Manipur Strife: What Is The History Of The Meiteis, Kukis And Nagas?

Biman Das

May 05, 2023, 03:41 PM | Updated 03:41 PM IST

A house sitting atop floating clusters of vegetation called phumdis over the picturesque Loktak lake, Bishnupur district.
A house sitting atop floating clusters of vegetation called phumdis over the picturesque Loktak lake, Bishnupur district.
  • The trigger behind the recent spate of violence can be argued to have been the demand by the Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list of the state.
  • The hill state of Manipur nestled in the tropical rainforests of North East India is currently embroiled in a series of violent ethnic clashes between the tribal and non-tribal inhabitants of the state.

    Attacks on the majority Meitei (also known as Manipuri) and the Kuki tribes have been claimed from both sides since the last few hours.

    The trigger behind the recent spate of violence can be argued to have been the demand by the Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribes (STs) list of the state.

    The community has long demanded to be included in the list owing to economic and cultural reasons. They claimed that while Meiteis were included alongside Nagas and Kukis as tribes by the British, they were not included in the status of STs when the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 was passed.

    In a judgement delivered by Acting Chief Justice M V Muralidharan on 27 March, the High Court of the state found that denying the Meiteis the right to be included in the STs list was violating their right to equality, life and dignity that are enshrined under Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

    Furthermore, the High Court has given the state government a period of four months to send in their recommendations to the centre regarding the inclusion of the community in the order of the STs.

    Tribal bodies such as the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) have been vehemently opposing the inclusion of the Meiteis into the STs list claiming that according ST status to them will harm the economic and cultural interests of the hill people.

    Rallies against inclusion of the Meiteis into the order are being carried out routinely by the tribal groups in the state. ATSUM had also announced bandhs in the state’s hill areas in opposition to the High Court’s suggestion on 24 April.

    The opposition has largely escalated into violence in the hilly areas in the last few days with many Meiteis living in the Torbung area of the Churachandpur district accusing Kuki groups of attempting to ethnically cleanse them from their homes.

    Currently, they are believed to be taking shelter in the Kangmai area of the district.

    It is also being alleged that Kuki groups have demolished the Ebudhou Pakhangba temple in Churachandpur in retaliation for the state demolishing churches in the Imphal valley that were constructed on encroached lands.

    Central paramilitary forces such as the Rapid Action Force of the Central Reserve Police Force have been called into the state to quell the agitating groups before the state sees further clashes leading to loss of lives and properties.

    Demographic Background

    The population of the state has evolved through several waves of immigration from groups originating from both East and West of the region.

    While much of the early history of the state is shrouded in mystery, anthropological assumptions by social scientists place the origin of the state’s diverse population to be primarily of the Tibeto-Burman stock.

    Meiteis (also called Manipuris) are the most numerous of all the ethnic groups in the state and largely inhabit the fertile Imphal valley that sits at the centre of the state.

    Meiteis were originally a set of four different tribes — Khuman, Luwang, Moirang and Meitei.

    The latter of these tribes was able to exert its influence onto the three other tribes absorbing them to form the modern Meitei ethnicity (Tarapot, Phanjoubam. Bleeding Manipur. Har-Anand Publications, 2003. P 95).

    The formation of the Meitei ethnicity resulted in the creation of seven salai (clans) namely Ningthouja, Angom, Khuman, Moirang, Luwang, Sarang-Leishangthem and Khaba-Nganba. They are largely concentrated in the plain districts of the Imphal valley and Jiribam plain with smaller numbers in the hills.

    Apart from Meiteis, there is another community which is the epithet of “Manipuri” — the Bishnupriya Manipuri.

    They show quite many cultural similarities with the Meiteis but are distinct in that they speak an Indo-Aryan language similar to Assamese and Bengali.

    While critics accuse Bishnupriya Manipuris to be migrants, the community itself holds the opposite notion. A careful analysis on their phenotypes shows it to be somewhere in between.

    The community is believed to have received the title of “Bishnupriya” on account of inhabiting the Bishnupur district (earlier called Lamangdong). Most now live in the Barak valley of Assam following the Burmese occupation of Manipur (1819-1826), which forced most of them (and many Meiteis) to flee Westwards.

    Nagas in Manipur refers to a collection of tribes that live North of the Imphal valley. These communities form a cultural continuum with the Meiteis that extends to the Naga tribes further North into Nagaland and Assam.

    Of these, the Zeliangrong Nagas who inhabit the Tamenglong district exhibit the closest cultural links with the Meiteis.

    Even to this day, animist Zeliangrong Nagas of faiths such as the Heraka and Tingkhao Ragwang Chapriak also worship deities that are part of the traditional Meitei pantheon.

