Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ropuiliani in Mizo Historiography: a Postmortem - H. Vanlalhruaia

The Lushai Hills (now Mizoram) were incorporated into the colonial empire by the last part of the 19th century. Indeed, resistance against colonialism in Lushai Hills was not less intense than in any other part of India. The immediate result of colonial expansion was an increase in widow chiefs. Military officer J. Shakespear noted the condition of the South Lushai Hills in 1892: “It will be noticed that all these villages except Mualthuam and Aithur are now ruled by Widows”.1 The remaining Mizo Chiefs, including widow chiefs, were now in a dilemma and forced to negotiate with and make certain adjustments towards the colonial government. It was under this critical situation that many women Chiefs, including Ropuiliani, emerged in the colonial archives. In the post-colonial and contemporary rethinking of the history of resistance against colonialism in Lushai Hills, Ropuiliani has become an ethnic idol of patriotism, whereas other women (Pi Buki, Lalhlupuii, Rothangpuii, Vanhnuaithangi, Laltheri, Darbilhi, Neihpuithangi, Pawibawia Nu, Dari, Thangpuii, Pakuma Rani, Zawlchuaii and many others) who also struggled against colonialism remain comparatively unknown.2

This paper wishes to raise questions concerning the post-colonial ethnic recollection of the past that has repeatedly focused on an individual character--a female chief named Ropuiliani. Why are Mizo historians so interested in Ropuiliani, but not Dabilhi or other female Chiefs? Is it because there was not much to celebrate in history other than Ropuiliani? What motivates our interest? Is our interest in the history of Ropuiliani truly just a historical one or is our interest in her history a symbol of ‘ethnic loyalty’? How can one account for the reappearances of Ropuiliani in Mizo historiography? Why have the roles of many ‘other women chiefs’ remained relatively unexplored, though their potential contribution in resisting colonialism appears so obviously in both colonial texts and oral traditions? History should tell us; but often it does not. These questions have hardly been asked, let alone answered, in Mizo historiography. 

My curiosity about the rethinking of Ropuiliani is particularly drawn from Gayatri Spivak's most influential essay on the Rani of Sirmur, the wife of the ruler of a hill-state in Himachal Pradesh.3 In this essay, Spivak demonstrates that the Rani of Simur emerges in the colonial archives ‘only when she is needed in the space of imperial production’.4 The British East India Company attempted to control the northern frontier of Shimla hills though various settlements and courtly political affairs. “It is within this political and diplomatic framework, where the Company attempted to pacify and subordinate the hill-states through their “Settlement”, that the Rani appears briefly in the Company’s archives as ‘a king’s wife and a weaker vessel”.5 Similarly, I argue that Ropuiliani emerged over and over again for a ‘purpose’ and that she survives in Mizo historiography for the production of those who need ‘her’ for their own respective agendas.

In this paper, my interest lies neither in narrating the oft-told history of Ropuiliani, nor in re-producing her stories. Rather, I would like to problematize the historiography of Ropuiliani in relation to the way in which Mizo scholars imagine and categorize Ropuiliani in history. The main objective of my paper is thus to engage or to inject a more skeptical view towards the historical narratives of Ropuiliani within the larger framework of women history of Mizoram.

I shall begin my discussion with the work of N. Chatterjee, “Position and Status of Mizo Women in the earlier Mizo Society”. Before the publication of this monograph in 1975, there was hardly any research available on Mizo women's history.6 The historical relationships between Mizo women and colonialism have been largely overlooked by scholars. More general studies on Mizo women were carried out by some historians and their investigation into women's roles were largely confined.7 The reconstruction of the history of women, most remarkably in politics, was largely overlooked. Consequently, women and their role in the freedom struggle against colonialism were neglected until the pre-insurgency period (1947-1966), when the reconstruction of ethno-national identity was taking place.

