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Emergence of Tribal Middle class in Manipur

Thursday, September 8, 2011

/ Published by Simon L Infimate
~Prof. Lal Dena,VIRTHLI Columnist

Class is a basic feature of stratified societies. The concept of social stratification implies some sort of hierarchy in a society. Commonly, a class implies a stratum in a three strata structure consisting of an upper, middle and lower middle class. The question here is: does the traditional pre-colonial tribal society fit to this kind of three fold social stratification? My basic hypothesis here is that there was no middle class in pre-colonial tribal society.

There was no clear-cut class division in pre-colonial tribal society which may at most be characterized as a twofold stratification consisting of the commoners (cultivators) and the tribal ruling chiefs. The two classes again represented two broad categories of livelihood: the commoners were the producers of food and the ruling chiefs appropriated a part what the commoners had produced. As a matter of fact, the ruling chiefs practically depended on the labor of the common people. Particularly, the Chin-Kuki-Lushai people, in course of their historical evolution, had evolved an aged-old practice of Busung-sadar which was compulsorily given to their chiefs as a sort of feudal tribute. According to this practice, every household cultivator was to pay a certain fixed amount of paddy to the chiefs annually and every hind leg of any animal shot or killed in a trap was also surrendered to the chiefs. This tends to suggest that the concept of middle class in modern sense is very much conspicuous in its absence in pre-colonial tribal society.

1.Emergence of tribal middle class: The concept of middle class was a new phenomenon in colonial tribal society. With the expansion of British colonial rule in the hill areas of Manipur by the beginning of the 19th century, there emerged some fundamental changes in tribal society too. Christian missionary influences and colonial administration resulted in the establishment of schools which provided a material basis for the emergence of a new western-educated group. Out of this group, petty clerks, teachers, evangelists, new church leaders and political leaders were recruited. Whether this newly western-educated group can be appropriately classified as a middle class is a debatable issue.

One view suggests that the newly emergent group may be identified as ‘elite class.’ The term suggests the superior status of its members. It also connotes positions of influence which the newly educated tribal leaders certainly held in redefining traditional values. Moreover, an ‘elite’ is an open group, access to which is not restricted by birth or family antecedents and modern education provides social mobility through which one can rise up in the social ladder of a society. Another view contends that the newly western-educated group may be more appropriately called a ‘middle class’ because it occupied an intermediate position between the ruling colonial officials and the mass of the tribal population during the colonial period. Today the middle class is subdivided into lower, middle and upper middle class purely in terms of one’s income.

2.Tribal middle class: Its orientation and ideology: Having explained the historical roots of tribal middle class, let us now look into their behavior and ideology. The colonizers and the Christian missionaries taught the newly emergent leaders that they were ‘backward’ and should accept the colonial rule as beneficial. This is the argument which was carefully used for justifying colonial occupation. The missionaries thus taught the people that they were ‘savages’ and should accept new concepts of Christian ethics and western values without even examining whether there was anything of permanent value in the culture and traditions of the tribal society.

One of the main objectives of the missionaries was to train native workers and operate through them. Every new convert was under obligation to abandon his old faith and habits and to give up his tribal hair-cut and to adopt the European hair style. What was most crucial here was the change in their mental outlook. The western-educated group looked at Europeans as models and tended to become pro-western in outlook and attitude. They also began to look with disgust at their own culture through the glasses of their new masters who framed the syllabus and content of the teaching they received. The profound but devastating psychological effect the colonial rule and mission education had on young men educated in their schools cannot be ignored. These young men felt and preached that their ancestors were ‘savages’, and made other young men ashamed of their past, their way of living, their tradition and culture. They also felt that the ‘western’ people and their so-called ‘civilizing mission’ had brought them into the ‘light’. This is not to ignore the fact that the impact of western civilization upon the people was only skin-deep and mere acceptance of superficial western values does not make one ‘civilized’.

One contradictory situation in which the new educated group was caught was that they were still bound by traditional values and customs. Their main problem was, therefore, the simultaneous adaptation of two mentally contradicting elements: one ‘traditional’ and the other ‘western’. In the process, they were neither western nor traditional but an incorporation of both.

What is significant here is that the missionaries educated the people and trained native workers who began to regard themselves as belonging to a more or less different category and assumed new leadership as educators, administrators, spiritual leaders, political leaders, etc., thereby disturbing the traditional social organizational structure and also affecting the economic interests of the traditional leaders. In fact, at the initial stage, there arose a conflict between the two leaderships: the traditional leaders upholding the existing institutions and practices and the church leaders tending to condemn traditional values though they were still bound by the very same traditional values and customs. Both of them, however, played more or less the same roles. The church leaders acted as a bridge between the colonial administration and indigenous population by serving, apart from their normal duties as teachers and preachers, as translators or interpreters.

