For the last few months I have been thinking, time and again, over the state of affairs in our society trying to piece together the numerous puzzles behind the rampant dicord - from the alphabetical issues, absence of common economic strategy, our interest in electoral over real politics to church vs society issues, lack of mutual co-operations, respect and the distrusts we have against each other- like someone trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with the seriousness of a student about to sit for his final exam. After a long hard thought, it dawned on me that something very foundational about our society has something to do with our present woes and struggles. I shall, therefore, endeavour to discuss this ‘foundational’ thing in this write-up in the hope that it could at least be a small step towards the solution of it.
Ideas governed and conquered. Wherever it is found to be lacking in quality and vibrancy, the bearer or bearers of it lose out to others. As such, the rise and fall of society and civilizations is inextricably linked to how receptive to new ideas would-be bearers of these ideas are in tune with the change in time and circumstances. It would be worthwhile, therefore, to take a deep introspection about our existence as a social unit in the context of the present ideas and values that govern human welfare and system of justice to which we are all subjected to. It is in the light of such values, I believe, the time has come to examine the ins and outs of the philosophy of tlawmngaina (the nearest parallel to it in the English language would be ‘altruism’) and reformulate it, if need be, to suit our present existence.
Tlawmngaina had fed and looked after the needs of our forefathers, physically or otherwise, since the ages past. However, it could be said that, if I may not sound too impudent, tlawmngaina is nothing more than a subsistence philosophy any more than shifting cultivation is. Shifting cultivation may produce surpluses but not enough a surplus upon which kings, nobles and army could be installed and built. However, it is just as good enough to sustain livelihood for people who wants to keep such formal and often subjugating state power at arm’s length. Tlawmngaina too is as such. It served the purpose of sustaining the socio-political moral character of a village life. Social and individual livelihood depended on it injecting the necessary moral encouragements so that the weary and burdensome swidden bounded life is made alive with joy, nostalgia, and also celebrated. Without much assumption, it may be said that it was designed to suit the socio-political and economic environment of the time, to present a cultural and moral challenge against the formal state or to thwart state formation primarily to begin with.
A PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPT:
In modern times, tlawmngaina has become like an old hat that has lost its shape because everybody wears it. This definition takes after that of socialism as given by CEM Joad. The point here is, however, not about its identification with utilitarianism, socialism or communitarianism as a philosophical thought process, although there are elements of similarity and proximity between them, but as interpreted at the individual and social level for a ‘good’ cause and actions or for that matter as an ideology.
In fact, in today’s fast changing world its manipulation by the public and individual at large seems to have matched that of the Thangsuopuon, our beloved traditional shawl- which is used upon people and given to individual it never was supposed to. This could be a symptom of self-centeredness or simply a mind dismissive of our ethnicity and its interests as dictated by the increasing exposure to liberalism in the face of social strictures requiring us to act otherwise and be vigilant about its interests. Whatever it is, this phenomenon has contributed towards the gradual erosions of our traditional institutional values and ideals. The question is, therefore, about change and its accompanying value relative to the former state.
The concept of ‘Tlawmngaina’ as identified from cultural and traditional social behaviour found a place in the traditions of the Hmar, Mizo and some Naga tribes of the Northeastern states. Numerous write up from various writers, whose cultural and traditional practices embodies this concept, sounded more of a eulogy or tribute to it that should be cherished than critically analysing the concept to make or redefine it as an instrument of public mobilization for the purpose of social and political change and development. The issue central to the concept of ‘tlawmngaina’ always has been, I believe, a question about conception of the ‘good’, and it still is. This makes it a concept of deep philosophical meanings and implications on which hinges our interpersonal and social relationships, which in turn determined our political fortune as an ethnic community. In this sense, our forefathers were no less deep in philosophical thought than philosophers of the ancient or middle ages we know of. For instance, the concern for social welfare in the traditions of ‘tlawmngaina’ can be likened to the thoughts contained in utilitarianism, socialism and communitarians in matters of individual freedom and rights vis-a-vis the society and liberalism for its concern with justice.
