Towards Zo Unification

By L. Keivom, IFS (Rtd)

The topic given to me by the Convener, Zomi Human Rights Foundation, Delhi Cell for this seminar was ‘Zo Re-unification’ in the line of my article written six years ago for the seminar organized by the Zomi Re-Unification Organization at Aizawl. As you would have seen, I have rephrased the title as ‘Towards Zo Unification’ to make the subject more neutral than the former which technically implies primordiality of the Zo unity as single ethnic entity in their presumed historic homeland from where they dispersed and settled in areas now occupied by them in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh with each group identifying itself as a separate tribe. This is known as ‘ethnic dissolution’ through fusion, fission or proliferation. In this paper, I am going to briefly survey the progress of Zo unification and note down my observations.

Who are the Zo people?

Here I use the term ‘Zo’ to represent Chin, Kuki and Mizo/Zomi (Chikumi) group as defined by G. A. Grierson in the Linguistic Survey of India Vol. III Part III as one linguistic ethnic community belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group with the exception of the Meiteis for obvious reasons.

The Zo people believe that their earliest known settlement was a large cave with a big stone lid called Sinlung or Khûl somewhere in China. Conjecturally, the presumed ancestral homeland could have been located somewhere in and around the Stone Forest near Kunming in Yunan Province in China during the Nanchao Dynasty. With the collapse of the Nanchao rule, many tribes fled its stranglehold, some heading southward like the Karens, the Siams (now known as Thais) and other kindred tribes and the rest towards the west like the Shans, the Burmans, the Kachins, the Arakanese, the Meiteis, the Naga group of tribes, the Zo group of tribes and many other tribes now inhabiting the north-east India. The first major dispersal from Yunnan took place in early 9th century A.D and the second wave between 13th-14th centuries. The Burmans’ first known settlement was established at Kyaukse near Mandalay around A.D 849 and then moved to Pagan on the eastern bank of Irrawaddy where the Burman King Anawarahta in A.D 1044 founded the famous kingdom known as Pagan Dynasty. The modern history of Burma (Myanmar) began from here.

The Zo ancestors, however, chose to follow the call of the unknown and continued to head further west into the Chindwin River and the Kabaw Valley then already under the suzerainty of the Shan princes (swabaws) some of whose disparate groups later established the Ahom kingdom in Assam. From there some headed southwest and spread over in the present Rakhine (Arakan) State in Myanmar and Chittagong Hills Tract in Bangladesh. But the major bulk of them continued to move westward, climbed the rugged Chin Hills and settled in its mountain fastnesses undisturbed from outside forces for a period long enough to establish their own pattern of settlement and administration, socio-cultural norms and practices, beliefs and rituals, myths and legends, folk tales, music and dance and many other customs and traditions which they handed down from generation to generation and to the present time.

Zo dispersal

It was during the Chin Hills settlement that the linear strata became more defined and clanism more emphasized as each clan and sub-clans moved and settled in groups thereby subsequently resulting in the formation of new tribes and sub-tribes. In this way, the Zo group of tribes, clans and sub-clans speaking varied Zo dialects were born. As they spread out over different hills clan by clan and moved along, they became more and more isolated from each other and their loyalty concentrated more and more on their respective clans. Consequently, they became fiercely insular, loyal to their clan only and fought each other to gain supremacy over others as well as to defend their lands and honor from intrusion by others. In the absence of a centrally controlled authority, therefore, inter-tribal rivalries and wars were common, leaving a trail of bitterness and hate. This was basically the condition when the British came and subjugated the Zo world and its people.

The size of the Zo population is variously estimated to be from 2.5 to 5 million. It is not possible at present to know the exact figure mainly for lack of reliable statistical data and the fact that many Zo tribes and clans have for long been classified as belonging to other ethnic camps. Zo people have yet to accept a common nomenclature to represent their collective identity. Till now, they are commonly identified as ‘Chin’ in Myanmar; ‘Lusei’ and subsequently ‘Mizo’ in Mizoram and elsewhere; and ‘Kuki’ in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Tripura and Chittagong Hills Tract. Many tribes within the Zo group have also identified themselves as separate tribes and are recognized as such under the Indian


The Linguistic Survey of India published in 1904 identified more than 40 Zo dialects of which Duhlian-Lusei dialect now known, as ‘Mizo language’ is the most developed and understood and is gradually evolving to become the lingua franca of the Zo people. The best linguistic cauldron in the Zo world is Churachandpur town in Manipur where as many as eight Zo dialects out of eleven major Zo tribes are spoken and understood along with Manipuri, Hindi and English.

