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Simon Commission Encounter as an Important Marker of How Identities Form in the Northeast – Part-1

This article was first published in Charles Chasie edited essay anthology: ‘The Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission 1929’

The representation made by a delegation of leaders of the still nascent Naga Club to the Simon Commission in 1929 was indeed a heroic assertion of the Naga identity and the increasing sense of unity, integrity and autonomy that the Naga Club was giving this new identity. There should be no dispute that the Naga identity at the time was still very new. As many writers and observers through the decades have noted, the Naga nomenclature is extraneous and most of the tribes which have now come under its umbrage, though always strongly affiliated to their individual tribe and clan identities, were not always cognizant that they were being referred to as Naga by others.  Even at the time of 1929 encounter with the Simon Commission, it is not difficult to notice that this sense of Naga identity was still far from being rounded and complete. As for instance, the presence of a Kuki leader amongst the signatories representing “We the undersigned Nagas of the Naga Club at Kohima”, and equally the absence of representations from many other Naga tribes, remains a matter of debate as to whether in spirit the then Naga Club indicated domicile status, citizenship or else an ethno identity. Probably, it had elements of all of these and more, but the entirety of the picture was still nebulous, although in the years ahead it would solidify to come to mean much more of the last – an ethno nationalistic identity. Along with the evolution of this identity however, the familiar binary between “us” and “them”, a necessary boundary that must be created in answering the famous Hegelian question “Who am I?” that forms the genesis of any identity awareness, would have also become more pronounced. In this process, the Kuki finally became excluded, while some other tribes, including many from south Manipur, who culturally and linguistically have close affinities with the Kukis, began politically identifying themselves as Nagas, thereby came to be included. Is the Naga identity then political therefore determined by the shape of the evolving politics during its formative stages?

The inner dynamics that goes into the process of this demarcation of the boundary between “us” and “them” is interesting in the evolution of any given identity, and the Naga case is no exception. It begins with a search for the answer to the fundamental question “Who am I?” but the first fundamental binary that would surface in this search is between “I” and “me” as American social philosopher George Mead[i] argues, whereby “me” is the social self, determined largely by the attitudes of others to the individual in question, and the “I” is a response to this “me”. What others think of the individual, and how the individual responds to what others think of him or her, therefore is an important tension within in any identity formation. The Naga Club’s 1929 landmark representation to the Simon Commission is notable among others for a demonstration of this interplay between the “me” and “I” of the emerging Naga identity. The text is replete with examples, but this passage is illustrative of how the Naga “I” was responding to the Naga “me” and how the interplay determined what the Naga Club perceived the Naga identity was: “We are looked down upon by the one for our ‘beef’ and the other for our ‘pork’ and by both for our want in education which is not due to any fault of ours”[ii]

The Mizo parallel

Another identity formation process in the neighbourhood may also be of interest in enhancing this understanding by contrast as much as by similarities. The Mizo identity in this sense is even newer than the Naga identity. Unlike the Nagas, these tribes were never even referred to as Mizos by others, and that the word Mi-zo is a recent coinage by the amalgamation of the word “Mi” (man) and Zo (hill), therefore “Hill Man” in the Lushai language[iii]. In the Mizo case, in retrospect the emergence of this identity is almost dramatic in that till as late as the 1951 Indian population census, in the then Lushai Hills of Assam, now rechristened Mizoram, no tribe registered themselves under the Mizo nomenclature, each choosing their individual tribe’s name. The Lushais were expectedly the most numerous and it was also always known to be the most powerful in these hills as well. Amongst the Lushais, the Sailo clan came to form the core of the ruling elite. All other tribes were treated as serfs of the ruling dispensation but even within the Lushais, there was the division between the commoners and the chieftain clan.[iv]

