The Inter-Ethnic Relationship of the Different Communities of Manipur: A Critical Appraisal

Published on December 22, 2004

By W. Nabakumar Singh

December 22, 2004: Manipur, though small in size, is unique in respect of its ethnic composition, for the unnaturally situated, oval shaped valley that constitutes approximately 10% of the State is populated mainly by the core community – the Meiteis and also sporadically doted with the villages inhabited by the Kabuis and Manipuri Muslims.

Whereas the hilly regions that are administratively divided into five districts have poly-ethnic populations comprising twenty-nine recognized Scheduled Tribes and some other tribal communities who are still seeking for the official recognition of their ethnic names.

The twenty-nine Scheduled Tribes of Manipur, as per the Constitution with regards Scheduled Caste and scheduled Tribes Lists (modification) Orders 1956, Part X Manipur, are Aimol, Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Hmar, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Koirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamgang, Mao, Maram, Maring, Lushai tribes, Monsang, Moyon, Paite, Purum, Ralte, Sema, Simte, Sukte, Tangkhul, Thadou, Vaiphei and Zou.

It is worth recalling that the aforesaid list of Scheduled Tribes of Manipur is the modification of the constitution (schedule tribes) [Part C State] Orders, 1951, the scheduled Part VI- Manipur where in included only umbrella terms like any Naga tribe, any Kuki tribe and any Lushai tribe as scheduled Tribe names without the specific ethnic names of the different tribal communities of Manipur.

Among the tribal people who have recently asserted their separate ethnic identities and demand the inclusion of their ethnic names in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Manipur, mention may be made of the Mates, the Paomeis, the Chongthus, the Kharams, the Taraos and Inpuis. It may be mentioned here that the term Inpuis is the ethnonyme preferred by the people in hive of the ethnic name Kabui Naga already enlisted in the Scheduled Tribes list of Manipur.

The different tribal communities inhabiting Manipur and their total population as per census operations of 2001 are given below (table-1) in order to give a comparative perspective in terms of their numerical strength.

Sl. No. Name of the Tribe/Total Population

1 Aimol 2,643
2 Anal 13,853
3 Angami 650
4 Chiru 5,487
5 Chothe 2,675
6 Gangte 15,100
7 Hmar 42,690
8 Kabui: (i) Puimei (ii) Rongmei 62,216
9 Kacha Naga: (i) Zemei (ii) Liangmei 20,328
10 Koirao 1,200
11 Koireng 1,056
12 Kom 15,467
13 Lamkang 4,524
14 Mao 80,568
15 Maram 10,510
16 Maring 17,361
17 Any Mizo (Lushai) tribes 10,520
18 Monsang 1,635
19 Moyon 1,710
20 Paite 44,861
21 Purum 503
22 Ralte 110
23 Sema 25
24 Simte 7,150
25 Sukte 311
26 Tangkhul 1,12,944
27 Thadou 1,15,045
28 Vaiphei 27,791
29 Zou 19,112
30 Un Specified Tribe 75,768
Total = 7,13,813

One interesting fact in case of Purum is that the census operation 1971 and 1981 reported no Purum individual as if it were vanished tribe. But, this small tribe was again found having a population of 503 individuals as per record of 2001 census operation. When investigated the matter it is revealed that the

Purum, through not all, like to call themselves as Chothe. Purum, as interpreted by them, is not the name of their community but the name of the places they inhabit. Unspecified tribes, in the contextual specific connotation, may include those tribes who are not yet scheduled listed in spite of their strong political effort as well as the cognate groups of the Thadou, such as the Lunkin, Lenthang, Changsan, Misao, Luphang, Touthang, Baite, Lamhao, Changloi etc. etc. who do not politically assert their identity for inclusion in the scheduled Tribes list of Manipur.

The blanket categorization of the tribes of Manipur into the Nagas, the Kukis and the Mizos merit a brief academic discussion as the matter bears upon the study of the ethnic relationship of the different communities inhabiting in Manipur. Several attempts have been made by different scholars particularly anthropologists, historians and local intellectuals (Hutton, 1912; Mills, 1937; Hudson, 1911; Grierson 1903; Eluen, 1959, 1960 and Shimray, 1985) to trace the origin of the word “Naga”.