Having briefly outlined the broad philosophical contours of ‘tlawmngaina’ and the absence of its critical analysis when conflated with social mobilization for the purpose of socio-economic and political changes, it is pertinent to analyse the extent to which it plays out in determining decision making, and by extension, the future course of action at different levels of societal system. It is my sincere belief that understanding of the core issue that underlie ‘tlawmngaina’ will be the key to self-discovery of one’s place in the society, our values and worth as moral beings capable of self-determination and conceptualizing what the ‘good’ is in a political society we lived in. This is, therefore, an honest and humble attempt to understand the concept of ‘tlawmngaina’ and its full socio-economic and political implications.
I shall endeavour to show that tlawmngaina as a philosophy compliments the characters of Hill societies as propounded by James C Scott in his book The Art of Not Being Governed; and will further attempt at establishing as to how socio-economic and political thinking and behaviours engendered by the long association with non-state systems have left us struggling to cope with modernity under democracy and liberalism. I concede, the attempt will have its flaws and limitations but nevertheless, it will be, I hope, of some help in understanding the basic flaws in our society within which we plan, decide and take decisions and directly address the crisis of our real or perceived disunity we all are obsessed with.
THE PRINCIPLES OF TLAWMNGAINA:
One could proudly emphasise the depth of philosophical thinking our forefathers had had in conceptualizing such a grand and beautiful, all-encompassing behavioural code of conduct; an ethical code for the overall welfare of the village, and in accordance with which individual choices and rights have to be exercised to suit the system of justice it conceived. To put it simple, tlawmngaina was the means through which welfare was served, the web of individual rights and freedom exercised and administered to secure social redistributive justice. Whether this adopted principle was enough to help secure and achieve the goal of redistributive justice in the society is, however, highly questionable.
It is questionable because the concept per se is flawed as much as the enforcing authority behind is. In other words, the concept has inbuilt limitations because it rests on the foundation of paternalism. This precludes the achievement and administration of justice as we know it. A separate and in depth discussion on this topic will be worth the try but for the present my efforts here is analysis, a modest attempt, so as to bring out the effectiveness and efficiency for which ‘tlawmngaina’ was thought out to be in the first place.
Likening ‘tlawmngaina’ with ‘altruism’ might not sound too far fetch an idea when one takes into account the moral force behind it. However, the full connotations of ‘tlawmngaina’ is difficult to be contained in a single word, it has to be explained with examples for one to comprehend its full philosophical import.
In an ideal situation, an individual who is tlawmngai will exhibit the following traits:-
(i) In desperate or dire situation of thirst, hunger, distribution of good/ eatables he must always put others before him in fulfilling his needs.
(ii) When on a hunting trip deep into the forest, he must adhere to, come hell or high water, the oath of loyalty demanded of him by ‘tlawmngaina’- never to give up on anyone! Besides, he must fight to be the first to wake up and do the cooking for the hunting party.
(iii) To be the spear tip of a front-line vanguard when on a warpath against an enemy or a wounded beast.
(iv) When in a search party for a missing person he fights to be the first person to find the lost person; and attend to him when found, whether dead or alive, and for which eventuality he comes prepared with cloth firmly girded around his waist.
(v) In the event a person dies whose village is far away from his own he must push himself forward for the task of carrying the corpse and deliver it to the decease family. Similarly, if somebody in the village dies he must volunteer, without being asked to, for delivering information to the relatives of the decease who lives in another village.
(vi) Respect of the highest form is to be exhibited towards any individual senior to him in age. It is not expected of him to question the words of his elders.
(vii) In offering condolences to the family of a deceased person he must put up at their home and sleep over at night to help the family tide over their trauma and difficulties.
(viii) To always be the first to help widow and people who are sick and wounded.
(ix) To always do the right thing and what is good in the sight of the law (?) and not for mere limelight and public recognition.
