North East

Chronicles Of Clashes: Why The Kukis Have Been At War With Other Ethnic Communities

Jaideep Mazumdar

Aug 20, 2023, 06:47 PM | Updated 06:37 PM IST

Early Kuki migrants from Burma
Early Kuki migrants from Burma
  • The Kuki community has seen conflicts with many other communities of the Northeast.
  • Here is a look at the very origins of such disputes.
  • Read part one of this article here.

    The Kukis have, over the past few decades, often got themselves into armed conflicts with other ethnic groups of the region like the Nagas, Karbis, Dimasas and others. 

    Those disputes, like the present one with Meiteis, have been over ownership of land.

    Despite the claims by the Kukis, the fact remains that they are essentially a nomadic tribe who have migrated from one place to another and practised shifting cultivation. 

    A close perusal of authentic historical records in Manipur, including the royal chronicles and documents dating back to the early 19th century, show that the Kukis migrated to the hill areas of Manipur during the reign of Maharaja Nara Singh from 1844 to 1850. 

    How Kukis Came To Manipur:

    It was the British who encouraged them to settle in the hills of Manipur. And even since then, the Kuki settlers have clashed violently with the Nagas and Meiteis (collectively known as the Haomees) who are the indigenous ethnic groups of Manipur. 

    According to historians, the Kukis started coming into the hills of Manipur in large numbers after the 1826 Treaty of Yandaboo that ended the first Anglo-Burmese War. 

    The kingdom of Manipur, ruled by Meitei kings, became a British protectorate after the Treaty of Yandaboo that reinstated Maharaja Gambhir Singh to the throne in Manipur. The Manipur king had been defeated and deposed by the Burmese who were later defeated by the British. 

    The Nagas in the hills of Manipur had, at times, rebelled against the Meitei kings of Manipur and used to raid Meitei areas in what is today known as the Imphal Valley. After Manipur became a British protectorate, the British made many attempts to subjugate the Naga tribes in the hills but were unsuccessful. 

    The Kukis had, by then, started settling down in the vast uninhabited tracts of the hills of Manipur. The British felt that the Kukis could be used as buffers between the Nagas and the Meitei kingdom. 

    Thus, the British started encouraging the nomadic Kukis to migrate from the present-day Chin state and the Sagaing division of Myanmar to the hills of Manipur. 

    An authoritative booklet titled Manipur: After The Coming of Kukis written by Late Lt Col R K Rajendra says that it was during the reign of the popular King Pamheiba (1720-1751) that the first Kukis--the Khonjais--came to Manipur in 1741. 

    The army veteran’s work is considered to be an authentic account of the history of Kukis in Manipur and has not been disputed even by any established historians. In fact, it is widely quoted by history teachers at the school, college and university levels in Manipur. 

    Before passing away on 23 May this year, the decorated army veteran said in an interview that the Kukis were not even natives of Myanmar but migrated to that neighbouring country many centuries ago from the southern part of present-day Malaysia (watch this). 

    An earlier wave of Kuki migration from Myanmar was between 1819 and 1825--the darkest period in Manipur’s history that is also known as Chahi Taret Khuntakpa (seven years of devastation) when Burmese invaded Manipur and committed terrible atrocities on the people. 

    The Thadou Kuki nomads took advantage of the chaos in Manipur at that time. They often started clashing with indigenous Anaals (a Naga tribe) and other tribes. 

    The then British political agent in Manipur, Major W McCulloch, asked Maharaja Nara Singh to allow Kukis to settle down in the uninhabited forested lands between the Manipur and Burmese kingdoms. 

    The British cleverly suggested that the Kukis, who had also fought against the Burmese, could become a buffer between Manipur and Burma. Major McCulloch also suggested that the Kukis be provided some arms to act as a frontier force for the Meitei king against any misadventure by the Burmese. 

    The Meitei king agreed and as a result, a substantial number of Hmars and Vaiphei people (belonging to the Kuki-Chin ethnic group) migrated to Manipur during that time. 

    Since then, many more Kukis started migrating to Manipur and settling down in the hills. But these communities were still nomadic in nature and constantly shifted from one place to another. Many Kukis also spilled over to neighbouring Assam. 

    The British had already provided arms to the Kukis, and this helped the Kukis in their fights against the indigenous tribes like the Nagas. 

    The British became beholden to the Kukis for their help in crushing a revolt by Meitei rebels who had joined hands with the 34th Native Infantry in Assam’s Cachar during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.

    The Kukis killed a large number of Meitei rebels and the mutineers and were rewarded by the British with more arms and help to settle down in the hills of Manipur (read about this episode here, here and here)

    The British are also accused of falsifying records to show that the Kukis were native to Manipur. These records are now being quoted by Kuki historians to claim that they are an indigenous tribe of Manipur. 

    How the Kukis got into conflict with indigenous tribes

    The Kukis were not only nomadic, but also lacked a settled village structure. The chief of a village was the prime authority and the eldest son always succeeded the chieftain. 

    “It has been the tradition of these nomadic tribes for the other sons of a chieftain to leave their village after their eldest brother becomes the chieftain upon the death, incapacitation or abdication of their father. These sons, along with their families and followers, go to some other uninhabited area and establish their own villages. That is why Kuki villages have grown so exponentially in numbers,” explains Professor Oinam Bhagat of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences. 