As Varrier Eluen pointed out four decades ago the derivation of the word is still obscure and the problem is not yet solved. Though no final word has been said about the derivation of the label “Naga”, it is certain that the name was given by the outsider – the inhabitants of Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and later popularized and enforced by the British colonial authorities for their smooth and convenient administration. The issue has become more complicated owing to the continuing movements of identity assertion, formation and expansion masterminded by the select few Naga elites and leaders.

The same holds true in case of the derivation of the term “Kuki”. Grierson (1903) and Hatchinson (1978) are of the view that the table is of exogenous origin and used by the outsiders for their ever easy reference. The fact that the people who are referred to as “Kuki” in Manipur are ethnically designated as “Chins” in Myanmar from where they are believed to have migrated to their present habitat who has indirectly borne out what the aforesaid scholars said.

Col. J. Shakespear (1912), on the basis of the time frame of the migration, divided the Kukis of Manipur into two: the Old Kukis and the New Kukis. According to him and other earlier British ethnographers influenced by his scholarship identified the Anal, Aimol, Purum, Chothe, Lamgang, Kom, Vaiphei, as Old Kukies taking the linguistic and cultural similarities of the tribes into their consideration. However, the Moyon and Lamsang who live side by side with the Anals in addition to their close linguistic and cultural affinity with the valley are found escaped from the academic purview of Shakespear.

That might have happened because the tribes at that time might have been overshadowed by the Anals (Ranjit 2001:95). Of the twenty nine scheduled tribes of Manipur, according to the classical classification of the earlier British ethnographers, twenty two tribes, namely Aimol, Anal, Kom, Lamkang, Monsang, Moyon, Mizo (Lushai), Paite, Purum, Ralte, Sukte, Simte, Thadou, Vaiphei and Zou are Kukis the remaining seven tribes such as Angami, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Mao, Maram, Sema and Tangkhul are Nagas.

The advent of Christianity was an epoch making event in the socio-cultural lives of the tribes of Manipur, for it brought about a sea-change in their life style and world view. Modern education has followed on the hull of Christianity and a select few tribals who got the light of education under the guidance of the Christian missionaries spread political consciousness among the general mass. The formation of ethnic based political association among the non-Naga tribals, is found as early as 1946, when Kuki National assembly (KNA) was formed with the primary objective of fast consciousness of common identity and making a single political unit of the Kukis. The constituent tribes of KNA were the Thadous, Paites, Vaipheis, Gangtes, Simtes, Zous, Anals, Koms, Hmars, Guites, Chirus, Monsang, Koirengs etc.

Not pleased with the Thadou dominancy and supremacy, the non-Thadou ethnic groups started searching for a more democratic organization as an alternative to KNA. This gave birth to Khulmi National Union in 1947 with one Mr. Teba Kilong (Kom) as its President and the tribes like Vaiphei, Gangte, Simte, Paite, Zou, Manlum Manchong, Kom, Chiru, Aimol, Purum, Tarao, Moyon, Anal, Maring, Baite Hrangchal, Khongsai (Lukim, Chengsan, Hlangum, Len-thang) and Saum Dongel who are believed, as their folk history records, to have originated from Khul meaning cave became the constituent ethnic groups of the canopy term Khulei.

As a pan Naga tribal political organization KNU contested in the 1948 election of Manipur State Legislative Assembly and seven of its members became victorious in the said election. There was, however, a problem as to the nomination of its representative to the Council of Ministers of the Manipur State as there were two aspirants, namely Mr. T. Tiankhom and Mr. Teba Kilong from KNU. The matter was settled with the allocation of speakership to Mr. Tiangkhom, for it resulted to the nomination of Mr. Teba Kilong for the Minister of Forest unopposed.

The Kuki National Assembly, however, raised objection to the nominations of the above mentioned two persons on the ground that the former represented the Paites whereas the latter represented the Koms and consequently the Kukis remained unrepresented. The KNU inspite of the political challenges from the parallel organization KNA, settled on smoothly and in 1949 Teba kilong in the capacity of Forest Minister submitted memorandum to the Hon’ble Dewan of Manipur State requesting to insert the name Khulmi in place of Kuki as the latter was the label used by the British administrators for their convenience whereas the former was the preference of the people themselves.

