Chieftainship in Mizo societyDr. LalthakimaAssistant ProfessorDepartment of Political SciencePachhunga University CollegeMizoram : Aizawl
When the British annexed the area where the Mizos lived, they were surprisingly amazed to find large number of village units of administration, running .independently of one another and all headed by a chief of immense local standing. It is not possible to state clearly when and how in the past this institution took concrete shape. But it can be reasonably asserted that this happened at quite an early stage of evolution in their group life. It was said that during the 16th Century where the Mizos lived in Lentlang, a place somewhere in Burma side, the Hnamte clan invited Zahmuaka and his six sturdy sons to accept chieftainship of Khawrua and Tlangkhur village. One of the sons of Zahmuaka was Thangura whose descendants were called Sailos, who established themselves as a ruling clan over almost all the areas inhabited by the Mizos.
Position: The chief was usually called 'Lal' which means in Mizo 'a lord'. He maintained his position more through his personal qualities than hereditary rights, the chiefs position in the village was indeed that of a benevolent ruler. All those who lived in the village were looked upon as his own children. He was bound to help them in their adversities, counsel them in their difficulties, reward them in their achievements and punish them when they were found guilty of misdeeds or infringement of established customs. The villagers, on their turn, were to obey his orders implicitly, carry out errands assigned to them individually and collectively and help the chief in all possible ways. It must however, be mentioned that the chief was riot an autocrat, and in fact, could not afford to be so if he desired to retain his chiefship as they would leave him and take shelter under a different chief in another village if they found him tyrannical or indifferent to their needs and conveniences.
The chiefs commanded respect in return of the administration they carried out over their subjects, the sailo clans who established their chiefship claims that thy came out of the space between the moon and the sun. Killing of sailo chief was the most heinous crime in those days and a sailo captured in a raid shouldn't be enslaved nor killed according to convention. The chief was exercising judicial powers including power of life and death. Being the protector and father of the subjects, he leads the war party in wartimes. He appointed important officials of the village like Council of elders (Lal Khawnbawl), Blacksmith (Thirdeng), Priests (Sadawt and Puithiam), and Village Crier (Tlangau).
Rights and Privileges:
The chief, as the supreme authority of the mizo society enjoys rights and privileges which were curtailed after the annexation of the British. However since the beginning of the institution, the chief were entitled to various privileges which may be sum up as under:
- He has the right to make all his trusted sons a chief by dividing his land between his sons.
- He was the rightful owner of all lands within his jurisdiction.
- He was entitled for free labour from the villagers for the construction and repairing of his house.
- He was entitled to ‘Fathang’ (1-3 baskets of paddy) from every household in the village at the end of every year.
- Different kinds of taxes known as ‘Chhiah’ were entitled to him viz., Meat tax (Sa chhiah), Bee tax (Khuai chhiah), Salt tax (Chi chhiah), Fish tax (Sangha chhiah).
- He had the right to collect additional quantities of paddy from Ramhual and Zalen (Those men of possession in the village, who were exempted from paddy tax).
- He was entitled to keep a special priest called Sadawt to perform religious functions for the sake of subjects
- He had the right to confiscate half of paddy from the migrated villagers without permission.
Effects of British annexation on the institution of chieftainship
The British rule in the Lushai Hills was marked by the Chin - Lushai Expedition conducted in 1889 - 90. By the time the present Mizoram was annexed they had accumulated a certain amount of wisdom of how best to go about governing such areas. The British created a system of administration which placed emphasis on self-government based upon the traditional chieftainship.
The British in order to bear minimum expense in administering Lushai Hills decided to carry on the existing system of chieftainship. John Shakespeare, the first Superintendent of the amalgamated Lushai Hills District, was the architect of this administrative system. The administrative officers were to support the chiefs, the natural leaders of the people and to interfere as little as possible in the internal administration of their villages. The chiefs were made responsible for the maintenance of law and order in their villages, and for the collection of taxes.
Before the annexation of the Lushai Hills, the chief had the right to make all his trusted son, chiefs by dividing his territory among them. The youngest son inherited his father's lands and properties. The British changed this custom and the principle of primogeniture was recognized. Thus, the eldest son of the ruling chief, unless he was a minor, or physically or mentally unfit, inherited the lands of his father. As far as the other sons were concerned they became commoners as a result of this changed method of succession. The British, in order to update the village administration, also provided education to the eldest sons of the chiefs in order to make them more fit to discharge the duties to chief for being the heirs.
