The Kuki-Naga conflict: Juxtaposed in the colonial context

Published on June 9, 2007

By Lal Dena

June 9, 2007: Ethnic conflict has become a very common form of social and political struggle in the modern world. There is hardly any country, which has not been affected by it. One may ask: what is the root of this conflict; is ethnicity itself a determining factor?

When ethnic differences are used consciously or unconsciously to identify one opposing group from another and when such differences are also used as a powerful mobiliz­ing weapon for social action, then ethnicity can become a contributing factor in the nature and dynamic of the conflict. But in most cases, ethnicity seems to be a mere camouflage.

Beneath the so-called ethnic conflict lay social, political and economic conflicts between groups of people who happen to identify each other in ethnic terms. The heart of the matter is that, to quote Prof. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, “ethnic conflicts generally involve a clash of interests or a struggle over rights: rights to land, to education, to the use of language, to political representation, to freedom of religion, to the preservation of ethnic identity, to autonomy or self-determination and so forth.”1

It is within this conceptual frame­work that the ongoing Kuki-Naga conflict is to be approached and stud­ied. The basic hypothesis of this paper is that the Kuki-Naga conflict is primarily an elitist conflict over land and right to self-determination which means, in the case of the Nagas, complete secession from India and in the case of the Kukis, internal autonomy with the framework of Indian constitution.


Every community at one point of time in its history was a nomadic tribe. So were the Kukis and the Nagas too. Considering the affinities between the various Naga tribes with those of South East Asia, it has been contended that the Nagas had traversed from Southwest China to Burma and eastern Thailand, and to South East Asia and moved north again and finally entered into the present habitat in North east India and some areas of upper Burma.2 In Manipur, in the past, the Naga tribes included the Liangmei, Mao, Maram, Rongmei (Kabui), Paomei, Tangkhul. Thangal, Zeme, etc. It is reliably believed that they might have settled in their present habitat in the early centuries of the Chris­tian era or even in the centuries before Christ.3

During the colonial period, the Kukis of Manipur included Aimol, Anal, Chothe, Chiru, Gangte, Hmar, Koireng, Kom, Lamkang, Lushai, Moyon, Monsang, Paite, Simte, Sukte, Thadou, Vaiphei, Zou, etc. According to 1931 census, Anal, Kom, Hmar, Gangte and Vaiphei be­longed to the old Kuki group, while the Paite, Ralte, Simte, Sukte and Thadou belonged to the new Kukis. There is no scientific basis for the classification of Kukis into old Kukis and new Kukis.

It appears that those Kukis who first came into contact with the Bengalis came to be called old Kukis and the later immigrants new Kukis. The old Kukis might have migrated and settled in Manipur hills and other adjoining areas of North East India in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in Manipur valley, whereas the new Kukis might have come at a later stage. Whatever might be, all the oral tradition and local sources point to the mainland China as the original home of the Kuki-Chin-Mizos.4


The Kukis and the Nagas lived together tight from the pre-historical period. The Nagas are more concentrated in the four districts of Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong whereas the Kukis are scat­tered all over the hills of Manipur. Initially the colonial policy was to insulate British territory from any Burmese threat. Therefore, in 1840, McCulloch, the then Political Agent, purposely adopted the policy of allowing the settlement of Kukis on the front lines and even among the Nagas.

The double purpose of the Kuki settlement in and on the fron­tiers of Manipur was that the warlike Kukis had to act as a buffer, first, against the Burmese and, second, against the recalcitrant Nagas and Lushai tribes. In like manner, the colonial administrators also used the Nagas first against the Burmese and then against the Kukis and the Lushais.

The Kukis had been recruited in the services of the King of Manipur, particularly for military expeditions. On different occasions, such as the invasion of the Mao Nagas in north Manipur, the Suktes in south Manipur and the Naga uprising in Kohima in 1879, the Kuki warriors were used by the colonial officials and this was the time when probably the first seed of discontentment of the Nagas against the Kukis was sown.5

As part of a move to augment the British war efforts during the First World War, both the Nagas and the Kukis were to be recruited for the Manipur Labour Corps. While as many as 1200 Nagas, mostly Tangkhuls, were recruited, the Kukis refused to enrol themselves in the labour corps and subsequently rose in open rebellion in 1917. They attacked government posts but soon began to raid Tangkhul and Kabui Naga villages, including some Muslim villages.

Altogether, 174 Nagas were killed. As a retaliatory move, the colonial officials took up the ‘Kuki Punitive Measures’ and recruited Nagas to suppress the rebel­lion. On the other hand, during the Zeliangrong Naga movement un­der Jadonang, the colonial officials recruited the Kukis to suppress the movement. In this way, the usual practice of divide and rule policy was fully operative in course of the consolidation of colonial control over the different ethnic tribal groups of Manipur, as elsewhere.


The Nagas present a picture of unity in diversity. They are divided into different tribal and linguistic groups. They have diverse beliefs and customs. There are also differences in rituals and modes of worship. Amidst these diversities, there is a strong fundamental unity, a feeling of ethnic and emotional solidarity. The Naga national movement, un­der the leadership of the late A.Z. Phizo, has successfully absorbed a dozen of different Naga tribes into a single Naga nationality.

A Naga’s loyalty to his clan and tribe has been gradually replaced by his loyalty to Naga national solidarity. According to Gangmumei Kabui, “the evolu­tion of Naga nationality is not a ‘fait accompli’, but an on-going search for ethnic identity. Thus the concept of a Naga nationality is a new force whose growth has been facilitated by the Naga love for their culture and freedom.”6 The emergence of Naga national conscious­ness and its consistent demand for the right of self-determination for the last more than fifty years has provided the ideological basis of the Naga movement.