The late forties were characterized by hectic political activities of the tribal people of Manipur. In August 1947, the Kukis and the Lushais made a political pact with a view to making a unity between them. It was a political strategy on the part of the KNA to face the challenges of KNU. The pact signed between the President of KNA and the Secretary of Mizo Union did not last long and collapsed owing to the mutual distrust. The year 1947 also witnessed the birth of another socio-cultural- Association called, Kom Rem Association and the tribes Kom, Aimol, Chiru, Koireng, Purum and Kharam are the member tribes of the Association.

The efforts of the different non-Naga tribes to unite themselves under an umbrella term reflected the desire of having a common identity at the pan tribal level but could not be materialized owing to the lack of mutual trust and a common ideology that could bind them together. Quite a contrary picture was found among the Nagas. Major Khathing was nominated by the Naga representative as Hill Minister without much controversy to the Council of Ministers of Manipur State.

It is very much evident from the contents of the memorandum submitted by Mr. Teba kilong, the then Forest Minister of Manipur State to the Dewan of the Manipur that in the pre-independence period the people of Manipur were ethnically categorized into three main groups, namely, the Khulmis, the Kukies and the Nagas.

With the dawn of Indian Independence, Manipur also became free from the yoke of British colonial administration. But that did not last long as Manipur was formally annexed to Indian Dominion on the 15th October, 1949 by the execution of an “agreement” signed between the Maharaja of Manipur and the Government of India on 21, September 1949. As mentioned earlier the Government of India, following the legacy of British colonial administration, in its Constitution (Scheduled Tribes Part C State ) Orders, 1951 notified the Scheduled Tribes List of Manipur as 1) Any Kukies Tribe II) Any Naga Tribe III) Any Lushais Tribe without making any mention off the ethnic names of the different tribes.

This again resulted to the polarization of the tribes into two extreme poles- the Nagas and the Kukies, for the constitutional compulsion made the tribes to identify themselves either the Naga or the Kuki so that they could get constitutional safeguards. The unification of different tribes under the general level Khulmi referred a dead blow as the name was not recognized by the Government of India and the idea of being a Khulmi also did away slowly along with the extinction of KNU. As described earlier the so called Kuki tribes, despite their linguistic and cultural similarities, remained and still remain ununited.

Many tribes such as, the Hmars, the Paites, the Gangte, the Vaiphei, etc. have disowned the name Kukies and have averted their even ethnic identity. Such an act has led to the formation of splendid groups like the Hmar National Union, the Paite National Council, the Gangte Tribal Union, the Simte National Council, the Vaiphei National Council and Mate Tribal Union. This is primarily because of the lack of common ideology and partly because of the dominant attitude of the Thadous.

The Nagas, on the other hand, expand their ethno-cultural boundary by way of bringing the other non-Nagas ethnic groups, either through coercion or cultural level or both, to their ethnic fold. For instance, many Old Kuki tribes such as, the Anals, the Moyons, the Monsangs, the Langangs, the Taraos, the Chothes, the Chins, the Koirengs, the Koms etc. have joined the Nagas and identified themselves as Nagas at the pan-tribal level. The ideology of Naga nationalism is strong enough to engulf the small tribes who are in constant search for a protective and supportive coverage from the larger groups.

It is, however, noteworthy to make a mention here that Zeliangrong is an organization of four Naga tribes – Rongmei and Puimei who are collectively known as Kabuis and Liangmei and Zemei who have a collective name of Kacha Naga – who all have closer cultural affinity. Though it is an intermediary identity between the individual ethnic level and pan-tribal level identities it always works in the interest of the latter.

The history of inter-ethnic relationship in Manipur reached a turning point when the ethnic clash between the Nagas and the Kukis broke out in 1992. The conflict, from the perspective of ecological view point, may be explained as the violent expression resulted from the completion turned fight between the two communities who have exploited the same economic resource in the same ecosystem. It may also be viewed as an attempt made by a larger, stronger group to make its cultural habitat and ethnically homogeneous area by way of clearing the minority groups inhabiting the area.