The British occupation of Lushai Hills brought some drastic changes in the status of the chief. The traditional right of the chiefs such as right to order capital punishment, right to seize food stores and properties of village proprietary rights over lands, right to tax traders, right to freedom of action in relation to Bawi's (slaves) were extinguished. Thus, the village administration by the chiefs under the British rule was no longer as simple as it used to be. The circle interpreters (CIs), village writers (Khawchhiar), teachers and pastors were having an influence on the people and contributed toward undermining the authority of the chiefs. The chiefs as a result had lost much of their authority when the British annexed Lushai Hills. But these were considered necessary in the interest of unified district administration and were not intended to undermine the authority of the chiefs, though that was the result. In all other matters the government sought to uphold the authority of the chiefs.
Before the advent of the British the chiefs were allowed to keep slaves (bawi's) who surrenders their freedom due to several reasons on which the categories had been made. The British administrators in order not to offend the chiefs were at first reluctant to do away with this bawi system. However, various developments took place and after a lot of controversies the government laid down the principles governing the bawi system. The bawi whosoever wish to leave the house of his chief were allowed to remain free and the chief had no control over them. But the chief was allowed to demand freedom price (a maximum ofRs.40/-or a mithun family). The use of the term bawi was to be discontinued leading to lowering status of the chief with the bawi. The institution of Bawi was finally abolished on 29th Oct, 1915 by an order of Secretary of State For India, Austen Chamberland
The advent of the British in the Lushai Hills brought certain anomalies (change). The position of the chief was one of the greatest changes which took place during the British rule. It was an existence, for the first time, of a higher authority above him and the measures taken by it to limit his traditional powers tended to lower his status in the eyes of the people. Yet as a ruler representing the supreme government's agent, the Superintendent, who recognized his rights and upheld his authority, however, reduced 'that, may have been, also gave his authority, a strong foundation. Somehow the chiefs position was secure in some way than it had been in the past. There was no possibility now of their position being challenge by other chiefs, for their jurisdiction had been clearly divided by the government. The "Land Settlement" was introduced in 1898-99 where the government apportioned village areas into the chiefs and established their boundaries.
The Sailo clans established themselves as a ruling clan before the annexation of the British, besides them there were a few Hualngo and Pawi chiefs who were established by the Sailos to hold charge of sub-villages belonging to the latter. With the advent of the British control over this area, these chiefs were recognized as independent ones. Moreover, the Britishers started increasing the number of chiefs by allocating vacant lands to commoners known as 'Hnamchawm' chiefs as a reward for the services rendered by many of them in Lushai wars.
The advent of the British brought development in the life of the Mizos which continue ever. One of such development was political consciousness of the people leading to the formation of the first mizo political party called "Lushai Commoners Union" which was later changed to "Mizo Union". The MU became the pioneer in the removal of the Mizo chieftainship. Moreover, Lushai Hills District Council was inaugurated on 25th April, 1952. Under the leadership of the MU the DC proceeded to take measures to dismantle the entire edifice of the ancient political institution of chieftainship. At its meeting on 25th November, 1952 the MU unanimously resolved to abolish the chieftainship. Following this the DC prepared a bill to implement this decision. Accordingly, the Assam Lushai Hills District (Acquisition of Chief's Rights) Act, 1954 was introduced in the Assam Legislative Assembly. Under this Act, the land of the chiefs was vested to the state. A sum of Rs.125 lakhs, was awarded as compensation to be distributed among the dismantled chiefs of the district. On 16th August, 1954 the DC empowered the village councils to run the internal administration of the villages. Thus ended the old era of chieftainship and began the new era of government by the people.
Thus the advent of the British to the Lushai Hills had brought tremendous changes in the institution of Mizo chieftainship which eventually leads to the abolition. of the whole institution. Although the British had retained the chiefs and used them as an instrument of ruling of villages, the position of the chiefs had greatly lost its significance during the British rule. It can be said that the British rule in the Lushai Hills had direct impact on the abolition of chieftainship.
(The paper is reproduced here with the permission of the author)