Mizo Contemporary History Needs Thorough Revision

Mizo History
Art by  Mazawma Amoz Art Works

- Ruata Lungchuang

The Mizo people were one of the most politically documented groups in the region. While Britishers do not spend much time discussing the politics or leaders of tribal peoples in the Northeast, the Lushai political history and dealings with previous leaders were extremely well documented, particularly in the Lushai hills. Many of the events in the Lushai hills and its leaders could have become legends had it not been for the Britishers' constant mentioning of them and engaging with them. However, the modern trend of Sap fascination and the overreliance on British writings to trace Mizo history is not doing justice to the fascinating and complex history of the people of Mizoram ( Lushai hills ).

The Britishers had a level of fascination with the Lushais just like they had with other tribal groups in India, the noble savages, as they called them. We get the first mention of the Mizos in the mid-1700s when they were called Kookies, the British simply describe the group as this distant savage unorganized tribe that cannot be "civilized" and does not cause massive problems to their establishment. But they later learned that they were extremely wrong. As the Lushais started raiding them, they began to understand that in contrast to other frontier people groups who were resisting the British with spears and bows, the British learned that the Lushai were gun-wielding people with an extremely well-organised hierarchy and a well-developed strategy of guerilla warfare. They weren't a bunch of unorganized tribes divided among multiple tribes and villages as they expected. They soon became a nuisance, hence the British had to come up with a justification to persecute, punish, and eventually invade them. In the mid-1800s, modern ideas about identity, and the rights of indigenous people were beginning to float around. Therefore, the British officials were not expected to just attack random people without any justification. As a result, the first vai len begins decades of slander. The Lushais undeservingly were described in the darkest most humiliating way possible so as to give justification and permission from the crown to thwart these pesky “Savages”.

It is important to note that most of the literature concerning the Lushai people in this era (the mid-1800s) comes from letter exchanges between the Crown and British officials stationed near the Lushai country. The Vai Len happened; Lushai leaders united and resisted the British. The British were surprised to find out that the Lushais, just like them, had the concept of truce and pact and even had an entire ritual around it ( Sa ui tan ). Things became mellower as a peace pact with certain conditions was signed between Lushai authorities and the British. The British finally gained limited access to Lushai country and were pleasantly surprised by the intelligence and lifestyle of the people.In one letter, a British soldier describes his first day in a Lushai village, emphasizing how clean the people were in comparison to how they were described in the 1700s, and how they were not naked but fair (the word fair here alludes to the fact that most Victorian-era Europeans associated fairness with sophistication). Now suddenly, letters sent to the crown during this period were full of praise for the Lushais and how they were intelligent, friendly, curious, quick learners, and not like their more "wild" neighbours.

The takeaway here is that the British narrative of the Lushais suddenly changes as soon as there is peace. But this was not to last long. As Lushai rulers grew tired of Britishers expanding their tea plantations in the Cachar plains, which were under their control, the second and more destructive Vai Len returned. Finally, the British had enough and decided to fully invade the Lushai hills and punish the rebelling Rulers whom they conveniently called chief. Thus, The Lushai Expedition, one of the most well-documented pieces of history in northeast India began.

From this point onward, the game of slander began again, this time it was not to shoo them away but to punish them for not respecting the crown and ‘civilize’ them. Hence, again, as usual, they started describing the Lushais in the most humiliating way while being extremely generous in praise and appreciation for Manipuris ( their short-time ally) who helped them. However, just like they did with the Lushais, their praise for the Manipuris also soon faded especially after the Manipuris started their war of independence. They started describing the Manipuris as Tartar-faced Manipuris ( a derogatory term), suggesting that they were in a way corrupted and were not native to their own land. Eventually, the Britishers succeeded in capturing the whole of the Lushai country and then the Chin hills. From this point onward, the British adopted a policy of not being too cruel on the Lushais but still justify their occupation. Hence, their writings about the Mizo people became extremely blunt and sometimes dead honest. This is evident from the writings of J Shakespear, who was a great pioneer when it comes to bringing in the light of education among the Mizos and wanted everything good for them but is stingy when it comes to attributing something meaningful to the people and still writes some questionable and condescending things about the Lushais to justify their occupation. It is like how some western media today report on India, not lies but never the whole picture, appreciative but condescending.

The Lushais unlike some other people groups from the tribal tracts took active role ever since the Vai len in the political mechanism of British raj in the then Lushai hills and Chin State. Much of Mizo history, unlike some other people groups in the region were written down in a political light with agenda, this style of writing, although can be accurate on many instances, has its many flaws, for example, the complete demonisation and demoralisation of the opposing group by the people who wrote it. Unlike some other native groups the Lushai were not seen as the unorganised noble tribal groups nor were they given the benefit of being what they call “a primitive yet full of wisdom tribal group” such as the Bushmen of Africa. They were instead seen as capable people, who must be crushed to the bone and hence, the focus was more on the problems the Lushais have allegedly created and construct a poor mental image to officials in the UK.

