Zo Re-unification Process

This is an interesting but a very complicated topic. It naturally implies Zo unity is primordial and that they were once united as a single ethnic entity in their presumed historic homeland and then dispersed and settled in areas now occupied by them in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh with each group identifying itself as a separate tribe. This is known as ‘ethnic dissolution’ though fusion, fission or proliferation. This paper will briefly examine how the disintegrated Zo tribes have been trying to come together again under a single umbrella to regain their collective identity and strength.

The Zo people believe that their earliest known settlement was a large cave with a big stone lid called Sinlung/Khul somewhere in China. Conjecturally, the presumed ancestral homeland could have been located somewhere in and around the Stone Forest and Kunming in Yunan Province in China during the Nanchao dynasty. With the collapse of the Nanchao rule, many tribes fled its stranglehold, some heading southward like the Karens, the Siams (now known as Thais) and other kindred tribes and the rest towards the west like the Shans, the Burmans, the Kachins, the Arakanese, the Meiteis, the Naga group of tribes, the Zo group of tribes and many other tribes now inhabiting the North-East India. The first major dispersal from Yunan took place in early 9th century AD and the second wave between 13th – 14th centuries. The Burmans’ first known settlement was established at Kyaukse near Mandalay around AD 849 and then moved to Pagan on the eastern bank of Irrawady where the Burman King Anawarahta in AD 1044 founded the famous kingdom known as Pagan dynasty. The modern history of Burma (Myanmar) began from here.

The Zo ancestors, however, chose to follow the call of the unknown and continued to head further west into the Chindwin River and the Kabaw valley, then already under the suzerainty of the Shan princes (swabaws) some of whose disparate groups later established the Ahom kingdom in Assam. From there some headed southwest and spread over the present Arakan (Rakhine) State in Myanmar and Chittagong Hills Tract in Bangladesh. But the major bulk of them continued to move westward, climbed the rugged Chin hills and settled in its mountain fastnesses undisturbed from outside forces for a period long enough to establish their own pattern of settlement and administration, socio- cultural norms and practices, beliefs and rituals, myths and legends, folk tales, music and dance and many other customs and traditions which they handed down from generation to generation and to the present time.

It was during the Chin Hills settlement that the linear strata became more defined and clanism more emphasized as each clan and sub-clans moved and settled in groups thereby subsequently resulting in the formation of new tribes and sub-tribes. In this way, the Zo group of tribes, clans and sub-clans speaking varied Zo dialects were born. As they spread out over different hills clan by clan, they became more and more isolated from each other and their loyalty concentrated more and more to their respective clans. In this way they became fiercely insular, loyal to their clan only and fought each other to gain supremacy over others as well as to defend their lands and honor from intrusion by others. In the absence of a centrally controlled authority, therefore, inter-tribal rivalries and wars were common, leaving a trail of bitterness and hate. This was basically the condition when the British came and subjugated the Zo world and its people.

Before the Zo people realized what had in store for them, the British had already put their lands under different administrations, and subsequently when political demarcation was made to suit their notorious divide and rule policy, the Zo people found themselves trapped in different States and countries. They are, therefore, found today in Chin, Arakan (Rakhine) and Sagaing States of Myanmar; Mizoram, Manipur, Assam and Tripura States in India; and Chittagong Hill Tract and its adjoining areas in Bangladesh.

The size of the Zo population is variously estimated to be from 2.5 to 5 million. It is not possible at present to know the exact figure mainly for lack of reliable statistical data and the fact that many Zo tribes and clans have for long been classified as belonging to other ethnic camps. Zo people have yet to accept a common nomenclature to represent their collective identity. Till now, they are commonly identified as ‘Chin’ in Myanmar; ‘Lusei’ and subsequently ‘Mizo’ in Mizoram and elsewhere; and ‘Kuki’ in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Tripura and Chittagong Hill Tract even though many tribes within the Zo group have identified themselves and are recognized as separate tribes as such under the Indian Constitution. There are more than 50 Zo dialects of which Duhilian-Lusei dialect now known as ‘Mizo language’ is the most developed and understood and is gradually evolving to become the lingua franca of the Zo people.