The role of the colonial power

Before the Zo people realized what had in store for them, the British had already put their lands under different administrations. However, realizing the mistake and the need to set it right, the Chin-Lushai Conference at Fort William Calcutta in January 1892 unanimously agreed “it is desirable that the whole tract of country known as the Chin-Lushai Hills should be brought under one Administrative head as soon as this can be done.” To set the ball rolling, the Chin Hills Regulation was adopted in 1896 to regulate the administration of the Zo people in the Chin Hills as well as other Zo inhabited areas also where the Regulation also extended. Two years later, in 1898, North Lushai Hills under Assam and South Lushai Hills under Bengal were amalgamated as one Lushai Hills District under Assam as proposed at the Calcutta conference as a first concrete step towards the establishment of a common administrative unit for the Zo people. The proposal also included the eventual integration of Zo inhabited areas of the Arakan Hill Tracts into the Lushai Hills District.

For political reasons, the proposed unified administration was never implemented. The belated proposal of Robert Reid, Governor of Assam to create a hill province comprising areas inhabited by the Mongoloid hill tribes in the region was also overtaken by the Second World War and its aftermath. The Zo people are, therefore, found today in Chin, Rakhine (Arakan) and Sagaing States in Myanmar; Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Tripura States in India; and Chittagong Hills Tract and its adjoining areas in Bangladesh.

The British rule had a tremendous impact on Zo politics. On the negative side, they divided up all the Zo inhabited areas under different rulers and reduced them to a miniscule. On the positive side, they established law and order that provided the Zo people an opportunity to consolidate in their respective areas and interact with each other more widely under a settled administration. Though the proposal to bring all Zo inhabited areas under one administrative head did not materialize, the introduction of the Chin Hills Regulation, 1896 and its subsequent extension to all Zo inhabited areas as mentioned earlier could be regarded as a partial fulfillment of the Calcutta resolution. The Chin Hills Regulation and its extension to all Zo inhabited areas by the British was recognition on their part of the oneness and indivisibility of the Zo people as well as their desire to live under one roof.

Another important aspect of the British rule was the introduction of elementary education wherever the missionaries set their feet. They followed the heels of the British flag, won the hearts of the people through the gospel wand and opened up new vistas and hopes. They produced a new kind of people who could not only read and write but think and reduce their feelings and knowledge into a written word. They became the elites and intelligentsias who played an important role in national rediscovery. They reduced in writing their past histories, myths and legends, folklores and folk-songs, customs and traditions which reminded the simple folks that they were a ‘nation’ with an enviable past, a glorious history and culture and that they should rediscover themselves again.

Christianity and Zos

A greater force in the process of Zo integration has been the Christian faith, which in fifty years turned Mizoram and many Zo inhabited areas into a Christian land. The newly zealous Zo converts took it as their privileged burden to tell the Good News to their kindred tribes and many had volunteered to go to the heathen Zo areas to preach the Gospel. These apostle-like preachers carried the good tidings along with new Christian hymns in Lushai dialect, which the pioneer missionaries employed as a vehicle to spread the Gospel. As a result, Lushai dialect quickly developed into a rich language to become an effective instrument for spreading the gospel and Zo integration. The first Bible translation and many other pioneering publications among the Zo tribes were in Lushai that subsequently came to be known as ‘Mizo language’, a language that became the link language of the Zo people. Wherever Zo preachers carried the Gospel and new churches were planted, they also implanted Zo-ness, thus paving the way for a re-unification. Therefore, next to their common ethnic root, Christianity has become the most important bonding force of the Zo people. A Zo professing any other faith except the traditional religion (animism) is considered by the majority Zo Christians as not only a renegade but an alien. Being a Zo and a Christian is like a coin with two faces.

The call by Zo integrationists

Let us now briefly examine the progress in the process of Zo integration. When we talk of call for Zo integration, we do not necessarily imply immediate political integration of all their inhabited areas in exercise of their right of self-determination which is an inherent right of every human soul.

The first step in achieving integration is the creation of an atmosphere congenial to the growth of emotional integration and the sense of oneness within the community. Therefore, the visions and focus of Zo integrationists have been first and foremost the promotion of emotional integration amongst the dispersed and disparate Zo tribes by constantly reminding them of (a) their common ethnic or ancestral root, historic homeland, myths and historical memories, culture, language, hopes and dreams; (b) that their only chance of survival as an ethnic nation is to unite into a cohesive force under a collective proper name with a common dynamic language and (c) if they do not heed the writings on the wall and continue to maintain fissiparous tendencies, they are digging their own grave and will soon be wiped off from the face of the earth without a trace. To the Zo nationalists, this is not a question of choice but a do or die thing. History is replete with such examples.

