“Only a democratic state can create a democratic civil society; only a democratic civil society can sustain a democratic state. The civility that makes democratic politics possible can only be learned in the associational networks; the roughly equal and widely dispersed capabilities that sustain the networks have to be fostered by the democratic state.”

Michael Walzer.

The term Civil Society has gone through several transformations from an idea that entered into the intellectual discourse in the 18th century European thought of a ‘desired state of reality’. The question then that should be asked is what the concept of ‘Civil Society’ is all about. Civil society according to Satish Saberwal is a social space which has three qualities. Its first quality is that in this social space, decisions and choices have to be made on the basis of reason and of knowledge. The second quality of civil society space is that its members have to relate to each other open-endedly, without exclusion on grounds of religion, gender and so forth. The civil society space, consequently, can carry a great variety of associations- whose membership is open. The third quality is in the decision making and choices. The civil society space should be free from coercive pressures. Coercion can take various shapes and forms; it may emanate from such agencies as the state, terrorists, family or jati and organized religion.

Marx on the other hand defines civil Society as a society that embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals with a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage, and insofar transcends the state and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality and inwardly must organise itself as a state. The word ‘Civil Society’ already extricated themselves from the ancient and the medieval communal society. Civil Society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce which in all ages forms the basis of the state and the rest of the idealistic superstructure has however, always been designated by the same name. (Axelos 1976; 91) Marx held the view that civil society represented the interests of the bourgeoisie as revealed through the state; as such both are instruments of oppression

The notion of civil society is today commonly identified with a non- statist, often romanticized as a set of institutions that stand for liberalism in the form of free market in the economic sphere and democracy in the political sphere. The interest about civil society did not arise due to a desire to study civil society but because of the increasing disenchantment with the State (Beteille). In the recent times, the state always promised a lot but delivered a little underlining the need to look at the alternative sites for development. The civil society presented itself as the only viable and meaningful site. People began to look at the civil society and the possibilities it offered.

In India, too, the interest in the civil society essentially arouse as a result of disenchantment with the State (Kothari 1998). The Transfer of Power in 1947 unleashed enormous hopes and expectations among people. The state was expected to solve immense socio-economic problems which had been existent for a long time. It was also expected to be more responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people. It was soon realized that the state in the name of development began to serve the interests of the dominant and hegemonic classes and whatever they had promised to the poor and the deserving remained a promise. This then created a great interest in the working of the civil society and emancipator potential it was supposed to possess. It was expected to play a critical and instrumental role in creating a democratic and just order.

State and civil society:

State and civil societies are being widely debated in contemporary times. Historically, the civil society has always been looked at as a sphere that is distinct from the State, ignoring the important linkages between the two (Beteille). It is therefore deemed important to look at the inseparable linkages between the two.  Many social theorists considered the state as the creation of civil society for protecting the life and property of citizens. While championing the sovereignty of the state, they did not deny the ruler’s obligation to assure civil society rights. The modern approach to the issue is more pragmatic than theoretical, due to several reasons (P.B Nayar 2000; 130). In recent times, the concept of state has undergone considerable change. Sociologists no more use the term state as the embodiment of coercive power and sovereignty, but as a system having several parts and operating within a larger social system. The state operates through its various elements-executive, legislature judiciary, bureaucracy, the army and, in a democracy, political parties.

Leading modern societies claim to have a constitutional and democratic state, based on the rule of law which stems from the balance between the legislature and the executive. These bodies of governance are supposed to be accountable to the will of the people as expressed through electoral forms of political participation. As these governing institutions derive their power from the people, they are subject to the control of the people. This condition gives a sense of satisfaction or it may seem, to the people of that democratic state that there will be no in-equality and monopoly of power.

This fallacy however was soon discovered as power was dispersed among powerful groups, institutions and organizations. Inequalities existed but since it was non-cumulative, they were negotiated and modified through democratic struggles and bargaining among various economic and socio-political interests. Therefore, to maintain the neutral, balancing and mediating role of the state, it became necessary that democratic accountability in the political system to be advanced. This democratic accountability thus lay in the expansion of civil society and in a reduction in the role of the state. Civil society therefore cannot be seen as autonomous from the socio-economic and political process and from the state. By forgetting that the state and the society are interdependent, we often ignore the dynamic intertwining of the state and civil society.

