1947 did not fulfill the dreams of the Kuki people

Published on August 29, 2007

By Luntinsat Kipgen

August 31, 2007: As they were born a free people, the Kuki defence against British colonialism was a reaction in spontaneity, for safeguarding their freedom and liberty, and can be understood from the three struggles; the Great Kuki invasion of 1860, the Kuki Rising of 1917-1919 and the fight for independence under two powerful forces. 

These forces were the Indian National Army (INA) led by Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Burma Independent Army (BIA) led by Boyoke Aung San.

1) The Great Kuki invasion of 1860

The British interference with the Kuki territory and the latter’s opposition began back in 1777.[1] It was during the time when Warren Hastings was the Governor General of India (1773 to 1785). In 1860, the Kukis, in order to prevent future attacks, invaded the British Tipperah [Tripura], and the following year a large body of police marched to the hills to ‘punish and avenge’.[2]

‘In 1845, 1847-1848, 1849-1850, and 1850-1851 there were raids culminating in what is called the Great Kuki Invasion of 1860s.’[3] Determined as they were, the Kukis did not give up defending their dignity. In early 1860, they assembled numbering about 500 at the head of the River Fenny, sweeping down the course of the River, burst into the plains of Tipperah at Chagulneyah, burnt or plundered 15 villages, butchered 185 British subjects, and carried off about 100 captives.’[4]

2) The Kuki Rising of 1917-1919

i) Introduction of the Rising: The Kuki rising of 1917-1919, epitomises Kuki nationalism. It is a reminder of the spirit of nationalism exercised by our forefathers. This fact is recounted in Zale’n-gam: The Kuki Nation.[5] In present-day context, Kuki country covered by the event ranges broadly from the upper Chindwin, Burma, in the East; the hills in Manipur; and Aisan, Nagaland, in the West.

 

The leaders were Chengjapao Doungel, King of Kuki; Pache Haokip, Chief of Chassad, Tintong Haokip, Commander-in-Chief of Kuki Army; Enjakhup Kholhou, Dy Chief-in-Command of Kuki Army, Khotinthang Sitlhou alias Kilkhong, Chief of Jampi, Vumngul Chief of Tujang, Ngulkhup Haokip Chief of Lonpi, Ngulbul Haokip Chief of Longja, Southern Commander and Nohjang Kipgen Chief of Saisem, Eastern Commander.

 

The magnitude of the national movement of 1917-1919 is evident 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.’[6]

 

A Minute Paper refers to ‘23 principals involved, 13 in Manipur under Assam, 10 in the Somra Tract under Burma.’[7] Military columns, commandeered by British officers Coote, Hebbert, Higgins and Clocte, ‘criss-crossed the area and fought a number of actions to successfully suppress the Kuki rebellion. In the process, they won 1 CIE, 1 OBE, 14 IDSMs, 1 King’s Police Medal, innumerable Mentions-in-Despatches and Jangi Inams.’[8]

 

ii) Immediate Cause of the Kuki Rising: 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’.[9] The implication here is that the Labour Corps drive was the cause of the Kuki rising. Various scholars, including some journalists, have propagated this view as the only cause, to downplay the actual significance of the event. Nevertheless, Lobour Corps Drive was the immediate cause that led the Kuki Rising of 1917-19, is clearly indicated in Webster’s report:[10] 

 

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.

iii) Actual cause of the rising: From the Kuki point of view, the event was a culmination of the ongoing acts in defence of their land and liberty, triggered by the Labour Corps drive. It is a preposterous notion that the cause of such a movement against the imperialists, sustained for nearly three years, could be merely because the Kuki people wanted to resist working as labourers.

It was a natural and spontaneous resistance against their inalienable rights and liberty inherent in them. 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 enormity of the event is self-evident in the official letter of the Chief Commissioner of Assam:[11]

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.

 

iv) Result of the Rising: A confidential despatch of Sir HDU Kerry, General Officer Commanding, Burma Division, shows how the British reacted to the Chief of Aisan’s call: ‘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.’[12]

The Kukis were inferiorly armed, and after a long drawn out war that lasted nearly three years, had no choice but to concede their defeat as they were surrounded on all corners, and both the supply of arms and food had been cut off. The British 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,[13] which are now hill districts in Manipur. In Dr. T.S. Gangte’s[14] 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.

The British Advisory Committee passed recommendations to subject the prominent leaders to a ‘period of restraint’, each for fifteen years, with the exception of the Commander-in-Chief Tintong Haokip of Laijang, who received a penalty of twenty years.[15]  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.

