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This Unique Festival In Manipur Is Trying To Reclaim A Lost Ethnic Identity

By Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya:

On October 30, groomed in their traditional attires of colourfully woven half-sleeve jackets, ‘longyis’ (sarong) and wrap-arounds, the youthful cultural troupes belonging to seventy-one tribal communities from India, Burma (present day Myanmar) and Bangladesh embellished the picturesque landscape of Peace Ground at Tuibong in the Churachandpur District of Manipur as the three-day-long celebration of Chavang Kut – the biggest festival of the Kuki-Manasseh groups – kicked off.

This year’s Chavang Kut – with the theme, “Bigger, Better, Stronger” – celebrated the historic ties of brotherhood among the communities divided and dispersed across Southeast Asia as a consequence of past colonial maneuvers, which continues to persist through the postcolonial politics of nation-states. Interestingly enough, the communities that partook the tribal fest identified themselves as descendants of Manasseh, the first son of Joseph and Asenath according to the Book of Genesis, and thus drew their lineage to one of the Lost tribes of Israel. Alongside the traditional Kuki symbol of a Sel (Mithun) skull that predominated the fest symbolism, a glaring David Star appeared here and there, trying to convey their rediscovered Israeli descent.

An eye-catching beauty pageant and spectacular ethnic cultural extravaganzas, with frequent evangelical interludes, formed the core of the Chavang Kut 2016 celebrations. A close look at the performed events and associated discursive practices, in the backdrop of the genealogy of the fest in this remoulded form, made the perceptive observer ponder upon the poetics and politics that undergirded this elaborated enactment of identity.

Making A Kuki-Manasseh Space And Place

A sizeable map graced the living room of Pu PS Haokip, the president of Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and chief architect of the Chavang Kut celebrations, as Mr Haokip and the Kachin delegates that accompanied us to his residence at Tuibong, mulled over the historic and cultural ties between the Kukis and the Kachins. The map depicted a vast swath of land covering inner Asia, as well as the highlands of Southeast Asia which the Dutch historian Willem Van Schendel has termed – and James C Scott has popularised – as ‘Zomia’. This vast swath of Asian land, as delineated in the map, was projected as the ‘land of the progeny of Manasseh’.

‘Space’ and ‘place’ are two central tropes in the works of the cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who once said that the history of the world is the history of making places out of space. Visibility, Tuan maintains, is one of the most prominent aspects of place-making. There are places which are profoundly significant to particular individuals or groups, and yet which are not experienced through the discerning eye or mind but viscerally. The ‘land of the progeny of Manasseh’, repeatedly endorsed in the impulsive discourses of Chavang Kut and Kuki nationalism for the last couple of years, has by now become such a place for a large number of Kuki/Zo populace: a symbolically powerful, viscerally known place with little visual prominence.

The map that decorated the KNO president’s salon sought to identify the ‘Manasseh space’ place was to be made out of. Place-making is largely a performative affair as well; it involves practices that help ascribing visibility on an identified space. The elaborated Chavang Kut performances acted out in reality, with the accompanying discourses on ‘Manasseh nation’ and ‘Manasseh land’, in the presence of Indian state representatives including Meghalaya MP Conrad Sangma and Mizoram Chief Minister Pu Lal Thanhawla as well as delegates from several Southeast Asian countries, undoubtedly increased the visibility of the ‘land of the progeny of Manasseh’.

Performing Identity

Victor Turner, the cultural anthropologist, was of the view that “Cultures are most fully expressed in and made conscious of themselves in their ritual and theatrical performances.” Though there are minor variations in nomenclature, traditionally, Chavang Kut has been a post-harvest thanksgiving ritual observed by the ‘Zo peoples’ – a term to designate the Kuki-Chin-Mizo – in the Indian states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh and Upper Burma.

However, what was sought to be projected in the refashioned and standardised Chavang Kut celebrations at the Peace Ground in Tuibong was a unified yet multifaceted identity, equally asserting their oneness as being the descendants of Manasseh and their respective ethnic distinctiveness. It was a celebration of a supposedly ‘traditional’ Kuki festival, aimed at the consolidation of a new pan-tribal/pan-indigenous identity, to use the term heuristically, and the consequent increase in their visibility and agency in the surrounding world of ‘the other’. These efforts also involved conscious and deliberate attempts of defying ‘identikit-identitities’ constructed in the discourses of official anthropology of the colonial era.