During the course of such ethnic identity reconstruction, the call for an ‘ethno-hero’ from the past went hand in hand with the revival of ethnic consciousness. Eventually, the Mizo National Front (MNF) drew their inspiration from the Mizo warriors (Pasaltha) who had fought against British colonialism in the Lushai Hills.8 In due course, the Pasaltha, such as Zampuimanga, Chawngbawla, Taitesena, Vanapa, Saizahawla, Khuangchera etc., were incorporated by MNF standing troops as symbols of ‘ethnic patriotism’. Surprisingly, not a single woman’s name was included. This is evident also in the historiography of popular struggles in other parts of India, where women were “subsumed...women under the category of man thereby ensuring their invisibility, and created [creating] [sic] the myth of women’s passivity, on the other. It gave rise to the belief that men alone were capable of militant action, of leadership, of changing the course of event- in short of making history”. 9

In fact, the Mizo Insurgency broke out after the first women’s movement (i.e. Mizo Hmeichhe Tangrual) was initiated in the post-colonial period. Ethnic nationalism can at times be emancipating; at other times it is a reactionary force of the subjugation of women. Since its inception, the insurgency organisation (Mizo National Front) was entirely dominated by men. Despite this, many women embraced ethnic nationalism and participated in the insurgency movement, though the actual practice of ethno-nationalism was reserved for men. Some women internalize patriarchal thinking within the politics of over-determined ethnic nationalism.10 Recent histories of insurgency movements have largely dismissed their contributions. Insurgency in Mizo hill thus, appears as a patriarchal war against the larger National State for the restoration of ethnic, patriarchal order in the society. Women are subsumed under the category of ‘Mizo Nationalism’; this had ambiguous effects, not only on the status of women (by confining them as mothers to the home), but also in the broader sense of ignoring women's issues themselves. It also reaffirmed the boundaries of culturally acceptable feminine conduct and exerted pressure on women to articulate their gender interests within the terms of reference set by ethnic nationalist discourse.

Women and politics soon became separate spaces. Mizo historian Sangkima notes in this context that “there was a great change in the nature of women’s participation in politics after 1966”.11 The MNF movement (1966-1986) in the Mizo hills was not only a masculine construction that ignored women's agency in history, but also one that brought about the downfall of women’s participation in present politics. But the present condition of women and politics is not only the result of the insurgency movement (1966-1986), but also of the history of colonial patriarchy that separated women from the political space.12 However, this is beyond the present objective of my paper.

In 1988, the recollection of women’ role in history was initiated by ethnic leaders in their conference at Champhai, an Indo-Burma border town in Mizoram. The meeting created the ethnic “Ropuiliani Award”. Rani Gandiliu, a Nagaland lady freedom fighter was the recipient.13 A Mizo woman hence emerged because she was needed in the space of ethnic identity production.

In the following years, historians explicitly focused their attention on either insurgency or colonial history in which the role of women as historical agents was almost left out. Surprisingly, in 1990, the need to reconstruct women’s role in resistance against colonialism was noticed by the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education and Department of Public Administration at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). Then the first seminar on the “Role of Ropuiliani in the Freedom Struggle” was organized on June 27, 1990. The seminar paper was published later in 2005 which included nine empirical essays by a number of scholars.14 For the first time, the history of women’s resistance against colonialism was brought to the notice of a small academic community.

The book stressed the political nature of colonialism as “oppressive” and “repressive”; the impacts of colonialism, which affected men and women in different ways, were overlooked.15 Females who were often subjected to what has been called a double colonization, where they were discriminated against not only for their position as colonized but also as women, was not recognized.16 Ropuiliani, a woman who measured up to the ‘male standard’ in the struggle against imperialism provokes post-colonial scholars curiosity as to why women played such a role.

Then the family background of Ropuiliani as a part of a ruling chief family which enjoyed better status than a commoner was highlighted. She inherited her qualities and her anti-colonial feelings from her father as well as her husband. This construction is strongly influenced by the colonial prejudice that wrongly defined Mizo women as passive and subsidiary inferiors. Her consciousness as a woman was entirely ignored. In the end, one may observe that collections of these articles reflect Ropuiliani as someone speaking through a colonial patriarchy which has been echoed and celebrated by the post-colonial ethnic patriarchy in the name of ‘Mizo patriotism’. While there is of course much disagreement concerning the nature and the impact of colonialism, at least a careful re-reading of colonial sources with other available sources may help us understand the gender complexities in colonial Lushai Hills.

One of the contributors of the seminar, Laltluangliana Khiangte, continued to unearth colonial archives and oral sources in the succeeding years. His efforts materialized in the historical play “Lalnu Ropuiliani”, which earned fame in the Mizo literary circle from 1994 onwards.17 The book was eventually incorporated into a college text book of North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). The character of Ropuiliani as a Chief was built from various angles, from noble to an “autocratic nature”, as her efforts to protect freedom from colonial exploitation were highlighted.