Ethnic cores for integration

A study of the history of nation formation, whether Western civic model or non-Western ethnic model, would clearly indicate that ethnic nation states were normally formed in the first place around a dominant community or ethnic group which annexed or attracted other ethnic groups or ethnic fragments into the state to which it gave a name. In other words, it is the ethnic core or the dominant group that often shapes the character and boundaries of the nation; for it is very often on the basis of such a core that states coalesce to form nations.* The ethnic core or the dominant community with its myths of ethnic election ensures ethnic self-renewal and long-term survival and this has been certainly the key to the Jewish survival in the face of deadly adversities.

This is also true in the case of the Zo people. After the Zo settlement in and dispersal from the Chin Hills, potential core clans or tribes appeared in the Zo domain from time to time like the Thados, the Suktes, the Zahaus, the Kamhaus, the Sailos and others but none so were as successful as the Sailo clan. By their wisdom and foresight, the Sailo clan stood united in the face of challenges and adversaries and soon almost the whole of the present Mizoram State fell under their sway. They unified various Zo tribes under their rule, introduced uniform code of administration and social and moral codes of conduct and mobilized the disparate tribes into one linguistic and cultural community conscious of themselves as a force with a historical destiny.

The outcome was that when the British came to subdue them, the Sailo chiefs won victory in defeat by carving out of their domain a separate autonomous Lushai Hills District named after their tribe. On this soil prepared by them consciously or unconsciously, Zo nationalism and identity began to grow slowly but surely. Though people from the Lushai Hills were then classified as Lushai, one of the Zo tribes, majority of the inhabitants belonged to other Zo tribes such as Hmar, Lakher (Mara) Pawi (Lai), Paite (Tiddim), Ralte, Thado etc., and amongst them they unmistakably addressed to each other not as Lushai but as ‘Mizo’ (a man of Zo or a Zo-man) and they used this terminology to cover all Zo descent. Some writers have translated the term ‘Mizo’ to mean ‘Hillman/Highlander’ but this interpretation may not stand a close scrutiny. The intrinsic meaning appears to be much deeper and therefore should not be deduced by attaching locational connotation to the term.

Whatever be the case, the term ‘Mizo’ quickly gained popular acceptance in the Lushai Hills as a common nomenclature for all the Zo descent. Consequently, the name of Lushai Hills was changed into Mizo Hills and when it attained the status of Union Territory and later Statehood it became ‘Mizoram’, a land of the Mizo or Zo people. This was the first time in Zo history that their land or territory had been named after their own given name. It may be pertinent to mention here that the nomenclatures like ‘Chin’ and ‘Kuki’ are derogatory terms given by outsiders to the Zo people whereas ‘Zo’ is a self-given name that is dignified, honorable and all embracing. It now virtually stands as the collective name of the Zo descent. And Mizoram can claim a pride of place as a land where every Zo descent is fully integrated in ‘Mizo’.

At the crossroads

When India and Pakistan gained independence from the British rule in 1947 and Burma in the following year, the politically conscious Zo leaders of Mizoram were in a fix. They knew that Zo inhabited regions would be divided up by three countries- a Buddhist country, a Muslim country and a Secular but Hindu dominated country. By then, two fledgling political parties namely Mizo Union and United Mizo Freedom Organization (UMFO) had already been born with the latter in favor of merging with their kindred tribes in Burma which they believed would ensure a better chance of their survival. The original founders of the Mizo Union were staunch nationalists in favor of self-determination of some kind of which they were not clear. However, a few months after it was formed, Mizo Union was torn asunder by the machinations of highly ambitious educated leaders who came under the influence of the Indian nationalists. Resorting to populist politics, these so-called Mizo-Indian nationalists hoodwinked the innocent and unsuspecting peasant folks, captured the Mizo Union party leadership and presided over one of the most crucial moments in Zo history without a vision and an agenda. The result was disillusionment that exploded in armed rebellion after twenty years. This was called the Mizo National Front (MNF) movement and for twenty years it spat out the fire of Zo nationalism and independence from the barrel of imported guns.