The dialectical relationship that obtains between the state and the civil society needs to be placed in its proper perspective. The idea of civil society is based on the appreciation of the differentiation, not on the denial to the state of the powers and functions appropriate to it (Beteille). Just as the state should not try to appropriate powers which do not legitimately belong to it, the civil society should also take care that it does not overstep its legitimate boundary. The uniqueness of the political system vis-à-vis the social system is that it is the prime mover, energizer and regulator of the latter. Viewed in this perspective, the interdependence of the state and the civil society becomes apparent. An effective state is central to the functioning of an effective civil society. However, a vibrant civil society requires not just an effective state, but also a political order that is liberal and democratic, a state which enforces the rule of law and safeguards the fundamental freedom of its citizens. There is also the need for the state to incorporate welfare provisions as only these qualities of the state will enable civil society organizations to coexist and enter into healthy competition with one another.

Civil Society in the Indian context:

India has a well developed civil society and most of the organizations (CSOs) have contributed immensely to the growth of this country. However one may also say that due to the growing socio-economic as well as political tensions growing in the country, civil society organizations are not operating in a conducive environment which will help them to grow and develop. Though the Indian subcontinent can boast of a constitution that protects and safeguards the interests of the people irrespective of the caste, creed, sex or religion; the truth is still far from what it claims. The state has failed to make uniform laws for all the citizens especially women and other weaker sections of the society. Another bitter truth remains in the fact that different sections of the people are differently protected by the state and the rule of law applies to some but not all. This statement might sound ambiguous or vague but when we look at the situation of the tribes and the dalits in India, this statement would then not be looked as something vague.

Modern civil society in India has been a post independence phenomenon. With half a century of its existence as a free nation, the country has witnessed a plethora of civil society organizations; both small and large at the local as well as at the national level. However only a few of them have been able to live up to its objectives. The availability of foreign funds has been able to propel the NGO’s to a higher pedestal but have very little contribution to civil society.


Mizoram is located between 22o 19’ N and 24o 19’ N latitude covering a geographical area of 21087 Sq. km with a population of 8.9 Lakhs (2001 census). It has an average density of 42 persons per sq. km. the state of Mizoram is surrounded by the Burma in the east, Manipur and Cachar district of Assam in the north, Tripura and Bangladesh in the west and Burma in the south. Mizoram became a full-fledged state of the Union of India in the year 1987.

In earlier times, the Mizos were independent. Around 1890, after prolonged struggle of about four decades, they came under British subjugation. In the closing year of the last century, around 1989, Lushai Hills, as the area was called, was tagged with Assam, and since then till 1972 the Lushai Hills remained as a district of Assam and administered as such. In 1954 the parliament passed an Act to change the name from Lushai Hills to Mizo Hills as the people of different tribes in the hills would like to be identified as Mizos. In 1972 she became a union territory and on 20 February 1987 Mizoram got the status of Statehood.

Mizo society is composed of various tribes and sub-tribes, prominent among them being Lushai, Paite, Ralte Hmor, Pois (Pawis) and Lakhers. The dominating Sailo sub-tribe had the capacity to absorb the culture of other groups and sub-trines under persistent external influences (Singh, S.N 1994). The Mizo came to their present habitat from Chin Hills of Burma. According to the legends they originally belonged to Sinlung, on the bank of the river Mekong in South western China. They migrated to Mizoram in waves from the Chin Hills of Burma in the later part of the 18th century. Some of the factors which propelled them to migrate was the strong forces of the Burma state as well as Famine.

Ethnic composition of Lushai Hills District (now Mizoram)

Name of Tribe 1901 1961 1971
Lushai 36,362
Ralte 13,827 —- 88
Hmar 10411 3188 4524
Paite 2870
Pawis (Pois) 5874 10320
Lakhers (Mars) 11625
Chakma 3647 3683
Riang (Tuikuk) 4828
Other 9653
Mizo 2103061 251136

Source: Census of India, Assam 1971 and Singh, S. N: – Mizoram, Historical Geographical, Social, Economic, Political and Administrative. 1994.

More recently the use of civil society in exerting organized pressure on autocratic and unresponsive states and thereby supporting democratic stability and good governance has received critical attention. The fact that civil social institutions can also be vehicles for participation in development programmes has also been noted. Owing to this fact we try and look at how the Young Mizo Association as an organization has played a vital role in the context of Mizoram. This would enable us to link the concept of civil society with the pragmatic reality that obtains in Mizoram. We therefore try and look at the growth of YMA (Young Mizo Association) and its relationship with the State.

