Chieftainship and its Discontent: The Case of the Tangkhul Nagas

Chieftainship and its Discontent:
The Case of the Tangkhul Nagas

Dr. Jubilee Shangrei, Advisor, TKLD.

The institution of chieftainship in Tangkhul Naga villages has been undergoing various
phases of mutations and adaptations through the governmentality and processes of
colonial and post-colonial encounters. Such encounters have impacted upon the village
chiefs in many ways – especially in the manner of its power and function vis-à-vis the
village state administration and governance. The pre-colonial village chiefs run the
locomotive of the village state administration in democratic principles based on the
nature of land and community interface social contract; where the institution of village
council representing the various clans and its lands constitutes the political constituency
of the village administration. Mooting on this, the traditional political system of the
Tangkhul Naga village was chieftainship-in-council system. But the colonial and post-
colonial Tangkhul chiefs wielded and assumed autocratic and authoritarian power. As a
result the legitimacy and authority of the chiefs are heavily eroded and tainted. The
article suggests that the institution of chieftainship is very resilient among the Tangkhuls
and as a result, it needs to revamp by way of diminution of colonial and post-colonial
power and authority, and instead, re-structure itself around the underlying principles of
‘ethnogeographic community social contract’. The attempt in this article; firstly
contextualizes Tangkhul Nagas village: territory and community interface, secondly, the
pre-colonial traditional political system of the Tangkhul Naga, thirdly, chieftainship and
its discontent, and lastly conclusion.
Tangkhul Naga Village: Territory and Community Interface
A Tangkhul Naga village is a fortified settlement invariably built on an eminence or on
the summit of the hills (Horam 1939) rather than on a bank of a river as is the case with
most of the settlement pattern in various histories of great civilizations of the world who
are largely seafaring people. 1 Tangkhul villages consisted of numerous clans along with
their demarcated land 2 who agreed upon on forming a bigger territorially 3 political unit of
community by way of a loose social contract, without dispensing or compromising the
concept and meaning of territorially political community. There are broadly, two
1 The primary factor for selection of such settlement on an eminence or summit of the hill is largely based on geo-
strategic factors necessitated by the practice of head- hunting and inter-village warfare. But such practices do not
mean that they are unrelated as a people rather the relationship between villages were punctuated by war and
peaceful times, exchanging women in marriage, trade and friendship treaties.
2 Land as a concept here refers to the relationship between the ontologies of the geographical space or place and the
human kind, and their interactions in terms of social, cultural, and economic spheres which also gave meanings later
to political institutions.
3 The term territory here refers to the institution of bounding and controlling of like-minded collective of individuals
or communities within the confine of certain demarcated geographical space or place for certain advantages that can
be accrued from such self- constituting institutions. As a matter of fact, such demarcated geographical space or place
became juridical territories.

