The other side of Inner Line: interpreting custom in legal terms


By Pradip Phanjoubam

The history of the Inner Line provides some rare insights into present frictions between hills and valley, an antagonism which is, as James C. Scott notes in his influential “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland Southeast Asia”, a pattern throughout the South East Asia massif, a huge land mass beginning from Northeast India and running through the entire mountain regions of South East Asia and extending up to the south and south west regions of China, what he calls Zomia, a term coined by Dutch scholar Willem van Schendel in 2002 to refer to this region.

In a nutshell, unequal development was pre-destined by geography in these little theatres of hill-valley conflict. Because of the fertile river basins and easier communication, the valleys are where agricultural surpluses become a reality, and thereby the seeds of State formations germinate. The State after all, as Frederick Engels tells us in “The Origin of Family Private Property and State” (a classic which is now available for free download on the internet), can be interpreted as a bureaucratic mechanism to manage this surplus. This surplus was rare, if at all, in the Zomian hills, where subsistent agriculture, hunting and food gathering remained primarily the mode of economy. That is, till the advent of modern times, in the case of Northeast, when under the dispensation of the modern Indian State, a service economy (in particular of government services) came to be dominant – a blessing in many ways, for it has somewhat levelled out much of the existing inequalities in society determined by geography.

Scott’s treatment of the subject is often postured very provocatively. As for instance, many of his series of lectures on the subject prior to the publication of this book in question, including the one he delivered in the London School of Economics on May 22, 2008 (audio of full lecture available on internet), were titled “Why Civilisations Can’t Climb Hills: A Political History of Statelessness in Southeast Asia”. Otherwise, his theory of Zomia has been, as we all know, generally applauded and admired in the academic world. Nonetheless, while his identification of the genesis of the hill-valley frictions in Zomia is well received, his theory has been challenged for the portrayal of the nature of this friction.

Those of us who have read the book knows that in this friction, he describes the non-State hillmen as State evaders, who are abhorrent of the organised, hierarchic, regimented discipline of the bureaucracy which is a feature of the State, and would rather continue in their independent, though anarchic existence. They therefore consciously not only flee the State but also resist emergence of State like characteristics in their own communities. This is where many scholars disagree, and curiously many of these scholars, essentially Western scholars who are now looking at the Northeast with new interest (thanks to Scott), use the region as their alibi. While all agree there were clearly differentiated State and non-State spaces before the advent of modern economy, these scholars contend that though the State did not evolve in the hills, the latter were not always abhorrent of the State, and were in fact in envy of the security and economic abundance the State afforded its citizens. In other words the non-State also always had aspired to be State. They also did not flee the State as Scott presumed, but in their own ways, extracted benefits from the State.

This brief primer of Scott’s theory and its critiques is just to create the background against which I want to discuss a peculiar system in the pre-colonial State’s interaction with the non-State in Assam, for the valuable insights it provides to all valley-hill frictions, including in Manipur.

The Ahom kingdom was surrounded by non-State spaces of the wild hills where the Abors, Daflas, Singphos, Miris, Bhutias, Nagas etc lived. Here too, as sketched by Scott, the State and non-State spaces followed widely different economic modes – settled and very productive agriculture in the valley-State and subsistent existence in the non-State hills. There were commerce between the hills and valley at all other times at different haats or foothill markets, but in the lean seasons, there would be raids from the hills to capture food grains and often slave agricultural labour and others skilled in various economic activities. The Ahom rulers then would organise punitive expeditions to the recalcitrant hill villages, but it would be discovered these villagers were not keen on a confrontation and have abandoned their villages to take shelter elsewhere in the higher reaches of the mountain. The expedition party would then burn down the villages, recover whatever is found of the loots the hill raiders carried off earlier, and then return.

