The Kuki Rising, 1917-1919

Published on January 1, 2006

By Seilen Haokip

The ‘Kuki rising (Sic), 1917-1919’ will be discussed in the context of Kuki polity, identity and nationalism. A general, but brief description of the terminology ‘Kuki’ and related territory will serve as background for the discussion. British perspective of the ‘rising’ will be referred to; Kuki’s will be set out to illustrate the political significance. Nationalism will be emphasised to ‘conceiving identity’.[1] 

‘Kuki’ refers to an ethnic entity spread out in a contiguous region in Northeast India, Northwest Burma, and the Chittagong Hill tracts in Bangladesh. The ‘dispersal’ of the people by the existing international boundaries is the result of initial British colonialists’ deliberations. The terminology ‘Kuki’ appears to have originated in Sylhet, in erstwhile East Bengal. Elly[2] refers to ‘the tribe called Kuki by the Bengalis.’ An attributed meaning of the term is ‘hill people’. The ‘Lushei Kuki’[3] clan, from the outset did not accept the term as their identity on grounds that it was of exogenous origin, and that it bore a derogatory meaning.

A collective identity, therefore, which serendipitously was evolving to represent the ethnic people, in keeping with global political development, was unwittingly done away with; an alternative was not set in place. By the late nineteenth-century, however, when British colonialism came in contact with the people, the identity Kuki had crystallised to represent a significant section of the ethnic- population. In India, the group associated with the identity Kuki are mainly in the states of Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and Tripura; and in Burma, mostly in the Sagaing Division.

In reference to the identity Kuki and their territorial domain, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1962, vol 13, 511) records: ‘Kuki, a name given to a group of tribes inhabiting both sides of the mountains dividing Assam and Bengal from Burma, south of the Namtaleik river.’ Grierson[4] provides a more detailed account of Kuki areas as follows:  

The territory inhabited by the Kuki-Chin tribes extends from the Naga Hills in the north down into the Sandoway District of Burma in the south; from Myittha River in the east, almost to the Bay of Bengal in the west. It is

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1 Calhoun, C (1997), Nationalism, Open University Press, Buckingham

2 Elly, EB (1978, (first published in 1893), 1), Military Report on the Chin-Lushai Country, Firma KLM (P) Ltd, Calcutta

3 Shakespear, J Lt Col (1912), The Lushei Kuki Clans, Macmillan & Co, Ltd, London

4 Grierson, GA (ed) (1904), Tibeto-Burman Family: Specimens of the Kuki-Chin and Burma Groups, Linguistic survey of India, Vol. 111, Pt.111, Published by Office of the Suprintendent, Government Printing, India, Calcutta

 

almost entirely filled up by hills and mountain ridges, separated by deep valleys.

A great chain of mountains suddenly rises from the plains of Eastern Bengal, about 220 miles north of Calcutta, and stretches eastward in a broadening mass of spurs and ridges, called successively the Garo, Khasia, and Naga Hills. The elevation of the highest point increases towards the east, from about 3,000 feet in the Garo Hills to 8,000 and 9,000 in the region of Manipur.

This chain merges, in the east, into the spurs, which the Himalayas shoot out from the north of Assam towards the south. From here a great mass of mountain ridges starts southwards, enclosing the alluvial valley of Manipur, and thence spreads out westwards to the south of Sylhet. It then runs almost due north and south, with cross-ridges of smaller elevation, through the districts known as the Chin Hills, the Lushai Hills, Hill Tipperah, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Farther south the mountainous region continues, through the Arakan Hill tracts, and the Arakan Yoma, until it finally sinks into the sea at Cape Negrais, the total length of the range being some seven hundred miles.

The greatest elevation is found to the north of Manipur. Thence it gradually diminishes towards the south. Where the ridge enters the north of Arakan it again raises, with summit upwards of 8,000 feet high, and here a mass of spurs is thrown off in all directions. Towards the south the western off-shoots diminish in length, leaving a track of alluvial land between them and the sea, while in the north the eastern off-shoots of the Arakan Yoma run down to the banks of the Irawaddy.

This vast mountainous region, from the Jaintia and Naga Hills in the north, is the home of the Kuki-Chin tribes. We find them, besides, in the valley of Manipur, and, in small settlements, in the Cachar Plains and Sylhet. A spirit of sovereignty pervades the history of the Kuki people. ‘Zale’n-gam’ is an ideological concept propounded by PS Haokip, president of the Kuki National Organisation. ‘Zale’n-gam’ means ‘freedom of the people in their land’; it encapsulates and expounds the essence of Kuki history and nationalism. In recent history, this spirit of Kuki nationalism was reflected in the vehement opposition to British imperialists’ designs in Zale’n-gam, which began in the nineteenth-century.

