Let's just admit that it is quite impossible to adequately prepare for fieldwork to a place that you have never visited before and few have written on. When I ventured into the borderlands at the intersection of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, I was ready to learn a lot about life in the hills, about Mizoram's political movements, about Manipur's multiple and overlapping insurgencies, and Chin State's position within a liberalizing Myanmar. I was wholly unaware however, that even finding an adequate name to call this group of people is politically contentious. This is one of the few places that I know of where the basic question of what to call ones' group (ethnic, national, "tribal," etc.) is a political act. It indicates your own geographical position, your political affiliations, and any number of other identity characteristics. These are not small debates, they are central to political movements for autonomy and self-determination; tied explicitly and implicitly to insurgent movements, party politics, identity debates, and civil society.
As part of an article/dissertation chapter on nomenclature and power, I have tried to come up with a basic typology of different ethnonyms and their use across the entirety of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi sphere (itself a rather cumbersome and contentious phrase, which I am shortening to KCMZ in the dissertation).
Here, I call those terms meant to refer to all Kuki-Chin-Mizo peoples without tribal/clan distinctions of geographic specificity as “umbrella terms.” Terms that include all KCMZ peoples, but that are geographically bounded by existing international or domestic/administrative boundaries are “middle-range.” While “short-range terms” can refer to any tribal/clan distinction, on this list I only include those communities that display a large degree of political activity and have rejected both umbrella and middle-range terms. To add another element of confusion, many of the terms used can move between levels of inclusivity/exclusivity.
*This is all based on 6.5 months of intensive fieldwork in the areas inhabited by KCMZ peoples, making use of 100s of interviews, participant-observation, participant-mapping, and archival work.
Zo (1): In its first usage, Zo is used in reference to a mythical progenitor of the nation, and inclusive of all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speaking peoples. Since 2015, some have included Kachin peoples in northern Myanmar in this grouping. This is more often articulated in Mizo as Zo hnathlak, or branches of Zo. This is the usage used most often by ZoRO (Zo Reunification Organization), which aims to reunite the Zo people culturally, socially, and politically. ZoRO’s northern front in southern Manipur uses the term exclusively in this sense.
Zo (2): In its second usage, Zo is used to mean highlands, highlander, or related to highlands (i.e. as an adjective). This is most often encountered understanding of the term in Mizoram, and used by the Mizoram branches of ZoRO. It is inclusive of all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speaking peoples, and occasionally Kachin people as well, although I can find no example of Kachin using the term themselves. It does NOT refer to neighboring communities, such as Bru, Chakma, and Naga.
Zomi: As an umbrella term, Zomi is used in Manipur and northern Chin State as an alternative to Zo (1). It is used explicitly as an alternative to Kuki in Manipur and to Chin in Chin State. Supporters of this term argue that Zomi is an indigenous ethnonym and, as such, is more appropriate than the supposedly foreign Kuki. Supporters also argue that Zomi is not dominated by a specific subgroup, tribe, or linguistic group; therefore, it has the most opportunity to unite a diverse range of people.
Mizo: Although more often used in the middle to short range, Mizo is occasionally used as an umbrella term, more or less synonymous with Zo (2). This usage was most popular during the insurgency in Mizoram, led by the Mizo National Front (MNF). This is rarely encountered, but the political and economic success of Mizoram as a state and the common use of the Mizo language as a lingua franca play a major role. Chakma activists fighting for basic political rights in Mizoram have recently referred to themselves as Mizo, in the sense of highland-dwelling peoples, translating the term Jumma Jati from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Kuki: When used as an umbrella term, Kuki is in direct conflict with Zomi. The Kuki National Organization (KNO) uses the term as both an umbrella term and a middle-range term. Supporters of this term note that Kuki is more recognizable and more widely used than Zomi. They point to its use in the Manipuri Chronicles as evidence of its long-term application to their community. In the KNO’s chronology, Kuki precedes the use of Chin and Mizo, a chronology largely supported by the available evidence.
Chin: While no one denies that Chin is a Burmese word, the indigenous communities of Chin State use the term usually unproblematically. Its use as an umbrella term is rare, but it is occasionally heard.
Tlangmi: This is a rather under-utilized term, meaning something like Mountaineer. Its exact application is difficult to delineate, but it is normally used as a depoliticized version of Zo (2). In theory it could, but rarely does, apply to other highland dwelling peoples, including Nagas, Khasi, and Kachin/Jingpaw.
