ABSENCE OF TRADITIONS OF DISSENT
Prior to the time when our forefathers were still beyond the reach of the ever-incoming tides of modern values of civilization, life and livelihood were simpler and linear, at least, politically and economically. Life was simpler not because morality was but because they were relatively free from the scourge of rigid social hierarchical system and its attendant socio-economic complexity borne out of the wombs of state-making projects that were in full swing at the foot of the hills they lived in. Individual and social life was linear in the sense that all devoted their life to shifting cultivation. From dawn to dusk each individual, from the smallest to the biggest and the youngest to the oldest, struggle by the sweat of their brow to make themselves useful to suit their livelihood. Every single activity, personal or otherwise, dances to the tune and songs of the swidden fields.
The linearity in livelihood dictates that age, seniority and experienced be premium individual and social values worthy of respect and veneration. Young men, boys and girls alike have to learn to walk in the footsteps of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, uncle etc as they go about their day to day life. In other words, obedience, submission and the willingness to learn from person senior to oneself in age was the key to success in the swidden field bounded life.
It is no wonder then ‘tlawmngaina’ demands the young to be still and in silent respect when amongst elders. The word of his elders was unquestionable, incontestable. It is not surprising, therefore, that society discouraged, as we now still do, dissention, argumentation against established policies, practices or decisions, which are perceived to be just and proper. So, logically, it is possible that in a particular social setting an irresponsible, crazy or irrational elder in command over obedient group of young men who pledge loyalty to the former could exist. In such a situation, the word mayhem or chaos doesn’t even begin to describe the devastation such relationship could cause.
This lack of tradition of dissent, I think, speaks volumes of the nature of our socio-political structure - the centralization of power and the penchant we have for it, and its destiny of which we are a witness. We pick a fight more easily than we could pay for or harangue at someone or things. We first fight, discuss and compromise latter on or sometimes not at all, when on every issue, a compromise could be reached through dialogue in the first place! Sadly enough, we don’t dialogue; we dictate and decide on our own terms and interests because we lack traditions of dissent. Dialogue cannot takes places where mouths are muffled, minds indoctrinated and critical thinking discouraged. The art of dialogue and critical thinking are the engine and wheels of development without which socio-political and economic landscape is but a place dotted by chaos, discord and disunity, and flooded by the waters of poverty and disempowerment.
The inescapable logical consequence that follows is the growth of an environment which is hostile to any kind of criticism, dissention and argumentations against the self-proclaimed keepers of the community’s interests. Healthy discussions, debate and meaningful reasoning on issues are thrown off the table to make space for autocratic hands of the old to manoeuvre and decide shoving authoritarianism down the public’s throat only to leave us choking and coughing with our eyes wide open and red, and whining at our helplessness. Tlawmngaina, as such, help create an environment wherein passionate intellect and the crops of meaningful reasoning are left with no real roots from which to draw energy, strength and grow up to bear fruits for public consumption. Without logical reasoning and intellect to guide the public, society becomes the hotbed of intrigues, high drama and show business throwing each groups or institution into a state of insularity.
This may explain why we struggle under democracy and by extension, against social unity and solidarity amongst ourselves not because we couldn’t but because our mode of thinking is paternalistic and not democratic. Tlawmngaina takes after the looks of a welfare society based on egalitarianism but at its core there is despotism, nepotism, patronism, paternalism and authoritarianism. Therefore, the prognosis of our continued existence and influence we hold, and could hold, with respect to others lies in the right understanding and application of ‘tlawmngaina’ in the context of the present. Why the present? Because life now is non-linear and its philosophy radically different; just mere seniority or age doesn’t guarantee knowledge, skills or even experience any more like it used to and hence, respect ought to be a two-way street unlike in the traditions of tlawmngaina. On every matter or issues respect must be shown by the young to elders as much as it is to be given to the former by the latter not only because of democratic principles but more so because justice demands it. The lack of respect we have of each other is the single biggest obstacle there is to social unity.
