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Kuki Chieftainship in Democratic India

Kukis from North East India continue to practise a traditional chieftainship system, in sharp contrast to the democratic systems in the rest of the country. This has resulted in the impairment of democracy and development in Kuki areas. There is a need to rethink the relationship between the two systems and their prospects within the scope of India’s democracy.

The Kukis live in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura. The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 categorised them under the generic nomenclature “Any Kuki Tribes.” In Manipur they live in all the five hill districts and in certain areas in the Imphal Valley. They constitute the second largest population in Manipur. In Nagaland, they are found living in the three districts, namely, Kohima, Dimapur and Phek. Some live in Meghalaya. In Tripura they are known by different names. In Assam they live in Karbi Anglong, N C Hills (now Dima Hasao), Kachar, and other parts.

Generally, Kuki tribes continue to harbour a certain nostalgia for inherited traditional governance. Chieftainship is considered inalienable for the 22 tribes that constitute the Kukis. In Mizoram the system was abolished by the Assam–Lushai District (Acquisition of Chief’s Rights) Act, 1954. Tripura had replaced it with the panchayat system functioning under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. Chieftainship has been functioning among the Kukis despite the introduction of the representative system. The two systems are considered to be in opposition to each other. Their coexistence, however, had an impact on certain aspects of chieftainship.

The chief is patriarchal and feudal. He retains absolute authority over village land and the villagers. The relationship between him and the villagers is symmetrical to feudal relations seen between landlords and tenants. His words are law. Villagers could settle in the village so long as they please the chief. This system is considered antithetical to the practice of democracy. In short, villagers have no freedom. Their fate is decided by the chief. At the same time chieftainship is an institution that is considered an inalienable custom practised by the Kuki tribes since time immemorial. A debate, therefore, emerges on whether to continue with chieftainship. The debate goes on without any resolution.

Historically, in the context of Manipur, the post-independence Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947 was enacted which did not apply in matters where specific reservations of powers were made to any authority in the hill under the provisions of the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947. However, the government was in a hurry to enact in the same year, the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947 and later the Manipur (Village Authority in Hill Areas) Act, 1956, the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chief Rights) Act, 1967, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960, the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1975. The regulation of these legislative acts are a direct attempt to end the continuation of traditional authority within the democratic system. While a democracy constraint is one aspect, the introduction of new administration has changed not only their traditional system but also their relationship with land, forest, and natural resources. Therefore, there was strong opposition from the Kukis, particular the chiefs, which leads to freezing of the government regulations.

Chieftainship Debate

Despite the attempts by governments to either wish away traditional leadership or to actually attack it through various reform measures with a view to abolish it, Kuki chieftainship remained the centre of authority in Kuki inhabited areas in India’s North East and in Myanmar. The post-independence dualism of political authority still continued without any major changes in the structure. There are modern state structures on the one hand, and indigenous political institutions on the other. This reality has sparked intense and ongoing debate among policymakers, politicians, and academicians. The debate focuses on the relevance, role and place of these indigenous institutions of governance in political systems.

Debates on chieftainship in modernity focus on the role and place of traditional authority in Indian democracy. How could the chieftainship system coexist with elected local authorities? How is this relationship mediated so that the two structures can work in harmony rather than in competition? These questions have generated intense debate between “traditionalists” and “modernists” in both academic and policy circles. The gist of this debate revolved around three positions. One which considers traditional Kuki chieftainship institutions as outdated forms of authority, an affront to democratic rule, and one that has no valuable role to play under Indian democracy. Such a position believes that they should not be accorded any recognition by the modern state, and must be abolished. A pragmatic counter position asserts that these institutions are still relevant and legitimate, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the people reside. Consequently, they should not be abolished. The third group believes in both traditional authority and the democratic system, and that chieftainship system should evolve withdemocracy to remain relevant. The reality is that among various Kuki tribes this indigenous institution exists in juxtaposition with modern state structures at the local level.

Authorities and Dictating

If representative democracy fulfils democracy, chieftainship may be considered outdated. At times, chieftainship had proven its inability to adjust with democracy. This is particularly true in the case of election systems when chiefs indulged in colluding with vested candidates and forced people to cast votesfor them. Such authoritarian roles are to be seen as constraints to representative systems. These can be seen invarious ways.

First, chiefs play a crucial role in the elections for Parliament, state legislatures, and autonomous district councils (ADC). Second, a chief’s decision is binding on the villagers over whom he rules. He decides for all whom to vote for. Anyone who does not comply with the order could be expelled from the village. Under the prevailing situation, the secret ballot system has no meaning at all. Third, due to the election model, those who win elections are more inclined towards the chief and they are likely to distance themselves from the cause of the powerless. Ipso facto, at the lower level of the ADC, elected councillors face constraints in functioning without the consent of the chiefs. The situation raises serious questions in regards to policy implementation. There appears to be a sub-governance system that fails to fulfil democratic aspirations. Many wish to reform chieftainship.

There are constraints of chieftainship in the progressive functioning of representative democracy. In the Kuki areas, chiefs are autocratic. There is a serious clash between chieftainship and democracy, particularly during elections. The chiefs assert legitimacy to assert authority on the ground of defending inviolable Kuki tradition, culture and identity. He owns land and decides the fate of villagers. Villagers are subjected to him and he enjoys enormous psychological sway over his subjects. Practically, villagers do not enjoy democratic rights, particularly the rights to know candidates and to elect representative on the basis of personal choice.

There is coexistence of authoritarian chieftainship and seemingly democratic representative system in the Kuki areas. The situation is more favourable to the chiefs as they can exercise influence to get candidates to win elections. The collusion between chiefs and elected representatives, therefore, is natural. The collusive force enjoys absolute power over resource mobilisation and policy implementation. A corrupt collusion can indulge in violation of democratic rights. They can misappropriate public funds meant for the development of villages.

Chieftainship is not only antagonistic to democracy, but is also an institution that armed militants can use to servetheir interests. In many cases, the local militants invite the chiefs for meetings and dictate to them. Accordingly, village chiefs tell the villagers who to vote for in the election. In both cases, villagers have to cast their valuable vote to an already selected candidate. The villagers’ electoral rights are thus abused.


Most studies have not researched the dialectics of chieftainship and representative systems in democratic India.1 Most sociological researches on chieftainship overstress on the cultural aspect of chieftainship as a social institution. There are abundant works on democracy and electoral representation. However, the dynamics of coexistence of Kuki chieftainship and electoral representatives will be a novel approach. We need new research to investigate on the dialectic of the two system to bring to light the course of continuity and discontinuity in tradition, the coexistence of traditional and modern elites within the overarching democratic structures, the emergence of democratic forces challenging authoritarianism in any form, and the prospects of reforming tradition to retain cultural uniqueness while promoting representative systems to achieve the goals of democracy.


1 For instance there is Wouters (2014) onNagaland’s elections and the contradictions with customary understandings of power.


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Wouters, Jelle J P (2014): “Performing Democracy in Nagaland,” Economic & Political Weekly,Vol 49, No 16, pp 59–66.


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