The conflict continued for about five years and came to a halt in the early part of 1997. Another bloodshed also occurred at Churachandpur as a result of ethnic conflict between the Kukis and the Paite-Zoumis. The conflict started in June 1997 and continued till the early part of 1998. Such ethnic conflicts have brought about changes in the ethnic affiliation of some minor tribes such as, the Koms, the Chins etc. who at present, inspite of their earlier Naga affiliation have maintained neutrality without taking side either with the Naga or the Kukis.

The Meiteis, by virtue of their being a core community of Manipur, are the reference group of the other communities inhabiting Manipur. Their relationship with other groups particularly the hill people is worth analyzing. The history of Meitei, though rich in records of assimilating hill people at the individual level, has no substantial evidence of en masse absorption of other groups into the mainstream of Meitei society.

As evidenced from historical records it is beyond doubt that the Meitei kings carried out frequent raids on different hill peoples and collected tribute from their chiefs who also made counter attacks to the Meitei kings. It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of the relationship of the Meitei with the neighboring hill tribes centers around the frequent wars fought between the Meitei Kings and the Chief of hill tribes. However, the Meitei kings were always at the upper hand.

Such an historical reality has paved the way for establishment of the conveners-convenore d relationship between the Meiteis and the hill people. In the long process of history the value of this relationship has been inculcated in the mind of the people and the majority group has possessed the historically derived superiority that has been expressed in the farm of cultural arrogance.

When the Meiteis became the followers of Vaishnavism, this historically given cultural arrogance, according to the value system of the new faith, has been expressed in the frame work of pollution-purity relationship and has alienated the non-Hindu tribals. The tribes, who have embraced Christianity, also have alienated themselves from the Meiteis. This social gap resulted from the mutual alienation become wider and wider with the metamorphosis of the colonial subjects into free citizens of independent India became political democratization has stimulated primordial sentiments.

Manipur is characterized by ethnic diversity. But none of us is very much conscious of our diversities. The need of the choice is to know our diversities so that we can understand our commonalities that reach very much present in our folk history and cultures. If we make a triangular translation of the cultures of the Meiteis and other ethnic groups putting the former at the vertex of the triangle and the latter at the base, we will be able to understand the similarities shared by the groups.

Only when we can perceive our common part and present we will be able to lead a harmonious and peaceful life. Here, the role of the majority group is also very important. The Meitei, being a majority group should give up their cultural arrogance so that they can provide protective and supportive coverage to the minority groups. Only then we will be able to reorganize the cracking structure of our society and we can think of a multi-layered society in terms of cultural autonomy and co-existence.


1 Elwin, V.R. 1963, A New Deal for India, New Delhi, Ministry of Home Affair.
2 Geertz, Clifferd, 1971, Old societies and New states; Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa New Delhi etc. Amerind Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd.
3 Grierson, G.A., 1903, Linguistic Survey of India. Vol. (iii) Part (ii) (Reprint 1967). Delhi. Banarashidaas,
4 Hatchinson, RHS, 1978, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Delhi Viveck Publishing Co.
5 Hudson, T.C., 1911, The Naga Tribes of Manipur. (Reprint 1974) Delhi, B.R. Publishing Company.
6 Hutton, J.H., 1912, The Sema Nagas, London Macmillan.
7 Hutton, J.H., 1912 The Angami Nagas, London Macmillan.
8 Mill, J.P., 1937, The Rergma Naga (Reprint. 1980) Gauhati Spectrum Publication
9 Ranjit, R.K., 2001. “Ethnicity of the Small Tribal groups of Manipur: An anthropological analysis” in Journal of Anthropological society of Manipur vol. 3 pp. 83-106.
10 Shakespear J., 1912, The Lushai Kuki clans (Reprint 1985), Delhi Central Publishing Home.

The author is Professor of Anthropology at Manipur University, Manipur, India.

Note: The original article was published in The Orient Vision, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2004, National Research Center Manipur, Canchipur.

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