    “This resulted in the Kukis coming into conflict with the indigenous tribes who regarded the uninhabited or forest lands as their community lands. It must be remembered that territories, especially of the tribes, were not defined at all and there were no pillars, for instance, to mark the boundaries of land belonging to, say, a Tangkhul or Rongmei village. The Kukis forcibly settled on the lands that the Nagas and other tribes considered their own and that resulted in frequent clashes,” Professor Bhagat told Swarajya

    “The Kuki practice of frequent clan formation and village formation has resulted in their rapid expansion into lands belonging to the indigenous people of Manipur and neighbouring Assam, and thus the ethnic conflicts between Kukis and other communities,” Professor Bhagat added. 

    The Kuki narrative now

    With modern education provided by Christian missionaries and with the reservations that followed after independence, the Kukis have progressed socially, professionally and economically.

    In fact, Kukis occupy a disproportionate number of senior positions in the Manipur government--a large number of them are IAS and IPS officers and occupy a majority of the top posts in the state government. 

    The movement up the social and economic ladder had led to the realisation among Kukis, since the 1990s, that they have to create their own history.

    “The foremost objective of the Kukis is to claim that they are an indigenous tribe of Manipur. To advance this claim, they are trying to falsify history to prove that they have inhabited the hill areas of Manipur much before the British came to India. The Kukis are trying to show that they have been in permanent residence or settlement in many areas in the hills continuously for centuries. But those lands actually belong to Nagas and other indigenous people,” said historian Radhabinod Singh. 

    In order to bolster their claim for indigenous status in Manipur, the Kukis cite the ‘Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-1919’. But many historians dismiss that as a small uprising by the Kukis against British attempts to draft them into the Labour Corps during the First World War. 

    “The Kukis, along with Meiteis and Kabuis (Nagas)  were initially drafted into the Labour Corps by the British and sent to Europe, but many Kukis died there. When word of their deaths reached the Kuki settlers in Manipur, they resisted further British attempts to draft them,” said Singh. 

    The Kukis also requested Tangkhuls and Kabuis to resist British attempts to draft them. But the latter refused. The Kukis then launched a limited armed struggle against the British, but were soon defeated. 

    The Kukis also attacked the Tangkhuls, Kabuki and other indigenous tribes and massacred a large number of those indigenous tribals. 

    “The British army was away at war and the police were left to quell the Kuki uprising. It was never a war. Only 12 Kukis were taken as prisoners, 43 were killed, 54 were injured and 103 Kukis surrendered. Can this be called a war?" Lt Col R K Rajendra had said in the interview.. 

    An account of the Kuki revolt against drafting into the Labour Corps has been mentioned in detail by Sir Robert Reid who was the Governor of Assam from 1937 to 1942.

    Sir Robert wrote a book based on old records penned by two chief commissioners of Assam--Sir Archdale Earle (1912-1918) and Sir Nicholas Dodd Beatson Bell (1918-1921) who became the first British Governor of Assam for a short period from January to April 1921. 

    Sir Reid’s book clearly mentions that the Kukis had only revolted against British attempts to draft them into the labour corps and had that attempt not been made, the Kukis would always have remained loyal to the British. 

    “The Kukis have attempted to create a false history by claiming that they fought against the British for independence. That’s pure bunkum. That revolt against recruitment into the Labour Corps was just a minor one and not at all a war for independence. The Kukis were settlers and so they had no land to call their own or no land in Manipur or Assam they could have ever claimed to be indigenous to,” said historian Singh. 

    Incidentally, the Union Home Ministry has recently claimed it has no record of any Anglo-Kuki War in Manipur (read this). 

    Reasons for the latest conflict with Meiteis

    The primary reason for the latest clash with the Meiteis is the same as that of past conflicts between Kukis and other indigenous people. 

    The reason is Kukis’ claim over land and creating a claim as indigenous people.

    It is a fact, as admitted by the Union Government as well, that a huge number of Kukis have entered Manipur illegally from Myanmar in recent years and settled down in the state. The Kukis deny it, but cannot explain why their population, and number of settlements, has registered an exponential rise in recent years.

    The Kuki population has grown five-fold over the last six decades and only illegal immigration from Myanmar can explain this abnormal increase in population. 

    “The Kukis are desperate to prove that they are indigenous to districts like Kanpokpi, Tengnoupal and Churachandpur where they are in a majority now. The Manipur government’s drive launched earlier this year to clear reserve and protected forests of encroachment by Kuki immigrants from Myanmar angered the Kukis. The eviction drives demolished the Kuki narrative that they were original inhabitants of those areas and showed them up as encroachers and illegal settlers,” said N Dorendra Singh, a sociologist. 

    Some Kukis were also reportedly incensed over the drive against illegal poppy cultivation by the Manipur state government. Most of the poppy cultivators are the impoverished illegal immigrants from Myanmar and the drug trade yields huge sums of money for Kuki militants and a section of Kuki politicians and civil society organisations. 

    The Kukis viewed the eviction drives and the campaign against illegal poppy cultivation as aimed against their community and launched with the objective of discouraging more illegal immigration of their fellow tribesmen from Myanmar.

    “The Kukis actually want a separate state that they will then integrate with Mizoram. That is their goal. And they know that claiming large areas of Manipur as their own, and increasing their numbers, is crucial to that goal,” said Singh. 

    It is the Kuki pursuit of this goal that has brought them into conflict with the Meiteis now. Just as it had led them into conflicts with Nagas, Dimasas, Karbis and other indigenous people.

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