The Hand of God

Rev. Chomlhun, an influential local evangelist, claims that earlier in 2011, he had a revelation from God. God revealed to him in a series of visual representations that a large number of tribal communities dispersed across Asia, including the various Zo groups, are actually descendants of Manasseh, the biblical prophet-king. With the conviction that God had chosen him for disseminating his message, Rev. Chomlhun, soon afterwards, published a booklet titled, ‘Manasseh: The Lost Tribes of Israel’. The text narrates the historical events that had befallen on the Manasseh peoples since 75 AD as Rev. Chomlhun claims was revealed to him by God. It not only accounts the revelation he had, but also appropriates the Kuki traditional migration narrative by connecting it to the biblical episode of the lost tribe of Manasseh.

According to the traditional Kuki migration narrative, Pu Songthu, the progenitor of the Kukis emerged from Khul, a cave-like place, and then migrated to the places of present inhabitance. Rev. Chomlhun’s accounts hold that the Khul mentioned in Kuki oral tradition is nothing but the hole dug by the descendants of Manasseh to escape the great wall of China. The Hebrew Bible says that when the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 723 BC, the tribe of Manasseh was deported from the Kingdom.

Rev. Chomlhun’s account speculates that the Manasseh tribe was deported to China, and consequently enslaved by the Chinese emperor who used them as conscript labourers in constructing the Great Wall. During their stay in China, Chomlhun’s account notes, the tribe of Manasseh acquired physical features of the Chinese/Mongoloid stock. One day, Pu Songthu, the primordial Kuki of Kuki oral tradition – who according to Rev Chomlhun’s narrative, happened to be among the Manasseh conscripts – came across a hole dug by porcupine and made good his escape along with his brother Pu Songja. Pu Songja, on the migration path, changed direction and settled in the present-day Kachin state of Burma, and became the progenitor of the Kachins.

Similarly, following Pu Songthu and Pu Songja, the other Manasseh conscripts also fled the Great Wall and scattered across various parts of Asia, and later flourished as different independent tribes.

The Chavang Kut, as its stated objectives say, has been aspiring since its inception in 2014 to bring these Manasseh tribes together, and celebrate their forgotten brotherhood.

Rev. Chomlhun’s narrative, thus, not only draws the lineage of the Kukis/Zos to the biblical figure of Manasseh, but also establishes a ‘blood connection’ with the Kachins, an old and powerful actor in the ethnic politics of Southeast Asia. It is worth noting here that KNO, prior to arriving at a tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Manipur State and the Union government, had managed to garner support from the Kachin Independent Army (KIA).

The rediscovered ‘kin connection’, perpetuated through a Christian idiom, would undoubtedly help strengthening their ties with the Kachins who are known to be orthodox Christians, and likely to benefit KNO and other Kuki bodies with added support from Kachin.

Chavang Kut: An Attempt To Do Away With The ‘Narcissism Of Minor Differences’ Amongst The Zo?

The term ‘Zo’ is an appellation for a ‘nam/hnam’ (meaning ‘nation’), which is believed to capture the self-understanding of a group of people colonially labeled as ‘Chin’, ‘Kuki’, and ‘Lushai’ (and later ‘Mizo’). It had long been employed by local people and the colonial ethnographers alike as a common ethnic category to signify as many as 40 cognate groups now constitutionally recognised as ‘scheduled tribes’.

However, though the term ‘Zo’ captured the imagination of the colonial ethnographer, the official register recorded the different clans and ‘locational dilectal groups’ of Zo as different ‘tribes’. Thus, the introduction of a colonial administrative label/concept like ‘tribe’, though helped in general descriptions and governmental purposes, largely ignored the particularities of the lived experiences of the peoples. In the case of Zo, the introduction of ‘tribe’, given the contextual politics of recognition in the post-colonial liberal polity of India, led to confusing conflation of clan, race and tribe. According to H Kham Khan Suan this spawned “the narcissism of minor differences” and led to a politics of fragmentation among the Zo in post-colonial India.

