The Zomi had efficient system of administration and discipline as a distinct group governed by their traditional laws, customs and organizations. The traditional political system is based on kinship structure that revolves round the concept of chieftainship and that of territorial jurisdiction over which its authority is wielded, and that the village is the highest political unit. Each village had its own government, and a chief or a headman functioned as administrator for the village. Generally, the duty and power of the Chief or village headman was similar among all Zomi tribes.
The village Chief, locally called ‘Lal’ or ‘Hausa/Haosa’ or ‘Uk’, enjoyed hereditary rights and exercised political, judicial, legislative and executive powers. He controlled, to varying degrees, the daily lives of the people. He enjoyed the rights to order death penalty or give pardon; right over lands, right to seize property of the villagers, right to tax traders, etc.
Some of his privileges include – six tins-full of paddy from every household, the left fore-leg of any animal killed (called ‘Buhsun-Saliang’), one-tenth of the amount of salt collected, share of wild honey collected, share of fish caught, free labour in constructing his house, etc. Such is the power and privileges of the Chief that they are called “the Lord of the Soil” by the British. Carey and Tuck wrote thus:
“The position of the Chief in regard to the people is very similar to that of a Feudal Baron. The Chief is ‘Lord of the Soil’ and his freemen hold it as his tenants and pay him tithes, and he accepts tribute.”
As the Chief was the Lord of the Soil, he enjoyed absolute power; however his functioning is more democratic than autocratic in form. In his manifold functions and responsibilities as a ruler, the Chief was assisted by a Council of Elders, known in Zomi as ‘Khawnbawl Upa’ or ‘Upa’, the number of which was determined by the number of houses in the village. It was the collective responsibilities of the ‘Upa’ to protect the life and property of the villages, to frame the general policy of making allotment of village lands for cultivation; and to administer justice according to the customary laws. Moreover, the villagers had a liberty to leave any autocratic Chief and migrate to another village. This acted as a ‘check and balance’ on the Chief and his Councils who were bound by customary laws. Therefore, the office of Chieftainship has its power based on the proper interpretation of the customary law and enforcement of culture and tradition through the Chief. Apart from the Village Council there are Siampu (Priest), Tangkou/Tlangau, Siiksek (blacksmith), etc who assisted the Chief in his administration and functioning.
Zomi Chieftainship was hereditary. From clan to clan the custom differed as to whether the youngest or eldest son inherited the office of the father. The chief’s sons, other than the one who inherits his father’s chieftainship, on attaining marriageable age were assigned another village in which he exercised independent authority, but paid tribute to the parent village. Each clan has a hierarchical order of Chieftainship with the senior-most linear chief as head of the Chiefs among a particular clan. This shows that Chieftainship among the Zomi has a broad-based federal structure. A good example can be seen in Falam area. At the time the British conquered the Zomi, Falam had developed itself into the most powerful of Chieftainships in Zo country. They had done this through development of a political organization comparable to democratic types of government found in the western world. The people enjoyed equal rights and freedom, and even Chiefship was open to all. Carey and Tuck remarks as,
“Unity in strength is a Falam motto, and therefore every quarter of the village is represented in discussion on all matters connected with the tribe and village.”
When Zoland came under British control, the Zomi Chieftainships were recognized, and the British did not interfere with the Chiefs’ powers and functions. Village organization and local authorities were left as they were. Today the institution of Chieftainship continues to exist with all its rights and privileges in the hill areas of Manipur whereas it was replaced by Village Council with nominal Chiefship in Mizoram and Chin State.
Beside Chieftainship, there were other common bonds and practices in Zomi society. In fact, the Zomi have always practiced a form of socialism within their communities.
This form of unique socialism is called ‘Tlawmngaihna’ in Lushai dialect, which means ‘love of less’. It implies the capacity for hard work, bravery, endurance, generosity, kindness and selflessness. Zomi forefathers emphasized this value of action to their progeny and today it continues in the form of ‘philanthropic organisations’ e.g. Hmar Youth Association, Kuki Khanglai Lawmpi, Young Mizo Association, Zomi Youth Association, … The spirit of philanthropism existed among the Zomi, even before it was christened into an organisation/association, in the form of ‘Zawlbuk/Haam’ where all bachelors in the village spent the night in a particular place. This unique institution is as old as the village itself.