important aspects of understanding Tangkhul Naga village; territory, and community.
Here ‘territory’ does not only signifies the natural landscape ( stream, river, tree, rock)
based demarcated geographical space/place of the village but also the various clan
based geographical space/place (land) that falls within the territorial jurisdiction of the
village that were merged through the social contract. Again, community in this sense is
not only confined to the total collective of people within the village but it also
encompasses the clan based total collective of people of the various clans that entered
the social contract. Thus, unlike the liberal social contract tradition 4 , Tangkhul Nagas
invoke the notion of attachment approach to their land, and mooting on this nature
engineered a village state (political institution) by (the community of) the numerous clan
by way of a loose social contract without dispensing the importance of land in the
course of the social contract itself. In this understanding Tangkhul Nagas are what
Avery Kolers called “ethnogeographic community.” And he defines ethnogeographic
community as “a group of people who share an ethnogeography (geographical beliefs of
various cultures) and whose land-use practices densely and pervasively interact” (Avery
Kolers 2009:3-4.). By way of appropriating Avery Kolers’ conceptual term
“ethnogeographic community,” then, unlike the social contract tradition of engineering
political institution, the Tangkhul Nagas’ social contract can be termed as
“ethnogeographic community social contract”. It is “ethnogeographic community social
contract” because unlike the other variant social contract whose nature of the contract is
largely or predominantly individual or group of individuals (community) based, this social
contract does not overlooked or ignored the central notion of territorially embedded or
territorially bounded community. In other words, in the nature of the social contract,
individual or group of individuals (community) are not the only parties to the contract but
more importantly group of individuals or community along with their land/territory equally
took a centrestage and at the same time recognize in the course of the/in the contract.
The recognition of this territorially embedded or bounded community guaranteed the
triangle relationships of the land, men, and nature symbiosis in the social contract. The
importance of territory and community and their interface is not only central to the
understanding of the Tangkhul Naga village and its formation, but it is also equally
important in explaining the traditional political system; in terms of its institutional
structuring, nature of the polity, representation and participation.
The loci or centre of Tangkhul political system is institutionalized or located in the village
rather than on the basis of clan or tribe (Horam 1975:Vashum 2000). In other words, all
the Tangkhul villages have the same but separate political systems which are at time
uniform in authority and complimentary to each other. There is no centralized political
system or central government for all the Tangkhuls which falls under one political
system but each village formed the basis or unit of administration and governance. All
Tangkhul villages are self-governing state (village state), but not necessarily an
independent one in modern sense of the term. This is because Tangkhul villages

4 The liberal social contract tradition largely engineered political institution purely on the basis of rational principles
by prioritizing the individuals and the Rawlsian social contract does not mentioned the character or importance of
land of the parties in the “original position”. This is simply because liberal individualistic approach treats
land/territorial rights as more or less directly reducible to the interests and rights of individuals like their relations to

possess what one might call ‘internal’ sovereignty, i.e. a government that wields a rule
of law within a given territory over a given population. But on the other hand, the
concept of ‘external’ sovereignty, is limited in practice, this is due to the fact that
Tangkhul villages or Tangkhuls had no external relations with others or among
themselves on political terms but limited mostly to trade and economic terms to others,
and social and cultural among themselves.
Pre-Colonial Traditional Political System of the Tangkhul Nagas
A Tangkhul village is a politically organized community of many clans in a manner of
small republic managing its own affairs. The administration and governance of the
village is vested in the institution of a chief (Awunga) and council of clan elders (Hanga).
Many of the Tangkhul scholars have typologised the Tangkhul political system under
chieftainship (Horam1977:R.R.Shimaray1986: Ruivah 1993: A.S. W. Shmiray 2001:
W.A. Shimray 2000). However, categorization of the Tangkhul political system under
chieftainship is somehow misleading because it failed to differentiate or distinguish the
Tangkhul political system from the centralized chieftainship institutions of the Kuki, Sumi
(Sema) and Konyak.
Considering the notion of distinguishing or distancing away from the centralized
chieftainship, the Tangkhul political system would be more appropriate to categorize as
chieftainship-in-council system of administration and governance. However, this
preference does not intend to debunk or dislodge the central importance of the
institution of the Tangkhul village chief in the administration and governance of the
village state. This is rather an attempt to bring into reflection the nature of the village
formation; that is the importance and recognition of territory and community (such as
clan), and their interface in the social contract. And this recognition is very significant
because it underlies and defines the nature of the village polity, participation, and
representation. For instance, this recognition guaranteed that the nature of the village
polity should be democratic and guard against the chief from autocratic rule. The village
chief cannot assume autocratic power because if we reflect back to the nature of the
social contract he is just the guardian of the village territory not the owner of the land
instead the village community owns it. Similarly, in terms of representation, the
structure and composition of the village council is based on clan (community) with equal
representation (whether big or small), and traditionally the surviving elders of the clan is
represented in the village council. The logic behind this representation gathers its
support from the nature of the social contract; that is to say, clan and their land (whether
big or small) are party to the contract as a matter of fact, it is well reflected in the polity
of the village state. In other words, clans are the active parties to the social contract
which is why they are the only constituency of political representation that finds
expression in the village polity through the institution of village council.

