Wednesday, September 9, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Lai Chieftainship and Its Impact in Politics

Lai Chieftainship and Its Impact in Politics
Author: Dr. Jangkhongam Doungel
Publisher: Balaji Publications, Delhi
Pages: 312 
Price: 995

Here is the book that will illuminate the whole of our understanding to a Political history of Mizo in India's Northeast. This book is much more than the usual book of history and Polity. It serves as a great inspiration and support for scholars to take up this new theme for reconstruction of Mizo History and Polity. Of all the books I have read it has taken me the longest to finish reading! The book gives a description of the Lai chiefs and how they have influenced politics. It also contains a rare picture of the greatest of the Lai chiefs, Lalluaia Chinzah. The book is consisting of merely 312 pages, laid down in 7 chapters, contains a preface, acknowledgements and 4 maps to aid the reader in understanding the contents of the book. One notices the amount of research work done from the explanation of abbreviated terms, glossary and pictures of people the author interviewed, placed towards the end of the book.

Although a profile of the author has been given on the cover of the book, I feel that the book itself gives a true reflection of the thoughts and personality of the author. As readers of Soren Kierkegaard's works often find themselves identifying with the characters of the books. The tone and language used by the author reflect how much he has immersed himself into the events in the book and how they would relate to the readers. It is common knowledge among researchers how rare it is to find a good source for materials. Upon looking at the references of the book, one notices that the author obtained nearly five pages worth of primary sources. This is highly commendable since it is a shows a mark of how trustworthy the book is. There are also several secondary sources (not the ones written by the English but recent ones written by Mizo authors). Unlike the normative fashion of replicating the documentation of prominent historians and others, this book is expected to hold its originality. This expectation is fulfilled from the first chapter.

The first chapter being an introductory to the main body and methodology of the entire book, it is written in an orderly fashion, tracing generally, the origins of the Lai people. Their migration from the south of China towards the west, settlements around the Chindwind river circa 750 AD and their subsequent migration from there towards the west of Chin Hills. Their settlements in Chin hills marks an important era for the Lai history. For it was here that an organised record of the chiefs was established. The author mentions the might of the Lai people. Their conquests include the Chin Hills, Lushai Hills (Mizoram), Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bagha and Silchar, the plains of Burma and southern parts of Manipur. The exemplary administration practiced by the chiefs gives a clear picture of the lives and identity of the tribe.

              The literary review of the text is well established, the works on the history of the Lai people till date have been explored with aims of including topics not yet elaborated or included in the past. The author is careful in providing correct terms and categories given to places and personal works of others and has placed correct terms of the incorrect ones given by the British in the past in brackets. This serves as an easy and helpful tool for researchers in future. From the Post colonial aspect, this book serves as an authentic text.

The second chapter shows the emergence of the chiefs among the Lai tribes as contributed by Pu Henmanga. The earliest evidence pointing to Simpi village (1400-1500 AD) consisting of 800 houses at the time and from where the first Lai chief emerged.  Though the hows and the whys of the establishment of the establishment of the village are not clear, it is clear however that a great chief ruled over the village. From this place, the people then migrated to Sunthla village and Lailun puk and then to Falam, Halka, Thantlang and the various villages in the Chin Hills. The villages where they ruled include Chinzah, Zathang, Khenglawt, Hlawnchhing, Hlawncheu and Hranglungchung. Besides these the descendants of the Lai tribe, the origins of the Fanai tribes have also been mentioned. 

The account of how the Lai chiefs migrated to the west is very interesting and has been mentioned in the book. The Lai chiefs were visionaries and it was their aim to expand their rule so that their future descendants would be provided with vast lands and, to glorify the name of their tribe.

This chapter highlights the existence of Chinzah chiefs who did not belong to the Khuafo group, were invited by the Mara people to rule over them. The Mara people called them ‘Chozah'. The Hlawnchhing chiefs of Thantlang were also invited by the Mara people to rule over them. They were given the tribe name of ‘Hlychho' by the Mara and welcomed to live among them. This shows the open-mindedness of the Mara people, their ability to recognize the leadership qualities of a person and willingness to accept them as rulers irrespective of their tribal origins.

The third chapter gives an account of the position of the chiefs. The good relations maintained between the people and the chiefs, the trust placed upon the chief by the tribe, how the tribe wanted the descendants of the chiefs to rule thus adopting the ‘hereditary system'. Hence, the descendants of the chiefs took upon themselves to not only uphold the status of royalty but also seek to maintain the respectful mannerisms fit for royalty. When I first read the book, I might have felt the author exaggerating in certain parts, however as I progressed along, I began to see and accept the light from which he has written the text. He calls the manner in which the chiefs ruled "Chiefdom". This is quite similar to the medieval structure in Europe during the same period in history. The chiefs collected taxes from the other chiefs under their protection and would defend them in times of war. How the Lai chiefs who came from the Chin Hills made several tribes succumb to their power, rule over them and form of administration is noteworthy and interesting. This book provides an above/approach view as opposed to a Lusei Centric view of history, thus, creating a fresh and clear picture of our history. This is again possible due to the methodology employed, reliable and organised manner in which the author gathered his sources.

The fourth chapter relates the coming of the British and how they influenced the status of the Lai chiefs. Three important points are seen here. The origins of the Lai chiefs, how the coming of the British the Lai chiefs were overthrown to the status of commoners and the account of a famed Chinzah chief Dokulha Chinzah. The author has intertwined these three points but instead of leading to the confusion it provides a clearer picture.

