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Traditional Peacebuilding: A study of the Hmar Tribe

Sunday, August 17, 2014

/ Published by VIRTHLI
~ Dr. Immanuel Zarzosang Varte
(Paper presented at 2-day seminar on the theme Culture and Identity: The agents of social Integration, 12th-13th August 2014. Organised by IGNTUSU and sponsored by Tribal Research Institute)

Conflict resolution may perhaps be one of the most important and crucial activity among all tribal communities. Being originally clannish and often having a closed village system with high level of competition for resources and power, most tribal societies were engaged in constant inter-clan and inter-village wars. Inter-tribe wars were also frequent but much less when compared to the high incidence of inter-clan and inter-village conflicts especially among the Mizo-Chin-Kuki group of peoples. Given the huge diversities of so-called tribal or ethnic groups in North East India and each with their own or related system of conflict resolution, the paper attempts to highlight the conflict resolution techniques and approaches employed in traditional societies with examples drawn from the Hmar tribe.

The Hmar tribe
“Hmar” is one of the tribes of North East India belonging to the Chin- Kuki- Mizo ethnic group. They are found today in Cachar and North Cachar Hills of Assam and the adjoining states of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura in India and Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Hmar tribe became a recognized Scheduled Tribe of India in 1956. Colonial writers were confused about the real identity of the Hmars and commonly clubbed them asKukis. The term ‘Kuki’ was first used by the Bengalis and later on by British officials to identify the hill tribes of Manipur other than Nagas. Kuki was later on classified into two groups: Old Kuki and New Kuki in terms of the period of their migration to India2. J. Shakespeare included Hmar in the Old Kuki clans and also used the termKhawtlang (people who lived in the west) and Khawsak (people who lived in the east) interchangeably to mean Hmars3. J. W. Edgar, a civil officer who accompanied the British column to Tipaimukh on April 3, 1872 reported: “The name Kuki has been given to the tribe by the Bengalis and is not recognized by the hill men themselvesand I have never found any trace of a common name for the tribe among them, although they too consider different families belonging to a single group, which is certainly coexistent with what we call Kuki tribe” (emphasis added)4. As far as written literature is concerned, it was only in 1904 that the term ‘Hmar’ spelt as ‘Mhar’ was first formally used by G. A.Grierson in his Linguistic Survey of India5.

On the origin of the term ‘Hmar’, there are two theories. The first theory suggests that the term might have originated from the word ‘Hmar’ which happens to mean “north” in English6. Accordingly, it has been mentioned that the Hmars came from the north to Lushai Hills just before the Luseis7. This implies that the term came into use only after the Hmars settled down in Mizoram. The second theory contends that the term originated from “hmarh” which means “to tie one’s hair in a knot on the nape of one’s head”. According to Hmar oral history, there were once two brothers, Hrumsawm and Tukbemsawm. Hrumsawm, the elder one, tied his hair in a knot on his forehead because of a sore on the nape of his neck. After his death, all his descendents continued the same hair style and the Pawi/Lakher who live in South Mizoram are believed to be his progenies. Tukbemsawm, the younger one, however, tied his hair in a knot on the back of his head. The Hmars who tied their hair in a knot on the back of their head are therefore believed to be the progenies of Tukbemsawm and that their nomenclature must have also originated from “hmarh”8. However, the Luseis and other kindred tribes who used the same hairstyle were not called Hmar. Therefore, the first theory sounds more convincing than the second. Whatever may be the truth, it is clear that the term ‘Hmar’ gained popularity and wider acceptance as a common nomenclature among the Hmar ethnic group living in different parts of North East India only with the dawn of the 20th century9.

Traditional Practices as Conflict Resolution Tools
The Hmars, like their other tribal brethrens, are warlike and often come into conflict with their neighboring tribes or even with other rival clans/tribesmen. Conflicts are also common at the individual level. However, inspite of the common occurrence of conflicts within and without, the very fact that the Hmar society has been able to prevail against both the traditional and modern onslaughts of conflict elements proves one thing- the existence of a system that stop a conflict or a system that prevents conflict. Given this, there are two type of conflict resolution mechanism among the Hmars. The first is a mechanism deep rooted in their tradition and customary practices- a stop to conflict. The second is also a mechanism deep rooted in the Hmar custom and which complement the first- conflict prevention. These two mechanisms can again be segregated into several sub-mechanisms involving participation and activities of the parties involved. Among these, let us make mention of some particularly important peacemaking tools often employed to stop and prevent conflict.

