For the Cultural Development of the Zo peoples

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For the Cultural Development of the Zo peoples ~Haulianlal Guite, IAS

HLLal-GuiteMuch to my chagrin, I could not attend the Delhi Zomi Namni Celebration and the Zomi Conclave due to the unfortunate untimely confluence of several critical problems in the sub-division I was posted in – although I have been looking forward to participating in the said events for quite sometime. But I was very much in spirit with those of you fortunate enough to attend; and even if I could not be present with you, I wish to contribute something, in the only way I can at this time, to the Zomi cause: by presenting a couple of ideas on how our culture maybe protected, preserved and lived again. As I was in any case appointed as a rejoinder for a symposium in the conclave, I also wish the organizers to consider this article my contribution to the cause.

The question before us is: in what ways may we successfully develop the Zo culture, make it living and thriving as it once used to be?

There is a proposal I sent to the Rajasthan Government for consideration for the preservation of tribal cultures; but I think it is equally applicable for us too, so I will lay it out bare here.

Proposal 1: Appointing Custodians of Culture in the Villages

As per this idea, our social and cultural groups like Zomi Council and its associates, shall send a proposal to our political representatives for appointing 2 government officials in every highland village, each tasked with certain cultural duties which must be carried out only within the confines of the village.

For reasons that will be immediately explained, the first official maybe called “Customist”, the second official, “Storyteller”. The purpose behind their appointments is to keep the oral tradition alive.

What is the duty of the Customist?

The customist is tasked with spreading awareness among the villagers in the village he belongs, regarding the village’s traditional customs, rituals and rites, with respect to the custom of weddings, to organization of social functions and meetings, to burying the dead, to the institution of Inndongta, to the distribution of meat parts during a banquet, etc – without however endowed with the power to enforce them.

His task is only to talk, not do; to make the villagers aware of their customs, and leave it to the freedom of the villagers to decide the matter for themselves. At no point shall the customist have the power to enforce the customs he preaches (this clause must be severely followed to protect the right of the tribesman to dissent).

If there is more than one custom practiced in the village, the customist should spread awareness of them too – should talk on all the customs of the village. That shall be his daily duty.

The task must not extend to the inculcation of religious beliefs, values or practices, however.

What is the duty of the Storyteller?

The storyteller is tasked with simply telling stories regarding the village’s legends, fables, even superstitions, histories and folklore, which together make up the village’s mythos as a whole. Again, religious stories, insofar as possible, must be avoided; and if unavoidable, must be done so without preaching, without advocating a doctrine or religion over another.

This is perhaps the more important office of the two, since it is the myths and legends and folklores that make up our worldview.

Both these officials are empowered to talk on both their duties and spread awareness among their folk wherever possible, whichever way possible, whenever possible.

The customist and the storyteller may, for that reason, be regarded the “custodians of culture” of that concerned village.

What of their qualifications?

To be qualified as a customist or storyteller in a certain village, the villager must:

          a. have spent at least two-thirds of his life within the concerned village;
          b. be at least 50 years old (or determined to be old by the villagers in case
          birth certificate is unavailable) at the time of selection;
          c. be mentally sound;
          d. not be deaf, dumb, or both; and
          e. be a tribal (can be of any tribe, but must be a tribal).

And how will the custodians be appointed?

By way of direct election from the gram sabha – or the village’s entire adult population.

The election of the custodians shall be as follows:

           a. election shall be conducted on a single day appointed by the SDM/SDO under the directions of the DC, and the concerned village notified at least 30 days prior to the election date;
          b. election shall be conducted in the process of gram sabha meeting under the chairmanship of the village chief;
          c. results of the election are to be immediately declared on the same day of the meeting;
          d. all villagers who fulfill the aforesaid 5 qualifications, are automatically qualified as candidates for the said posts;
          e. the tenure of both the offices shall be for a period of 1 year.

While holding office as customist or storyteller, whatever position they hold in the village otherwise already, and whatever holdings they have in terms of property and rights, shall remain unaffected and be as it is.

Once appointed, custodians are to spend at least 300 days in the village per year.

What of their salary?

The salary of both the officials shall be Rs 3000 per month – or its equivalent paid in terms of grains (rice or wheat or whichever is the staple crop in that concerned village). The salary will be such that it can minimally feed him and his immediate household (meaning at least wife and children) for the entire duration of his tenure.