This article will focus on the progress in the process of bringing together again the disintegrated Zo tribes within a single fold. This does not necessarily imply immediate political integration of all the Zo inhabited areas through an exercise of the right of self-determination, a right every human soul is endowed with. It rather postulates first the creation of a congenial atmosphere inductive to the growth of emotional integration and a sense of oneness within the Zo community. The vision and focus of Zo nationalists are first and foremost the promotion of emotional integration amongst the dispersed and disparate Zo tribes by reminding them of (a) their common ethnic or ancestral root, historic homeland, myths and historical memories, culture, language, hopes and dream; (b) that their only chance of survival as an ethnic nation is to unite into a cohesive force under a collective proper name with a common dynamic language and (c) if they don’t heed the writings on the wall and continue to maintain fissiparous tendencies, they are digging their own grave and will soon be wiped out from the face of the earth without a trace. To the Zo nationalists, this is not a question of choice but a do or die thing. History is replete with such examples.

A study of the history of nation formation, whether Western civic model or non- Western ethnic model, would clearly indicate that ethnic nation State were normally formed in the first place around a dominant community or ethnic group which annexed or attracted other ethnic groups or ethnic fragments into the State to which it gave a name. In other words, it is the ethnic core or the dominant group that often shapes the character and boundaries of the nation; for it is very often on the basis of such a core that States coalesce to form nations. The ethnic core or the dominant community with its myths of ethnic election or choiceness ensures ethnic self-renewal and long-term survival and this is certainly the key to the Jewish survival in the face of deadly adversities.

This is also in the case of the Zo people. After the Zo settlement in and dispersal from the Chin hills, potential core clans or tribes appeared in the Zo domain from time to time like the Thados, the Suktes, the Zahaus, the Kamhaus etc but none so were as successful as the Sailo clan. By their wisdom and foresight, the Sailo clan stood united in the face of challenges and adversaries and soon almost the whole of the present Mizoram State fell under their sway. They unified various Zo tribes under their rule, introduced uniform code of administration and social and moral codes of conduct and mobilized the disparate tribes into one linguistic and cultural community conscious of themselves as a force with a historical destiny. 

The outcome was that when the British came, the Sailo chiefs won victory in defeat by carving out of their domain a separate autonomous Lushai Hills District named after their tribe. On this soil prepared by them consciously or unconsciously, Zo nationalism and identity began to grow slowly but surely. Though people from the Lushai Hills were then classified as Lushai, one of the Zo tribes, majority of the inhabitants belonged to other Zo tribes such as Hmar, Lakher (Mara) Pawi (Lai), Paite (Tiddim), Raltre etc, and amongst them they mistakenly addressed to each other not as Lushai but as ‘Mizo’ (a man of Zo or Zoman) and they used this terminology to cover all Zo descent. Some writers have translated the term ‘Mizo’ to mean ‘Hillman/Highlander’ but this interpretation may not stand a close scrutiny. The intrinsic meaning appears to be much deeper and therefore should not be deduced by attaching locational connotation to the term.

Whatever be the case, the term ‘Mizo’ quickly gained popular acceptance in Lushai hills as a common nomenclature for all the Zo descent. Consequently, the name of Lushai Hill was changed into Mizo Hills and when it attained the status of Union Territory and after Statehood it became ‘Mizoram’, a land of Mizos. This was the first time in Zo history that their land or territory had been named after their own given name. It may be pertinent to mention here that the nomenclature like ‘Chin’ and ‘Kuki’ are derogatory terms given by outsiders to the Zo people whereas ‘Mizo’ is a self-given name which is dignified, honorable and all-embracing. It now virtually stands as the collective name of the Zo descent. And Mizoram can claim a pride of place as a land where every Zo descent is fully integrated in ‘Mizo’.

Every individual is in search of his or her identity and this search has no end. Who am I is an eternal quest. Jesus Christ himself queried; ‘Who do the people say I am?’ I believe that if God has a problem, it would be nothing but a problem of identity: Who am I? When a part of one’s identity is established, the next search begins. It is eternally endless as man carries God’s image with layers and layers of personalities and identities. This is also true in the case of a nation too as it is made up of a conglomeration of individuals.

The formation of Mizoram is a partial answer to the Zo peoples’ search for a political identity, a formal recognition of their existence. It is the first time in the Zo history that a full-fledged State has been named after its own given name. It is also for the first time that a core State has been established through and around which Zo reunification is destined to evolve and grow. In fact, the first Zo State was born in the name of Chin Special Division in 1948 when Burma became independent but being divested of power and funds from the start, it has never come up to be able to play the role of core State. Besides, it is a State torn by tribalism and clanism with a Babel of tongues.

Their lingua franca is Burmese and not a Zo language. It is interesting to note that, even here, the most understood language is the ‘Mizo language’ though the actual speakers are small in number.