Zomi (1): In Chin State, Zomi is used as a middle-range term to refer to all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speakers in Chin State, only. This sense of the term is used by some Zomi organizations in Chin State and the Kalay-Kabaw valley. It use is largely confined to a community also termed Tedim (Chin).
Zomi (2): In Manipur, Zomi can be used to refer to Kuki-Chin-Mizo (hereafter KCM) peoples in Manipur only. While many supporters of the term might hold onto Zomi as an umbrella term, they recognize the difficulty of changing the nomenclature across state or international borders; therefore, they have scaled back the application of the term for practical considerations.
Mizo: In Mizoram, many will argue that Mizo can be applied to all KCM speakers residing in Mizoram, especially if they can speak Mizo in addition to whatever their mother language might be. Most often, the majority Lushai residing in central Mizoram apply this term to smaller communities, often without their consent.
Kuki: Much like the Zomi supporters, Kuki users usually apply the term Kuki to all KCM speakers in Manipur. This is done for practical purposes, with groups like the KNO noting that they felt they needed to focus on their communities in Manipur first, and let the next generation worry about unity across state/country lines. This restriction in usage comes after the Mizo Peace Accord, which effectively ended irredentist movements by these communities.
Chin: In Chin State, Chin is almost always used in the middle sense to refer to those KCM communities in Chin State and adjoining areas of Myanmar.
Lai: In Chin State, Lai can be used as a synonym with Chin, with some arguing that other tribal names are actually sub-divisions of Lai. Much of this appears to be the result of confusion, because of Lai political dominance in Chin State. It is unsurprising, therefore, that only Lai-speakers use Lai in the middle-range, whereas all other tribal groups use it is a most more restricted sense.
Zomi: While Zomi ideally refers to a middle-range or umbrella term, most of the people who have adopted this term are from a particular linguistic/cultural group: Paite in Manipur and Tedim in Chin State. While its use as a short range term in Manipur is rare, in Chin State and the Kalay-Kabaw valley, it is very common, especially for outsiders to refer to a Zomi language or Zomi people as a subgroup of Chin.
Mizo: Those communities not part of the Lushai tribe/clan or whose first language is not Duhlian, usually use Mizo to refer specifically to those people specifically, and almost never to themselves. While the term emerged as an umbrella term, after the insurgency period in Mizoram, its usage was restricted. Smaller, non-Mizo communities have to further restrict the term to maintain their own identity. These include Mara, Paite, Hmar, and Lai in Mizoram.
Mara: Mara language speakers living in Mizoram largely reject the term Mizo as a middle-range term, seeing it as a threat to their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness. Previously, the term Lakher was applied to community, but it was later rejected as a Mizo-imposed term, with Mara replacing it in all official contexts. Mara have a degree of political influence in Mizoram through the Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC).
Lai: While Lai are dominant in Chin State, in Mizoram they represent a minority population currently experience of a significant amount of linguistic shift, with many young Lai only fluent in Mizo. Politically, many Lai reject the term Mizo as a middle-range term. Like the Mara, they were previously called Pawi by Mizo speakers. They also have a degree of power in the state through the Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC).
Paite/Tedim: Paite and Tedim refer to the same linguistic group, known as Paite in India (foothill dwellers) and Tedim in Chin State. In both countries Paite/Tedim have largely adopted the term Zomi, but some maintain the use of Paite or Tedim, especially in Mizoram, where Zomi sounds distinctly Manipuri in origin and irrelevant to Mizoram’s political/demographic concerns.
Hmar: Hmar (meaning “north”) are a diverse subgroup of the KCM peoples, and have many political divisions. Hmar living in Aizawl and surrounding areas often accept Mizo as a middle-range term, while Hmar in the northern areas of Mizoram, far removed from the state capital, have at various times asserted their rights as a distinct community. A short-lived insurgency movement resulted in the creation of the Sinlung Hills Development Council (SHDC) as a step towards a Hmar Autonomous District Council in the north of Mizoram. There are Hmar armed groups in Manipur fighting under both Zomi and Kuki groups, as well as under their own name. In Assam, Hmar insurgents demand separate recognition as well, without any apparent reference to KCMZ unity.
This is, of course, just a first attempt, and given the complexity and confusion on the ground, let alone those that an outsider brings to the situation, I am sure there are things that can be phrased more elegantly, and perhaps even options that I have missed. This confusion and the contestation embedded in these terms is likely why I have seen no such attempt at this kind of nomenclature/ethnonym categorization before. Still, the categories seem to make sense and may, with some revision, be a useful resource for others working in similar areas.
Do let me know what you think!
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.