When Assam came under British rule following the conclusion of the Anglo-Burmese War in 1826,[5] expeditions to extend British rule throughout the Northeast were carried out by the Assam Rifles and the Assam Military Police. ‘Some of the famous ones

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5 Guardians of the North East: The Assam Rifles, 1835-2002 (2003, 11), First published in India by Directorate General Assam Rifles, Laitumkhrah, Shillong, 11 in association with Lancer Publishers & distributors, New Delhi

[expeditions]’ include ‘Kuki operations of 1880-1882 and 1917-1919’.[6] ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’[7] is a culmination of opposition to British colonialism mounted by the Kuki people. Shakespear[8] and Palit[9] refer to the event as ‘Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919’.

The Kuki rising of 1917-1919 serves as a foundation of Kuki nationalism. In Zale’n-gam: The Kuki Nation[10] Haokip recounts details of the rising, which was painstakingly collated. The event is a reminder of the spirit of nationalism exercised by our forbears. In present-day context, the Kuki country covered by the movement ranges broadly from the upper Chindwin, Burma, in the West; the hills in Manipur; and Aisan, Nagaland, in the East. The leadership lay with Chengjapao Doungel, King of Kuki; Pache Haokip, Chief of Chassad and all Haokips; Tintong Haokip, Commander-in-Chief of Kuki Army; Enjakhup Kholhou, Dy Chief-in-Command of Kuki Army, and Khotinthang Sitlhou alias Kilkhong, Chief of Jampi. Kuki chiefs received tax and tributes from their various subjects in the regions stated above.

The magnitude of the national movement of 1917-1919 is reflected in the words of Lt Col RS Chhetri: to handle the ‘Kuki Rebellion’, ‘An Assam Rifles Brigade under Col LW Shakespear, the newly appointed Deputy Inspector General, set out with a strength of 2,600 men assisted by a contingent of Burma Military Police numbering 400.’[11] A Minute Paper refers to ‘23 principals involved, 13 in Manipur under Assam, 10 in the Somra Tract under Burma.’[12]

Military columns, commandeered by British officers Coote, Hebbert, Higgins and Clocte, ‘criss-crossed the area [Kuki’s] and fought a number of actions to successfully suppress the Kuki rebellion. In the process [which reflects the scale and intensity of the war against Kuki], they won 1 CIE, 1 OBE, 14 IDSMs, 1 King’s Police Medal, innumerable Mentions-in-Despatches and Jangi Inams.’[13] With regard to Kuki, the British Advisory Committee passed recommendations to subject the prominent leaders (m entioned above) to a ‘period of restraint’, each for fifteen years, with the exception of the Chief of Chassad, who received a penalty of twenty years.[14]

It is significant that the records of 1917-1919, available in the archives of the British Library in London, is entitled ‘Kuki rising’, rather than ‘Kuki uprising’. ‘Rising’ is a political terminology symbolising the national status of Kuki, who were not under British rule; ‘uprising’, on the other hand, implies a subjugated nation in rebellion. 

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6 Op.cit, 17

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

8 Shakespear, LW Col (1929), History of the Assam Rifles, Firma KLM Pvt Ltd, Calcutta

9 Palit, DK (1984), Sentinels of the North-East: The Assam Rifles, Palit & Palit, New Delhi

10 Haokip, PS (1998), Zale’n-gam: The Kuki Nation, Published by Kuki National Organisation (for private circulation only)

11 Guardians of the North East: The Assam Rifles, 1835-2002 (Op.cit, 19)

12 Minute Paper, Secret Political Department, Government of Burma, Rangoon, 23 December 1919

13 Guardians of the North East: The Assam Rifles, 1835-2002 (Ibid, 20)

14 Foreign and Political Department Notes, Secret – I, January 1920, Nos 4-12, Submitting, for orders, proposals for dealing with the leading rebels concerned in the Kuki rebellion

‘Rebellion’ is a military term that does not recognise Kuki’s political status. Before 1919, Kuki was not under the British.

The national character of the events of 1917-1919 is clearly indicated in Webster’s report:[15] 

Soon after the actual recruiting began, however, some of the Kuki chiefs in the outlying hills adopted an obstructive attitude. It was reported that the chief of Aishan, Chengjapao, who is “Piba” [Pipa] or head of all the Thado Kukis, had sent orders to all the leading Thado chiefs to resist recruiting with force if necessary. Other influential chiefs were reported to have taken similar steps.