The village chief is a hereditary chief on the basis of primogeniture that is, the institution
of chieftainship flow from the line of the ruling chief to his eldest son, and so on. The
chief is the political, social, economic, legal and military head of the traditional state. As
political head, he was responsible for the maintenance of good order in his state. He is

the guardian of the fundamental values of his people and mediated between them and
the spiritual forces. The Tangkhul village chief is also the custodian of the village
territory even though he does not own the land but collectively own by the community.
He is also the final arbiter in the administration of justice; that is to say, chiefs have the
status of an administrative magistrate presiding over customary, civil and even
commercial disputes. Often their judgments are much more respected and so tend to
bring about lasting peace and reconciliation among family members, clan members and
even between clans (Lule 1995). It can thus be argued that in the pre-colonial era chiefs
commanded a great deal of autonomy and respect within the Tangkhul village state.
The village chief is the head of all the proceedings and meetings in the village, by
conducting and reading out all decisions arrived in all meetings. And he cries out to the
village members of all the important notification pertaining to the village. But he does
not have decision making power of its own without the village council. In all matters of
judicial dispensation and public deliberation of the village, the chief has to consult the
village council and the consensus opinion of the male citizen. Thus the chief is a
nominal head in true sense in the affairs of village administration and governance in
secular angle but he has real power in ritualistic and religious aspects.
However, the Tangkhul village chief’s social and ceremonial positions are tremendous.
As a village chief he opens the village festivals by performing rituals like; the first man to
sow, plant, and harvest as it is a taboo to precede him in these activities. As a way of
respect and reverence for his high status he is entitled to a portion of meat of the
animals killed during festivals ( Horam 1977) and always offered the best Khor (rice
beer) during festivals. He distributes the cultivable land to landless residents of the
village. In lieu of his duties the villagers extend their help, labor and cooperation in
building or repairing his house and cultivate his paddy field. At times of crop failure or
other natural calamities the chief provides necessary relief measures to the villagers.
The youth in chief’s village help him builds and repairs his house as well as cultivates
his field. The words of the chiefs are much respected, their praise is much appreciated,
and their example is emulated in the Tangkhul village state ranging from social, cultural
or political aspects. In short he personified grandiosity, reverence, reliability, and quasi-
divine persona.

Chieftainship and its Discontent
The institution of chieftainship, at present, among the Tangkhul Nagas invokes a
multiplicity of discontentment and challenges from within the village constituency at
large, as corrupt and autocratic which is very an unbecoming phenomenon. At one point
of history, especially in the pre-colonial period, the institution of chieftainship resonated
or symbolized a seemingly assuring permanence with its grandiosity, reverence and
quasi-divine characteristics and acceptance by the ordinary citizen. He symbolized
social virtues like generosity, reliability, benevolent, and his words were respected,
praise and advice are much sought after, and he was a man of exemplary leader. Thus,
he was a living symbol of consensus and democratic spirit in the village state, guardian
of custom and tradition, and custodian of the village territory. In short, he was perceived