    Folklore has it that there was once a Liangmai Naga princess named Wimaranliu Abonmai (called Nungnang Leima Saphabi) who became the consort of Ibudhou Koubru (who is equated with Mahadeva of the greater Indian pantheon).

    Hence, it isn’t surprising to see non-Christian Zeliangrong Nagas to offer oblations to deities such as Ibodhou Pakhangba or Ima Panthoibi.

    Kukis in the state (called Khongjais in Meiteilon) refers to the Chin tribes that inhabit the Southern Hills and the Kangpokpi region in the Northern Hills.

    They are culturally closer to the Mizos of Mizoram and the Chin tribes of Myanmar. They are relatively much later migrants to the state compared to the Nagas and the Meiteis.

    Among these are the Thadou-Kukis who are the largest tribe of the state’s population. Prior to arriving in Manipur, they inhabited the present state of Mizoram before being pushed Northwards by the Lushais around the turn of the 19th century (Kamkhenthang, H. The Paite, a Transborder Tribe of India and Burma. Mittal Publications, 1988. Page 5)

    Historical Background

    Historically, there has been a gradual rate of absorption of Meitei customs among the hill people of the state termed as “Meiteisation”.

    Groups that once spoke languages such as Andro, Sengmai and Chairel as recorded in the 1881 census identify as Meiteis today.

    Notably, the same census also recorded the “Naga speaking” population to be 77,108 (34.8 per cent) while the Kuki speaking population was enumerated to be merely 8,180 (3.7 per cent) (Government of India. Report on the Census of Assam for 1881. The Asiatic Society of India. 1883. Page 149).

    It is not uncommon to find many Meitei figures in the history of the kingdom of Kangleipak to be of Naga origin. A prominent example of this is Thaowon Saamtharnu (Nungthilchaibi in Meiteilon), a Chothe Naga woman who became the consort of Meitei king Charairongba and gave birth to king Meiteingu Pamheiba (also known as Gopal Singh and Gharib Nawaz).

    It may not be unreasonable to state that the relations between the Nagas and the Meiteis in the state were mostly amicable with many Nagas being gradually absorbed into the Meitei population itself through cultural exchange.

    Although both of the aforementioned communities had cordial behaviour towards one another, there would be occasional raids by Naga chieftains in the plains that would irritate the Meitei kings.

    To prevent such incidents from occurring at frequent intervals, the royals invited certain tribes from Myanmar to act as demographic buffers from the Naga raids, starting with the rule of king Khagremba.

    These tribes subsequently came to be known as Khongjais (or Old Kukis) by the Meiteis (Kabui, Gangmumei. The History of the Zeliangrong Nagas: From Makhel to Rani Gaidinliu. Spectrum Publications. 2004. Page 63).

    A later wave of immigration from the Chin state of Myanmar resulted in the arrival of “New Kukis” such as the Thadous and Paites from the later end of the 19th century who form the overwhelming bulk of the Kuki population of the state today.

    This migration would be exacerbated by the Lushais pushing the Thadous from Mizoram to Manipur in the late 18th century (Singh, Manju, et al., editors. Resilience and Transformation for Global Restructuring: Resilience and Transformation for Global Restructuring. Ethics International Press Limited. 2022. Page 7).

    Esteemed Rongmei Naga historian Gangmumei Kamei noted the expansion of incoming Kuki tribes that forced the Zeliangrong Nagas out of Southern districts like Churachandpur that they previously inhabited (Kamei, Page 134).

    This can be corroborated through the experiences of British officials such as R B Pemberton (1835), A Mackenzie (1884) and J Johnstone (1896) who noted down incoming Kuki tribes ethnically cleansing Zeliangrongs from their homes during their Northward expansion (Thomas, John. Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity. Taylor & Francis. 2015. Sending out the spears).

    The murky distinction between who exactly constitutes a “Naga'' and a “Kuki” does not help much either.

    Identification of a tribe as Naga in Manipur largely revolved around political power, bolstered by the arrival of Christian missionaries.

    Many tribes that formed part of the original Khongjai classification such as Anal, Chothe, Purum, Monsang and Moyon gradually themselves started identifying as Nagas (Fazal, Tanweer, editor. Minority Nationalisms in South Asia. Taylor & Francis Group. 2013. Page 25). Kom, another "Old Kuki" tribe, now identifies as part of the smaller Komrem classification, distinct from both Nagas and Kukis.

    While the word “Naga” was used by the British to refer to an ever expanding umbrella of tribes for sake of convenience, they also used Kuki (a word of Bengali origin meaning “basket carrier”) to refer to another set of tribes.

    Hence, it becomes irrelevant to draw historical similarities between communities that likely never shared common origin but a common exonym (Haokip, T S. Ethnicity and Insurgency in Myanmar/Burma. Educreation Publishing. 2018. Page 82).

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