It could be observed from the aforementioned principles that tlawmngaina is a code of ethics whose core theme is self-denial and sacrifice, impartiality, unquestioned loyalty and fearlessness in the face of things it perceived as ‘evil’ or a threat or danger to its survival and existence. This obsession with self-sacrifice, self-denial and extreme loyalty to a cause fit the Christian narrative of love and sacrifice. This probably explained, in another sense, as to why or how Christianity couldspread like wild firewhen it first came to them. On the flip side, this same machoistic code of extreme fearlessness, loyalty and self-sacrifice melted and wilted in submission to the whims and fancies of the elders. This makes it a social and political tool of indoctrination to suit their environmental settings.
In order to comprehend the full significance of all these acts and behaviour as a standard test to qualify for being ‘tlawmngai’, it is necessary to understand the socio-political and economic environment within which these acts or behaviour were executed. It will be best to understand our forefathers as a ‘runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, has been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys- slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labour, epidemics, and warfare’.
The political structures were, therefore, ‘imitative’ in the sense that ‘while they have the trappings and rhetoric of monarchy, it lacks substance: a taxpaying subject population or direct control over constituent units, let alone a standing army.’ As such, political arrangements were ‘redistributive, competitive feasting system held together by benefits they were able to disburse.’ The shifting cultivation- an ‘escape agriculture designed to thwart state appropriation and our social structure- an escape social structure designed to aid dispersal and autonomy and to ward off political subordination. The society produces surplus but were not use to support kings and monks. The absence of large, permanent, surplus absorbing religious and political establishments makes it a society which is sociologically flat, local and egalitarian in character.’
It may not be too wide off the mark to say that socio-politically, relationships and livelihood were constructed by our forefathers in such a way that there was no life outside the community. A person might build his house, in exceptional cases, some distance from a village or live at the outskirt of a village but he lives within the embracing arms of the community. This was needed for security and safety from the enslaving eyes of marauding slave traders and agents of oppressive state making projects which were in full swing in the valleys. There also was the ever-present danger of inter village conflicts and rivalry that could blow up violently. Economically, individual and social life was dictated by the overarching need to practise swidden cultivation to survive.
These were the underlying conditions under which ‘tlawmngaina’ was conceived and practiced to secure social obedience and allegiance and to a limited extent, welfare and justice. Therefore, it could be said, with high degree of accuracy that serving the dish of welfare and justice were just a by-products and not the end objective of ‘tlawmngaina’. It was designed and used more of as an instrument of social control and securing loyalty, as we now still do, than about anything else. In other words, it was with deep intellect that societal setup was designed the purpose of which was to restrict individual and social behaviour.
Our society was not a free-for-all society like some people would have us believed. It was a society wherein social values were celebrated and not of individual. Great efforts were made to exalt and promote social values through the individual. It was a society wherein individual excellence was promoted, encouraged and stimulated through the social and not the social through individual values. Tlawmngaina was the thing that made it possible to secure such objectives. It was the vehicle that pulled them through the rough and brutal terrain of life to achieve the goal of social integration, co-operation and a secured individual and social existence.
GROUP ACTIVISM AT THE COST OF THE INDIVIDUAL:
On close examination of the concept it could be discerned that ‘tlawmngaina’ put great emphasis on group activity (ies). Even when it did not, it becomes the driving force behind the activity (ies) by making itself binding on every individual of the community. These were so because it based itself firmly on the foundation of ethnicity and woven together with the sublime moral values of obedience and loyalty to form a philosophical cord by which the hearts and emotions of the community gets bounded together, durable and lasting enough to withstand the corrosive pressures of time and change. This binding condition of ‘tlawmngaina’ was necessitated by the socio-economic and political environment within which they lived. Submission and loyalty to ethnicity being the binding condition, it becomes susceptible to hijacking and therein lays its vulnerability and hence, liability for the community. This is the processual point where it becomes vulnerable to the machinations of individual or groups with vested interests.
