History of Zo Struggle

Colonial Rule and Record

Unlike those areas of India’s north-east where indigenous peoples are in a dominant position, the hill tribes of two princely states (Manipur and Tripura) occupy an anomalous status within the Indian constitutional arrangement. Political and demographic factors like the Partition and immigration from a densely populated neighbour (Bangladesh) reduced the indigenous “Borok” people in Tripura to a minority status. Similar demographic pressures in the valley of Manipur vitiate the normally good relationship between the locally dominant community and the indigenous hill tribes of Manipur today.
After British control of Assam in 1826 and of Upper Burma in 1886, vast areas of hill tracts between India and Burma still remained beyond imperial surveys and colonial conquest. Of indigenous populations sandwiched between imperial Calcutta and Rangoon, the so-called Chin-Kuki-Lushai tribes were one of the last resistant forces to succumb to British rule. Due to linguistic affinities and geographical contiguity, their land was often described simply as “Chin-Lushai country” (Elly 1893) and the people were variously called “Chin-Kuki” (Grierson 1904) or “Lushei Kuki clans” (Shakespear 1912). Till the Lushai Expedition of 1871, the inhabitants of Lushai Hills were rather loosely termed “Kukis” or “Kookies” in colonial records. To create the deepest impressions of British power on the local societies, major military expeditions to the contiguous hill tracts between the Chin Hills, Lushai Hills and the southern hills of Manipur were always coordinated. These military strikes culminated in the Chin-Lushai Expedition of 1889-1890 that permanently brought the Lushai Hills under colonial rule.
Following on the heels of the Chin-Lushai Expedition, the Chin-Lushai Conference took place at Fort William (Calcutta) on 29 January 1892. Significantly it was a military officer, R G Woodthorpe, who apparently initiated the idea of the conference almost four months earlier in his “Note on our Dealing with Savage Tribes and the Necessity for having them under One Rule”. From a logistic and military point of view, the administrative division of the “Chin Lushai country” impeded the operational manoeuvrability of the British frontier forces “working under different orders”. That explains why Woodthorpe lamented, “The Chin Lushai files abound in instances of difficulties having been caused by the three governments of Bengal, Assam and Burma having jurisdiction in these hills”. In the face of stiff opposition from civilian interests, some military officers at the conference advocated the administrative unification of the Chin Lushai hill tracts. A recent research in the Indian Historical Review describes this colonial tussle as “administrative rivalries on a frontier” (Pau 2007: 187). Since the unified administration was proposed to be “subordinate” to Assam, the chief commissioner of Burma and other non-Assam cadres in this turf war expectedly opposed the move. The Chin Lushai Conference eventually reached a compromise. While it was “very desirable” to unify “the whole tract of country known as the Chin-Lushai Hills”, it was implied that this new step would be delayed. On a positive note, it was unanimously “agreed” – not merely desirable – that north Lushai in Assam and south Lushai in Bengal would be unified “under Assam at once”.
The delimitation of colonial boundaries at the Calcutta conference had indirect but long-term political imprint on later indigenous struggles and political possibilities. The administrative unification of north and south Lushai due to strategic concerns of military officers ironically rendered indigenous Mizo “peoples” locally dominant within a well-demarcated territorial unit in British Assam. Though unintended by the then colonial authorities, the concerns of the 1892 Conference retrospectively acquired new resonance with Zo indigenous leadership who met almost a century later at their first mammoth “world conference” in 1988 – this time at Champhai town, on the border of Mizoram and Myanmar. Usable pasts (including unhappy colonial pasts) can be rescued from oblivion to inform present social possibilities and future political imaginations.
Though the second half of the resolutions of the conference was immediately implemented, the first half was destined to be aborted by new administrative developments in the shape of the Government of India Act 1935. Under this important act, the administration of British Burma was once and for all severed from that of British India. By demarcating an international boundary between India and Burma, colonial cartography mapped by the 1935 Act inadvertently partitioned an open Asian borderland – “Chin Lushai country” – inhabited by various Zo indigenous tribes referred to derogatorily as “savages newly brought under British control” in the minutes of the Chin Lushai Conference. A shared ancestral territory (to borrow Sunil Khilnani’s phrase) got “severed by the hasty scrawl of an imperial pen between India and Burma” (2004: 31).
An important feature of the 1935 Act relates to the introduction of certain safeguards in the form of Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas. This ensured full autonomy in the internal administration of certain indigenous tribal polities by insulating them from the control of ministerial India. But there was an anomaly in colonial northeast India: the hill areas of two princely states (Manipur and Tripura) did not figure in the colonial map of internally autonomous Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas (in quaint colonial parlance) in the 1935 Act. Since the Constituent Assembly’s “debt to the 1935 Act in particular is very great” (Austin 2008: 328), indigenous hill peoples of Manipur and Tripura predictably did not figure in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in independent India.
The Sixth Schedule was created by the Bardoloi Sub-Committee in which three men – Bardoloi, Nichols-Roy and B N Rau – played crucial roles. Formed on 27 February 1947, the Bardoloi Sub-Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India tried to work out within a period of five months a compromise formula between the bureaucratic dreams of a British Crown protectorate on the one hand, and the Indian nationalist haste to abolish the special safeguards enjoyed by the hill tribes under the raj, on the other. Anyway, it later transpired that the Bardoloi Sub-Committee made a curious omission of two hill areas of the north-east. This rendered the indigenous tribes of the Tripura predictably vulnerable to a serious demographic crisis in the wake of the Partition, and the hill areas of modern Manipur soon turned into hotbeds of political unrest that has spilled over into the Indo-Naga problem. S K Chaube of CSSS (Kolkota) attempts to explain why the hill tribes of Manipur and Tripura have remained outside the purview of the Bardoloi Sub-Committee – and hence, the Sixth Schedule:
The problem of the princely states, because of its all-India dimension, missed the special attention needed in the north-eastern region. Tripura and Manipur were partly ‘tribal states’ … No special arrangement was made for the hill areas of Tripura and Manipur. Perhaps the Constituent Assembly felt that, as the integrated Indian states would be constituted as part B and part C states under the rigorous control of the Centre, no special scheme for their minorities would be necessary (Chaube 1999: 97).
It was only as an afterthought that the hill areas of Tripura received in 1985 protection of indigenous rights under the Sixth Schedule. But unfortunately by then, the demographic deluge had happened. A similar demand for Sixth Schedule by the indigenous hill tribes of Manipur was snubbed by locally dominant interests. Indigenous tribal elites in the hills of Manipur were sensitive to their relatively vulnerable status vis-à-vis the special status of other hill tribes of the north-east. They also readily perceive real or imagined threats – especially linguistic chauvinism – of the dominant Hindu Meitei community that tends to forget the cultural diversity of Manipur. Further, the “postcolonial miseries” of the Zo people and the articulation of their contested indigenous identities were inflected by colonial contingencies and expedients played out in the ironies of historical trajectories.