After the expedition has concluded, in no time the destroyed villages would be rebuilt, and sooner than later the haats at the foothills would open and the usual commerce between the hills and valley would commence, until the next lean season when raids from the hills could be expected. The cycle would hence be perpetrated. This sordid cyclic drama of war and peace of life in Zomia is probably what is also foretold in the popular Meitei verse which children sing in play: “nom nom sagai tong, chanaba leite takhel thang” (play and make merry while there is plenty, but if there is nothing to eat, pick up your swords). This in essence was the cruel predicament pre-determined by the hill-valley geography.

Probably in recognition of the inevitability of this geographical destiny, the Ahom State and the non-State hills through the aeons of living together evolved various mechanisms for conflict resolution. Of particular interest is the posa system of the Ahoms. By an understanding between the Ahom rulers and various hill chiefs, cultivators in the foothills would pay a percentage of their agricultural produces annually to the hill chiefs in their vicinity for the promise that they would not make raids in the valley through the course of the year. In other words, the Ahoms allowed a degree of suzerainty of certain hill chiefs over some valley villages, thereby avoiding the need for the perpetual destructive wars cycle. It was a system of multiple and overlapping suzerainty in which the Ahom rulers were recognized as the suzerains of hills and plains, and on smaller local canvases, hill chiefs were allowed to be suzerains over nearby valley villages on definite agreed terms. These terms too changed periodically.

When the British took over Assam in 1826, they inherited all of what was once the Ahom’s, including the posa system. But in the British vocabulary, there was nothing to describe the posa except as “blackmail”. What had then become a custom symbolising an amicable hill-valley relationship evolved through necessity, was suddenly given a legalistic meaning. As Assamese scholar, Bodhisattva Kar points out, with an expanding tea industry, the British soon learnt the benefits of allowing this “blackmail” to continue through the back door and avoid skirmishes. They also soon gave it a reinterpretation by which to turn the table of this “blackmail” equation against the hill chiefs.

An Inner Line was drawn to segregate the State from non-State, law from no-law, hill from valley, tax-paying region from non-paying ones, capital from pre-capital regions, (Kar) and was finally made official in 1873 by the Bengal Inner Line Regulation. There were campaigns against the Inner Line at the time, especially by tea planters and other business prospectors in the hills, who wanted the government to extend its law to all of the hills so they can benefit from the protection, but the British government saw no reason for it immediately. They were supreme revenue managers and were not eager to extend their presence in territories which did not promise them revenue, or else pose immediate security threats. Take this example to illustrate this point. In 1826 after defeating the Burmese and eliminating a Burmese threat from the east convincingly, the British even withdrew its regular Army from Assam which they had brought in during the 1826 war, on the logic that it was not cost effective, as no formidable threats to its territory remained in Assam. Instead they chose to manage Assam with a people’s militia, an ingenious innovation of the British administration, and raised the Cachar Levy in 1835. This militia, we all know, ultimately grew and became, first the Assam Military Police, and then the formidable Assam Rifles at the end of the First World War.

So the Inner Line stayed, prohibiting free interaction between valley and hills. The British administration also monetise the posa system, and the annual customary payment in kind in terms of agricultural produces was ended and instead the payments were made as fixed sums of money. This tied the hill villages to the vagaries of the market, its inflation, commodities fluctuations etc, besides formalising and bureaucratising the tradition, exposing the hill chiefs to red-tapism, corruption etc of the government’s clerical world, until finally they came to be held at ransom under the posa.

The British were ultimately to extend their law directly to the hills beyond the Inner Line, taking over the Lushai Hills and the Naga Hills, but the developments that led to this policy necessity is not within the scope of this essay to cover. Hopefully however, this article would have given IFP readers some material at least to ponder on how, unimaginative transportation of age old customs evolved through experience to ensure social harmony, into rigid legal spheres can cause dangerous disruptions of relations between traditional societies. The bitterness in the hill-divide in Manipur probably can also be seen and understood from this vantage, hopefully giving it some sobering balm for the benefit of all.


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