Respect for elders


It was Friday night, the 12th June, 2009. I was at Serkawn, my home town, on the outskirts of Lunglei town, making the most of my summer vacation. Letting my hair down, I was watching on the local Television channel the Talk Show organized by Lunglei Sub-Headquarters YMA on “Reformation of Mizo Social Life”. The topic being discussed was ‘Aia upa zahna’ (Respect for elders) which is generally considered one distinctive culture of Mizo society of the past; which, many of us think, has been gradually fading in the process of social transformation our society has gone through, especially after the coming of Christian missionaries. From what they had articulated at their discussion, I felt that the present generation, the young people in particular, were blamed for the decadence of this graceful ethics that underlined the Mizo society of the past. In this article, I feel compelled to defend our young people whose lives simply manifest what has gone wrong in our society. The discussion, as I observed, had not gone deep enough to identify the root-causes of why many of our young people have lost respect for elders.

We have a bunch of Mizo people who have acquired Master’s degree in Sociology. In spite of that, I haven’t found among them whom I can call ‘social thinker’ in the true sense of the term; thinkers who can explain what our present Society is, why it is what it is now, what are the solutions to the problems we are wrestling with in our present context, so on and so forth. In fact, we don’t have scholars who have done a systematic research on why this beautiful culture called ‘aia upa zahna’ that prevailed in the past has, more or less, expired in our present society. We know there was a deep and sincere respect for elders in the past. Senior members in traditional Mizo society were given, without question, due respect by children, teenagers and younger members. There was a strong moral obligation in the lives of Mizo young people in the past to obey senior members, no matter what’s the price.

In our present socio-cultural milieu, we don’t see that particular culture in motion as it used to be. Our young people no longer show respect to senior citizens as they ought to from conventional Mizo perspective. The spirit of rebellion has taken its toll in the lives of many of our young people at our homes, families, community and society. Who are responsible for all these social and cultural upheavals we witness in our society? Should we blame our children for not safeguarding our culture? Should we hold our young people responsible for neglecting aia upa zahna culture to wither and perish?

I am not a Sociology student. I don’t think I am a Social thinker either. But I’ve given enough thought about our society and its transformation the best I could. I do not say, neither can I say, I’ve found the truths that have restructured our Society to become what it is now. But to the satisfaction of my philosophical mind, I think I’ve found worth thinking foods for thought for those of us who care enough for our Society and its future. Here’s what I’ve considered some of the root-causes that have uprooted the ‘aia upa zahna’ culture as our Society struggles for its survival, in the process of which, I think, respect for elders is slowly waning, perhaps, because our value system has been transformed in conformity to what we think are more conducive and more befitting for our survival in today’s competitive world.

Political Cause:
Every society has a structure which characterized the mind-set of its members to a great extent. The social structure of Mizo Society of the past was like that of a triangle or pyramid. The apex was the Chief – the all in all – in the administration of every village community. Next below the Chief was the Council of Elders called ‘Khawnbawl Upa’, with the help of which the Chiefs ran their respective villages. There were also powerful members in every Mizo community respected, feared and obeyed by male members in particular, called ‘Val Upa’. In every respect, the Val Upas were no inferior to the Council of Elders in terms of respect, importance, status and authority. The term ‘upa’ is derived from the Pawi language, to which Lusei language is deeply rooted, meaning ‘honorable’ or ‘respectable’. Val Upa, therefore, can be understood as ‘Honorable leader of the male youth’. Next below the Council of Elders and Val Upa were the parents. Then, came the general adult members. The lowest in the triangular administrative hierarchy were the children, at the base.

We know, on the 9th April, 1946, the first Mizo political party, a very dynamic party in fulfilling what it was created for, was born – the Mizo Union Party. The main mission of the Mizo Union Party was the abolition and eradication of Chieftainship in Mizo Society. The movement for abolition of Chieftainship led by the Mizo Union Party was spreading like a wild fire throughout Mizoram within no time. It was like a tornado ravaging and wrecking the ‘social structure’ built for ages in the minds and hearts of the Mizo people. It drove them mad and crazy like a stampede. They were so drunk with the party to the extent of losing their reasoning. There was a popular catch-word those days by which members of Mizo Union Party would express their allegiance to the party: “If a toad stands for election by Mizo Union ticket, I will vote for it” – was their drunken political chant repeatedly sung throughout Mizoram. Finally, on the 1st of April, 1954, all the chiefs in Mizoram were deprived of their rights to rule their villages and the power was given to the people to elect their own rulers.

