By : Dr. George T Haokip
Courtesy -Beyond the Horizon
Kukis from North East India continue to practise a traditional chieftainship system, in sharp contrast to the democratic systems in the rest of the country. This has resulted in the impairment of democracy and development in Kuki areas. There is a need to rethink the relationship between the two systems and their prospects within the scope of India’s democracy.
The Kukis live in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura. The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 categorised them under the generic nomenclature “Any Kuki Tribes.” In Manipur they live in all the five hill districts and in certain areas in the Imphal Valley.
They constitute the second largest population in Manipur. In Nagaland, they are found living in the three districts, namely, Kohima, Dimapur and Phek. Some live in Meghalaya. In Tripura they are known by different names. In Assam they live in Karbi Anglong, N C Hills (now Dima Hasao), Kachar, and other parts.
Generally, Kuki tribes continue to harbour a certain nostalgia for inherited traditional governance.
Chieftainship is considered inalienable for the 22 tribes that constitute the Kukis. In Mizoram the system was abolished by the Assam–Lushai District (Acquisition of Chief’s Rights) 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 Kukis despite the introduction of the representative system. The two systems are considered to be in opposition to each other. Their coexistence, however, had an impact on certain aspects of chieftainship.
The chief is patriarchal and feudal.
He retains absolute authority over village land and the villagers. The relationship between him and the villagers is symmetrical to feudal relations seen between landlords and tenants. His words are law. Villagers could settle in the village so long as they please the chief. This system is considered antithetical 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 custom practised by the Kuki 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 matters where specific reservations of powers were made to any authority in the hill under the provisions of the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947.
However, the government was in a hurry to enact in the same year, the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947 and later the Manipur (Village Authority in Hill Areas) Act, 1956, the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chief Rights) 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 a direct attempt to end the continuation of traditional authority within the democratic system. While a democracy constraint is one aspect, the
introduction of new administration has changed not only their traditional system but also their relationship with
land, forest, and natural resources.
Therefore, there was strong opposition from the Kukis, particular the chiefs, which leads to freezing of the government regulations.
Despite the attempts by governments to either wish away traditional leadership or to actually attack it through various reform measures with a view to abolish it, Kuki chieftainship remained the centre of authority in Kuki inhabited areas in
India’s North East and in Myanmar. The post-independence dualism of political authority still continued without any
major changes in the structure. There are modern state structures on the one hand, and indigenous political institutions on the other. This reality has sparked intense and ongoing debate among policymakers, politicians, and academicians. The debate focuses on the relevance, role and place of these indigenous institutions of governance in political systems.
Debates on chieftainship in modernity focus on the role and place of traditional authority in Indian democracy. How could the chieftainship system coexist 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 “traditionalists” and “modernists” in both academic and policy circles. The gist of this debate revolved around three positions. One which considers traditional Kuki chieftainship institutions as outdated forms of authority, an affront to democratic rule, and one that has no valuable 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 the democratic system, and that chieftainship system should evolve
with democracy to remain relevant.
The reality is that among various Kuki tribes this indigenous institution exists