On the other hand, the Kukis present a picture of division in unity. Ethnically, the Kuki-Chin-Mizos are one and the same people, having common ancestry, common history of migration and common cultural practices. Linguistically, unlike the Nagas, they can communicate to one another with the least effort in their respective dialects. In short, they have all the basic ingredients to enable them to evolve as a power­ful nationality group. Unfortunately there have emerged strong divisive forces and internal conflicts within the Kuki-Chin groups.

The first disintegrating force was unleashed by late Jamkithang Sitlhou’s note, ‘Under the Wings of Thadous’, which claimed the supremacy of the Thadous over all other tribes. In this connection, S. Prim Vaiphei has remarked “The reactions to this attitude from other groups were so strong that most of them began to withdraw arid disown the term Kuki; thus they got recognition of their respective tribes from the Govern­ment of India.”7

As a result, with the exception of the Thadou speak­ing Kukis, all the other tribes such as Gangte, Hmar, Koireng, Kom, Paite, Simte, Vaiphei, Zou got separate recognition in the Schedule Tribes list under the Constitution of India. Equally serious, mainly be­cause of the impact of Naga national movement, the Aimols, Anals, Chothe, Chiru, Kharam, Lamkang, Maring, Moyon, Monsang, etc., who were closer to the Kukis linguistically and culturally also disowned Kuki ethnicity and joined the Naga fold.

As part of their response to the powerful Indian nationalist move­ment against the British colonial rule, the Kuki elite organised them­selves into the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) in 1946. Stealing the storm from the Naga movement, the KNA had initially raised the usual threat of secession, but, paradoxically, later changed this stand and took a typical integrationist stand.8 While the Naga movement has consistently demanded the integration of all Naga inhabited areas, the KNA has upheld the unity and territorial integrity of the tribe within Manipur.

In the sixties, the KNA again raised the demand for a Kuki state within the Union of India; but, again, the demand was subse­quently toned down to that for a full-fledged revenue district within Manipur.9 From 1990 onwards, their aspiration for a new polity has been rejuvenated with the demand for a Kuki land (Kuki state) within the framework of Indian constitution. ‘Thus the demand for the right to self-determination, which means secession for the Nagas and greater internal autonomy for the Kukis, is the main ideological issue of the present conflict. To repeat, the conflict is the direct outcome of a clash of interests over the control of land and resources that were deeply rooted in the colonial legacy. Of course, we cannot deny the role of the Indian state and the dynamics of inter-ethnic relations.


The present conflict is precisely between the Thadou-speaking Kukis and the Nagas. Other ‘so-called Kukis’ have remained spectators. In a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society like Manipur, the role of the state as a keeper of law, peace and order is very crucial. On the credibility of the state, Kabui has succinctly remarked, “The greatest casualty is tile credibility of Indian security forces, specially the Assam Rifles and the Assam Regiments who were alleged to have been involved in the conflict instigating one against another. They have foolishly exposed the colonial mentality of the Indian government, instigating one tribe against another.”10 To use a Kuki against a Naga or a Naga against a Kuki is just a repetition of the colonial game.

Therefore in spite of the many efforts through the Committee for the Restoration of Normalcy (CRN), consisting of the United Naga Council (UNC), and the Kuki Inpi, Manipur (KIM), NGOs, Church leaders, Human Rights Organisations, etc., the conflict is still lingering and recurring again and again. Since the Kuki-Naga animosity is a colonial legacy, the many land disputes between the two groups at the village level, which were left unsolved by the colonial administrators, are bound to accelerate the conflict between the two ethnic groups. If one is honest and sincere enough to solve the problem, one has to contact both the militant members as well as innocent masses of the opposing groups, which have a direct hand in the trouble.



1. Stavenhagen, R. 1995. Ethnic Conflict and Human Rights: Their Inter­relationship, Bulletin of Peace Proposals, Vol. 18, No.2, pp. 509-510.

2. Kabui, G. 1995. Genesis of the Ethnoses of Manipur. In N. Sanajaoba (Ed.) Manipur: Past and Present. Vol. 3, New Delhi, Mittal Publications, p. 28.

3. Ibid., p. 29.

4. One cannot deny the historicity of the Kuki-Chin migration from inner Asia or Mainland China to South East Asia and then to North East India. Re­cently, some scholars have talked about their Jewish connection. As a result, some Kuki-Mizos from Manipur and Mizoram have migrated to Israel.

5. Laba, Yambem, 1995. Kuki-Naga Conflict: An Insight Imphal (Unpub­lished manuscript).

6. Kabui, G. op.cit., p. 26.

7. Vaiphei, Prim S., 1995. The Kukis. In N. Sanajaoba (Ed.), op. cit.

8. Ray, AK. 1991. Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives: A North-Eastern Expe­rience. Journal of North-East India Council for Social Science Research, Shillong (April), p. 44.

9. Ibid., p. 44.

10. Kabui, G. 1994. The Naga-Kuki Ethnic Conflict. Economic News and Views, July 16-31, p. 17.



Lal Dena, “The Kuki-Naga Conflict: Juxtaposed in the Colonial Context” in Dynamics of Identity and Intergroup Relations in North-East India, Kailash S. Aggarwal (ed.), Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1999, pp. 183-187.