What is "community spirit" in terms of money to a village project? Mizoram, where the people still live by their traditional code called "Tlawmngaihna", is an ideal place to find the answer to this important development question. Tlawmngaihna as Mizos say is the traditional code of social ethics, which a Mizo lives by. For want of a more accurate comparison, this writer roughly equates it in the form and spirit of what is known as Bushido, the unwritten code of the ancient Japanese warrior.
Tlawmngaihna means always being ready to assist others, and ensure on the other hand not to be a burden for others. It also means among other things, being courteous, courageous, humble and always willing to stand up for the good of the whole group. These values are acculturated into Mizos from childhood and although diluted now, still plays a major role in their community life. "The community spirit among the Mizos is something quite unique", Rahul Kumar, an IAS probationer who had been posted to one of the Blocks in Mizoram told the Grassroots Options. And this spirit provides the energy for running many village development projects, he said.
"I have never seen this kind of feeling among my own people or in other communities. Here people will do anything for the common good," he said while showing around a group of presspersons at the Thingsulthliah Rural Development Block.
This community feeling translates into concrete development inputs in a village project when the local people contribute free labour to build a road, a community hall or a water supply project, as the case may be, which is funded by the government.
In the village Thingsulthliah, for example, Village Council secretary, P C Laltana explained that they had managed to build a community hall many times larger than the one sanctioned for by the state government as the amount saved on labour costs was funneled back into the project, resulting in the village getting a much larger community hall than the one sanctioned for, and at a lower cost.
The state government, he said, had sanctioned a total of Rs.7.77 lakhs for building this community hall, out of which Rs.3.01 Lakhs was for purchasing materials and Rs.4.66 lakhs earmarked for the labour cost. The labour cost was used for buying more materials for a bigger hall while the village folk freely contributed the labour. "The government gives the money and the people contribute the labour. We save a lot of money on labour charge and everyone in the village has to give free labour for whatever project we have in the village," said Laltana. When the Village Council calls for free labour everyone responds, he said. Considering that the state has to import everything right from sand, stones, cement etc from outside the state, the projects seemed worth the money spent to build it.
The village development committee also successfully runs a water supply scheme, a project which pumps up water to a height of over 400 meters above. It is managed on their own with each household paying a monthly sum of Rs.20 toward the electricity bill.
J Meirion Llyod, a British missionary who served this place, noticed this spirit and wrote about it in his book, 'History of the Church in Mizoram: Harvest in the Hills', wherein he narrated the interesting beginnings of the first High School in Aizawl. He writes that during the early 1940s the Mizos wanted a High School for their children to continue their education but lacking in resources could not build one. There was no assistance from the then British administrator who did not think it necessary for the tribes to have higher education than the primary levels.
But the Mizos found a way to overcome that. In the later half of the Second World War when the Japanese pressed on the Burmese borders, the British in preparation for the worst made a monthly allowance of Rs. Two per adult male to encourage the Mizos to resist the Japs. Llyod says that the Mizo villagers led by the chiefs dedicated their monthly allowance of Rs. 2 each to realize their dream of establishing a
The 150 kms long Aizawl-Lunglei road, which was dug every inch of the way by people's free labour in the 1950s is another case which stands testimony to this unique Mizo tradition. When the young Government of India, which had estimated that this road would cost around Rs.1.10 crore was on the verge of giving up the idea of building this strategic road, the local administrators in Aizawl acquainted with the ways of the Mizo people decided to make an appeal for voluntary labour to build the road. Thousands responded on that day, and the voluntary work parties continued till the entire stretch of most difficult terrain was completed about three years later. Late Lalbiakthanga wrote about this in his book, 'The Mizos: A Study in Racial Personality'. The Statesman (February 8, 1953) recorded the story of how the "Mizos had built a road that is worth one crore". The then Union home minister, Dr Katyer, who toured the Lushai Hills in 1953 was so impressed that he declared that wherever he went he "would hold this up as an ideal before
The strong community network makes policing easier too, which is reflected in the fact that among the northeastern states, Mizoram boasts one of the highest number of convictions. Very few murders go unsolved, claim policemen.
Said ex-DIG (Range) U N B Rao: "I find it amazing. We have been reading and studying about community policing. I've been here for a year and I find that this is where community policing exists naturally." People here fully cooperate and support the police and policing, he said.
However, modern life with its pursuit of materialistic way of life has eroded the true ethos of this community philosophy. Many concerned Mizos opine that the practice of Tlawmngaihna has become artificial and is fast fading away; though it surfaces to create a strong bond when disaster strikes as in a natural calamity or a death in the family. Mizo elders say that in the old days the village life depended on the Tlawmngaihna of its people, right from the braves to protect the village from plunderers to making "help parties" for assisting the widows, issueless and handicapped in maintaining their jhum fields. It means sacrificing one's whole being for the benefit of others, said a young Mizo. When asked to explain Tlawmngaihna, Mizos love to tell the tale, for example, of Taitesena, a legendary Mizo brave, who never let a call for help go unheeded, who shunned any attempt to reward him for his feats and one who, legends say, never ate more than three handfuls of rice per meal. Taitesena's story seems to indicate the high regard for the bravery and courage of a warrior fighting against all odds. But more important, it also seems to reflect a traditional reverence for thrift and frugality, to be in a position to assist others and a disdain for self aggrandisements.
Grassroots Options interviewed Sangkimi, a college lecturer who teaches Mizo literature to explain Tlawmngaihna and its relevance for the Mizo people today. "Social service, helping each other individually, and all that is very commendable. Mizos do go out of their way to help each other and even others. Other tribes and people envy us this community spirit. But Tlawmngaihna has to be redefined to our situation now. We have to ask whether this selfless philosophy of our forefathers and foremothers to do the best for one's people and neighbours is reflected in our socio-political life. I'm sorry to say, I feel it is not and this is where we, particularly those people in powerful positions, have to make a conscious effort to become really tlawmngai and start working selflessly for the benefit of the people," she said.
Sangkimi, who studied philosophy, compares Tlawmngaihna to a simple form of Taoism. "To do good without hope of any kind of reward. To do one's best, to endure, to tolerate and accept life as it comes," is what it means, she opined.
Mizos themselves feel that they must rally around to harness this grand traditional heritage to make it more meaningful than just doing the socially obligatory things like visiting the bereaved families or helping during a disaster. Most feel that they must not allow the rigours of chasing the glitter of modern life kill this unique community spirit which many social scientists believe can actually be tapped to create the synergy to bring about a truly democratic and egalitarian society. It could be a model for the rest of the world if Mizos can make it happen.