Unlike the Mizos modern education was introduced to the Nagas and Manipuris by the staunchly independent-minded Americans, who instill among the Nagas and Manipuris the idea of a federated modern state and the evil of British colonialism. This allowed them to have a political framework early in the 20th century, while the Lushais were evangelized by the Welsh, who are Britishers, who taught them subservience and saw the British Raj as some divinely appointed mandate. This prevented educated Mizos from jumping onto the political wagon in the 1920s. Both the then church and the crown worked to keep Mizo nationalism in check and forced them to be loyal to the crown. In all honesty, the church was a British church and even the YMA which substituted Zawlbuk institution was invented by the British and was unofficially tied to the British church in the fact that its leadership was controlled by the Birtish. Modern YMA on the other hand is a completely different institution now. The Mizos had every reason to be loyal to the crown, no wonder they seek crown colony status from the British when they were about to leave, quite in contrast to the Nagas and Manipuris who declared independence. The Mizos were so deeply entangled with British ideologies and beliefs that they almost completely forgot that they were a colonised people group. They were taught that the British Raj was their mother. In fact, in fact the Mizo word for the crown is Kumpinu, Some surviving letters of Mizo chiefs of the colonial era described themselves as servants of the crown and how much of a disaster they and their people were. This subservient mentality was deeply embedded into Mizo psyche so much to a point that the Mizos themselves completely reorganised their history based on the views and prescriptions of the Britishers.

This overreliance on British documents and views of the world to describe the Mizos in no way does justice to the complex history of the Mizo people. It creates an identity crisis, and self-hatred ( when you think about how hateful many of the British writers were when talking about the Lushai in their writings, it is not surprising) .

This does not necessarily mean that all Mizos are ignorant about the bias and flaws of written Mizo history. Mizo cultural revival of the 1960s kicked off a movement to revise Mizo history and take into account the views and narration of the native Mizos. Today many young Mizo scholars are waking up to the reality of peddling a flawed history and just how much destruction it had inflicted on the identity, mentality, and worldview of the Mizos.

One of the first things, and probably most important things that need to be done in order to correct the past mistake is to bring back the honour of the Mizo kings and Queens and attribute them with the title they deserve. Mizo rulers are often referred to as "chiefs" in the English language, but the Mizo language has no word or concept for "chief." The Mizo Lals were kings and queens in their own domain. While Mizo rulers after the British invasion were indeed chiefs under the British raj, pre-Britsh era Mizo rulers were Kings and Queens in their own right and they resisted the British to protect their crown. They were sovereign rulers of their domains and both they and their subjects regarded them as kings and queens.

At no point in time were the Mizo rulers ever called chiefs until the arrival of the British. The British, just like how they demoted the Maharajahs of the mainland to princes, demoted the Mizo Lals to chiefs, when they invaded. The Britishers are not to be blamed. Why would anyone who has surrendered his crown be called a king? They conquered them and made them bend the knee to the British crown, so in all fairness, they have every right to designate them with whatever titles they see fit.

However, it is complete nonsense to call pre-Britsh era Mizo Lals "chief." They were not vassals of any empire, they were sovereign rulers who called themselves King (Lal) and Lalnu(Queen). Lalnu Ropuiliani would roll over in her graves if she saw her descendants describing her as a chieftess, considering that she never yielded and viewed the British Monarch as equal or even lower than herself.
Chieftainship among the Mizos was established by the Britishers. The Mizo Lal institution has little in common with what is called chieftainship. The Mizo Lals weren't leaders of a tribal group. The Lushais were a cosmopolitan community composed of many different tribes, Lushai was never one single tribe. Mizo Lals were hereditary monarchs, not elected tribal chiefs. The Thanngur dynasty ruled over much of Mizoram for a very long time and, unlike tribal chiefs, was able to shape and mould Mizo identity and culture like every other monarchy. Most Mizo lals before the British occupation were not rulers of one settlement, a Lal had domain over a large swath of land and many villages came under his/her domain. In fact, Ropuiliani, by the time she was captured by the British had domain over 9 villages. This was after the death of her Lal husband and after the British had annexed most of her territory. Her Lal husband was one of the greatest Lal of the south, whose territory was much larger and had many more subjects and villages. The neighbouring Vais of the plain referred to the Mizo lals as Rajah while the Manipuris described the Lals of Mizoram as Ningthou of the Lushais. The Manipuri word for King is Ningthou while the Manipuri word for a village chief is Khullakpa. The Manipuri Rajah institution never calls the tribal chiefs of Manipur Ningthou and insisted that they were Khullakpas as the king of Manipur was the Ningthou of kangla. However for the Lushais, the Manipur Royal Chronical Cheitharol Khumbaba attributed the title of Ningthou to their rulers. The Manipuri Royal Chronicle recorded that on 26 November 1871 Sagawaijam Major and Kangba Major with 2000 sepoys and 4000 coolies went to Lushai country, where they met with Poiboi ningthou ( Pawibawiha Sailo) Lamboon ningnthou ( Lalburha Sailo ) and Lairik Ningthou of Lushai country. It is ironic that while the title Lal itself means King, some modern Mizos insisted that Mizo Lals were chiefs based on British records while still neighbouring Manipuri documents called our lals Kings and Queens. It is unfortunate that we demote our own rulers as per the instruction of our colonisers while our neighbours give them the titles they deserve.

Unless Mizo history is thoroughly revised and revisited, it is in big trouble and makes little sense. Mizo history cannot lie forever on a foundation of hate and somebody’s propaganda can never be considered an entire history of a people group.

ALSO READ  - Why Mizo freedom fighters have no presence on National media and textbooks?

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