To take another instance, we need to take a long hard look at the series of events leading up to the Delhi Incident of March 2013 and the aftermath environment the incident help created. On the one hand, many or some, at least, were of the strong view that the decisions of the ICI Church ran counter to the basic narrative of the Gospel even as some were or are, to this day, of the view that the Church was well within its moral right to establish its unit as it saw fit; while on the other hand, many or some believes, and still do, that the Delhi Hmar Welfare did not really stand up to its commitment to the principle of social unity and brotherhood.
The policy of social ex-communication and ostracization executed against the members of the Delhi ICI unit by the Delhi Hmar Welfare subsequent to the church plantation strengthen such views. If one could argue that the church was on the wrong side of morality to have caused such a massive social and individual heartburn on the issue, it could be argued with equal vehemence that the Delhi Hmar Welfare and Fellowship lacks the sincerity to carry out its stated principle of social unity or solidarity and brotherhood to its logical conclusion. The whole issue of it may leave us turned a blind eye to one side or the other but one common thing both sides of the camp excelled at was the misapplication and exploitation of our beloved ‘tlawmngaina’.
It succumbs to the pressure of groupism and vested interests. In its name acts of selfish, narrow personal and group interests were committed when compromise and empathy was called for; it became the war-cry and an all-in-all justifying power for individual and groups who seeks to strengthen their own position against another. In the same vein, Associations, welfare groups, denominational churches, HSA, HYA and HI all exhorted and called upon the youths invoking the principles of ‘tlawmngaina’ only to serve their own interests. The very asset we inherited, in this sense, turns out to be a bad loan pushing us to the edge of a moral bankruptcy, a threatening costly lawsuit.
If we are to believe that the Delhi Incident was just an isolated case, we may be a mile wide off the target. Was it an isolated incident that happened in vacuum and with no consequences? What of the Sharon Incident of November 2016 and that of Khawmawi in February, 2017 in which a particular families or individuals were boycotted and shunted out? If one were to take the stand that a particular person has to face social boycott for the mere reason that his acts, beliefs and thinking does not conform to that of his own; why does it not occur to such people that his acts, beliefs and thinking too does not conform that of the other person? It would do us good to remember well that we live in a democratic society. Our acts, thinking and reasoning should reflect it – respect and abide by the laws and repose faith in its deliverances. Liberal democratic principles has shaped us and moulded us into who we now are, then why trampled it against people who doesn’t share our views? This is hypocrisy of the highest order. It will be a different matter if we plan on establishing a social fascist regime of our own with a commitment to actively propagate it.
Just so because we commanded majority in a particular social setting doesn’t mean we have the right to act at will to suit one’s tastes or socio-political persuasions. There is no more justification for it than there is any for casteism or brahminism. Any justification of it at best symbolizes unity rooted in uniformity and purity, which is a deeply flawed philosophy carrying the seeds of authoritarianism, despotism and direct threat of violence or war itself. Incidentally, we have a long tradition of exiling ‘unwanted’ people from society and it seems this particular practice is still alive and kicking even after 100 years of Christianity and exposure to liberal democratic ideas and values.
A small ethnic group like us doesn’t have the luxury to put ourselves into such a state. Tlawmngaina, as such, while being a great social capital is also a liability, a stumbling block for social, political and economic development. The results of its misapplication produced only but a massive outpouring of emotional heartbreaks followed by intense personal hatred and ill-will against one another, and generate widespread consternation against existing leadership and authorities. It created a post-truth moment. And in such a scenario, truth, reason and the sense of brotherhood became casualties whose voices simply gets drowned out by the din of wanton hurling of invectives and abuses.