Extensive preparations had undergone prior to launching offensives against the British. Knowledge of manufacturi ng flintlocks enabled Kuki to stock them in thousands, for use in any eventuality.  Between 1907-1917, the British collected from the Kukis 1,195 guns.[16] Palit makes an interesting observation: ‘Mention has been made earlier that the Kukis had been encouraged by emissaries from Bengali nationalists in Assam, but any thought that the Germans had also had a hand in it had not occurred to any one.’[17] This matter came to light at Tamu in May 1918, where upon a ‘Medical Officer on his round of inspection came upon some Sikhs of the Burma M.P. in a hut tearing up some papers they said they did not want. The M.O. picked up some of the papers and found among them photos of two Germans, one in uniform. On the back of one of them was written in Hindustani: “If you fall into rebel hands show these and they will not harm you.”’[18]

In the first week of March 1917, Chengjapao Chief of Aisan, held a gathering of various chiefs to deliberate on the impending war. According to Kuki custom, a buffalo was slaughtered on the occasion, and Shajam lha was performed.Shajam lha is an auspicious tradition: the flesh of the animal is distributed among the Chiefs to mark solidarity; the heart and liver is shared, symbolising commitment to the cause. The same tradition was observed at the Chassad Conclave, as well as at Jampi, Henglep, Mombi (Lonpi), Joujang, Phailengjang (present-day upper Chindwin), Halflong (present-day Assam) and Mechangbung (present-day Nagaland).

As a declaration of war, thingkho le malchapom (king-sized red chillies strapped onto smouldering firewood) was passed, for example, from Aisan to the adjoining village, and thereon…. These solemn proceedings indicate the nature of the Kuki Rising of 1917-1919: it was a concerted national movement against aggressing colonialists. Official British perspectives suggest otherwise. On 27 June 1919, Webster wrote to the Secretary, Government of India, ‘the province of Assam was asked to furnish a quota of “labourers” for employment with the Army in France’.[19] From Kuki point of view, the event was a culmination of ongoing

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15 Ibid

16 Manipur Administration Report, 1918-1919, p.2

17 Palit Op. cit, 81

18I bid, 81-82

19 Political Department, From The Hon’ble Mr. J.E. Webster, C.I.E., I.C.S., Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Assam, To The Secretary to the Government of India, Foreign and Political Department, Shillong, the 27 June 1919

opposition to colonialism, triggered by the Labour Corps drive. It is a preposterous notion that the cause of a concerted movement against an imperialist force, sustained for nearly three yea rs, could be relegated merely to resistance against working as labourers.

The consequent events, in response to the call of the Chief of Aisan, are described in an extract from the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam in the Political Department:[20]

The “Kuki rising, 1917-1919”, which is the most formidable with which Assam has been faced for at least a generation … the rebel villages held nearly 40,000 men, women and children interspersed … over some 6,000 square miles of rugged hills surrounding the Manipur valley and extending to the Somra Tract and the Thaungdut State in Burma.

British reaction is revealed in a confidential despatch of Sir HDU Kerry, General Officer Commanding, Burma Division: ‘I therefore decided to put an end to the Kuki revolt by force of arms, break the Kuki spirit, disarm the Kukis, exact reparation and pave the way for an effective administration of their country.’[21]

A retrospective view shows that ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’ is a paradoxical event. On the one hand, its subjugation, in a manner resonant of Sir Kerry’s avowal, was a turning point in Kuki history: it broke the spirit of the people and set in decline Kuki as a nation, the effects of which still linger. The main Kuki Chiefs were arrested and put in different jails in Assam, Burma and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal (see Appendix for the lists of Chiefs arrested). On the other hand, it is a historical landmark of Zale’n-gam: it demonstrates Kuki’s relationship to their land, and is a veritable reminder of their legitimate status as a nation.

The Government also adopted administrative measures to keep the Kuki people suppressed. Kuki areas were brought under civil authority. The first Sub-Divisional Offices were opened at Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur,[22] which are now hill districts in Manipur. In Gangte’s[23] words these new administrative posts successfully achieved two planned objectives: a) ‘containment’ of Kuki activities to prevent another rising and b) ensure Naga domination especially in Ukhrul and Tamenglong sub-divisions.