As new political consciousness dawned upon the people at the beginning of the 20th century, new political leaders who had more or less the same orientation like the church leaders, began to question even the very basis of colonial domination. With the acceptance of democracy as a form of government and consequently, adult franchise, they began to negate colonial administration and question the rights and privileges of the traditional leaders who were dubbed as ‘lackeys of the colonial government’. This is not to say that they were opposed to perceived ideals and principles of western institutions. In fact, it was through the acceptance of these ideals that they claimed their right to leadership. As a result they lacked firm legitimacy in the society in which they lived. Whatever legitimacy they had, tended to become ‘alien’ (without firm traditional roots). They, like the church leaders, denounced tradition as a basis for legitimacy. They were thus against the colonial personnel and traditional leaders but not western ideals and principles. In their fight against the colonial rulers and their close collaborators (the traditional rulers), the political leaders appealed to the sentiments of the people of different ethnic identity through the formation of various ethnic based political parties. Such parties exerted a strong appeal and there was inevitably a popular reaction against traditional leaders. The political leaders demanded democratization of traditional political institutions, which meant the abolition of village councils with their feudal-like servitudes such as the busung-sadar and forced labor.

3.Tribal middle class: Tribalists or Detribalists?

Surprisingly the tribal middle class in the post-colonial period are caught in two self-contradictory situations. While they are in the process of detribalization, they are at the same time advocates of tribalism. As a matter of fact, tribalism emerges in a situation where tribes and tribesmen are vanishing. This is to say that tribalism flourishes among the detribalized middle class which include politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, doctors, church leaders, wealthy businessmen and contractors. In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the indigenous masses, the middle class tends to uncritically imitate western or modern values and life-styles. It also tends to look with disgust at their established traditional values and customs. What is important is the change in their mental outlook. They think and act as other non-tribal urbanized people do, beginning to impose upon themselves heavy bourgeois values.

In a sense, every professional tribal is detribalized as soon as he leaves his tribal area. He begins to live in different kinds of social groupings, earns his livelihood in a different way and comes under different authorities. But the question is: is he really free from the influences of his tribe? In this connection, Bluckman argues that urbanization does not necessarily disrupt tribal solidarity. It is true that a tribal who lands up in a town or city, becomes isolated from his ethnic environment. But it always happens that even there he continues to live with his fellow tribesmen and this can strengthen his communal or tribal ties. For instance, different tribal groups settle permanently in different parts of Imphal, Calcutta, Delhi, etc. They continue to organize themselves on the basis of tribes or communities. Ethnic-based political parties or voluntary associations are always the visible operational arms of tribalism. These are again instruments for the development of ethnic nationality. Very often, the leadership of these ethnic-based parties or associations is drawn from the detribalized elites who at the same time form a part of national elite in a wider context. They identify themselves with the state and its government. Yet, as and when occasion demands, the detribalized elitists use these parties or associations to protect or promote their own communal interests.

This is to say that tribalism is the outcome of conflicts between segments of detribalized elites in a pluralistic society. Because of the very nature of inner contradictions inherent in the class relationship, one ethnic group always tries to dominate or compete with the other tribal group. A ministry or government in which one ethnic group is dominant, is often suspected to favor that ethnic group at the expense of others. In this way, we see both competition and conflict for power and position among rival ethnic groups.

According to Professor Peter P. Ekeh, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, tribalism is the direct result of the dialectical confrontation between the two publics: primordial public and civic public. The primordial public is closely identified with primordial groupings, sentiments and activities. Whereas the civic public is based on civil structure: the military, the civil service, the police, etc. The leaders of the primordial public should not be confused with ethnic leadership. They want to channelize as great a share of resources from the civic public to individuals or to his community as they can.

The protagonists of tribalism strengthen the positive value of ethnic loyalty. They also create in many cases, cohesive groups much larger than those that existed in the pre-colonial era. For instance, the concept of Nagaisation is still an expanding and unending process and some tribes who are more akin to the Kuki-Mizo groups linguistically and culturally, are now in the process of being Nagaised. Among the Kuki-Mizo groups also, the search for a more accommodating nomenclature is still on and options opened for them are: Kukiaisation, Zomiasation or Mizoaisation. The Paites, the Vaipheis, the Zous, and Simtes, etc. tend to opt for Zomi. Whereas the Hmars in and outside Mizoram prefer to identify themselves as Mizo by still retaining their identity as Hmar. The Gangtes, as a matter of fact, have recently merged with the Mizos.

In the final analysis, tribalism, good or bad, ensures ethnic loyalty which in its turn, provides for the tribal people a sense of their identity and the values of their culture and tradition. At the same time it also provides a material basis for political and socio-religious separatist movements. Even church organizations are based on tribal lines. The whole tragedy with most of the tribal Christians is that their ethnic loyalty often transcends their commitment to Christianity. The majority of them are tribals first and Christians second. In this way, the process of tribalism and detribalization are dove-tailing in the changing tribal society today.


1. P.C.Lloyd, Africa in social change, Penguin Books,1972.
2. R.M.Ismagilova, Ethnic Problems of the Tropical Africa. Can they be Solved?
3. Lal Dena, ‘Detribalized Elite Groups: Their behaviour’ in Souvenir, NEIHA Third Annual Session, Imphal, 1982.
4. Gluckman, ‘Tribalism in Modern British Central Africa’ in I.L. Markovitz’s African Politics and Society, Free Press, New York, 1970.
5. Peter E.Ekeh, ‘Colonialism and the two publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement’ in Comparative Studies in Society and History,Vol,17, Camdridge
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