The manipulation of this outdated tradition is socially virulently divisive and communal in the form of groupism, and politically, it is suicide. At the individual level, the constant efforts made to portray individual achievement and successes, or the possibility of it, as part of the goodwill of or involvement in group activism is also detrimental to personal growth. It is time we understand that not all success and achievement can be realised through group activism. For a wholesome, all round development of the society the individual has to be freed from the shackles of societal strictures. Only then will we learn to respect each other; and our decision making, planning & policy making and legislation will course itself in the right path within the walls of an overarching need to compromise and empathize just so that we, as a community, will rise to great heights of achievement and fulfilment.
PHYSICAL LABOUR OVER MENTAL ACTIVITY
Another interesting character of ‘tlawmngaina’ is its wholesale encouragement of physical work to the extreme exclusion of things that demands mentation, artistry or creativity. This was done, probably, by our forefathers to suit the environmental settings and their livelihood. The deliberate choice of our forefathers to go oral as against written traditions explained and simultaneously also justifies such social behaviour. The oral tradition was a deliberate historical choice because to them the ‘world of writing and texts is indelibly associated with states. As such, ‘acquisition of writing was despised and frowns upon due to its potential avenue for disempowerment inasmuch as it could have empowered. Thus, to refuse or abandon writing and literacy was a strategy among many to keep themselves out of reach of the state.’ This precluded the rise of division of labour and professionalism. Of course, the village crier, the blacksmiths and priests were there but there’s no more logic to it than to say that they were there to suit just the bare necessities of their livelihood.
The absence of professionalism in progressive stages tells that economy was rudimentary and never gets to be formalized. It was, in all probability, defined by give-and-take or barter system. Since it was untouched by modern sense of market economy theft, larceny or robbery was unheard of in the society. A simple act of placing firewood or two against the main entrance door of a house was enough a reason for a person not to go in and steal. The logic is simple- where do you sell or exchange even if there were things to steal when everybody has whatever the others have got? And the fact that life was extremely hard, if not impossible, outside of the village or community making it a society having less or no disregard for privacy. Therefore, theft and robbery were absent not because the moral condition was any better than it is now but because modern market economy was yet to leave footprints.
Diversification of labour and progressive professionalism was absent, and their evolution precluded for the simple reason that, apart from the desire to avoid the state, individuals were inextricably bounded to their swidden fields,and even when they did manage to free themselves from it, for a time like in the favang and phalbi, ‘tlawmngaina’ was right there waiting around the corner to steal away the leisure time they have at their disposal. In short, there was just not enough time for the growth of personality or qualities that could, in other circumstances, changed the course of their life nor was there any intention or thoughts to make one either. In fact, such encouragements don’t make much sense, at least, not in the modern sense. However, it would seem there is a method to it that hid itself from the plain sights of reason which asked and enquired as to why little or no efforts were made to educate or develop the reasoning faculties. The method to this disinterest shown at, as stated before, is exactly what our forefathers were after - to avoid incorporation into and formalization or codification by state systems.
The logical question behind this lopsided emphasis on and encouragement of physical work against mental activity is, therefore, very striking, at least, for the simple reason that without the development of mental faculties- the free mind, changes for the better just couldn’t takes place. Or was it the case that our forefathers were wary of the octopoid hold and its potential consequences the intellect could unleash on the society? Or was it that they were just complacent with just whatever they have got in tune with their time? But, could one really believe in the notion that a society will not strive to achieve higher levels of development and refinement in the fields of life and just stay put? If we are to believe in the notion of our forefathers as refugees, state-fleeing people who resides atop the misty rolling hills, it makes sense that their way of life was a social choice. It will, then, mean that whatever little socio-political arrangements they had conceived were just bare survival strategies. Nothing more. This would in turn also mean that tlawmngaina is not suitable, if not compatible, with formal state systems for successful survival strategies.