Historical evolution of the Young Mizo Association:

In the late 19th century, there was an institution which was of great importance to the Mizo community. This institution was called ZAWLBUK. Zawlbuk was a bachelor’s dormitory which was present in every mizo village during that time. The purpose of this Zawlbuk was for a.) The protection of the village from foreign enemies. b.) To provide a workforce for the community which was mainly agrarian during that time. c.) To act as a body for consultation during crisis and famines.

This institution however weakened due to the coming of the British, the advent of Christianity and the introduction of formal education etc. In no time Zawlbuk as an institution became an obsolete body and subsequently died out of the society. The death of Zawlbuk left a gap in the Society and the missionaries and some other local elders were concerned that in the event of the eventual disappearance of Zawlbuk there should be an organisation which should be able to channelize the creative energies of the youth of Mizoram. The mizo community was always enthralled by these Christian missionaries and was thereby influenced by them in almost every way. During the colonial period there was a great religious revolution called “CHANCHINTHADAK’ which means a Gospel Post or Christian literature. During that time, many Mizos converted to Christianity and thereby laying the foundation of Christianity in this tribal state.

Thus the Welsh missionaries who had come to Mizoram proposed for an association similar to the Young Welsh Association they had back home. Thus was born the Young Lushai Association, the name given by Reverend David Edward, a Presbyterian Missionary, on the 15th June 1953. Some Mizo students though argue that the YLA or the YMA is more than a century old.

The Young Mizo Association had three objectives to begin with. They were:

  • To make the leisure profitable.
  • To seek progress for Mizoram.
  • To uphold the honour the Christian values.

The motto of the YMA seemed a little confusing as their motto is to uphold the unspoken law or dogma called TLAWN NGAIHNA as well s to uphold the Christian values. However the YMA constantly emphasizes that they are not a religious based organisation but only believe in upholding the Christian values as the majority of mizo people are Christians in Mizoram. The YMA as an organisation can be called organic in its approach because for a Mizo, the YMA is an entity where the tribal community of Mizoram plays the pivotal role.

Young Mizo Association and the State:

Because of the circumstances in which it was born, the YMA in its formative stage had strong links with the Church, particularly the Presbyterian Church which is the largest denomination of the Catholic Church. The missionaries of this Church were involved in the formation of the YMA.  The strong linkage is reflected in that fact that to be an office bearer of the YMA, one has to be a full-Church member. But as time passed by the linkage between the Church and the YMA gradually became weak. This was also the time when the YMA developed ‘political’ character. Due to the politically adjunct situation prevailing in the country, many members of the YMA could not isolate themselves from the political movement for independence taking place elsewhere in the country during that time. It did indulge in politically-informed actions at times. Doe example, a serious encounter took place took place between the authorities and the YMA leaders when the YMA organised an informal meeting in 1945. In this meeting the latter was informed in clear terms that the people wanted a democratic system in Mizoram. Similarly, one of the movements of great political importance occurred when the YMA, Kulikawn (a locality in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram) unit passed a resolution on the right of self determination for the Lushais in April 1943. The central committee of the YMA however did not approve of the resolution on the plea that YMA was not a political body.

Yet another instance of political consciousness among the YMA members was when they got an opportunity to send members to Burma with the sole purpose of spreading the Mizo language far and wide and doing good work to show that they sympathized with the people of Chin Hills, which were ethnically akin to the Mizos as mentioned earlier in the paper. However, at the height of autonomy movement in Mizoram, the YMA as an organisation did not take any position directly, either supporting the movement or opposing the movement. This stance taken by the YMA seemed so because of the belief they had both in the Church as well as the State who would act as stakeholders for the welfare and development of the Mizo community. The YMA being essentially a non-political and social organisation could not have taken such a direct political position. As Mr. Reuben Vlulam (General Secretary of YMA, Shillong north unit) had pointed out that the repressive measures taken by the central government could have also drastically affected even the normal activities of the YMA. In these circumstances, it would have also been impossible for the YMA to take any direct political position.