In many villages, the chiefs and their houses were the main targets. Stones were hurled at the chief’s house in some villages, forests reserved by the chiefs for agricultural purposes were intentionally chopped down to provoke the chiefs; processions were organized in which insulting and abusive languages were shouted at their chiefs. For instance, at Pukpui village, Laldenga’s home town, a procession was organized in which almost all the villagers participated. The leader would shout, “Who has the widest face?” to which the people would respond in unison, “Taikhuma!” referring to their Chief, who, perhaps had a very wide oval face. They didn’t even use a term of respect like ‘Pu’ when mentioning their Chief’s name. The children, no doubt, witnessed this incident too. What impression would have been formed in their minds about their chief who was the symbol of honor and the object of respect for more than a century?. At Reiek village, someone composed a song deliberately trying to insult their Chief. It goes like this: “Ngûr tin chhîn tum Reiek lal inhâm puar e, Chhûra rilru a tuallênpui” meaning “The Chief of Reiek is blowing his own trumpet to outshine other chiefs, he is living with an uncultured mind like that of Chhura’s”.

I have said that every Society has a structure; a ‘social structure’ which is imprinted in the minds and hearts of its members guiding and controlling their lives from within. We, the Mizo people too, had a social structure in which the Chief was the apex. This social structure was imprinted in the minds and hearts of every Mizo in the past. When a villager moved from one village to another, since the ‘social structure’ in his life guided him from within, he would naturally show respect to the Chief wherever he went. The first political movement led by the Mizo Union Party, in my analysis, had torn down the ‘social structure’ in the lives of Mizo people those days, especially in the lives of the children of that period, beyond restoration. With no ‘social structure’ to guide their lives from within, those children, when they grew up, became confused to identify correctly who is who and what is due to whom in Mizo Society.

If you dared slap the Chief of Army Staff, you would have no respect for Majors and Captains beneath him simply on the basis of their ranks. The Mizo Union movement taught us to disrespect the Chiefs and now we pay the price, for our young people find it difficult to show respect to senior members of our Society not for any other reason, but for there is no social structure in their lives to guide them. Not only that, many of our young people don’t know why and how they should respect those in authority in schools, colleges, churches, community, society and even in the government.

Social Cause:
In Mizo Society of the past, there were two major classes which determined who was who and what was due to whom. There were – Older Class and Younger Class – determined by age. Those who were chronologically older were respected by the younger ones simply because they were older in age. Without question, the senior members of the community were obeyed by the younger ones. Age was a very important qualification worthy of respect. There were few exceptions like pasaltha, thangchhuah, val upa, mi tlawmngai, etc. whom people highly looked up to because of their unchallenged feats and unusual achievements. In general, age calls for respect in conventional Mizo Society of the past. There were no ranks, statuses or professions that would demand respects in their value system.

With the coming of Christian missionaries, Mizo society was awaken from its slumber. From darkness of ignorance and fear, it was gradually brought to the light of knowledge and wisdom. As a result, it has been transformed in every aspect and a new society has been gradually evolving from one phase to another, till today. We have now different criteria and yardsticks to classify and categorize people. We have a new value system to guide our assessment and evaluation of our fellow-members in our society. For instance, a young gentleman of say 28 years of age can become a VIP in the administrative set-up of our government, provided he has acquired IAS or qualification like that. We cannot but respect him because of his status and responsibility. I may be 20 years older than him, but if I work under him as a peon or a clerk, he is my boss and I have to respect him. We have young people holding high responsibilities like professors, lecturers, teachers, directors, superintendants, doctors, so forth. They are important people worthy of our respect, not because of their age, but because of their status and responsibilities.

Age doesn’t matter much now. What matters more is what you do with your age. If you haven’t acquired anything worthy of respect, though you may be 40 years or more, younger folks will not respect you for the simple reason that you are older than they are. They know ‘old age’ is not hard earned. They know they too will become old if they continue to live. If you want to be respected, you have to earn it. You have to pay the price. It is the quality of life, not the quantity or the longevity, that matters in today’s world. Today’s young people admire and respect football giants like David Beckham, Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and so on because of what they’ve acquired in the world of football; they idolize Tennis stars like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova, Ivanovic, etc. because of their skills and achievements. They worship young celebrities like Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Dakota Fanning, Usain Bolt, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, etc. It is crystal clear that ‘age’ is not their parameter. It is ‘talent, skill and achievement’ that top their priority list.