In 1994, PR Kyndiah (then Governor of Mizoram) brought out another interesting book called “Mizo Freedom Fighters”, in which the reconstruction of the legend of Ropuiliani against British colonialism is framed within the nationalist project of the recollection of the war of liberation.18 PR Kyndiah’s work was followed by the publication of “Mizo Chief and Chiefdom” by Suhash Chaterjee.19 Basing it on the on colonial archives, he successfully uncovered the biographies of the Mizo female chiefs from the 19th century to first half of the 20th century.20 Out of 104 chiefs, many chiefs were female and who were either widows of Chiefs or independent in Mizoram. Chaterjee goes beyond other writers by saying that it was not only the male chiefs but also the women chiefs who played key roles in the political process of governing Lushai Hills.

A detailed, empirical work on the history of women’s resistance ‘Tlawm Ve Lo Lalnu Ropuiliani’ was published in 1999 by local writer and poet Lalsangzuali Sailo.21 Focusing on an individual character, the past is perceived instrumentally, investigated and selected, to prove a former glory and to highlight great achievements. This is done to confirm a political project for the future of the Mizo society, without giving credit to the agency of Mizo women. Such projections were made, historian Forbes notes, “because her [Ropuiliani] accomplishments were significant by male standards”. 22

Later, in 2002, Sangkima, a Mizo historian, revived a fresh study on women and politics in Mizo history starting from pre-colonial times to the recent era.23 The first part of his essay brought out a case study of female widow chiefs in the pre-colonial period. He implicitly credited ‘tribal patriarchy’ when noting that women “become rulers or Chieftainess not as a matter of right but as a matter of chance”.24 He skipped the colonial period on the grounds that there were no women who actively participated in politics in colonial Lushai Hills. He then finally gave credit to post-colonial women as “they joined active politics only because of their desire to uplift the status of Mizo women in the society”.25 Despite this, he fails to mention that it was the colonial rulers who were repressive to women, so that the number of female chiefs decreased in colonial Lushai Hills, especially when the patriarchal Mizo customary law was drafted in 1927 for the production of colonial administration.26 The immediate impact of colonialism in Lushai Hills marked a radical transformation of women and politics in Mizoram. British colonial administrators soon assumed that women were incapable of political leadership and provided political roles for men only. These colonial chiefs were given complete authority and the traditional decision making power for both sexes was ignored.

Thus, these works reached different conclusions at times but all of them had much in common. They leave us with only a partial picture of women's experiences in resisting colonialism in the Lushai Hills. Hence numerous tales of women's struggles, negotiation, resistance, pain, and sacrifices, and, most importantly, contributions, are hidden in the background. The shortcomings in these writings could be in part due to an absence of an alternative approach to define the experiences unique to women in history.

Thus we find that Ropuiliani emerges over and over again in Mizo historiography. She first emerged in the colonial archive for the production of colonial knowledge and for the exercising of colonial power in the Lushai Hills. Secondly, she re-emerged in the post-colonial period, especially when various discourses on the reformulation of ethnic identity were taking place. Her role has been used to justify a post-colonial ‘ethnic nationalism’. Thirdly, she continues to emerge in recent historiography that vigorously clamours around the ‘Mizo nation’ with much popular backing and enthusiasm. The historiographies of Ropuiliani continue to show us the ‘revolutionary movement’ or the ‘war of liberation’ as the only means of being ‘patriotic’ or ‘nationalist’. In other words, Ropuiliani's history is the glorification of the revolutionary movement or of ‘heroic history’ rather than other forms of resistance.27 Needless to say, it overshadows other forms of resistance when the majority of scholars make universalized assertions that leave out much of the ‘other women’ in Mizo historiography. The real problem lies with the ‘grand narrative’ historical approach and the tendency to generalize for all on the basis of the actions of a few. Such impressions need to be reframed and enlarged so that the past is not merely judged through grand narrative history. The greatest challenge to the historians and scholars of Mizoram is thus to incorporate the various experiences of women from all classes in the broader framework of Mizo history. The present brief essay, though partial and incomplete, is a request to these scholars to note the critical challenge of framing a new analysis that will address the various historical complexities shared by different groups of women in Mizo history.