A striking lack of consistency in principle characterised the classification and serialisation process of various Zo groups into Scheduled Tribes (ST). When in 1956 Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, Rishang Keishing, the then MP of Outer Manipur Parliamentary Constituency, was vocal against the anomalies in the bill and had urged for a uniform policy in ascribing legal status to various Zo groups.

One example will suffice to understand the kind of discrepancies that cropped up in the process of legalising tribal identity of the Zo. As Keishing had pointed out in the Lok Sabha debates, in Assam, Hmars were treated as a distinct tribe, whereas in Tripura they were treated as a sub-tribe of Kuki. Sgain in Manipur, the same Hmar were made an independent tribe, as distinct from Kuki tribe. Similarly, other Zo subgroups like Thadous, Guites and Sitlouhs were clubbed as sub-tribes of Kuki in Assam, but in Manipur they were recognised as independent of each other.

Once the state legally defines a group, it not only ascribes the group an identity, but also fashions the intricate web of power relationships it has to have with other legally-defined groups as well as the state. Therefore, the inadvertent anomalies that entangled the Zo tribalisation process resulted in the solidification and institutionalisation of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’, that arose out of dialectal variations and clan differences, among the various Zo groups.

It is with this background that time and again there have been clamours for Zo reunification. The first World Zo Convention, held on May 20, 1988, decided to form Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO) covering all parties, organisations, associations and individuals belonging to Zo people. ZORO aimed at reunifying the divided Zo people, bringing them under one political administrative unit, and thus ensuring self-determination.

To that end, in the late 80s and 90s, ZORO led a popular movement for Zo unity among the Zo peoples divided in three countries: India, Bangladesh and Burma. Showing allegiance to Zo solidarity movement, immediately after the 1988 democratic uprising in Burma, Chins in various parts of Chin State hoisted Indian and Mizo flags and urged for merger with Mizoram. An enthusiast Brigadier T Sailo, then Mizoram CM, had travelled to the international border as a sign of solidarity to the Chins. Indian government, however, never responded to the Chins’ call for merger, and Burma’s junta authorities unleashed millitary crackdown on the Chins. Thus, dreams of Zo reunification didn’t materialise.

Subsequently, there have been several initiatives in the discursive and cultural spaces to express Zo solidarity notwithstanding the fact that these efforts were often marred by politics of fragmentation among the Zo. It is not impertinent to see this year’s Chavang Kut fest in such a context.

The refashioned Chavang Kut, as its stated objectives claim, gathered the groups which they believe are descendants of Manasseh. These groups include all the Zo (or Kuki-Chin-Mizo/Lushai) communities plus some other plain tribal communities such as Bodo and Mishing struggling for ‘ethnic emancipation’.

Furthermore, it is worth noting here that earlier in 2014, Dr. Seilen Haokip, the spokesperson of KNO, hinted in an interview with Newmai News Network that his organisation was eying for ‘pan-Kuki’ unity. Interestingly, it is in the same year that the first transformed Chavang Kut celebration was held in Moreh under the flagship of KNO with eight tribes participating in it. The groups asserted their cultural distinctiveness and sought to project a unified identity as ‘Manasseh tribes’ in tandem.

There had been unresolved contentions regarding nomenclature in the past attempts at Zo solidarity as a medley of signifiers such as ‘Kuki’, ‘Lushai’, ‘Chin’, ‘Mizo’ deterred various Zo groups and organisations from arriving at a consensus to unanimously select a common name. Therefore, to avoid the politics of naming, KNO and other Zo stakeholders have striven to articulate a different political rhetoric of Zo unity laden with (Christian) religious idioms and tropes through the Chavang Kut, which at once has greater immediacy, agency and visibility for the Christian Zo populace as well as the state they are negotiating with for political powers.

The discursive practices associated with the refashioned Chavang Kut celebrations sought to construct a sort of common ethnic category: ‘Manasseh nation’. Only time will determine whether and to what extent this reimagined Zo or pan-Kuki identity in veil, with changed modes and tenors of imagining, helps in doing away with the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ and serve the cause of Zo ethnic solidarity.

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