The Kuki War of Independence, 1942-1945

Published on January 13, 2006

During their First War of Independence, 1917-1919, the Kukis lost their lands to the British. They were dissatisfied with the British’s annexation of their land, which they occupied since time immemorial. Having suspicion that the Kukis would take up arms again, the colonist policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ was executed.

The dire consequences and the after effects of the British policy towards the Kuki people still plague them today that they are scattered in different countries under others’ domination.

The ‘Divide and Rule’ policy of the British was effectively carried out by dividing the Kuki inhabited land into two in 1936; the Eastern half was

merged with Burma and the Western portion went under the British India. The sub-divisions created out of the Kuki inhabited land in present day India are:

1.

Churachandpur Headquarters (shifted from Lamka to Churachandpur)

2.

Tamenglong Headquarters (shifted from Laijang to Tamenglong)

3.

Ukhrul Headquarters (shifted from Chassad to Ukhrul)

 

In the eastern part, the Kuki inhabited land was put under the Sagaing Division, Burma with sub-divisional headquarters at Tamu and Homalin. Besides these changes, the Kukis were further forced to serve in labor camps for construction of roads connecting Imphal to sub-divisional headquarters. Thus, they were successful in bringing down the Kuki image in the sight of the Meitei and the Burmese people. By favoring one against the other, the British could practically destroy the unity of the various tribes of the KUKI who were actually, at one time, part of the same ethnic group.

 

Under the British rule, the Kukis were subjected to innumerable hardships, but they refused to remain suppressed for long. They started making contacts with like-minded leaders from Bengal and Germany. When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, the Kukis took up one cause with the Indian National Army (INA) forces, under the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

 

The Kuki fighters formally joined the INA and Japanese forces in Rangoon. They signed a pact under the leadership of Pu Onkholet alias Pakang as their Commander in Chief. The INA and Japanese forces did not find it easy to reach the eastern bank of the Chindwin River up to the hills of Manipur, parts of Naga Hills and New Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong in Assam. The Japanese and INA forces did not face any hurdle in crossing the inhospitable jungle terrain because of the brave Kuki fighters, who accompanied them as comrades in arms. They reached Tengnoupal, Bishenpur and Jessami (all in present Northeast India) without much difficulty.

 

The Kukis joined the Japanese forces on the agreed and signed conditions of a formal war pact. The pact included the liberation of all the Kuki inhabited lands occupied by the British, once the British is defeated. The agreement was solemnized according to the Kuki traditional custom of taking vows by Humha-pe (biting a tiger tooth) by the Kuki chiefs and the Japanese officers present. The Kukis were then trained in the use of Japanese weapons. The Kukis’ knowledge of the topography of the area was of great help to the INA and Japanese forces. Dressed in Kuki traditional dresses, the Japanese officers carried out reconnaissance trips to different parts of Manipur and the Naga Hills. The advance party, in the same dress, constructed roads and bridges at crucial places.

 

The Japanese and the INA forces were engaged in various crucial battles, the Burmese people started to side with the Allied forces. The INA and Japanese forces failed to attract the mass support they had hoped to mobilize, once they landed on Indian soil. At this point, the ‘Non-violence Movement’ under the towering leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and others, was becoming increasingly popular and successful. As a result, the Japanese occupied Burma became unsafe for people of Indian origin.

 

These people started to leave in great numbers from Kalemyo, Kalewa, Mandalay and Rangoon, traveling mostly on foot. Thus, the roads leading towards Manipur, the only existing route to India, were filled with refugees. Thousands died of hunger, thirst and diseases. Anecdotally, it is worth mentioning here that the well known Hindi fortune in Bombay. The Assam Rifles set up refugee camps at several places, but they were inadequate to meet the demands of such a multitude of helpless humanity. The most heart-rending scene was of babies still suckling their dead mothers lying on the roadside.

 

The Kukis continued to give their unflinching support to the Japanese forces. An affinity and affection developed between the Japanese and the Kukis. This relationship is reflected in an immensely popular song; it also reflects the sentiment of the Kuki people at that time:

 

    Theilou Koljang toni lep banna,

    Ging deng deng’e Japan lenna huilen kong

    Pego lhemlhei saigin bang

    Mao deng deng’e van thamjol japan lenna

    Amao deng deng’e Japan lenna mongmo,

    Vailou kon sunsot selung hem tante.