In common parlance, Zu means wine and dam mean peace or pacification. As such Zu-dam mean Peace wineor Pacification wine and “Zu-dam dawn” means “drinking the peace wine” or “Drinking the wine of pacification”. Conflicts or tensions among individuals, households, community or between groups are often fatal. Slight altercations often lead to all-out fights resulting in deaths. An undesirable marriage often leads to fights within and without. Territorial disputes and competitions for resources and power are common that, more often than not, leads to war.

In all the conflict, the primary tool of peacemaking is the Zu-dam. This unique customary law of the Hmar is instrumental in bringing about peace and also ensuring an obligation to not continue or renew conflicts within the community and also between other cognate communities. Whenever there is conflict or in the likeliness of conflict to ensue, kinsmen or carefully selected tribesmen from the alleged erring side or perpetrators will be sent to the victim or the wronged tribe/community with a pot of Zu10 where they are bound by custom to apologize and to convince the party they are to pacify to accept and drink the Zu offered to them. The opposite party also composed of carefully selected kinsmen or community leaders are also duty bound by custom not to be violent and act like gentlemen. In many instances, the peace wine is refused and the erring party has to go back home and wait for another opportune time. However, inspite of the possibilities of the apology being turned down, it is also considered bad conduct to attack or commit violent acts upon the peace party during or after such parleys. However, the wronged victim or community has the right to verbally shout abuses but no further than that.

In most cases, it is considered improper to not accept the Zu-dam. So during negotiations, the peace delegate from the erring party is given full opportunity to speak and beg for forgiveness. Once that is done, the head kinsman or leader of the community (in case of community level negotiations, it is usually the Chief who heads the delegation) that has been wronged will lament, shout, advise or do anything but not physical. After that, the leader will pass the order to either serve the Zu or reject it. If it is the former, one of the delegates from the erring party11 will serve the peace wine to the other party. Only after all the members of the wronged party has accepted and drank the Zu, then the leader of the other party is allowed to stand, address the gathering and thank the wronged party for accepting their sincere apology.

In case of acceptance, the wronged party is obliged and bound by custom not to pursue the matter further- be it verbal or physical vengeance and vice versa. If such violations are committed, then such actions will invite the wrath of one and all- be it at village or inter-community level. It is even believed that disrespect of such treaties will invite divine retribution to the violator of the peace deal. As the consequences are great and heavy, it is usually the case that the Zu-dam acceptance is strictly adhered to by one and all. Due to the importance and strict adherence to this customary law, there have been instances of other kindred communities taking advantage of the Zu-dam to pacify the Hmars after committing intentional violence. “Just offer Zu/tea to the Hmars and they will be pacified” is a word often uttered by some tribes whenever there is intent to commit or actual violence perpetrated upon the Hmars. However, the Hmars so far are known to honor and respect this custom even in spite of such comments or remarks and as such not only averted conflicts within and without but also earned the respect of others- be it adherence to the Zu-dam or the Hmar people.

Inremna ruoi:

Another indispensable part of conflict resolution in the Hmar society is Inremna ruoi or Feast of reconciliation. Usually, a Zu-dam agreement is followed by a feast of reconciliation. This feast is organized mostly at inter-village or inter-tribal level although it is also occasionally done even at the family level.

For most tribal societies including the Hmars, feasting is always a welcome affair and therefore participated with gusto. In spite of the existence of tension, most Hmars do not like to stand in the way of an upcoming or plans for a feast. Given this, most peace negotiations are mostly followed by a feast so as to cement the truce. Once a feast has been organized and the food offered partook by both the parties involved under the watchful eye of the whole village and other neutral parties invited as witnesses, there is no turning back. One is to simply abide by the truce and do their utmost to respect it.

‘Eating off the same plate’ (Tleng hmunkhata bufak) have very deep meanings for the Hmars and as such symbolizes a sort of affinal relationship; a sign of oneness, unity and peace.
During the feast, the erring party makes it their duty to see that the wronged are treated properly and special care given to their needs. As such, certain parts of the animal slaughtered considered sacred or Sa-ser are given with due rituals to the latter along with the best parts of the meat.