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20 Burma and Assam Frontier, L/PS/10/724, Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), British Library, London, Resolution on the Late Kuki Rising, Extract from the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam in the Political Department, NO. 8856 P. dated the 27 September 1920

21 Op.cit CONFIDENTIAL, File No. 4895 Field Operations, Simla, Despatch On the Operations Against the Kuki Tribes of Assam and Burma, November 1917 to March 1919, From Lieutenant General Sir H. D.U. Kerry, General Officer Commanding, Burma Division, To The Chief of the General Staff, Army Headquarters, India, Simla. (Diary No. 69190) No. 1762-K.P.M., Maymyo, June 1919

22 Political Proceedings, Oct. 1920, No. 13: Extract from the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner, Assam, in the Political Department Number 8856 p, September 1920

23 Gangte, TS (1993, 10), The Kukis of Manipur, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi

In post-independent India, according to the Government’s Constitution Scheduled Tribes Order of 1951, ‘Kuki’ has been recognised in five different ways:

      (a)Tripura,[24] Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram[25] they are listed as ‘Any Kuki tribe, including…’;  

      (b) in  Nagaland, as ‘Kuki’;

      (c)in Manipur, as ‘Any Kuki tribe’;

      (d) by the Tribe Modification Order of 1956;[26] 

     (by this order of 1956, applied in the state of Manipur, Kuki, as well as Naga, were deleted – in their place a total of twenty-nine ‘tribes’ were recognised, twenty-two of which being a part of the former category.)

      (e) ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ 2003.[27]

A study of the transition of Kuki from a crystallised state of identity to its virtual non-existence, today, reveals a rather paradoxical account of Kuki history. In a nutshell, the combination of a) British colonialism that deprived Kuki of their sovereign rights and Christianity that followed closely on its heels – both of which promoted Naga nationalism,[28] while suppressing Kuki’s, and b) the structure of the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ recognition have had a devastating effect on the Kuki identity.

While colonialism has no moral or legal rights, the concept of ‘tribe’, anthropologically, is not applicable to an ethnic entity, such as Kuki. This is because Kuki is composed of consanguineous clans and groups, who share similar culture, tradition, customs and language. The application of the concept of ‘tribe’ nonetheless to Kuki and the consequent recognition of the clans and groups as separate ‘tribes’, has resulted in the ‘official’ fragmentation of the identity Kuki. In other words, the tribe recognition in its present form acts as the last nail on the coffin of this ethnic group’s collective Kuki identity.

This matter of identity is further complicated by the issue of recognition of a group of related sub-clans on the basis of a particular primogenitor, namely, Thadou, who is younger in the order of the lineage it belongs to. In anthropological terms, for a people

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24 For example: The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950, [Published in the Gazette of India Extraordinary No. 40, New Delhi, Wednesday, September 6, 1950. S.R.O. 510 read with Act. 81 of 1971 and Act of 1976], The Schedule, Part – XV Tripura

25 The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) (Union Territories) Order 1951 [Ministry of Law Notification No. C.O. 33, dated the 20th September 1951, Gazette of India, Extraordinary, 1951, Part II, section 3, Page 1198 G], The Schedule, Part II – Mizoram, Throughout the Union Territory

26 Constitution Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Lists (Modification) Order, 1956

27 ‘Any Kuki Tribes’, Register No. DL 33004/2003, The Gazette of India Extraordinary, Part II, Section I, Published by Authority, New Delhi, Wednesday, January 8, 2003, Ministry of Law and Justice (Legislative Department), Subject: Scheduled Cast and Scheduled Tribe Orders (Amendment Act, 2002), No. 10 of 2003 (J) in Part x – Manipur, p.6

28 Jacobs, J, with Macfarlane, A., Harrison, S., Herle, A. (1990, 152), The Nagas, Thames and Hudson Ltd. London; and Gray, A (1986, 56),The British in Nagaland – Their Anthropology and Their Legacy, in The Naga Nation and its Struggle against GenocideA report compiled by IWGIA, Document 56, July 1986, Copenhagen

 

steeped in tradition and customs, implicit in this aberration are crucial ramifications relating to hereditary rights. As observed, a manifestation of this is the bedlam unique to this group, which curiously is not present in any of the other listed twenty-eight non-personality-based recognised ‘tribes’ under the Tribe Modification Order of 1956. As a measure of ameliorating the existing dilemma, in 2003 ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ was ‘re-introduced’ by parliament. While this has provided an avenue for recognition to those in the lineage elder to Thadou and those who speak the same dialect, but are not of the particular extraction, rather inevitably, has also generated certain misgivings. One concern appears to be fuelled by the perception that ‘Kuki’, a national identity, has been relegated to the status of a mere ‘tribe’.