Initially, the British government wanted avoid meddling in the business of the hill people. However since killings of their workers began to occur frequently, punishment for the crimes and to serve as an example to other tribes they established their dominion over them. The various Zohnahthlak tribes opposed and strove to resist the dominion. Amidst this resistance, the struggle of a single man Dokulha Chinzah is noteworthy to be placed in the ranks of the other freedom fighters struggle for Indian independence or Colonial resistance.

Dokulha Chinzah was the much-respected chief of Fungkah village accused of killing Muslim man. His resourcefulness and the loyalty to his subjects are worth remembering. Whilst being imprisoned at the jail, he learnt Bengali and Hindi and even wrote a letter to the British authorities to protest against the accusations thrown at him. Another famous correspondence with the British authorities is the letter written by chief Khamliana to the ‘Kumpinu'. With certainty one can claim Dokulha to be an intelligent man and as expected he has been mentioned on the 84th page of the Indian Martyrs book released by the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, Government of India.

After the British dominion, the decentralisation policy of Chieftainship was established, and because of this, commoners began to gain the status of royalty. These new chiefs were- Tlangchhan, Aineh, Fanchun, Nutlai and Tlanglau. However of these, Tlanglau hnamte was previously given permission to rule in certain hill areas by their chief Vanhnuaihlira Hlawncheu, as he along with his people left their land to expand their conquest in lands as far as Bangladesh.

In the fifth chapter the author writes about the end of chieftainship and alongside traces the fate of the Lai people. The British felt that the Lai and Lusei people shared some common features regarding their history and culture and thus to serve their convenience often clubbed them together in matters of different affairs. Due to this the Chin Hills Regulation 1896 was implemented on both the Lushai Hills and Chin Hills. However, after the British left India, the Chin Hills came under the jurisdiction of Burma and Lushai Hills under the Indian Union. The British observed that the Zohnathlak hill people were different and thus excluded them often from the various administrative and political reforms. In the years between 1937 to 1947, these areas were declared Excluded Areas and the Inner Line Regulation was implemented for the Lushai Hills on 28th August 1930. These two laws enabled the Hills to be an exclusive area where outside people could not gain easy access to, thus providing protective measures from assimilation from the people inhabiting the plain areas. The author also points out that if such measures had not been taken, they're fate would be similar to that of the tribal people of Tripura who have now become a minority in their own state.

To cut the long story short, the Zohnahthlak people gradually became educated. A desire to end the reign of chiefs and establish a government formed by the people was a rising sentiment. This brought about the founding of the Mizo Union on 9th April, 1946 with permission granted by MacDonald, the superintendent of Lushai Hills. Despite the internal struggle for leadership within the Mizo Union, they shared a common interest which was, ending the reign of chieftainship. This in fact became the slogan during election. To counter the Mizo Union and their policy, another party emerged, the United Mizo Freedom Movement (UMFO) in 1947.The chiefs in hopes of regaining their rule and position sided with the UMFO. They tried their upmost to win the hearts of leaders and the common people. At the end, the chieftainship of Mizo chiefs was ended in the year 1954 and in the Lushai Autonomous district Council on 1st April 1955 and in the Pawi-Lakher regional Area on 15th April, 1956. Thus, a long rule by the chiefs was replaced by Village Council.

A careful reading of the book unravels how the descendants of the chiefs continued to take a keen interest in the politics of the people. As advised by LL Peters who replaced MacDonald, the Paw-Lakher Tribal Union (P.L.T.U) was founded. The hard work and perseverance of the leaders were rewarded with the formation of the Pawi-Lakher Regional Council in 1953, a year after the formation of the Lushai Hills Autonomous District Council (1952).

The sixth chapter tells us that despite being stripped of their titles, the power and influence of the chiefs did not change much. The chapter also mentions several successful Lai politicians. The author has included excerpts of his interview with these noteworthy politicians offering the reader a glimpse of their ideas and thoughts. By having the ownership of the land, the chiefs were highly concerned in matter of progress and development of the land. Their descendants are still considered to be wise in several matters. Amazingly, even after the abolition of titles, the people still included them in the workings of the government. This is one of the several points where the Lai tribes differ from the Lusei tribes. However this is not unexpected as the descendants of the Lai chiefs were one of the early educated individuals. This is seen from the list of names of high ranking officials listed in the book. Not all the outcomes of the change in administration were positive. Under the Land Revenue Department, individual ownership of lands was enabled. Those who had money could acquire vast areas of land. Those who were poor or did not have any authority were often not in possession of land. As a consequence the land suffered and it became a responsibility for the N.G.O's to protect the land. The people of the tribe continued to prefer the descendants of the chiefs to become members of the village council or District council.

This book has brought several thoughts to my minds such as the similarity of the dynastic politics of the mainstream India and ‘Lalchhungkua' of Mizoram, will this pattern be conducive for the wellbeing of future generations. This book also gives detail of the origins of tribal politics and the direction it is taking.

Just like any other book, this book is not beyond criticism. Careful reading and analyses brings to mind some criticism. Misprinting and repetition of same points have confused me regarding some matters mentioned. The English language is simple and research standard is high. The book encompasses the qualities of hard work, perseverance. I also observe that the author maintains objectivity. The book has proven to be a true treasure for in the history of Zohnathlak in general and Lai in particular.