Guest post by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya. Bikash is an independent journalist specialising on Northeast India and Myanmar. He is a  masters student of Nationalism Studies, specialising on Jewish Studies, at the Central European University in Vienna. He tweets @BikashKjourno

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A map of Zo inhabited areas in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Edith Mirante/Project Maje

Samuel Suantak is one of the several hundred refugees who crossed over to Moreh, an Indian town on the Indo-Myanmar border, as the situation grew tense in Myanmar with the February 1 military coup in the country taking an increasingly violent turn. Samuel identifies himself as a Zo/Chin. The Zo are a group of cognate transborder tribes known by different exonyms, such as Kuki, Chin, Mizo, and Lushai, scattered in three nation-states—India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh—in a contiguous mountainous landscape often described as Zo highlands. The thirty-eight-year-old Zo man is now being sheltered and taken care of by a Zo Christian group in Moreh who—curiously—identify themselves as “genetically Jewish”— “as the long-lost descendants of Manasseh, the biblical prophet-king of ancient Israel.

When in 1990s Burma’s Zo civilians fled military crackdown and sought refuge in Mizoram and Manipur, they weren’t recieved as favourably as Samuel and other Zo refugees have been today. The Chin refugees were called Burma-mi (Burma people) as a marker of difference from the local Zo populace. The change in attitude towards and perception of the Zo of Burma among the Zo population in India owes a lot to redrawing the boundaries of Zo identity through the introduction of a unified national history over the past two decades.

Fragmented Zo identity and unifying narratives of discent

Zo identity has three layers/axes: dialect, clan, and territory. The advent of Christianity in early twentieth century added another layer: denomination, leading to further fragmentation of the Zo identity.  The genealogy of the production of Zo histories by Zo authors—primarily by amateur historians—shows us that since the mid-twentieth century there have been consistent attempts to do away with these contradictions and ambiguities of Zo identity and produce one national history. These texts aim to provide the foundation for “the unification of deeply divided Zo communities.” This is evident in the two most celebrated texts in this corpus: in Vumson’s Zo History(1986) and P.S. Haokip’s The World of the Kuki People (2018), two texts written thirty-two years apart. Each of these texts espouse a version of what Prasenjit Duara has called ‘narrative of discent; a historical narrative of ‘descent’ and/or ‘dissent’ that redefines the boundaries and identities of a collectivity with multiple identifications. The tracing of a history (descent) is frequently linked to differentiating the self from an Other (dissent). “The narrative of discent is used to define and mobilize a community, often by privileging a particular cultural practice (or a set of practices) as the constitutive principle of the community—such as language, religion, or common historical experience—thereby heightening the self-consciousness of this community in relation to those around it,” Duara argues in his book ‘Rescuing History From the Nation’.

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These two texts by Rev. Chomlhun, a local evangelist leader associated with the Manasseh movement, claim that the Zo people are descendants of Manasseh and a lost tribe of Israel. Photo: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.

Zo historian, Vumson, introduced a narrative of discent of the Zos by privileging the Chhinlung or cave origin myth—a variant of which is found among every Zo group—over other cultural practices as the most powerful signifier for the self-definition of the community. He leveraged this etiological myth as a unifying force among the Zo groups and a marker of difference vis-à-vis other neighbouring communities. Haokip extended and instrumentalised the cave myth. The cave in Haokip’s text is understood to be a tunnel through which the Zo ancestors escaped the captivity of the Chinese emperor after their expulsion from ‘ancient Israel’ in 75 AD. Haokip’s narrative of discent, playing on the long standing belief, that first emerged in the 1950s among a section of Zos, that they are a lost tribe of ancient Israel, privileges the redefined origin narrative as the constitutive principle that defines Zo identity. “Regardless of dialectal, territorial, and religious affiliation or denomination, all Zo tribes are sons of Manasseh, the biblical prophet-king,” Haokip writes in his book. “Without the Manasseh factor there is nothing tangible to connect us to the Biblical account.”, he adds. Privileging the reformulated identity of the collectivity of cognate Zo groups as “lost Jews”/“sons of Manasseh” not only makes it possible to overcome the differences based on dialect, clan, locality and nationality, it also helps create a homogenous ethno-national past that emplaces Zo history within the biblical framework.

Zos as Jews

Kirsten McConnachie’s research has shown that such narrativisation of the shared ethnicity of India’s Mizos and Burma’s Chins contributed to positive changes in the perception and treatment of Chin refugees in Mizoram. More recently, Haokip’s narrative of discent and its associated “sons of Manasseh” movement have not only constructed one Zo past within the biblical framework but also bolstered the perceived/actual kin relations among the various Zo groups by instrumentalising the template of “Jewish physicality” in claiming that “all Zos are genetically Jews”.

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Mizo villagers constructing a temporary shelter for the refugees fleeing military crackdown in Myanmar’s Chin State in early June. Photo: Ezrela Daldia Fanai/Northeast Today.

Samuel, a devout Christian and pastor of the church in his village in Myanmar’s Homalin township, has been associated with the “sons of Manasseh” movement since its beginning in 2014. He recalls that when his family took shelter in Moreh in the late 1990s to escape junta crackdown on Chins, they had to struggle to find shelter and support, and people called them ‘Burma-mi’. But the situation is different now: various local Zo groups and networks are clandestinely supporting their “Zo brothers and sisters, blood kins”, “fellow sons of Manasseh” from Burma seeking shelter in Moreh in spite of the government’s cold response to the refugee crisis.  It is the redrawing of the boundaries of Zo identity—and the inclusion of the Chins—in the pan-Zo discourses such as the “sons of Manasseh” mobilisation, that has shaped the positive local response Samuel and his compatriots have received in the present crisis.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Kumar Bhattacharya, B. (2021). Zos As Jews: A Narrative of Discent and Chin Refugees on the Indo-Myanmar Borderlands. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/07/jos-jews [date]