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.[16]

Chengjapao [Doungel], Chief of Aishan

Khotinthang (or Khilkung) [Sitlhou], Chief of Jampi,

Pachei alias Hlukhomang [Lhukhomang Haokip], Chief of Chassad

Pakang [Haokip], Chief of Hinglep [Henglep]

Tintong [Haokip], Chief of Laiyong [Laijang]

Ngulkhup [Haokip], Chief of Mombi [Lonpi]

Leothang [Haokip], Chief of Goboh

Heljashon [Haokip], Chief of Loibol

Mangkhoon [Manglun Haokip], Chief of Tingkai

Semchung [Haokip], Chief of Ukha*

Ngulkhokai Haokip of Chassad**

Enjakhup [Kholhou] of Thenjol***

 

PROPOSALS FOR THE PUNISHMENT OF THE TEN KUKI CHIEFS IN THE SOMRATRACT [KALE KABOW VALLEY] WHO WERE CONCERNED IN THE REBELLION[17]

Kamjadem [Kamjahen Haokip, Chief of Phailenjang I]

Tongkwalun [Tongkholun Haokip, Chief of Phailenjang II]

Letkwatang [Letkhothang, Chief of Khotuh]

Semkwalun [Semkholun Haokip, Chief of Phaisat]

Zahlun [Jalhun Haokip, Chief of Molvom]

Shuku [Tukih Lupheng, Chief of Tonglhang]

Vumnul [Vumngul Kipgen, Chief of Tujang]

Haokwapao [Holkhopao Kipgen, Chief of Molvailup]

Natzang [Nohjang Kipgen Chief of Saisem]

Ngulkolun [Ngulkholun]

 

3) Kukis fought under INA and BIA for Independence in 1947

The Kukis, in fact, lived only for about 30 years (1919-1947) subjugated under colonial rule that ended in 1947. The Kukis in eastern Zalengam joined General Aung San, who founded the Burma Independent Army (BIA) in 1942 in Thailand, after he returned from Japan. The Kukis of western Zalengam joined Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of Indian National Army, who also mobilized all the regional indigenous people to join the fight against the British. Out of the hundreds of Kukis who joined the INA cadres, the few who are still alive today are living proof of our participation in the struggle for freedom in 1947.

However, after independence, our sacrifices made during the struggle were clean forgotten by both these two apathetic nations, India and Burma. When the Indo-Burma border was drawn, passing right through the middle of our territory  (Zalengam), these two new nations also dashed our long cherish dreams to the ground: our dreams of the restoration of our land, rights and liberty. Like other northeast ethnic entities, our hope for self-governance, which was the source of inspiration for our forefathers who bravely fought to the finish in 1947, has been suppressed so far.

4) Post 1947 historical events of the Kuki peoples in Eastern Zalengam, Burma:

i) 1968 Indo-Burma border demarcation: The said borderline, drawn running right through the middle of our territory (Zalengam), has minoritized indigenous and ethnic Kuki people in their own land on both sides of these countries. Before this demarcation or artificial partisan in 1968, the year in which the border pillars were erected, minority was never a term relevant to the Kukis. They lived by themselves and sovereign as they were.

ii) 1967 Khadawme Operation: Government of Revolutionary Council of Burma led by Gen. Newin dislocated more than 20,000 Kukis from the eastern to the western territory of Zalengam on the pretext that the later had no Burmese National Registration Card, which, truly as it was, irrelevant to Kukis whose census, as a new member of the Independent Burma was yet to be taken.

iii) 1995 military sponsored Influx of Burmans into Zalengam: State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) brought Burmans in large numbers from Burma proper into our territory and have been given settlement. This was a measure taken to by SLORC in retaliation to the defeat of the SLORC candidate by a Kuki in the 1990 parliamentary election. Many Kuki villages such as Kundong, Myothit, Tanan, Nungkam, etc. were uprooted for the purpose of Burman settlements besides the establishment of many other new villages. The motive behind the move was to minoritize the Kukis, Burmanise them through different measures such as intermarriage and finally wipe out the Kukis’ political space from the surface of the earth.

iv) 1999 Environmental Invasion: State Peace Development Council fell all the big Teak and Sal trees in our erstwhile thick forest for sale on the international market. In the process, other young trees were killed too and this resulted in our thick forests being deforested and turned into a desert.

v) 2006 Thamanti Dam Construction: This dam, which is still under construction, has robbed the Kukis of more than 70, 000 acres of fertile farmlands altogether along with the standing crops that provide a livelihood to more than 60 villages which have been dislocated without any compensation. The construction work on this dam has been undertaken by India’s National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) after numerous rounds of talks and agreement signed by GOI and SPDC of Burma.

