Until the onset of British Colonial rule, the Zomi were independent and were never ever under the control of Manipuri Rajas or Burmese Kings. The area inhabited by them was ‘unknown land’ until the British explore the country as DR Lyall, Commissioner, Chittagong Division pointed out thus:
“To the south of Surma valley, the Chin-Lushai Hills, ‘a tract of most intricate hill ranges and impenetrable cane-brakes’ was terra incognita before 1839.”
Inspite of considerable attempts at acculturation the Zomi successfully resisted integration with its more powerful neighbours. As was true then and is true today, the physical factors, linguistic affiliation culture and religion set them clearly apart from any of the South Asian polities, like the mainland Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist population.
Zomi have been divided, like the Nagas, of this region and the Kurds of the Middle East. The international boundaries and state boundaries were drawn across their traditional homelands. Their independent existence as a distinct people and the fragmentation of their land by the drawing of boundary lines is aptly pointed out by the British themselves.
It may be noted here that, in the 1834 Treaty Captain Pemberton as the British Officer representing Manipur, fixed Namsailung stream (locally called “Tuisa River”) and an imaginary line drawn from its source west of the Manipur River as the southern boundary of Manipur. Subsequently, the Chin-Hills-Manipur Boundary Commission, 1894 demarcated the boundary on the basis of the imaginary line drawn by Captain Pemberton in 1834. In this regard, Alexander Mackenzie, makes this remark:
“The Burmese government do not appear ever to have exercised any control over the Sooties (Zomi)…the whole tribes seems to be practically independent and not to have been affected at all by the Treaty of 1834… no Burmese officers appear to have ever taken charge of this tract (Chin-Lushai Hills tract) of territory under the Fifth Article of the Treaty, and the Burmese and the Manipuris alike appear to have treated the Sooties (Zomi) as wild and hostile tribes not amenable to their authority…”
In a memorandum written in 1861, Major Mc Culloch, the Political Agent of Manipur, wrote:
“South of the Namsailung are some powerful tribes (Zomi), amongst whom Manipur is nothing; in fact to that part no Manipuri has ever penetrated and even as far as the Namsailung no one but myself has ever attempted to proceed…”
In the Administration Report for 1873-74, Dr. Brown says that:
“In the event of any realized or threatened disturbance by the Kamhaus (Zomi) the Burmese invariably make the matter one of complaint against the Manipur state, assuming that State to be responsible for their good behaviour”
He adds that:
“For all practical purposes, these tribes (Zomi) should be considered as independent and liable to punishment from either power of raids upon”.
From the above it may be concluded that the Zomi and their lands were, in reality, just outside and beyond the power and interest of the dominant polities, being left alone to manage for themselves. The Zomi were, however, to be punished if they dare to interfere with the dominant polities. In other words, the dominant polities were not concerned at all about the Zomi whom they wished would stay out of sight and mind because the Zomi were difficult to control as they wanted to be as free and independent as they had always been.
J.W. Ecar, Civil Officer of the Cachar Column of the Lushai Expedition Force (1872-73), in his Report to the Commissioner of Circuit, Dacca Division No. 548 dated Cachar, the 3rd April, 1872, also says thus,
“These tribes (Zomi) seem to have been practically independent as long as they were able to maintain their position in the higher hills… Neither the Cachar nor the Manipur Chief had the slightest authority in the hills… nor is it evident from all the early Cachar traditions that they did not claim any…”
Carey and Tuck again pointed out in their book, “The Chin Hills”, that -
“By the delimitation of the Manipur boundary How Chin Khup (Zomi Chief) lost several villages which his forefathers had conquered and which up to that time had paid him a nominal tribute…, The border line between the Chin Hills and Manipur has carved the Thado tribe (Zomi tribe) into two…”
Initially, the precise delimitation and demarcation of the Indo-Burma boundary effecting Zomi inhabited areas, was considered not necessary by the British because both the British-India and British-Burma came under the same Governor-General. The later demarcation of the boundary was base on the ‘spheres of influence’ of the Government of Assam (India) and Burma, and is purely for ‘administrative convenience’ that the boundary was demarcated. S.K. Chaube in his book, ‘Hill Politics of North East India’, remarks:
“…a clear demarcation of the Indo-Burma border south of Manipur could never be made because of British uncertainty about the Administrative policy in the whole Kuki-Chin area (Zogam). This 900 Miles long border is being demarcated since 1969 in a friendly spirit”.
In the sphere of justice and administration, the Manipur State Darbar of the Maharaja did not have a say in the Hill Areas Administration as noted by Sir Robert Reid, the Governor of Assam, thus,
“Cases where hill men (Zomi & Naga) are concerned and cases arising in the British reserve are excluded from the Darbar’s civil and criminal jurisdiction… separate rules govern the administration of the hills, and they are detailed in the Chapter dealing with the subjects…”
For the first time in the history of the Zomi they were brought under control by the British. However, the annexation of the land of the Zomi Chiefs by the British Crown did not deprive them of the rights of ownership or title to the land, nor did it interfere in the administration of their subjects. The Zomi Chiefs ruled as an independent and absolute King as noted by C. Shakespeare, thus –
“The Rajah (Chiefs) is the sole and supreme authority in the village or villages under him, no one else being competent to give orders or inflict punishment except through him… to assist him in carrying on the affairs of government the Rajah has a minister…”
With the expansion of British control over Zo country, and their interaction with the Zomi, they came to realize that they had to deal with a people who differed markedly from those living in the plains. They soon took up a policy of segregating the hill tribes (including Zomi) from the plain peoples by introducing Special Regulations and Acts for their administration (for details go to British Colonial Administration). These regulations went far beyond merely putting the hill tracts of the region under a different administrative system. The Inner Line Regulation, passed in 1873, established a virtual boundary along the foothills and provided that, “any British subject or other person so prohibited who goes beyond ‘the inner line’… without a Pass shall be liable, on conviction before the Magistrate, to a fine…” Trade and possession of land by outsiders within the excluded areas were severely restricted. Furthermore, the British had a policy of minimal interference in the hill areas beyond the Inner Line. The Inner Line Regulation 1873 has its parallel regulation in Zo country of Chin Hills in the form of Chin Hills Regulation, 1896.
In both the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, the Zomi inhabited Areas of British India are clearly given separate status. On the recommendation of the Simon Commission of 1930, the Lushai Hills were classified as “Excluded Areas”, to be solely administered by the Provincial Government appointed by the British.
In the process of handling over of power on the eve of Independence, the Constituent Assembly set up a Committee chaired by Bordoloi, to make recommendations for the administrative development of the tribal areas of India. Like with the Simon Commission before, the indigenous leaders submitted memoranda and petitions to the Committee expressing their desire for autonomy and integration with their brethren across the boundaries, (Zomi), Independence (Naga) and redrawing of the existing boundaries, etc… While visiting the Zomi inhabited areas of India, the Committee noticed that -
“unlike other parts of India where tribal had assimilated to a great extent with the life and culture of the plainsman, the process of assimilation was minimal in the interior of the Assam Hills, particularly in the Naga and Lushai Hills; that the tribesmen in the north-east were very sensitive about their land, forests, systems of judiciary and that they should be left free from any fear of exploitation or domination by the advanced section of the people”.
The Committee recommended that Autonomous Districts and Regional Councils be established to provide for the protection of land rights, the preservation of language and culture and a certain degree of self-rule for the tribal people of the North East. In essence, it can be said that the provisions of the Sixth Schedule are a continuation of the British policy towards the indigenous peoples.