Written by Lian Samte, Columnist


Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
His bold claims never endeared Jesus to his own tribesmen. Far from it! The elders considered his assertions blasphemous, a direct confrontation to their age-old sway and authority. Even his personal conduct was under strict censure. To the white bearded rabbis with flowing robes, this upstart of hardly thirty years of age cannot be the Messiah. The phrase, ‘...before Abraham was, I am’ was an offence to their pride and religiosity. No wonder, they caused him to hang on the Cross.
This common passage struck me differently of late. I was following silently and unseen the debates on Zomi issue in social media and networking sites. On many counts I see the debaters end up in personal attacks, name calling and busting profiles. That stirred me to take recourse in this Jesus-fable.
Somebody would argue that the language you speak is to die for. You don’t survive with identity but language. To him, language is identity. An attempt to strike a unified nomenclature is an absurdity. It will never work out. I asked myself: If language were identity, what will be the identity of Rochung Pudaite’s sons, for instance, who speak not a shred of Hmar? Englishmen? Americans?

Then, another would insist that we stick to the old label—Kuki. It’s official. We are better off with the official thing rather than cook up weird names like Chikim, Chikumi or Zomi. I have no opposition to that. We are all Kukis.
Another guy would aver that we are ‘Chin’ as we all originate from Burma. That is also true if we are to go back in history. Yet another would maintain that we can survive only under the aegis of Mizo.
Well! This kind of squabble can go on forever because all the arguers speak the truth. Each chooses his choice for personal reasons and conviction. And all have their valid explanations, at least in their own right.
And I, too, root for Zomi without discrediting any of the above. I have a very simple reason to my belief. I made my own comparison and analysis without any scholastic or academic basis. Here they are:—
MIZO: It is a beautiful proposition. It sounds indigenous as well as ingenious. I agree to it hundred per cent. But I see it as a Lusei neo-imperialist propaganda. It is a policy to contain the defiance against the Lusei diktat. It is a good and successful policy no doubt as it involves no violence or forced imposition. There may be mild duress on a person who steps into a geographical boundary called Mizoram. Every nation that boasts of its own land does. It’s a rule rather than an exception. If you want to stay and eat in Mizoram you have to call yourself Mizo and speak Lusei. It’s their land and they have all the rights. They are the only group among the Zo descendants to carve out a geo-political niche for themselves. Apparently, we all don’t fit. But if I am to start over again, I would do so in Mizoram and embrace Mizo with all my heart and soul. But I am in Manipur. Socio-political atmosphere here and there are mutually exclusive and worlds apart.
CHIN: Our fellow highlanders in Burma are called Chin. I hear that it is a misnomer, a derogatory ‘scarlet letter’ stamped on our chests. But I see our Chin brothers extremely happy with it. Even proud of it, perhaps! They sing paeans to Zomi and Zogam as though they are singing songs of Zion. They infect their brothers in the southern hills of Manipur with their soulful Zomi-lyrics. Paradoxically though, it is they who prefer Chin to Zomi. They are Zomi in their heads, not in their hearts. They are better off with Chin. Chin is official, Zomi is not. Zogam is only in their poems and fantasy. They live their day-to-day life in Chinland. They call themselves Tedim-Chin.

KUKI: Just the other day, a friend told me that we did have the word ‘kuki’ in our language in the ancient times. It was used as a chant to scare animals out of their hideouts when we go community hunting. That was the closest I hear ‘kuki’ come to indigenous. Official recognition cannot turn mockery into deference. But I still take it because it is the only tag I can identify with. It is widely accepted and acknowledged, thanks to the official thing. Most of the Thadou-speaking brothers swear by it. They boast of it. And they are absolutely right. Like it or not, we are all ‘Kukis’ in the eyes of the Government. And we all understand that the government (authority) is appointed by God. Check out the Bible. I may be wrong!