The affected people, who once were prosperous farmers, are now living without hope, as they have to fight for their daily bread. While the farmers in Gurgoan were offered Rupees 20.75 lakhs (US$ 48, 000) per acre by Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Corporation (HSIIDC) for setting up a SEZ in the region, the Kukis in Thamanti region of Burma get nothing more than scraps of our homes.

vi) 2007 Teijang-Tung Kyaw land usurp: More than 77, 666 acres of the Kuki land that spreads between Teijang and Tung Kyaw villages have been usurped by local SPDC Burma. The land was sold to an armed group of Burmese Palaung ethnic nationals, who recently signed a Ceasefire agreement with the military regime. This group has now begun to completely clear the thick and virgin forest for the extraction of timber and for other purposes. Therefore, the clearing of the forests poses a threat to the forest environment of the region that provides sanctuary and habitats to very rare species of both animals and plants.

5) Post 1947 historical events of the Kuki peoples in Western Zalengam, India

With the attainment of independence in 1947, the Kukis in the western Zalengam were too confident in trusting the new government of India that they would get what they rightfully deserved. However, to their great surprise, the right to govern their own affairs within their traditional territory has been denied, whilst it has long been extended to other ethnic entities in the Northeast. As a result, the Kuki inhabited areas of the Manipur Hills, Karbi-Anglong and the North-Cachar Hills of Assam and Tripura remain grossly underdeveloped and the people live in abject poverty.

Fair developmental programs have consistently been denied to Kuki inhabited regions by the state machinery dominated by the interests of majority communities. The long years of neglect and sufferings of the Kuki people under these state governments have rendered the Kukis economically, socially and politically backward and deeply vulnerable. We should note that ‘Unity in Diversity’, the basis of Indian Polity, would work only when the diverse communities are on the same pedestal and can relate to each other with mutual respect.

The summary of what the Indian state has failed the Kukis so far may be given below:

i) Kuki Genocide of 1992-95: Sufferings and grievances of the Kukis in India compounded when a faction of NSCN (IM) led by Th Muivah launched a Kuki genocide campaign following the ‘Quit Notice’ served to them by United Naga Council (UNC). Later, it culminated into the Naga-Kuki ethnic clash (1992-95). As a result, over 900 Kuki people’s lives ended, 350 villages were uprooted and more than 50,000 people displaced. Nevertheless, a close observation reveals that the term ‘Naga-Kuki ethnic clash’ is but a misnomer, which otherwise the Kukis in Nagaland would by no means have survived through it.

Believe it or not, it was the NSCN (K), which protected us from the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland, and not the Indian Army. Now, even the people of the United States have accused their president for not preventing the September 11 attacks on World Trade Centre, which happened in a few seconds of time, why should we not blame the Indian state for its failure to protect the Kukis from the NSCN (IM) whose onslaught campaign lasted for about four years? Was the Indian state sleeping?

ii) Victimisation of the Kukis by UNLF’s Landmine:  Since 1999, Manipur valley based or a Meitei nationalist armed group – United National Liberation Front (UNLF) has been forcefully occupying Kuki land, particularly Chandel and Churachandpur districts of Manipur. In Chandel, landmines laid by this armed group have ended 33 local Kuki lives while many more have been maimed for life. In Churachanpur, they (UNLF) not only killed the local people by the same landmine but also committed mass rape of 25 Hmar Kuki women on the fateful night of January 16, 2006 at Lungthulien and Parbung villages in Tipaimuk sub-division. This enquiry report has so far not been released. 

iii) Development that exists only in paper: In Manipur, all the development programmes in the Kuki areas are being carried out only in papers of government files at Imphal. The MLA of Henglep sub-division, for example, makes his visit to the division headquarter only during election time (i.e. once in five years). The reason cited is the inaccessibility of Henglep either by car or bus. A truck or a jeep is the only means of transport available there. Despite this, there has been no effort to construct the said road. Additionally, the condition of roads in Saikul and Thanlon sub-divisions is the same, if not worse.

The government school buildings and sub-division offices in the region shelter milkmen’s cows or the army. Now, we can imagine how life would be in such unattended and neglected Kuki areas. In the absence of good drinking water supply, health centres and primary education, the people easily fall victims to air- and waterborne diseases. In addition, Moreh is the only town on earth that bears the name “International Trade Centre” but without a market, without drainage system, etc. What a shame it is! The international market constructed there is a mere vegetable market and nothing else.

iv) AFSPA, the special gift from GOI: The fact is: the non-creation of a Kuki state within the federal union of India is all that matters. Since the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Kuki people have submitted numerous memorandums demanding a separate state and have also appealed for the protection and restoration of their uprooted villages, but to no avail. Unfortunately, when the Kukis took up arms for self-protection and security, GOI, instead of feeling sorry for failing its statutory obligation, branded them militants, insurgents, rebels or extortionist gangs and branded their land a disturbed area.

