Legacy of Indirect Rule and Legal Pluralism: Informal Governance through Customary Law in Nagaland

Posted: 15 Nov 2022

See all articles by N. K. Das

N. K. Das

Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India (ASI)

Date Written: November 14, 2012


With the help of ethnographic data collected among the ‘Zounuo-Keyhonuo’ tribe (Southern Angamis), intermittently during 1977-2011, this article discusses how informal governance through customary laws based on kinship principles remains relevant. Even during 2011-12, the villagers acknowledged the enduring primacy of the elders and headmen in shaping public opinion, buttressed by both “moral” and legal/ jural values which link them together. Thanks to special ‘constitutional’ provisions not much have changed in the political/legal/administrative spheres of Naga life. Naga tribes avail the special rights under Article 371(A) of the Constitution (in respect of religious/ social practices, customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice according to customs, and ownership and transfer of land and its resources), even though Naga women find such rights as a hindrance to seeking political equality. In the Zounuo-Keyhonuo tribe, both the descent principle and the territorial principle contribute to the determination of the politico-jural field. Thus, the villagers maintain kinship-economy nexus customarily and carry out farming by depending on both terrace rice cultivation and jhum (shifting cultivation). The descent groups, clan/lineage territories, and customary laws which define the core elements of the Naga societies could not be tormented or weakened by colonial interventions or modern transformations. Clan elders remained crucial and often conducted dispute settlement, including the peaceful compromise mechanism called Kezekevizhonu. Today, the village/clan ‘headmen’, gaon-bura, and Dobhashis continue to function as they did under colonial ‘indirect rule’. During the 1990s and later more and more challenges to ‘customary’ laws were reported in Zounuo-Keyhonuo villages. Naga customary laws are constitutionally safeguarded, yet appeals were made in the district magistrate court’ and Gauhati high court by ambitious individuals to reconsider the conventional norms in their own favour. Legal pluralism is becoming the standard of day-to-day village affairs increasingly, yet the larger sections of the villagers concede that the customary laws provide lasting “justice” to tribes people.

Suggested Citation

Das, N. K., Legacy of Indirect Rule and Legal Pluralism: Informal Governance through Customary Law in Nagaland (November 14, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4276950

N. K. Das (Contact Author)

Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) ( email )

Kolkata (WB)

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