    Atwi theikhong tabang ging deng deng,

    Ging deng deng’e Japan lenna huilen konggin.

 

Free translation:

    Beyond the hills from unknown land,

    Floats the sweet humming sound of Japanese Planes

    Like the musical notes of the ‘lute’,

    Flying high in the blue sky

    The sweet melodic hum of the Japanese planes,

    Sets the lone farmer’s heart at melancholy

    Like the sweet melody of the water-mill

    Floats the sweet humming sound of the Japanese planes

 

A few selected Kuki men were trained in the Japanese camps for five months in the neighboring states. On completion of the training, the Kukis performed the traditional presentation ceremony of Delkop (headgear) to the Japanese officers. Delkop signifies strong bonding for a common cause. Thereafter, reconnaissance for shorter route to Kohima and Imphal, from which they planned to launch the final assault into the mainland India, began.

 

After a year’s preparation in Burma, the Japanese and the INA forces, with active participation of Kukis, marched towards Imphal and Kohima. The passage was smooth and they reached Kohima and outskirts of Imphal. However, the INA and Japanese forces failed to occupy Kohima and Imphal due to the support given to the Allied forces by Nagas and Meiteis.

 

During the course of the march, two Kuki warriors belonging to the escort party led by Pu Somkhai and Pu Chongjadem encountered a British patrol at Jangmol Hills. All of the patrolling party was killed, except for one soldier who escaped to Mel camp (enemy’s camp). The escaped soldier reported the headquarters that the Kukis were with the invading Japanese army. The two Kuki warriors were later shot dead while crossing the river between Homalin and Ningthi, by the same British soldier who escaped the fatal incident.

 

The two warriors killed were later identified as Kukis from their Ponmongvom (one type of Kuki shawls) and Golong (smoke pipe). The official confirmation of Kuki participation with the Japanese Army led to the arrest and torture of many prominent Kuki leaders. The three Japanese divisions with the INA and Kuki forces took the following places:

 

Northern Sector: Thamanti, Khotuh, Leijum, Mollheh, Kanjang, Jessami and Kohima

Central Sector: Tamu, Moreh, Sita, Tengnoupal and Imphal

Southern Sector: Falam, Behieng, Singat, Moirang, Bishenpur and Nambol

 

The failure of the Japanese led forces against the British could be attributed to the refusal of the Indian soldiers to desert and join up the INA, under the leadership of Subhash Chandra Bose. The onset of the heavy monsoon season and the lack of support of other local tribes also played a major role in hindering the success of the operations. However, after India gained Independence from the British in 1947, the government of India decided to honor the Kuki warriors with the title of ‘Freedom Fighter’. Till today, many of these freedom fighters are still alive.

 

During the course of war, the Gorkhas who looked exactly like the Kukis were sent into Japanese occupied areas, disguised in Kuki garb. One such event is mentioned by Maj. Gen. Palit, in ‘Sentinels of the North East’, p.143:

 

“Typical of these returning parties was one under NK. Kalur Gurung, who returned with four riflemen all disguised as Kukis. The NCO and his four men had been captured by the Japanese at the start of the offensive, but managed to escape. They remained in hiding in the jungle until the advancing enemy echelon has passed. They then brought Kuki clothes from the villagers and, once in disguise tried to make their way back through the Japanese lines. Again, they were captured; and this time they were produced before a Japanese Officer.

 

During interrogation, they pretended not to understand Hindi, merely repeating ‘Kuki – Kuki’ in a wailing voice. Satisfied that they were only local Tribal, the Japanese let them go.”

 

When the Axis forces lost the war to the British India and British Burma, the Japanese forces retreated from the Kuki occupied territories, leaving the Kukis and the INA soldiers to fend for themselves. The actual number of the Allied forces present in the war front was very small. Had the Indian Army deserted the Britihsers as expected by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Axis powers could have easily walked through the whole of Northeast India.

 

Subhas Chandra Bose and Onkholet alias Japan Pakang felt humiliated and refused to face their people after they lost the war. They preferred to retreat with the Japanese forces to Japan. Onkholet refused to come back to his motherland till its liberation. Likewise, it is believed that many Kukis left their land, near and dear ones and went to Japan after losing the war.

 

Source: Zale’n-gam: The Kuki Nation

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