ZOMI: I come to hear this term in the early 1980s. The famous Chin country singer Pauno croons, “I am born a Zomi; I will die a Zomi.” For reasons unknown, the word appealed to me instantly. I got baptized with the fire of Zomism ever since. I developed automatic attraction to it because I can easily make out each syllable in my everyday vocabulary. It doesn’t sound outlandish or deprecating. It is in perfect harmony with my daily glossary. So simple and naive is my explanation that it may not impress you. But it convinces me enough. And that’s all that matters to me.

I don’t buy the cave theory or the mythical Zo patriarch hypothesis. Not that they are untrue. But I don’t need a long, hoary past to stand for my belief. ‘Zo’ denotes a hilly terrain and ‘Mi’ stands for the people who inhabit these rough terrains. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. I broke down Kuki into ‘ku’ and ‘ki’. They don’t make sense to me. Chin echoes none of our cultural or linguistic ethnicity. So, I decided to gun for Zomi, full throttle. I don’t disregard Kuki or Chin, but I feel they are missing the essence of our identity.

Of course, politically, socially and practically, calling myself Zomi is not without problems. First, it is accorded recognition nowhere in the world. Non-subscribers say it is a new coinage and won’t last. People, especially the Kuki-group, believe Zomi was born with ZRO in around 1993. That was a complete misunderstanding. Zomi is much, much older than ZRO.

When Jesus claimed he was there even before Abraham was, the Jew elders were horrified. They ought to be. They were judging him in their present context. And we are applying the same yardstick to Zomi today. Such a judgement is prejudiced and imperfect. We ought to dislike it, hate it, and even hang it in the end.

However, there was a time before Paite was. For that matter, any of our linguistic group we are so proud of today. Paite, Simte, Zou, Vaiphei, etc., were born not before the Government of India accorded us recognition under the Constitution around the 1960s. In the process, “Kuki” got hacked into many linguistic pieces. Many of us abandoned our mother identity–Kuki. Had our Thadou brothers not upheld it, preserved it, nurtured it, it would have died a long time ago. The Government did extremely well in thwarting or at least weakening the combined vitality of tribal unity in Manipur. Had Kuki been not maimed, it would have been a hurricane today. But, thanks to the Indian ruse, it is rendered into a feeble gust incapable of kicking up dust or reuniting its scattered tribes. What we considered a blessing has become a curse in disguise. India has taken us apart and snapped us one by one like the children’s tale in which a father taught his sons unity with a bundle of sticks.

But there was also a time before Kuki or Chin was. Who or what are we then?
For us, the 18th century was ‘prehistory’. Some form of primitive script might have existed. But it was propagated almost zero per cent. And they say the Zomi-script was eaten by a dog! Our history arrived with the western missionaries. So does our literature. Kuki and Chin are figments of the Englishman’s imagination. And no Englishman set foot here until sometime in the 19th century. With the Englishman comes Kuki and Chin. What are we before the Englishman became thoughtful enough to coin us a name? Early men? Barbarians? Gypsies? Nameless homeless hordes? In fact, Paite means nomads! Are we not all nomads until we settled down in Manipur?

That’s where I put Zomi was. We were people living in the cold hilly areas. And we have the habit of calling ourselves after the place we live in or the way we collectively behave. Our word for the cold hilly areas was ‘Zo’, and the people living therein would obviously be Zomi. The political connotation we attribute to it today was absolutely non-existent at that time.
In spite of being very proud of Kuki or Chin, I still choose to swoon for Zomi. As for Kuki or Chin, we ourselves have not heard of them before the Englishman put us down in his diary as such. Jesus was not forty or fifty when he claimed to have been ‘there’ since a long, long time. Zomi may be a new consciousness. But it was ‘there’ since a long, long time. Only we need to pick it up, believe in it, and follow it. A socio-political gospel is in the horizon. Take it or squash it. But it will make it somehow and make it big one day.

—    ls07112014frikol