Whatever the differences in the visions of the political leaders of the day, they were and are always united in one thing: ZO INTEGRATION. The Mizo Union representation before the President of the Constituent Assembly, inter alia, included amalgamation of all Zo inhabited areas to form Greater Zoram (Zoland). With this vision in mind, the Zo leaders, on the eve of India’s independence, signed a declaration amounting to conditional accession to the Indian Union in which a provided clause was inserted to the fact that the Zo people would have the right to remain with or secede from the Indian Union after a period of ten years. The Mizo Union conference at Lakhipur on November 21, 1946 which was attended by many Zo representatives resolved unanimously that all Zo areas in Burma and India including Chittagong Hills Tract be amalgamated to form a Greater Zoram State. It is thus cleared that Zo re-unification issue has occupied the minds of the Zo leaders right from the time of India’s independence.

The big bang

The most widespread Zo re-unification movement came in 1966 in the form of an armed rebellion spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF). The main objective of the MNF was to declare Zo right of self-determination and to establish ‘Independent Zoram’ for all the Zo inhabited areas. The movement rekindled national sentiments throughout Zoland and many young men from all corners of Zoland joined the movement and fought for Zo rights. Mizo Integration Council and later Mizo Integration Party were formed in 1970 with its headquarters in Churachandpur, Manipur. This party was the progenitor of Zomi National Congress (ZNC) born two years later and its offshoot Zomi Re-unification Organization (ZORO). Under the banner of ZORO, the First World Zomi Convention on Re-Unification was held at Champhai from May 19-21, 1988 which was attended by representatives from all Zo inhabited areas.

The armed struggle for Zo independence lasted twenty years and peace returned in 1986 when Mizoram attained Statehood. This was preceded by the formation of Mizoram in 1972 when the status of Union Territory was granted by India. The birth of Mizoram was a big boost to the Zo peoples’ search for a political identity and a formal recognition of their existence. It was the first time in Zo history that a full-fledged State was named after its own given name. It was also for the first time that a core state had been established through and around which Zo reunification would eventually evolve and grow.

It will be pertinent to mention here that in fact, the first Zo State was born in the name of Chin Special Division in 1948 when Burma became independent. But being divested of power and funds from the start and the absence of a dominant group who could weld the many Zo tribes into a single entity, the Chin State could never be able to play the role of a core state. It has been a state torn by tribalism with Babel of tongues to add to its woes. Their lingua franca has become Burmese and not a Zo language. It is interesting to note that, even here, the most understood language is the ‘Mizo language’ though actual speakers are small in number.

Present Scenario

The political dust kicked up by the MNF movement in 1966 settled with the grant of Statehood and the return of the MNF outfits in 1986 from their Arakan hideout and the euphoria over the new status also soon waned and evaporated. Soon, the heavily deficit Mizoram State began to bite the reality of governance. Corruption of all kinds and the spirit of insulation and intolerance seep in. As it comfortably settled in its State cushion, the core State has begun to slowly abandon its role model as a forerunner of Zo integration and has become less and less accommodating. Increasing intolerance shown to non-Mizo speaking Zo community from within and outside Mizoram by the Mizo speaking community has caused ripple effects on the progress of Zo unification and put the process of integration in a reverse gear.

In an interview in November-December, 1998, a leading Mizo historian B. Lalthangliana, when asked why various tribes which he claimed as Mizo were bent on establishing their own identity, admitted that when he was doing some research for his book on Mizo history the Maras also known as Lakhers from Southern Mizoram came up to him and told him not to include their name in the list of Mizo groups. “Many Maras” he said, “still do not like to be called Mizo…In this manner the Thado-Kukis of Manipur or the Paites also did. The Thado-Kukis, however, do not mind identifying themselves as Mizo…it is the Paites, in fact, who have distanced themselves from the Mizo identity”.

While Lalthangliana believed that the State of Mizoram would play a major role in shaping the theory of a greater Mizo identity, the post Statehood era has witnessed mushrooming of armed ethnic movements within the Zo community where almost every imaginable Zo tribe especially in Manipur has its own armed outfits who carved out areas occupied by them as their respective sphere of influence and monopoly and barred others from entering into their area without permission. The most disturbing part is that they turned the clock back, returned to the barbaric days of their headhunting forefathers, hunted each other and engaged themselves in frenzied self-annihilation. Mutual intolerance has increased which seriously hinders the progress of Zo unification.

Awareness of the danger of their position and the inevitability of their eventual demise unless they are united has greatly increased in recent years. How fast consideration for ethnic national survival will supplant petty tribalism from the Zo mind remains to be seen. There lies the fate and destiny of the Zo people. Like charity, the politics of survival always begins at home.

Note: December 17, 2005, Delhi * Anthony D. Smith, ‘National Identity’, Penguin, London, 1991 p.39




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