Neither the customist nor storyteller has any special power whatsoever – except in the privilege of salaries they get.

What Consequences may happen if this proposal is implemented?

Appointment of custodians, it must be noted, is primarily for the villagers themselves and not for outsiders; nor even for anthropologists who maybe interested in studying and researching them. If custodians are indeed appointed:

1. The villagers will remain conscious of their own identity and so, not discard their history or identity with the entry of developmental works;
2. Assuming that there are 1000 tribal villages, it means that if custodians are appointed, 2000 tribesmen have automatically been granted jobs which will provide for their basic needs for the year;
3. Any outsider or researcher who wishes to know about their village can easily approach these custodians and inquire, thus easing the process of research;
4. As the custodians will be elders beyond the age of 50 (meaning almost off the productive age bracket), it means we are providing livelihood for the elderly; and goes on to show even the elderly can still contribute something of good to the society;
5. There is no heavy financial burden on part of the government, since, even if the number of custodians touch 2000, if their salaries are Rs 3000 per month, the government’s monthly expense would be Rs 60 lakhs only;
6. Inculcation of a healthy respect of who they are, without the self-loathing and the problem of Acculturation which usually follows when the tribes come into contact with the outside world with its complex institutions, sophisticated infrastructure and comprehensive worldviews.

In what villages must the custodians be appointed?

In all tribal villages whatsoever, situated above 600meters from sea level.

I feel such measures are the pressing need of the hour if we are to delay, even if not halt, the process of cultural assimilation done in the name of modernization.

Proposal 2: Founding of a Tribal/Highland Day

No question this is tough; but if possible, this may perhaps go a long way towards increasing inter-tribal understanding among our varied peoples, and instill in us the deep truth that, essentially, we all belong to the same highland culture (albeit with various manifestations).

What do we mean by “Tribal Day”? I mean, appointment of a day in which all the multitudinous tribes of Manipur will come together and showcase their various cultural traits – their songs, dances and plays in particular.

On this day:

1. This celebration must be held at the district headquarters of all the districts, simultaneously – no exceptions (almost as if it were our own version of Republic Day in which all district headquarters host it);
2. All tribes living and subsisting within the district can participate; and
3. In the interest of impartiality and neutrality, the chief guest of this festival must be the Deputy Commissioner in all the districts.

How is this different from Kut Festival and the other existing festivals?

In these:

First, if an artist of a tribe (say, Paite) were to present a song, he cannot sing a song of his own tribe – but must of necessity sing the songs of other tribes, whichever he prefers. The same goes with dances and plays – a dance by the members of the Thadou tribe, for example, must perform the dances of some other tribes; and if Mizos were to perform a play, the play must be of other tribes, not their own; and so on.

Second, participants of this festival must not wear traditional dresses belonging to the tribe they come from – but must of necessity wear dresses from other tribes (from which tribe can be of their own choosing). “Dresses” include scarf, shoals; any form of fabric.

Third, any public speaker for the duration of the festival must do so in a dialect other than his own – or in English. The moderator, for want of neutrality, must conduct the entire festival in English – or any other foreign language of his own choosing.

Fourth, there is no competition in this festival – only the showcasing of our various traits.

What are the anticipated consequences of this day, if it were to fructify?

1. The crowds who cheer any of the performances end up cheering at least two sub-cultures – if the performer is a Paite but sings a Thadou song, and vice versa, the crowd ends up cheering both tribes, for instance.
2. At the end of the day, since everyone wears the dresses of everyone else, the mixture will hopefully instill a sense of appreciation of the other and perhaps, increase inter-tribal understanding of one another.
3. It will spread awareness of each other, thereby help in some ways to bridging the communication gap among ourselves.

Ideally, the Tribal Day maybe held in the Fall, somewhere in October, just before the onset of winter and after the end of monsoon – and preferably on a second Saturday (we may call it “Tribal Saturday”), being a holiday. Or it can be on any other day – say, “Tribal Wednesday”/“Tribal Midweek”. Leaders of all the tribes shall sit together and decide by referendum the date, every year.

I do not know if these proposals will achieve the goals they intend; but I’m certain they are worth considering, and I invite every son of Zo to think and ponder on these matters. If they are worth something, as I think they are indeed, it is up to our leaders and political representatives to bring them to fruition.

So say we all.