as an embodiment of virtues of political accountability, transparency, service and probity
(Blessings 2006). However such popularly accepted representation of chieftainship has
slowly eroded over times. In fact, in/from many quarters, the institutions of chieftainship
among the Tangkhul villages have become objects of hatred, scorn and popular
discontent. And notably, nepotism, favoritism, corruption and bribery are seemingly
synonymous with Tangkhul village chief and he is widely criticized for such unbecoming
anti-social practices. 5 But what have gone wrong with the Tangkhul village chief? And
why there is a strong popular discontentment towards the institution of chieftainship by
the people who in their volition engineered the political institution of chieftainship as the
cornerstone of traditional political system of the Tangkhuls? Is it the outcome of the
objective unfolding reality of the historical processes of colonial and post-colonial
encounters or simply the subjective determinism of the Tangkhul chiefs operating in the
various village states? The answer lies both in the objective unfolding reality of the
historical processes of colonial and post-colonial encounters and the subjective
determinism of the chief operating within the village politics as an actor who is
economically and educationally underprivileged. But among these, the primary factor is
played by the former, and perhaps, the latter is contingent upon the former.
The British colonialism had brought large numbers of Tangkhul villages under its
administration which were placed under the elsewhere familiar policy of indirect rule and
devolution. In this scheme of administration and devolution of power, the colonial
administrators recognized the resource of the traditional chiefs as an auxiliary agent in
the administration and controlling of the villages; because they were of the opinion that
such administrative policy would be cheap and pragmatic. As a matter of fact, under this
scheme of administration, Tangkhul village chiefs were given the administrative title
‘headman’ by the colonial administrators. Headman simply means administrative
assistants to District Commissioners or administrative handmaidens of the District
Commissioners especially in the affairs of maintaining law and order (especially
headhunting) in their respective villages. Headmen are “aides to the central government
particularly in the field of security, law and order” (Baker 1995: 59). As an auxiliary
apparatus of the District Commissioners, headmen of Tangkhul villages were conferred
legislative, judicial and fiscal powers over their respective jurisdictions. Nevertheless,
village chiefs retained legal powers and authority over land allocation and local taxation
or tribute, thereby maintaining some degree of autonomy. But significantly, chiefs’
power and authority over the village territory was legally recognized via the institution of
chieftainship by the British colonial administrators through the institution of patta
system. This development may seem incremental power and authority of the chief over
the village territory but in actual sense, it was done with the intention of demarcating his
jurisdiction for the maintenance of law and order. “In retrospect, chiefs made it possible
for the colonial government to bring immense, often impassable territories under their
control” (Adjaye & Misawa 2006: 2). As a result, the chiefs, in the process of instituting
the colonial administration, began to dominate local administration by asserting and
assuming autocratic tendency through the power of colonial govermentality 6 rather than

5 This proposition does not envelop or encompass the whole of the Tangkhul villages instead; hopefully,
there will be certain minimal amount of village chief who does not qualify for such discontent.

the authority derived from the village states. Ibrahim Gambari is of the view that “once
put into practice, the policy of indirect rule led to the entrenchment of the powers of
indigenous rulers and their growth beyond the limits traditionally assigned to
them”(Gambari 1985;166). The Tangkhul village chiefs, as an active cog of the colonial
govermentality began to administer their subjects in the framework of impersonal rules
and bureaucratic procedures which consciously or unconsciously transform them to
authoritarian and autocratic rulers which are in direct contradiction to the traditional
democratic practices. And importantly, the process led to the marginalization and
erosion of their traditional autonomy, and subsequently, they also lost the social
privilege of respect and honor from his subjects.
The pre-colonial Tangkhul chiefs were highly regarded as socially, economically and
culturally privileged. However, such social recognition also began to fade with the en
route of Christian missionaries and its auxiliary establishment of educational institutions
in some of the Tangkhul villages like Ukhrul. The evangelization and proselytization
processes of the missionaries and the new converts sharply began to interrogate the
then existing social, religious, customary and traditional practices of the Tangkhuls
(Horam1977). The colonial Christian missionaries along with the native new converts
attacked and despised the customary cultural practices and traditional institutions. And
such missionization zeal advocated the eradication or abolition of the aged old
traditional institutions and customary cultural practices to be replaced by alien cultures
of the west by way of indoctrinating the Tangkhuls through Biblical interpretations and
its co-relation with the Western cultures.
Later, as a consequence to such missionization zeal, the customary cultural practices
and traditional institutions’ resources are lost in the universe of the Tangkhul community
(Horam 1977). As a reaction or an act of strong resentment against the colonial
Christian evangelization and proselytization processes, the Tangkhul village chiefs as
the guardian of custom and tradition, were the last converts and their sons and
daughters were the last to attain colonial educational institutions. Later, as a result, the
sons and daughters of the first converts were educationally and economically more
privileged than the chiefs and their sons and daughters. With this educational and
economic advantage, the first Tangkhul educated generation began to seriously
interrogate the rationality and authority of the chiefs prioritizing on the advantage of the
democratic principles of the west. As a result of the missionization zeal of the native
converts coupled with the first Tangkhul educated generation the institution of the
Tangkhul chieftainship lost its popular social and cultural recognition of respect and
honour. For instance, the practice of serving the best khor (rice beer) and meat of every
animal killed in the festival was lost in the transition.