On this ‘disturbed area’ pretext, the centre has been enforcing there the draconian law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, that empowers both commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers of the army to shoot to kill anyone on mere suspicion. Is the government of India, the head of the largest democratic nation in the world, a soulless institution?

v) Fratricidal Killing: Also due to the ‘divide and rule’ measure adopted by the centre and its machinery, the army, there is factionalism and fratricidal killings, almost on daily basis among the Kuki armed groups. If, at the time of drought effect crop failure, the Prime Minister pays a visit carrying rehabilitation packages to save farmers of the mainland India from committing suicide due to debts and shattered hopes, there’s no valid reason why the Kukis, who are no less bona fide citizens, should be snubbed for so long.

The GOI that plays a divisive game on one hand blames that the disunity among the Kuki armed groups is what obstructs the peace negotiation for their demand. Are the lives of the Kukis less precious? What is the standard by which the Indian state measures the value of human lives?

The above given facts on the plight of the Kuki people are not exhaustive information yet. However, these are hints that clearly indicate that the Indian state, which makes tall claims of development in different sectors in the national newspapers, has completely failed in performing even it’s primary task (i.e. the protection of it’s citizens’ lives and providing their basic needs). Forget about a welfare state; even a police state has not yet been achieved for the Kukis. How then, does the former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, envision India as a developed nation by 2020?

Is ‘India’ referred to here exclusively of the mainland consisted of UP, MP, Delhi, Karnataka, WB, Gujarat, Orissa, Panjab and Kerala? Thus, the one word description for what the Kukis only achieve from the Independence in 1947 is INSECURITY. The Kukis therefore, have nothing to cheer about the Independence Day celebration or 1947, from which year, our high hopes of freedom, polity, social and economic security, all grow thinner with time.

Given this backdrop of Kuki history and its present predicament, it would be in the interest of not only the Kuki people, but also the Indian nation, to establish a stable political state for the Kukis (Kukiland or Zalengam). It is therefore important that through dialogue initiation, Kuki political aspirations are fructified at the earliest possible date. In this regard, all conscientious individuals, especially those eminent personalities present on this August Occasion of marking the sesquicentennial year of India’s first war of independence, are urged to take up the issues concerning the Kuki people and their political aspirations.

To conclude, let me say: 1947 did not fulfil the unfulfilled dreams of the Kukis of 1777 and 1917. By ‘the unfulfilled dreams of the Kukis’ here I mean a separate administrative Kuki state called Kukiland or Zalengam within federal union of India, where the Kukis, by being a federal unit of India, would administer their own affairs based on the existing democratic set up. As John Stuart rightly said, ‘the wearer knows where the shoe pinches’; one knows himself and his own needs better than another person.

If this is the reason why we, the people of the Indian subcontinent, sent the British back to Britain in 1947, it is time that the mainland Indians in turn looked closely into the demands of the Kukis and extend all possible help and support to fulfil the dream of a separate Kuki state. The Kukis’ demand is genuine and not out of proportion to the contribution they had made during the freedom struggle. They therefore should not be deprived of their share. 


[1] Chakravorty, BC (1964, 53), British Relations with the Hill Tribes Bordering on Assam since 1858, Calcutta

[2] Carey, BS & Tuck, HN (1976, first published in 1932)), The Chin Hills, Vol. 1, Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., Calcutta

[3] Elly, EB (1978, 8 (first published in 1893)), Military Report on the Chin-Lushai Country, Firma KLM (P) Ltd., Calcutta

[4] Mackenzie, A (2005, 342 (first published 1884, History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill Tribes of the North-East Frontier of Bengal)), The North-East Frontier of Bengal, Mittal Publications, New Delhi

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

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

[7] Minute Paper, Secret Political Department, Government of Burma, Rangoon, 23 December 1919

[8] Guardians of the North East  (Ibid, 20)

[9] 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

[10] Ibid

[11] 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

[12] 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

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

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

[15] 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

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

* WARRANT to the Superintendent 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

*** WARRANT to the Superintendent of Jail, Tezpur & Dibrugarh, By order of the Governor General in Council, 18 May 1919

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

 

* This paper was presented at a public discussion on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 Ghadar and the 60th anniversary of India’s independence on August 12, 2007 in New Delhi.