A Reflection on Emerging Political Culture Among Tribal in Manipur

The chief traditionally known as Khullakpa or Haisapa is the most prominent personality in a traditional political institution among the tribes in Manipur. He is a patriarch, guided by the customs and traditions each tribe followed. The customs and traditions of each tribe are his oral law book according to which he organized, ruled (also adjudicate), and administered the village polity. Sometimes, it was self-rule although the majority of villages have groups of elders popular among the scholars as an equivalent of a Village Council. Thus we have a totalitarian regime, popularly known by the name Chieftainship or chiefship or Khullak. In line with this body of traditional Village elders, Village Authorities were designed and put to practice since independence. It is the incumbent village institution for village self-governance among them. These VA functions under proscribed laws framed from time to time for the hill areas of the state, Manipur. The first was the Manipur State Hill People (Administration) Regulation, 1947 which does not introduce any significant changes in the regime, but instead legitimized by making the Chief as the ex-Officio Chairman of the VA. Later on, a full-fledged VA was recognized by an act, Manipur Hill areas act 1956. Under this act, the Khullakpa system was converted into a Village Authority system, an enlarged system having a mechanism for sharing of authority, power, and resources. It was this later VA system that becomes the focal point of democratization among the tribal people in Manipur. The system which was rigid, and autocratic having no room for sharing of power, authority and resources became more open.

Elections were held regularly after a period of five years, post-2008. The notification was simple. Every district collector issued a notification stating that each village must elect officials for VA and their after submitting the names, photos, and their designations to the concerned district collector’s office. This being the norm for the VA elections, all was not well with the election of VA. There arose various questions pertaining to such norms and the fallout of such norms.

The first being, will the elected VAs function as the aged old officials of the Village; How will they share power with the traditional Khullakpas of the village? Which areas of traditional and modern democratic practices are fused or overlapped under such norms? Is the new norm destructive to the aged old customs and traditions of the tribal or, is an election held just for name shake so that we could tell to Medias that the tribal has become democratic? What truly is the basis for such an election? According to Bose, the tribal people have a world of their own. Since the independence of India, significant changes have occurred, one chief reason being the acquisition of political rights through adult franchises. And that, transitions in all spheres of their life becomes a problem. There are no ready-made solutions available to meet such problems.

Types of Village Authorities:

Prima facie, after the implementation of the Manipur Hill People Regulation, 1947 and its subsequent re-emergence as the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act 1956 (hereinafter known as Manipur Act, 1956) there came into being three different types of VA:

  1. VAs where traditional Khullakpa is the Chairman. Here, rooms are created for the Khollakpa to reign and rule. These types are commonly found among the Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnic people.
  2. VAs where there is no traditional Khullakpa, the Chairman is an elected person. Under this schema, there exists no hereditary claim to reign as Khullakpa. As such, the chairman of VA rules the village. However, the Manipur Act, of 1956 made election mandatory for the VA chairman’s post. The majority of Naga villages have this type of VA. This is why Nagas are considered to be democratic as compared to the Kukis.
  3. VAs where both the Khullakpa and Chairman exist side by side. It is here to be distinguished that the Khullakpa reigns but does not rule. At the same time, the VA chairman rules the village but does not reign. This difference makes them co-exist side by side. Naga Villages on the periphery of the Kuki-Chins group possessed this type of VA.

Indian Constitution and the position of the Tribal Chief:

There is a general tendency around the world towards liberal democratization. However, the question of minority protection assumes an undeniable feature of Indian democracy. In the newly integrated tribal regions, special provisions were inserted and numerous provisions were made to act as articles of the constitution of India, providing them a shield for the protection of what constituted the tribal in terms of their custom, practices, belief, rituals, and institutions, etc. In this way, the District Council popularly known as the Autonomous District Council (ADC) emerged as an autonomous body to govern the tribal at the grass-root level at the same length and strength as the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as the front doorsill of the grass-root governance in other parts of rural India. The traditional village council of elders constitutes a unit immediately below the ADCs whose head was the chief of the village known by the name ‘Khullakpa’. According to the invalidated Manipur Hill People Regulation, 1947 the chief or Khullakpa was to be the ex-officio chairman of the Village Authority if the village had a khullakpa or to be elected if the village had not. Thus, a village-level governing body (institution) was created for the first time through a statutory act although its existence was traced much earlier than Manipur Hill People Regulation, 1947. A very important element was introduced there, in the latter part, when it said a chairman of VA had to be elected if the village had no khullakpa prior to that time. This was amended and the election of the chairman of VAs was made mandatory in the Manipur Act, 1956 making a complete twirl and transformation towards democratization of the institution of Village Authority as a unit of local governance among the tribal. Democratization of VA was supposedly complete as such.