Why is such situation even possible in the first place? I am inclined to say that it is due to the inherent flaws underlying tlawmngaina. The misunderstanding of it coupled with its continued application by the society at large over time amplified the magnitude of its fallout. For instance, one needs to have a close look at the massive efforts being made by each denomination, Welfare, Fellowship and other formal institutions to secure their own socio-economic interests by way of demanding active participation of its members, directly or indirectly. Such efforts not only seek to take advantage of or appropriate individual values but worse it doesn’t give a hoot about individualism. Our whole socio-political life have been so used to doing things and overcoming obstacles through social or group activism that we are afraid to let the individual walk his own path lest we can’t appropriate or take advantage of the individual values. Society will grow only when it shed this fear of the individual.
Appeals are made in the name of ‘tlawmngaina’ or God to contribute, go somewhere or do these and that, or at times by a mix of both. If God fails to make the right effect with the audience tlawmngaina would be called in to secure whatever objectives there are to be secured. As surely as night follows day, tlawmngaina will do the job of whatever there is to be done. The reason is that every capable member of the society is under oath of loyalty to it and also because the moral boundary of tlawmngaina outstretched that of the scripture. It is apt to say, therefore, that where God fails tlawmngaina triumph and succeed. This is an irony because the core moral theme -self sacrifice and self denial for the good of others- is the same in both, if not exactly.
The social environment of the Hmars in Delhi is a living example which is being operated, or say experimented, on a grand scale. In areas we populated, it operated at the micro level with subtlety, and on regular basis, by way of selective execution of tlawmngaina on the basis of denominational membership or any other formal institutional membership. Our social behaviour especially in times of obituary events, wedding programmes and other events of social significance constitute an example of the manifestation of selective tlawmngaina. The irony here is that tlawmngaina was supposed to be non-selective in its application, a bulwark against discriminations of any kind to help the society achieve the goal of egalitarianism.
It will be worth remembering the fact that the exihibition or operation of tlawmngaina in times of obituary event predates the denominational church. Unfortunately, the entire operations of tlawmngaina are now more or less wholly appropriated by the Church, welfare groups and others to suit the interests of its members and itself. The first instance when this appropriation began is a question I am not aware of but the beginning of it was, in all probability, not deliberate just pure social administrative expediency which over time became deliberate and intentional. The appropriation and hijacking of tlawmngaina has become so severe and saturated that individual and members cower in fear at the thought of being abandoned by their institution. Individual must take the blame of being not courageous enough and institutions too should take the blame of being despotic in asserting authority.
The susceptibility of ‘tlawmngaina’ to manipulation or hijacking by individuals and groups is, therefore, an existential social crisis the solution of which lies with all of us. It is a tragedy that a community whose very social heart beat with ‘tlawmngaina’ struggles to hold itself together in the face of issues which question its very social and political existence and the influence it could command vis-a-vis the other sister tribes it shared the world with. Why is this so? Why can’t we use it to suit our political and social goals and objectives? Normal thinking suggests we would be adept at its execution to secure the right amount of control and loyalty from the masses given the facts of legacy as it was from our forefathers. But that is not the case, unfortunately.
It was destined not to be because the very nature of tlawmngaina nurtured the growth of autocratic germs who will rise to the occasion with unfailing perseverance to swarm over and manipulate the whole garden of our social structures and relationships. The sole intentions of such individuals is to let grow only a particular kind of plant suited to its taste and persuasion.The fruits and flowers of such plant are, as such, tasteless and without the fragrance of brotherhood or care but its stench, like a miasma suffocates the environment and everything within its circle of influence.
The full implications of abiding to it runs counter to the basic narrative of individualism – soft or hard; and that, I think, is an anathema to any kinds of development in any area of endeavour in life. It had been a great convenient tool for social, economic and political undertakings for a particular environmental setting within which our forefathers lived out their life; but it would be in the fitness of things to say it has outlived its rationale.