A feast of reconciliation also often involves, in the past, a very solemn ceremony where an animal, normally a Mithun (Indian Bison), is slaughtered to signify permanency in the peace accord, gratitude and to symbolize blood-brotherhood. This ceremony is called “Se-sun”. In this ceremony, either the head representatives or main contenders of the conflict will pierce the animal with a spear and kill it together. As animal has been killed and blood spilled together with mutual consent and the consequences of the killing resting equally on both the party, all enmities between them are to be gone and replaced by a special relationship bond called ‘blood-brothership’. By becoming blood-brothers, both the party has an obligation to help each other in times of needs and to live, regard and address each other as one family. All social norms, taboos and prohibitions kinsmen are also fully applicable to this new relationship.

In effect, the two groups became kinsmen or Laibung through this ceremony. Se-sun ceremony and its obligations to members of the clans are permanent and will continue to be so. An instance of such is the Se-sun ceremony between the Chief of the Lawitlang and Joute clans centuries ago at Champhai (now in Mizoram). Since then, the Lawitlang and Joute have been affinal kinsmen or Laibung and there has not been anyrecorded- orally or written- inter-clan conflicts between them. The clan members of both Lawitlang and Jouteclans continue to respect and execute their obligations as kinsmen or Laibung in any customary or traditional events.

Last but not the least
There have been arguments that such customary norms and values behind sporting matches and games have become obsolete but a closer look at Hmar society today reveals that this is not so. Pi le pu dan or the ways of the ancestors are still very much relevant, revered and are even accepted as desirable norms of behavior by the Church- the most powerful institution today- in many instances. Today, though, sports and games are more used to acquaint villages and individuals so that they get to know each other better and any violent reactions to losing or other untoward outcomes of activities are not condoned by majority and as such come along with heavy societal sanctions that deter most from behaving otherwise.

The entry of modernity among the Hmars has been responsible for the weakening of several traditional and customary practices among the Hmars. This in turn affects their societal cohesion. However, the practice and application of Zu-dam, inkhelna, inremna ruoi and other traditional practices are continued not only to resolve conflicts but to also prevent conflicts through increased interaction and dialogues enabled by these practices.

The irony is that most modern administrative and judiciary systems often suppress rather than encourage traditional conflict resolution systems little knowing that they owed their existence and evolution to tradition. The assumption that modernity and tradition are radically contradictory to each other is a misdiagnosis of the relationship between tradition and modernity and therefore, flawed. This misconception often led many to underestimate the potentialities of tradition12 in strengthening modern structures.

Nonetheless, the importance of traditional systems of peacebuilding has more or less remained important in lending social cohesion and continuity. The roles they play in resolving conflicts remaining crucial in spite of the onslaught of time, space and the elements that comes along with it. It can be said that these traditional and customary conflict resolution systems are the main complementary forces that strengthen modern judiciary and conflict resolution systems.

1 Immanuel Zarzosang Varte is an anthropologist and currently Guest Faculty, Department of Tribal Studies, Indira Gandhi National Tribal University- Regional Campus Imphal & Executive Director, Center for Organisation Research and Education (CORE)
See Dena, Lal. 2008. In Search of Identity: Hmars of North- East India. New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House.
See Shakespeare, John. 1912. The Lusei- Kuki Clans. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd.
See Mackenzie, Alexander. 1979 (reprinted). The North East Frontier of India. Delhi: Mittal Publications.
See Grierson, G. A., 1904 (Reprinted 1967). Linguistic Survey of India. Vol. 3, Part iii. Delhi: Motilal Banarsides.
See Hutchinson, R. H. Sneyd. 1909. Eastern Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers- Chitagong Hill Tracts. Allahabad: Pioneer Press.
See Liangkhaia. 1976. Mizo Chanchin (Mizo History). Aizawl.
See Songate, Hranglien. 1956. Hmar Chanchin (Hmar History). Imphal: Mao Press
- Darliensung. 1988. The Hmars. Churachandpur: L & R Press. 9 See Liangkhaia. 1976. Mizo Chanchin (Mizo History). Aizawl.
- Dena, Lal. 2008. In Search of Identity: Hmars of North- East India. New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House.
- Varte, Immanuel Zarzosang. Chin-Kuki-Mizo Unification Movements and the Hmars: Problems and Prospects. A Research Paper for North East India Center for Indigenous Culture and Development Studies (NEICICDS): Shillong.
10 Now, after the arrival of Christianity and the banning of alcohol and other intoxicants, Zu or wine has been substituted by tea specially prepared for the purpose
11 If it’s a matter or individuals or family, it is the head son-in-law. If it is at community level, it is the village crier or Tlangsam
12 See Rudolph, Lloyd I and Susanne H. Rudolph. 1967. The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India
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