In another bloody conflict between the Brues (Bru tribes) and the Mizos in Mizoram, the YMA played a pivotal role in initiating a strategy that would bring in peace in the region. In 30th April 2002, the BNLF (a militant outfit of the Reang tribes) declared that the outfit is ready to negotiate for a regional council, instead for an Autonomous District Council for which they were fighting for. So after the strings of violence, the government of Mizoram initiated talks for peace. During the 10th round of talks, the Bru militants dropped all political demands including the creation of Autonomous district Council, thus paving the way to the resolution of the longstanding conflict. At last on 26th April 2005 the 12h round of talks too place in which a memorandum of settlement was signed between the government of Mizoram and the BNLF (Goswami, P. J 2007).

The above instances of political activism can be characterised as expressions of party political processes as given by Kothari. Kothari had also mentioned that non-party political processes are essential initiatives taken by the civil society in the Indian subcontinent in particular. The YMA which is supposed to be a non-political body was becoming involved in political negotiations and this fact shows that the YMA was playing “non political party role.’ In fact as, Kothari had mentioned, non-party political processes provide sources of regeneration in the Indian democracy. We can look at the Young Mizo Association from that perspective.

The YMA is however distinctive as its role is vital for the Mizo community and thus forms an important component of the civil society in Mizoram and not the political involvement which was there but not sharply defined. By successfully undertaking these activities, the YMA has shown that the civil society through its vibrant associations can achieve greater measures of success than the state with its indifferent and oppressive administrative structures.

Some of the activities taken up by the YMA for the welfare of Mizoram:

During the early years since its inception, the YMA sought to make creative use of energies of the youth by organizing debates, discussions, games and sports. Its role in encouraging people to maintain public health and sanitation has also been remarkable. The present Government Higher Secondary School in Aizawl was established in 1944 with the active participation of the YMA.

When progress in the rest of the country in respect of increasing literacy is rather unsatisfactory, Mizoram has a remarkable achievement in this regard coming second in the country in terms of literacy rate. This remarkable achievement is mainly due to the efforts of the missionaries as well as the YMA. While we can explain the enthusiasm of the missionaries to make people literate in terms of religious motivations, we cannot find any extraneous adjunct motivation in the case of YMA except for the deep rooted conviction that its existence can only be justified by making efforts to eradicate social evils such as illiteracy.

The YMA has always played an important role when sporadic, spasmodic natural calamities or famines strike the state of Mizoram. When the state disappointed the people by not providing them immediate relief, the YMA stepped up with its innovative measures to help the people of the state which was greatly appreciated by the people of the state.

As Mr. Reuben Vlulam had mentioned that during the time of family crisis be it an accident, a funeral or even shifting of a house, the YMA members were ever willing to help their own people without rooting for any fiscal help from them. The collective spirit which guides the work of the YMA is reflected in such circumstances and one’s faith in the civil society institutions tends to get reinforced. This clearly shows that there is a greater voice in collective consciousness rather than individual consciousness.

More recently the YMA has become involved in important activities such as wild –life and forest preservation. The state today depends heavily on the YMA for ensuring the above. The YMA since 1974 took up the Green Mizoram Project. The above mentioned activities give us a clear idea of what the YMA has been doing in the state of Mizoram as an important component of the civil society in Mizoram. In recognition of the services rendered by the YMA in different fields, it received a number of awards like the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award in 1986 from the government of India.

Tensions with the state:

Some of the members closely associated with the YMA admit to the fact that it has been trying to appropriate functions which legitimately belong to the state thus contributing to tensions in the relationship between the civil society and the state in Mizoram. Since the YMA is an entity of the Mizo people, it tries to function in some ways which go against the policies of the state. Because of the prominent presence of the unspoken law called the TWALN NGAIHNA, the YMA feels that if the state cannot help the people of Mizoram, the YMA is then compelled to work against the government for the welfare of the people of Mizoram. As one person associated with the YMA in the pat as an important leader put it, the YMA is at crossroads. The YMA seems to have lost its original objectives and instead it is taking up many functions which its original objectives did not intend it to take up. There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about the tasks it is supposed to perform. The assumption of new powers and functions has almost made it a parallel government. The YMA’s involvement in preparation of electoral rolls does not seem to accord well with its essential objective of rendering social service. In another example where the YMA tried to punish the perpetrators of drug abuse by ostracizing them from the Mizo community and by meeting the suppliers of drugs to the youth of Mizoram is also unconstitutional. These functions legitimately belong to the state. Denial of legitimate functions to the state tends to strain the relationship between the state and the civil society and blur the distinction between the two as it has been noticed in the context of Mizoram.