It is, therefore, not surprising that focus efforts were made to enforce tlawmngaina. For those disenchanted with it, however, the failure to conform to the standard practice of ‘tlawmngaina’ is to invite the ire of the elders and authorities, which to the extreme took the form ofpublic humiliation. As such no right thinking individual dare take the risk.Sadly, this line of reasoning and action, in the present day, is still the dominant view which should be dispensed with because it is an anachronism in modern age. The continued efforts to propagate and instilled such thoughts and acts will, and is sapping, the very moral will and strength to excel in every walk of life harming the community in the long run. I am beginning to suspect that the disinterest shown, in general, at specialized higher studies and professions that demands mental focus, commitments, devotion as well as efforts and the consequent lack of such qualified persons amongst us has something to do with it and the siege mentality we have every time competitive results are out. After all, the grip that traditions have on our thinking and actions is something none could simply be dismissive about.
TLAWMNGAINA IN TUNE WITH TIME?
We now live under state system with its various twists and turns. An empowering philosophy of liberalism and values of democratic principles have become our day to day political and social diet. However, the fact remain, how relevant would tlawmngaina be, then, in the present context? There is no doubt about its relevancy; nevertheless, its effectiveness and efficiency for mass mobilization to secure desired goals and objectives for the whole community is highly questionable as it tends to fracture and divide the people and individual alike along narrow channels of power and leadership. It may not be possible to discard it nor advisable to do so either; but how could, then, the same be used for survival strategies in the present? The solution to these problems, I think, lies in the right understanding of the socio-political and economic settings within which we live.
Those in power and authority should be more open to and tolerant of diverse views and opinions. Every issue and matters that touched upon the interests of the community should be made open to discussion and debate with the willingness to compromise. Formal institutions must learn to take questions with patience, not just stonewall it or put themselves above criticism. Welfare associations, denominational churches, groups and other formal institutions and leaders who wield the trust and loyalty of its members should think twice before asserting authority whether or not it satisfies the overall needs and good of the community. They should strive and give maximum space and respect to individual rights and dignity in the pursuance of their interests. Only then can an environment be had where individuals could feel themselves being in it. This would let each one to feel his worth and importance and the realization that the stakes are high when it comes to the interests of the community.
Individual should also be more confident and assertive in pursuing interests and goals it perceives are worth the efforts. Of course, this should be within the bound of what is rationale and lawful. Institutions will always justify its acts of omission or commission by portraying itself as the embodiment of the community’s interests or at times claimed to sit above it. This is just a rhetorical and sweeping statement designed to manipulate tlawmngaina and our addiction to it. It knows exactly that tlawmngaina and our ethnicity are inseparable any more than the two faces of a coin are inseparable. This will explain why every formal institution declared loyalty to Hmar and not to tlawmngaina. They did so because it opens up the opportunity to appropriate tlawmngaina for its own consumption to feed its interests and needs. However, the fact is, not one single organisation or institution we have in our society represents the sum total of our interests. Therefore, there is an urgent need to wake up from this deep slumber of ignorance if we dreams of wholesome development based on the foundation of social unity and solidarity.
Tlawmngaina was an asset our forefathers had used successfully to take care of their needs and interests. In fact, they were efficient in using it to suit the environment of their time to bring about a successful and secured social and individual livelihood. Our customs, traditions and social systems they had practiced are not the remnants of some primitive social life forms rather it was a social choice and a deliberate historical decision with which they got through admirably and successfully against the adversity heaped upon them by men and nature alike. We, who are living in the 21st century with all the modern wisdom, knowledge, skills and technologies of the world at the click of a mouse button, what have we to offer to further strengthen our society, not only for its survival but also to bring about a successful and secured social and individual livelihood to all those we called Hmar? How about starting with tlawmngaina to mean mutual co-operation as against its classic version of self-denial and self-sacrifice? It is time, I believe, we incorporate a bit of individualism, liberalism and democratic values into it to suit our context and interests. Tlawngaina was a success with our forefathers. The question then is, how and what is it going to be henceforth, with us?
(New Delhi, March 11, 2017)
Thiek. H. (2014). History of the Hmars in Northeast India (With Special References to Assam).
Scott, J.C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.