Towards the turn of the 20th Century, even as Christianity began making serious inroads into these hills, there was a growing anti-chief sentiment amongst the people. The campaign by the Mizo Union to bring the disparate but kindred tribes inhabiting these hills under a single platform must be understood in this context. The Mizo Union’s movement first spawned amongst the serf classes and was directed against the rule by chieftainship that prevailed in these hills then. It is also relevant that while the dominant Lushais held out against the advance of Christianity for long, intuitively sensing the end of their dominance, smaller tribes who were their subjects embraced the new religion and its ways relatively early, leading to a shift in the elite base closer to the commoners now facilitated by Christianity and modern education. For this reason, the ruling class for a long time treated the new religion as a religion of the outcasts. In the resistance against the onslaught of Christianity, a pre-Christian cultural phenomenon amongst the Lushais called Puma Zai, marked by extended, round the clock dancing, singing, drinking, animal sacrifices and feastings, all of which went against the Christian tenets, made periodic surges beginning from the early decades of the 20th Century. The last of these defiant surges was towards the mid-1930s.[v] But the tides of the time was not to be stopped and the Lushai commoners first, but ultimately also the chiefs would come to be won over by the lure of modernity. Helping in the ultimate unification of these tribes under a single identity was not only their resilience but also the realisation of the common bondage of geographical destiny which makes them vulnerable to periodic famines that follow bamboo flowering, the last of which in the early 1960s, provided the spark for the 20 year Mizo insurgency led by the Mizo National Front.

Hence, if in the 1951 census there were no Mizos, in the 1961 census, the scenario changed dramatically, and many of the smaller tribes disappeared and so did the Lushais from the census record, and the Mizo tribe, which the Mizo Union had campaigned to have enlisted in the Scheduled Tribe list of the constitution, suddenly appeared as the overwhelming majority. The major dialect of the Lushai language, Duhlian, also came to be adopted as the common language of the Mizos. In this standardisation of language as well as the solidification of the Mizo identity, Christian missionaries came to have a big role as elsewhere in the Northeast, as we will also briefly see in the clash of linguistic nationalisms in Assam. To put the driving logic of the missionaries in one sentence, they needed one lingua franca and one unified culture to preach and also translate the Bible to. There were pockets of resistance to the new Mizo identity, and those tribes which held on their original identities, including Chakma, Lakher, Pawi and Hmar, are the ones which to this day remain in varying degrees of friction with the Mizoram state. The Mizos also have a problem with its Bru population (known as Reang in neighbouring Tripura and many of whom are Hindus), and were pushed out of the state and into Tripura in 1997, on the plea they were not indigenous to the state.

The Mizo identity formation provides an interesting contrast and parallel to the Naga narrative. Whereas the former succeeded in forging a unitary character by flattening out the identities of smaller individual tribes, though not always without coercive measures, to conform to a mainstream, the latter remains a federation of many different tribes each with their distinctive characters and personalities, agreeing to be part of a bigger identity. As to which of the models is the more natural and therefore will emerge the more successful, only time can tell. On the face of it, the Mizo identity seems to be the one more cohesive, but it too is not without its weaknesses, and the unseen structural violence that would have gone into the flattening of smaller identities to fit them into the larger mould, shows up most when the smaller tribes who call themselves Mizos in Mizoram, revert to their original smaller identities once they cross the Mizoram border and enter neighbouring states like Manipur, though they continue to claim allegiance to a larger Chin-Kuki-Mizo heritage – a loose fraternal bondage closer to the Naga identity model. Here the “Me” and “I” interplay is born of an internal contradiction within the tribal milieu, exposed and ultimately moderated by the arrival of Christianity. On one hand this internal contradiction was marked by a split in interest between the smaller serf tribes and the Lushai chieftainship, and on the other between the Lushai commoners and the chiefly class of the tribe.

[i] A good summary of George Mead’s theory of the social self is available here, (last accessed November 12, 2017)

[ii] The text of the 1929 memorandum is freely available, including here and (both last accessed November 12, 2017)

[iii] Sajjad Hassan, Building Legitimacy: Exploring State-Society Relations in Northeast India, (OUP 2008)

[iv] See, Ibid, for a more detailed discussion on the emergence of the Mizo identity.

[v] See, Lakshmi Bhatia, Contradiction and Change in Mizo Church, occurring in Rowena Robison and Joseph Marianus Kujur edited Margins of Faith: Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India (Sage 2010)

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