The making of a fused democratic chieftainship: Emerging features

The current process ought to go against and bid adieu to certain democratic features such as universal franchise, proper electioneering process, competition based on the free and fair election, and, citizen participation. Traditional tribal practices have re-surfaced within the Indian democratic culture. Through an election of such a malicious design, one could not forgo the thoughts of how justice, equality, and fraternity would have been maintained and practiced among the tribes through this form of democratic chieftainship. Some of the emerging features are:

  1. Political Parties are often seen to indulge in appeals during elections. However, unlike their counterparts in the valley region of Manipur where party candidates contested for election at the Village Panchayats as well as Zilla Parishads, none of the political parties (national as well as regional) take interests; have either contested or competed in the politics of the VA election. Politics of a tribal Village Authorities election follows after the clans and lineage, not political parties.
  2. In a typical tribal village instituted with a democratic Village Authority (especially found among the Nagas), decisions are made in a general meeting where the participants are men who are the head of the family. There is no prescribed body such as an electorate (based on Electoral Rolls published by the concerned State Election Commission) which constituted the Electoral College for such Village Authority election. Therefore, there is little or no room at all for participation by the common people.
  3. Village Authority or such kind of village institution involving any form of power and authority is totally reserved for men. Women are not involved where according to traditions involvement of women and children is considered to be immature and are paid less respect and honor in such cases. It assumes that men and only men are capable of political activities.
  4. The position of the chiefs, being permanent, is always that of an ex-officio VA Chairman, a salt of hereditary character added to it despite the Manipur Act, 1956 mandate. Transfer of Chieftainship to the eldest son or hereditary clans claiming to be the chiefs of the village, simplify the transfer of VA’s ex-officio chairman. It implies that only a chief is a capable person who can chair the Village Authority.
  5. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are hardly used or not used at all. In fact, Village Authority elections are a kind of elections where secret ballots are completely redundant.
  6. Bureaucrats & Commissioners constitute the authorizing body for the conduct of such election, not the state election commission or any other independent body. There is no mechanism for monitoring, controlling, and conduct of such an election. Election notifications are issued separately by the concerned DCs, making it a kind of flexible election which dates run into months and years.

Indian democracy or liberal democracy stands for equality of status, dignity, and fraternity. However, the current process involved exclusion, imperfect methods, and lack of rule of law leading to a limited form of participation:

  1. Limited to only the patriarch, as there are excluded sections of the village such as women, and not based on a universal franchise.
  2. Limited in terms of electioneering process; unlike the Valley region where the expertise of Election commissions are roped in; the hill areas do not involve an independent body for the conduct of the electioneering process.
  3. Limited in terms of the exercise of power or authority based not on the established rule of law of the land such as the written constitution or any other statutory laws.
  4. Limited in terms of household heads and not the members of each household.

Evolution of a new democratic culture:

The practice of election in India has its root in exercising the franchise to elect the MPs and MLAs, the vessels of power according to a federal schema- the Center & the state. This practice, initially, was not intended for use in delegating power at the local or village level. In 1992, the practice intruded to elect the local and village level authorities. Among the tribes, it was not quite foreseen for the inevitability of its practice, intruding in their village governance. The electioneering process was done at the ADC level, an intermediary powerful body between the village and the state. For the sake of stability of the system, participation of the people is forgone. It ought to be the most ideal form for the chiefs but goes against the ideal of democratic participation which is ‘maximum participation’. Since the methods are left to bureaucrats, no wonder one can assume that the elected members are affectively oriented towards them. The cognitive orientation toward the common people is to accept and paid deference to such an authority. The current culture of the election has overshadowed people’s evaluative orientation completely.

If the election to VA is a political activity towards self-governance and decentralization, the Village Authority is in itself a functioning political arena. In such a case, there cannot be anything called democratic in the true sense of the term. The VAs under the Manipur Act, 1956, or else the institutional arrangement under it withheld democratic participation. This is a very significant aspect of democratic culture introduced at the grass-root level or villages in the hills of Manipur.


The success or failure of the democratization process of traditional VA has both theoretical as well as empirical implications. In the North-Eastern part of India which is mainly dominated by the tribal communities, the success or failure depends on the nature of participation of the people as envisaged under the statutory law of the land. And in the process, if this attempt to democratize traditional institutions with the democratic process of installation i.e. selection and appointment succeed, then it will be a huge success of the democratization process in the country in general and the tribal belt of India or NEI in particular. However, the evidence gathered so far suggests that in order to maintain the traditional character, the election and appointments of VAs are made purely patriarchal. This is a serious drawback of the democratization process among the tribes. Females are excluded in the process. The election of Village Authorities in Manipur so far lacking proper democratic practices makes it a tale of two norms and two practices, where in the name of democracy the traditional chieftain reigns. Democratization as a process differs across societies and regions as it takes into account the ruler, the ruled, and their socio-political set-up or conditions and involves political transformation. Among the tribal societies which have different standards of values and practices, the inherent traditional socio-political environment or conditions are unlike those values cherished by liberal democratic society. The rulers i.e. the chiefs, by virtue of blood, inherit and possess values, power, and authority which are poles apart from those delegated to a democratic ruler. The general cynical attitude of the ruled i.e. the people which is marred by apathy, disinterestedness, and catharsis hardly conforming to a democratic behavior, could not be shown towards the Khullakpa or the chief. These distinctive and uncommon socio-political conditions make the democratization process harder. The challenge posed under these circumstances is whether to accept the tribal chieftainship which was home-grown as VA or accept the new democratic mechanism to elect the VA. Towards this endeavor, the traditional political set-up underwent a drastic change by the introduction of the VA system in 1956. Indeed, it is pre-supposed here that India’s democratization process toward the tribal will reach its zenith once their socio-political set-up becomes fully democratized. 

07 July 2022
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