6 The term ‘governmemtality’ is a term coined by Foucault which has been used by post-colonial writers
and scholars contextualizing the correlation of governmentality (power) and knowledge. GyanPrakash
locate the term to the use of force and coercion, and the absence of liberal aspects of government in the
administration of the colonial subjects; where the latter are not represented in the administration of their
own. See GyanPrakash,Writing Post-Orientalist History of the Third World:Perspectives from Indian
Historiography in Comparative Studies in Societies and HistoryVol.32,No.2 (april,1990).

The Post-colonial regime and various international processes through NGOs have been
actively initiating the twin processes of democratization and decentralization by
sponsoring or funding development and employment projects in Tangkhul villages, 7 and
which is also demanding and encouraging inclusive participation and transparency in
village administration. But with the ill material circumstances and being educationally
underprivileged the village the chiefs began to prey on such developmental and
employment projects by misappropriating funds. As a matter of fact, legitimacy and
authority of the chief has been heavily eroded and tainted by the citizens. The Tangkhul
chiefs, once the embodiment of virtues of political accountability, transparency, service
and probity has been increasingly viewed as symbols of corruption, nepotism and
favoritism. In short, he is tainted as symbol of subjection and domination because of his
autocratic and authoritarian tendencies vis-à-vis managing various rural development
projects, and as a result, his legitimacy is heavily eroded. The Tangkhul chiefs have
been dependent on state and central government for recognition of their legitimacy as
representatives of their people as well as for obtaining economic and political favors in
the interest of the people they represent. And as a result it renders the chiefs
overwhelmingly easy targets for politicians bent on satisfying their own strategic political
The institution of chieftainship, despite it discontentment, is very resilient especially in
terms of identity assertion (political, cultural, social, religio-ritualistic aspects) to the
Tangkhuls and it needs to consider seriously. As a way of remedial perspective to
revamp the aged old institution of chieftainship, diminution of the artificial power and
function of the Tangkhul chief via colonial and post-colonial encounter is imperative.
And instead it is necessary to re-orient his powers and function from the perspective of
the ‘ethnogeographic community social contract.’ In matters to revamp the chiefs’
economic dependence from post-colonial governments, the affairs of managing
development projects that comes from the post-colonial governments and international
agencies should be left to the citizens. This may seem mutating the power and function
of the chiefs but this proposition is not in contradiction to the kernel of the
‘ethnogeographic community social contract.’ Mooting on this argument, in the pre-
colonial traditional political system of the Tangkhuls the village chief does not manage
development and employment projects that emanates from outside. Instead such,
development and employment projects and policies are phenomena of the colonial and
post-colonial encounters. But as I have mooted the need to revamp chiefs’ economic
dependence, certain percentage of the various projects implemented in the village
states should be given to the chief. And this is not in contrary to the traditional political
system of the pre-colonial era because; the chief enjoyed certain economic or material

7 In the name of democratization and decentralization in the post-colonial regime various Centrally funded
development and employment projects; like the Rural Workers Programme-1961, the Pilot Intensive Rural
Employment Project-1972, Food for Work Programme-1977, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana-1989, Natural Rural
Employment Guarantee Scheme- 2005, etc. are being implemented in rural Tangkhul villages for good governance.
Alongside such projects, various NGOs and international agencies like the International Fund for Agricultural
Development (IFAD) and VVD have been actively operating in Tangkhul villages primarily to popularize the concept
of micro finance.

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Edited by Khanrin Editorial Team 2021-2022

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