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Chieftainship in Kuki

by Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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The Kuki traditional form of governance is based on chieftainship. Every village was like Greek city-states. Each village has got a chief Haosa which the Mizo called it Lal, it is hereditary. He is the owner of ancestral lands and is traditionally the repositories of all powers of administration dealing with the village. His rule is autocratic but not despotic. The concept of chieftainship has taken place among the tribal society in the early stage of evolution of their group life. Inter village rivalry or tribal was common in the past. Everyone was enemy to each other and the stronger rule over the weak. In such circumstances the need for a strong single authoritative figure was essential to lead them in defending the village. The need to solve tribal problems be it social, economic or political gave birth to the concept of chieftainship to maintain justice, protect them from external threat, to administer the village and to protect and preserve the established customs of the villagers. The Kuki chieftainship therefore was a historical requirement and his duties was manifold one of which was defence of the villagers. In due course of time he came to be recognized as the village chief. Village chief is a person belonging to younger branches of the family clan and another type is hereditary chief who is the head of the clan.
Kuki from North-East India continue to practice a traditional chieftainship system, in sharp contrast to the democratic system in the rest of the country, impairment of democracy and development in Kuki areas. There is a need to rethink the relationship between the two systems and prospects within the scope of India’s democracy. The Kukis live in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura. The constitution (Scheduled Tribe) order 1950 categorized them under the generic nomenclature’’ Any Kuki Tribe’’. In Manipur they live in all hill districts and certain in the Imphal Valley. They constitute the second largest population in Manipur. In Nagaland they are found living in the three districts, Kohima, Dimapur and Phek.Some live in Meghalaya as well as in Tripura. In Assam, they live in Karbi Anglong, NC Hills (now Dima Hasao), Kachar and other parts. Kuki tribes continue to harbor certain nostalgia for inherited traditional governance chieftainship is considered in alienable for the 22 tribes that constitute Kukis. In Mizoram the system was abolished by the Assam-Lushai District (Acquisition of Chief’s Right) Act-1954. Tripura had replaced it with the Panchayat system functioning under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. Chieftainship has been functioning among the kuki despite the introduction of the representative system in Manipur. The two systems are considered to be in opposition to each other. The co-existence however had an impact on certain aspects of chieftainship.
The Chief is patrichal and feudal. The relationship between him and villagers is symmetrical to feudal relations seen between landlords and tenants. The Kuki chief enjoys enormous powers. He possessed executive, legislative, judicial and military power.  He was the guardian of law and the absolute owner of the village and the land within it. His word was law. He can appoint and dismiss or expel anyone in the village. There was sufficient room for a Kuki chief to become tyrannical but in practice he was governed by the customary laws. He appoints important posts in the village. The decision of his Upas without consulting the chief cannot be taken as final. The chief has right to dismiss any upa if found incapable. Villagers could settle in the village so long as they please the chief. The system is considered anti-ethical to the practice of democracy. In short, villagers have no freedom. Their fate is decided by the chief. At the same time chieftainship is an institution that is considered an inalienable customs practiced by the Kukis tribes since time immemorial. A debate therefore emerges on whether to continue with chieftainship. The debate goes on without any resolution.
Historically in the context of Manipur, the post-independence, Manipur State Constitution Act-1947 was enacted, which did not apply in matter where specific reservation of power were made to any authority in the hill under the Provision of Manipur Hill People ( Administrative) regulation Act-1947 and later the Manipur ( Village Authority in Hill areas) Act 1956, the Manipur Hill Areas( Acquisition of Chieftainship) Act-1967, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act-1960, the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms ( Amendment) Act 1975. The Regulation of these legislative Acts are direct attempt to end the continuation of the traditional authority within the democratic system, while a democracy constraint is one aspect, the introduction of new administration has changed not only the traditional system but also their relationship with land , forest and natural resources. Therefore there was strong opposition from the Kuki, particularly the chief, which leads to freezing of the government regulations.
Despite the attempts by government to either wish away traditional leadership to actually attack through various reforms measures with a view to abolish if Kuki Chieftainship remained the center of authority in Kuki inhabited areas in India’s North-East and Myanmar. The post-independence dualism of political authority still continued without any major changed in the structure. There are modern state structure on one hand and indigenous political institution of governance in political systems. Debate on chieftainship in modernity focus on the role and place of traditional authority in Indian democracy. How could the chieftainship system co-exist with elected local authorities? How is this relationship mediated, so that the two structures can work in harmony, rather than in competition? These questions have generated intense debate between traditionalist and modernist in both academic and policy circles. The gist of the debate revolved around three positions. One which consider traditional Kuki chieftainship institutions as outdated forms of authority an affront to democratic rule and one that has no alienable role to play under Indian democracy. Such a position believes that they should not be accorded any recognition by the modern state and must be abolished. A pragmatic counter position asserts that these institutions are still relevant and legitimate, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the people reside. Consequently they should not be abolished. The third group believes in both traditional authority and democratic system and that chieftainship system should evolve with democracy to remain relevant. The reality is that among various Kukis tribes this indigenous institution exists.
The institution of the chieftainship in its present form is in a state of decadence and has become obsolete. Today, the institution of the chief functions to fulfill the personal ambitions of the chiefs themselves rather than working towards the collective goals of tribal welfare, development and empowerment. Therefore, the Constitution of India should be reviewed at the earliest and the traditional institution of chieftainship should be restricted to ceremonial purposes and to democratize the Kuki society. A Panchayati Raj institution with at least a two tier system needs to be introduced. All the efforts should be made to promote awareness among the Kuki people on democratic decentralization and people’s participation in development.
(Writer can be reached at:[email protected])

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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