The YMA has become such a powerful and influential body of the state that more often than not the people are seen approaching the YMA rather than any government department for solving their problems. The bureaucracy with its usual nonchalant and unresponsive behavior and attitude discourages people from approaching it. The YMA taking advantage of this predicament tries to put pressure thus winning the confidence of the people in Mizoram.

When we look at YMA as an organisation, we can help but see the fact that this organisation is different from any other organisation in the North East. Some of the reasons why YMA is different from any other organisation are:

  • The Unspoken Law:

The YMA seeks its strength in terms of its number as well as its well wishers because of the unspoken law that binds the organisation together. This unspoken law allows the YMA to dictate terms to the state as well. Since the YMA’s motto is to uphold the TWALN NGAIHNA (unspoken law), the people of Mizoram give the attention and express their support and solidarity to the organisation. No other organisation has ever had this kind of support and solidarity in the North eastern part of the region.

  • The YMA vis-à-vis the Community.

For any organisation to gain support as well as popularity, one needs to have a good rapport with the community. As for the YMA, the organisation has full support from the people of the state so much so that now they can be called as a parallel government. They YMA maintain the fact that for a Mizo, the YMA is an entity. To shun away any member of the YMA, one closes the doors of communication with the community in Mizoram as he/she would be ostracized from the community. No celebrations or funeral rites will be attended by any community member if one does not associate oneself with the YMA. Such is the power and authority that the YMA holds in the context of Mizoram.


As mentioned at the outset, the interest about the civil society arose as a result of the disenchantment with the state. The state has completely supplanted the civil society in the communist societies and in the western liberal democratic societies it has not performed whatever it has promised. Hopes then began to be pinned on the civil society, popular initiatives for the welfare and development of people began to be made in the civil society.

Because of the disenchantment with the state and the mediating institutions that are its counterparts, attention is turning increasingly to what many now say is the true motive force of civil society, namely Voluntary action. The example of YMA in the context of Mizoram can be used to strengthen this statement above. The interest in voluntary action, voluntary movements and voluntary associations has given a new lease of life by the concern for the creation or revival of civil society.

The significance of voluntary action in linking society and politics together and in driving them forward in democratic systems cannot be too strongly emphasized. A democratic society cannot function properly, not to speak of its growing, if everything in it is left to the state or even constitutional bodies. Mere statutory action will be in fructuous if it is not underpinned by voluntary action. Therefore as stated before the civil society must play a role in collaborating with the state in trying to bring about the welfare and harmony in the state. The YMA in the context of Mizoram has been able to achieve this social harmony and peace in the state due to its voluntary action as well juxtaposing with the government agencies for the overall welfare of the people of Mizoram.

Since the civil society consists of associations, organisations clubs, etc, in the context of Mizoram, the YMA as an important component of Civil society in Mizoram has played a pivotal role in terms of ensuring welfare of the people of Mizoram. It has been a great force in the Mizo society and occupies a significant part of the consciousness of the Mizo society.

The state and the civil society need to respect each other. The State should encourage whenever meaningful and popular initiatives are taken in the civil society and at the same time the existence of civil society should not be based on the denials of the function of the state. They need to take care that they do not transgress their legitimate boundaries. At the same time the State needs to link itself with the civil society through various networks. In the context of Mizoram, the State can find an extremely useful network in the form of the Young Mizo Association. The interests of the people of Mizoram will be best served if the State and the YMA continue to work together.


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  2. Jayaram, N. 2005. On Civil Society, Issues and Perspectives. Sage Publications, New Delhi.
  3. Kumar, D. V. 2009. Explaining Mizo ethnicity: The Relevance of Opposition Approach, Man in India, 90)(1-2): 37-49
  4. Jenkins, R. 2004. NGOs and Indian Politics. Oxford University Press.
  5. Sen, S. 1997. NGO Relationships in India in the Post- independence Era. Manchester University Press, United Kingdom.
  6. Kothari, R. 1974. State against Democracy: Transformation and survival. Ajanta Publishers, New Delhi.
  7. Sangkima, I. 1995.  ‘Young Mizo Association: A study in historical perspective. Agartala, 433-441.
  8. Mr. Reuben Vlulam. (General Secretary, YMA, Shillong north unit).
  9. Kothari, R. 1999.   “The non-party political process, Economic and Political Weekly, 19(3): 216-224.

2 thoughts on “Civil Society, State and the Tribal Society: A case study on Young Mizo Association, Mizoram.

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