The British rule had a tremendous impact on Zo politics. On the negative side, they divided up all the Zo inhabited areas under different rulers and reduced them to a status not deserving to be reckoned with. On the positive side, they established law and order that provided the Zo people an opportunity to consolidate in their respective areas and to interact with each other more widely under a settled administration. Christianity, which came along with the British flag and the introduction of elementary education wherever the missionaries set their feet, opened up new vistas and hopes. It produced a new kind of people who could not only read and write but also reduce their feelings and knowledge into a written word. They were the elites and intelligentsias who played an important role in national rediscovery. They reduced in writing their past histories, myths and legends, folklores and folk- songs, customs and traditions which reminded the simple folks that they were a ‘nation’ with an enviable past, a glorious history and culture and that they should rediscover themselves again.

A greater force in the process of Zo integration has been the Christian faith, which in fifty years turned Mizoram into a Christian land. The newly zealous Zo converts took it as their privileged burden to tell the good news to their kindred tribes and many had volunteered to go to the heathen Zo areas to preach the Gospel. These apostle-like preachers carried the good tidings along with new Christian hymns in Lushai dialect which the Welsh and Baptist missionaries employed as the vehicle to spread the Gospel. As a result, Lushai dialect quickly developed and spread and the first Bible translation and many other pioneering publications among the Zo tribes were in Lushai which subsequently came to be known as ‘Mizo language’, a language perhaps ordained and destined to become the link language of the Zo people. Wherever Zo preachers carried the Gospel and new churches were planted, they also implanted Zo-ness or Zoism, thus paving the way for a re-unification.

Therefore, next to their common ethnic root, Christianity has become the most important bonding force of the Zo people. A Zo professing any other faith except the traditional religion (animism) is considered by majority Zo Christians not only as a renegade but an alien. Being a Zo and a Christian is like a coin with two faces.

When India gained independence in 1947 and Burma in the following year, the politically conscious Zo leaders of Mizoram were in a fix. By then, two political parties namely Mizo Union and United Mizo Freedom Organization (UMFO) had already been born with the latter in favor of merging with their kindred tribes in Burma which they believed would ensure a better chance of their survival.

The original founders of the Mizo Union were staunch nationalists in favor of self-determination of some kind of which they were not clear. A few months after it was formed, Mizo Union was torn asunder by the machinations of highly ambitious educated leaders who came under the influences of the Indian nationalists. Resorting to populist politics, these so-called Mizo-Indian nationalists hoodwinked the innocent and unsuspecting peasant folks, captured the Mizo Union party leadership and presided over one of the most crucial moment in Zo history without a vision and an agenda. The result was disillusionment that exploded in armed rebellion after twenty years.

Whatever the differences in the visions of the political leadership of the day, they were and are always united in one thing: Zo Integration. The Mizo Union representation before the President of the Constitution Assembly, inter alia, included amalgamation of all Zo inhabited areas to form Greater Zoram (Zoland). With this vision in mind, the Zo leaders, on the eve of Indian’s independence, signed a declaration amounting to conditional accession to the Indian Union in which a provided clause was inserted to the fact that the Zo people would have the right to remain with or secede from the Indian Union after a period of ten years. The Mizo Union conference at Lakhipur on November 21, 1946 which was attended by many Zo representatives resolved unanimously that all Zo areas in Burma and India including Chittagong Hill Tracts be amalgamated to form a Greater Zoram State. It is thus cleared that Zo re-unification issue has occupied the minds of the Zo leaders right from the time of India’s independence.

The most widespread Zo re-unification movement came in 1966 in the form of an armed rebellion spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF). The main objective of the MNF was to declare Zo right of self-determination and to establish ‘Independent Zoram’ for all the Zo inhabited areas. The movement rekindled national sentiments throughout Zoland and many youngmen from all corners of Zoland joined the movement and fought for Zo rights. Mizo Integration Council and late Mizo Integration Party were formed in 1970 with its headquarters in Churachandpur, Manipur. This party was the progenitor of Zomi National Congress (ZNC) born two years later and its offshoot Zomi Re- unification Organization (ZORO). Under the banner of ZORO, the First World Zomi Convention on Re-Unification was held at Champhai from May 19-21, 1988 which was attended by representatives from Zo inhabited areas.

The armed struggle for Zo independence lasted twenty years and peace returned in 1986 when Mizoram attained Statehood. Since then, non-violent movement has replaced the armed struggle and Zo reunification movement continues. Awareness of the danger of their position and the inevitability of their eventual demise unless they are united has greatly increased in recent years. How fast consideration for ethnic national survival will supplant petty tribalism from the Zo mind remains to be seen. There lies the fate and destiny of the Zo people. Like charity, the politics of survival always begins at home.

*** The writer is a retired Indian Foreign Service Officer.