1. J. Shakepeare, Report Concerning Ropuilieni Widow of Vandula and Her Son Lalthuama at Present Prisoners in Lunglei, 1984. Exhibit list, Serial No.28, Government Archive, Aizawl, Mizoram.
2. For further details, please see H.Vanlalhruaia & Hmingthanzuali; Women and Resistance in Colonial Lushai Hills”, in K.N Sethi (ed); Resistance Against Colonialism: The Life and Times of Veer Surendra Sai, Shivalick Prakashan, Delhi, 2009.
3. Gaytri Spivak, The Rani of Sirmur: An Essays in Reading the Archives, History and Theory, Vol. 24, No.3, 1985. pp.247-72.
4. Ibid.
5. Tony Ballantyne; Archive, Discipline, State: Power and Knowledge in South Asian Historiography, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 3, No.1 (June 2001). pp.87-105.)
6. N. Chatterjee; Position and Status of Mizo Women in the earlier Mizo Society, Tribal Research Institute, Government of Mizoram, 1975.
7. For example, please see L. Malsawmi, Mizoram Kohhran Hmeichhe Chanchin, Synod Publication Board, Aizawl, Mizoram, 1973, Set On A Hill Light on The Lushai Hills After Forty Years Report of Women’s Work, Baptist Church of Mizoram, 1993 and others.
8. For further reading, please see Nirmal Nibedon; The Dagger Brigade, p.
9. Indra Munshi Saldanha; Tribal Women in the Warli Revolt: 1945-47 ‘Class’ and ‘Gender’ in the Left Perspective, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXI, No.17, 1986.p.
10. For further reading please see Denise Adele Segor;Tracing the persistent impulse of a bedrock nation to survive within the state of India: Mizo women's response to war and forced migration, Fielding Graduate University, 2006.
11. Sangkima; Women and Politics in Mizoram through the Ages, Historical Journal of Mizoram, Vol. III. Issue I, Mizo Historical Association, 2002. p.35.
12. H.Vanlalhruaia & Hmingthanzuali; Women and Resistance in Colonial Lushai Hills”, in K.N Sethi (ed); Resistance Against Colonialism: The Life and Times of Veer Surendra Sai, Shivalick Prakashan, Delhi, 2009.
13. The ethnic leaders collaborated under the organization of Zo Re-Unification Organization (ZORO) The organization was formed with the aim of promoting the integration and unification of all Mizo groups around the globe who were actually divided by colonialism in three countries of India, Bangladesh and Burma.PR Kyndiah; Mizo Freedom Fighters, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1994. p.10
14. Lalneihzovi; Role of Ropuiliani In the Freedom Struggle, Aizawl, Mizoram, 2005.
15. Ibid.p.xiii
16. Feminism and post-colonialism,, accessed on 5 December 2008.
17. Laltluangliana Khiangte; Lalnu Ropuiliani, Aizawl, LTL Publications 1994.
18. PR Kyndiah ; Mizo Freedom Fighters, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1994.
19. Suhash Chaterjee; Mizo Chiefs and the Chiefdom, 1995.
20. Ibid.p. 81-171
21. Lalsangzuali Sailo; Tlawm Ve Lo Lalnu Ropuiliani, Aizawl, 1999.
22. Geraldine Forbes; Women in Modern India, Cambridge University Press,2004 (3rd reprinted) p.I
23. Sangkima; Women and Politics in Mizoram Through the Ages, Historical Journal of Mizoram, Vol-III, Issue-I, 2002.p.23
24. Ibid.35
25. Ibid. 35.
26. N.E. Parry, A Monograph on Lushai Customs and Ceremonies, T.R.I, Aizawl, Mizoram, 1988
27. Such historical writing not only distorts our history, but also conveys a message to the student of history that one could be patriotic only when he or she uses violence against the oppressor. Other form of resistances (case of Darbilhi, Lalhlupuii and Pi Buki) in a peaceful means could potentially contribute to the richness of Mizo history.

H. Vanlalhruaia recently received his Ph.D. from the University Of Hyderabad, and loves writing, history and the culture of North East India. He wrote and presented this paper at a history seminar on ‘Ropuiliani and Zakapa’ organised by Govt. Hnahthial College, Hnahthial, Mizoram, on the 8th & 9th December, 2011.

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  1. Miss, i post chu thuhran ni se, i blog hi ropui ka ti thlawt e.

  2. Great essay! Kudos to the scholar for bringing to light another perspective!