The crux of Zale’n-gam: The issue of Kuki ancestral land

Published on November 24, 2005

By PS Haokip

November 24, 2005: In the month of March 2003 seminars were held in Imphal, Delhi, Guwahati and Shillong on the topic ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’.[1] The essential point highlighted at the seminars was that the event was a culmination of Kuki opposition to the British colonialists, who had been making incursions into Zale’n-gam since the eighteenth-century. In other words, the Kuki people fought to preserve the sovereignty of Zale’n-gam, not because they wanted to oppose the Labour Corps recruitment drive to serve in the war in France as has been widely propagated. To mention, the forced recruitment process only triggered the event.

British perspectives such as on the events of 1917-1919, have largely influenced the historiography of the Kuki people. Analyses in this context has denied Kuki’s due place in history. For example, also with a view to lowering the significance of the war, certain local academics have chosen to promote the ‘Labour Corps’ rationale as the cause of Kuki war against the British. Common sense alone reveals that for such a mundane reason no nation of people would concertedly wage war against an imperial power, and that too for nearly three years. The extensive preparations that involved mobilisation of forces, by engaging traditional practices of Sajam Lha and Thingkho le malchapom,* reflects the nationalistic character of the war.

Regrettably, it appears that the schematic mindset referred to in the preceding paragraph is not confined to those not belonging to the nation Kuki. This is evident in Kukiforum’s missive to the chief minister of Manipur, and the statement issued by the Kuki National Front (KNF) (Imphal, 6 April, Kanglaonline), both regarding Manipur’s integrity. The stance taken in these instances seem to contradict the essence of our people’s history of Zale’n. The pertinent question every Kuki need to ask is whether our forbears fought against the British for the integrity of Zale’n-gam or for Manipur’s? While the former stands for the dignified preservation of our ancestral lands, the latter would suggest Kuki was never a sovereign people. History proves that Kuki chiefs received tax and tributes from those residing in Zale’n-gam; they were not under any alien rule and so not obligated to pay tax. The colonialists tried to usurp this status, and so ensued the war of 1917-1919.

Given our historical premise, the most important concern is to stand for Kuki territorial integrity; anything other than that status is secondary. Today, National Socialist council of Nagalim – Isak & Muivah (NSCN – IM)-led Nagas of Manipur and Meitei underground outfits, such as United National Liberation Front (UNLF), combined with People Liberation Army (PLA) have aggressed into Kuki soil. These are telling trends; they cannot be ignored. ‘Writings on the wall?’ Ominous! While the designs of NSCN – IM)-led Manipur Nagas have been openly flagged, Meitei’s has been veiled. Meitei underground outfits are unable to penetrate Naga areas because the people are unified; their intrusive presence in Kuki areas has been possible because our people are not unified.

Furthermore, as several factions are with Naga and Meitei underground organisations, there has not been adequate pressure to deter the infiltration. Meitei intentions are self-evident: take advantage of the easier target, Kukis, occupy their lands by force, in which venture they are tacitly aided by rogue officers of the Burmese Military Junta, who have been bribed to permit bases particularly around Namphalong, next to Moreh, across the Indian border. In Chandel district, for instance, Meitei militants have subjected Kuki chiefs and elders, apart from village people, to severe inhuman treatment. In the words of an elder, ‘humiliations of the kind never experienced even under the British have been meted out by Meitei!’ The Sixth Schedule, which is an administrative issue to benefit the hills peoples, is strongly opposed by the Meitei underground and condoned by United Council of Manipur (UCM), a social body. Meitei underground also do not spare the ministry of Tribal Development; funds allocated specifically for the development of the hills peoples are forcibly extracted.

In the light of these unfolding designs to dominate and continue the practice of exploitation, routing for Manipur’s integrity would mean an implicit legitimisation of the existing status quo, i.e. a continuation of Meitei abuse of Kuki and infiltration into their territory. In actual fact this pattern has been present, but has been masked by systemisations in the governmental structure introduced in post-independent India. These are facts to be seriously considered. However, what is crucial is that solution to the problem is set in place.

KNO proposes that a tripartite arrangement to accommodate Meitei, Naga and Kuki be established, each to be independent of the other and each to preserve their respective territorial integrity. To affect this, more than ever before, the issue of Kuki territorial integrity – the one currently under threat – should be our utmost concern. We must firmly consolidate our areas and gain due recognition. This specific objective is integral to the ideology of Zale’n-gam; embodied in it is all of Kuki people’s aspirations. The objective is also the mainstay of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO).

Therefore, just as our forbears created a common past for us, KNO appeals to all Kukis to share the objective of consolidation. Abiding in such unity will help to achieve our long-awaited goal. An encouraging feature in this regard was recently demonstrated by one of our students’ unions: ‘Safeguard Kuki territorial integrity’ constituted the chief theme among the banners and placards displayed by the Kuki Students Organisation (KSO), Delhi, during the silent procession opportunely (i.e. immediately following Government of India and NSCN-IM talks) carried out on Parliament Street, at the nation’s (India) capital, in February, this year. ‘Safeguard Kuki territorial integrity’ was also highlighted as the subject of the memorandum submitted to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prime minister of India.

In conclusion, if statements are to be issued, they should be in relation to the principle of ‘Kuki territorial integrity’. The existing status quo in Manipur severely undermines Kuki’s position. This is because, as mentioned above, elements actively working against Kuki interests exist. Such a state of affairs will only perpetuate turmoil and insecurity among all parties. Please note that only in ensuring ‘Kuki territorial integrity’ can that of any other entities’ also realistically be secured. Establishing such a status quo, which represents a practical political equilibrium, will ensure the prevalence of justice and fairness.

These principles are pre-requisites, their incorporations in future deliberations affecting the peoples of Manipur will enable the emergence of a permanent state of peaceful co-existence. To assert that all well-meaning and responsible human beings fervently yearn for this type of existence, based on mutual respect, would not be an overstatement. Inappropriate kowtowing, which occasionally happens, will send signals that encourage mistreatment as we already have experienced. We must be free to exercise our own rights, preferably as exemplified by our forefathers.

[1] Burma and Assam Frontier, ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’, L/PS/10/724, Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), British Library, London

* For the benefit of those needing explanation, Sajam Lha is the distribution to chiefs and leaders portions of meat of an animal, slaughtered on the occasion to deliberate on matters concerning the impending war; Thingkho le malchapom is the passing-on among Kuki chiefs a smouldering ‘firewood’ upon which is strapped the proverbial ‘red hot chilly’ to signal the declaration of war.