A study of the legal drafting ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ helps to dispel this perception. ‘Any’ is inbuilt with the implied meaning that there are other Kukis besides those already listed, including Thadou. This in itself carries the connotation that Kuki remains a nation, which has not been reduced to the status of a ‘tribe’. Furthermore, should the drafting list contain only ‘Kuki’ it would signify a status similar to any of the other twenty-eight-odd ‘tribes’. Admittedly, given the circumstances of the tribe recognition, the recent ‘re-addition’ of ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ is a temporary solution. For a long-term solution, it would be fair to consider an alternative ‘paradigm’ that is structurally disposed to being inclusive rather than exclusive.

Given the common ethnic base of the people, and in the context of the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ recognition policy, it is appropriate to regard Kuki as a tribe; the groups and clans, on the other hand, cannot be treated as separate tribes. This is because the clans and groups are comprised of a similar combination of sub-clans. For example, among groups such as Paite, Simte, Hmar, Vaiphei and the Thadou clan, the sub-clans Guite, Chongloi and Hangshing, Kipgen and Haokip, etc. exists. These identities are determined more by region rather than by particular lineage; a Guite, for instance in Sadar Hills in Senapati District, would be a part of Thadou.

(Thadou, incidentally, is recognised as a tribe on the basis of common dialect. In other words several sub-clans, who speak Thadou, irrespective of their position in the lineage, are recognised as Thadou.) In Churachandpur, on the other hand, a Guite would belong to the Paite group. The grave situation of Kuki identity has been exacerbated by the variegated patterns of recognition in the different states. A uniformed pattern of recognition, like ‘Kuki’ in Nagaland, would be far more beneficial. This would go along way in restoring the identity Kuki to its logical conclusion. Subsequently, Kuki nationalism would be revived to a dignity reminiscent of our forbears’, a development which would contribute to promote integrity not only of Kuki people, but also of all those concerned.

 

APPENDIX

Warrants, dated 8 December 1919, Delhi, signed by RE Holland, Secretary of the Government of India in the Foreign and Political Department, were issued to arrest Kuki Chiefs. They were to be restrained at Sadiya Jail in Assam.[29] 

     1. Chengjapao, Chief of Aishan

     2. Khotinthang (or Khilkung), Chief of Jampi,

     3. Pachei alias Hlukhomang [Lhukhomang], Chief of Chassad    

     4. Pakang, Chief of Hinglep [Henglep]

     5. Tintong, Chief of Laiyong [Laijang]    

     6. Ngulkhup, Chief of Mombi [Lonpi]

     7. Leothang, Chief of Goboh     

     8. Heljashon, Chief of Loibol

     9. Mangkhoon [Manglun], Chief of Tingkai     

     10. Semchung, Chief of Ukha*

     11. Ngulkhokai Haokip of Chassad**

PROPOSALS FOR THE PUNISHMENT OF THE TEN KUKI CHIEFS IN THE SOMRATRACT [KALE KABAW VALLEY] WHO WERE CONCERNED IN THE REBELLION[30]

     1. Kamjadem [Kamjahen Haokip, Chief of Phailenjang I]    

     2. Tongkwalun [Tongkholun Haokip, Chief of Phailenjang II]

     3. Letkwatang [Letkhothang, Chief of Khotuh]    

     4. Semkwalun [Semkholun Haokip, Chief of Phaisat]

     5. Zahlun [Jalhun Haokip, Chief of Molvom]    

     6. Shuku [Tukih Lupheng, Chief of Tonglhang]

     7. Vumnul [Vumngul Kipgen, Chief of Tujang]    

     8. Haokwapao [Holkhopao Kipgen, Chief of Molvailup]

     9. Nohjang Kipgen, Chief of Saisem

    10. Ngulkolun [Ngulkholun]

 

29 Burma and Assam Frontier, L/PS/10/724, Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), British Library, London

* WARRANT to the Suprintendent of Jail, Tezpur & Dibrugarh, to be detained in Tezpur Jail, Foreign and Political Department Notes, Secret – I., January 1920, Nos. 4 – 12.

** Webster’s letter to the Secretary to the Govt. of India, Foreign and Political Dept., Shillong, the 27th June 1919, p.10

30 Foreign and Political Department Notes. External – A, October 1919. Nos. 7 – 12. p.2

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