the Pei. They also collect the rents and gives to the landowners and keep a portion of the rent as fund of the Pei. J. N. Das says, "The rent is paid in the form of crop.

It is fixed by custom at one tin of paddy per year per fixed plot. But the rent is to be paid for the year of cultivation only. For the remaining years of the cycle during which the plot remains fallow, he is not required to pay the rent, though his right over the same plot continues for the hollow period, too. 'Produce and pay;' 'no produce, no payment' seems to be the basic principle, which is certainly very humane and reasonable." The Pei also looks after the Duikhun, village pond and if there is shortage of water in the pond they perform a ritual called Duibukaomei, calling the soul of water by offering a matured female pig or cow to Tingkao Ragwang for abundant of water.

In the distant past, head hunting was a common practice amongst the hill tribes of Northeast. So the defense and security of the village were primary importance. The Zeliangrongs selected village site on the slopes of the highest hills and not far from the top and occasionally a ridge, when flat enough was selected as a site. They constructed village gates and fortified the village with wooden palisade under the supervision of village elders. Pei as a supreme military body had command over the fighting forces of the village. It decides on wars, raids or defense of the village.

The Pei had a control over the youth dormitory. Riphen (Ri means war, Phen, fighting), the fighting force of the village includes all males of the dormitory but the actual warfare is performed by the Khangtan, senior members of the dormitory. They are a group of well trained and experienced warriors. The warriors sit and discuss the defense matters in the Khangtan Kaibang, the house of Khangtan presided by Khangtanpou. They put forward their proposal to the Pei for approval.

The Khangtan executes the plan when it is approved by the Pei. The owner of Khangtan Kaibang is a warrior who had taken at least a head or a wild animal like tiger or bear etc. Regarding the security of the village, two Riphens from each dormitory keep a vigil over the village, day and night alternately.

At night time, two Riphens assume responsibility of guarding the village by moving up and down and across it. They sing village guarding songs (Kairong Lonluh) to keep themselves awake. This song does instill a sense of security among the women, children and old people of the village and they can sleep properly. Riphens are not paid salary for their service. However, it is customary that during the annual festival of Gaan-ngai the villagers always offer them special treatment in the form of offering special type of rice beer (Zoungao) and piece of meat (Zan) to them. Apart from this Pei has also full power to intervene in any types of ill-feeling arises between two different clans and two different families in case the matter is brought to the notice of the Pei.

Once the matter is placed to the knowledge of the Pei, the question of further feud or clash is not acceptable and if any party violates this tradition, then they are to be punished by charging huge fine. Whenever, there is a crime, the Pei sends immediately able bodied persons to protect the victims and to stop the aggressors until a final decision on matter of dispute is taken by the Pei.

Pei is the authority over the whole religious affairs of the village. It is a well known fact that without the Pei the Zeliangrong religion cannot survive because Pei carefully guards and regulates the religious customs and practices. The priest and elders of Pei are entrusted to perform the religious rites and ceremonies related to the community and individual welfare. In a year, the Zeliangrong celebrates nine ritual festivals like Gaan-ngai, Nanu-ngai, Rih-ngai etc. at the various stages of agricultural operations. They decide the dates to commence and days of the festivals to be observed based on the lunar calendar.

The rites and rituals of the festivals are carried out by them. It is also a compulsory duty and function of the Pei elders to take part and supervise the great ritual sacrifices like the Taraang, Maku Banru, Matui, Mureng etc performed by the individual families and dormitories. The Pei performs regular observance of Nuhmei (taboo) and Neihmei (gennas) as part of sanctification of the village. However, it is done with the advice of the village priest. Everyone abstains from breaking it because of the fear of evil consequences flowing from the will of a divinity.

to be continued .....

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at budhakamei(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on July 04, 2019.

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