Religious Cause:
One major root-cause that has polluted our ‘aia upa zahna culture’ is, from my point of view, none other than our religion – Christianity and our Christian Churches. In the prevailing system of Christian Churches in Mizoram, depending on their commitment, dedication, integrity of life, even young people can become our leaders, elders, deacons and pastors. Once they’ve become our leaders, we look up to them and they have become prominent people worthy of our respect because of what they are in the Church, not because of their age. Many of the activities going on in our Churches cannot be done by older people. Activities like singing as a Choir, going out as missionaries, acquiring knowledge of higher studies in theology; to compete with sophisticated computer skills and technical know-how, interacting with people from different cultures, languages and nationalities, etc. require skills that only young people are capable of. In fact, the Christian Churches will be lame, deaf and dumb without the young people. The system operating in our Churches has created a new value system in which qualities like commitment, dedication, spiritual integrity, knowledge, skills, etc. are indispensable; for that matter, age is not so pivotal in our evaluation of who and what people are. This value system that guides our thoughts and lives has, from my personal perspective, polluted the ‘aia upa zahna culture’ to a rather threatening degree of dying out.

Respect for Elders:
Should we, after what is all said and done, neglect the importance of respect for elders? Could we, with all the criteria coming up in our Society by which we evaluate people, say that age doesn’t count much in our present Mizo Society? What are the truths that should guide our thoughts and lives in respect to the senior citizens? Here’s three points I want every young Mizo to seriously think about until each of them becomes a culture in their lives:

1. The Crown of Glory:
People who care for the weak, poor and lowly are naturally never depreciated and underrated. Instead, they are admired and respected. They are considered a blessing for mankind like Mother Teresa, George Mueller, etc. When we show respect and care to senior citizens like old men and women, like it or not, we become great somehow. Looking from another angle, we show our hidden greatness when we treat old people with respect and care. Whether we are great or small is determined by the way we treat old people and to those who are older than us. If our Mizo Society is a Society where old people are respected, loved, cared for and concerned about, it will become a great Society deserving the blessings of God and men. As a matter of truth, the old people are the crown of our Society. If Mizo Society had a big population of centenarians, it will soon become an object of attention, admiration and respect throughout the world. Old people make our Society beautiful and respectable.

2. Their Subjective Value:
Our value, at the prime of life, is determined by objectively validated qualities like our physical beauty, physical strength, our talents, gifts, skills, wisdom, our status and responsibilities in society and our material possessions. Old people, especially those who are older than 60 years, are deprived of those qualities that made them valuable at the peak of their lives. That’s why they are given retirement by their employers. The best part of their lives is gone. What made them valuable like beauty, status and responsibility are gone. Now, their value becomes subjective than objective. The validity of their value is rather determined subjectively. If we don’t regard them valuable, they don’t have value in the society. If we consider them valuable, then they have value, no matter how old, weak and useless they are.

It is our duty, as the younger generation, to place value on old people. One day, we too, will become old. If we make ‘respect for old people’ our culture, we will reap the harvest when we are old. I don’t know how many octogenarians (80-89 years of age) we have in Mizoram. I don’t think we have many. If our government or any voluntary organization can give 500 rupees on monthly basis to our octogenarians, as a symbol of our appreciation for who and what they are; 1000 rupees to our nonagenarians (90-99 years), and 2000 rupees to those very few centenarians (100 years and above), our old people will feel appreciated and valued. When they feel valued and worthwhile, the few remaining years of their lives would be spent with self-respect, self-esteem and self-congratulation accompanied by a sense of satisfaction, a sense of happiness and the serenity of mind. By doing this, we will also educate our children the value and the prize of old people.

3. Source of Blessing:
Old age is a blessing from God. Our life is not in our hands. We simply cannot live as long as we want. One thing that is very clear about old people is that they live a long life because God protects and sustains them. When we value old people, we become one with God who blesses them. God is happy when we become one with him. Solomon was blessed by God with riches, fame, glory, etc. because he pleased God when he asked for wisdom to rule well because that was exactly what God thought Solomon needed with his awesome responsibility as the king appointed by God over His chosen people. We can please God by valuing, loving and caring old people. When God is pleased, He will surely bless us as He did Solomon.

With the following line taken from “My Quotations” framed by myself, I would like to sum up this article leaving a thought to all the readers about the degree of value we have to place on our elders in general and the aged in particular and the blessings that will ensue:

“He who doesn’t show respect to old men and old women is not worthy of a long life.”