Struggle for Identity and Land among the Hill Peoples of Manipur

Published on August 11, 2007

By T.S. Gangte Gangte

The identity struggle generated by fragmented ethnic claims and counter claims (prioritizing clan or sub-tribe, for instance) among the hill peoples of Manipur draws sucour from the provision of special constitutional status as “Scheduled Tribe” given to the smaller ethnic groups. Larger ethnic communities, such as the Naga, have usurped such claims to enhance its agenda of exclusive territorial claims, often making such struggle violent and bloody.

Among the communities whose names were coined by the British administrators and anthropologists, “Naga” and “Kuki” have gained significance due to their distinctive struggle for identity and territorial claim. However, the two need a closer look since the claim of one adversely affect the interest of the other. Though British colonial constructs, the terms “Naga” and Kuki” have gained certain generic traits over time. An equally important trend is the emergence of sub-tribes, clans, lineages within each of these tribes. The Government of India (GoI) has given due weightage to these smaller ethnic identities vide the Fourth Schedule, Section 26 (1) of the Amendments of the Constitution, Part XIV for Manipur (Scheduled Tribes) order, 1950. Consequently, the list of such tribes have become inordinately lengthy, making it difficult to keep track of each small nomenclature.

Interestingly, some of these small tribes have since sought merger into viable groups in their continuing struggle for identity, status and privilege. This struggle has led to various reconstructions of identities leading to exclusive community claims and counter claims. The claims have today got extended to territoriality with its concommitant conception of “ethnic” state and state-governed territorial boundaries. The infamous clash between the Nagas and the Kukis during 1990s in and around the state of Manipur reflects the seriousness of such claims and counter claims.

KUKI IDENTITY STRUGGLE

The Kukis have undergone a process of fragmentation, reducing most of them into groups of insignificant few hundreds. These tribal groups called themselves “Kukis” till independence in 1947. To be a “Kuki” was deemed a symbol of prestige and security. They all claimed to have emerged from “Khul” or “Khur” or “Chhinlung” or “Shinlung,” meaning “cave” or “bowel of the earth.”

The migration and settlement of the Kukis in Manipur have been through batches. That led Col. J. Shakespeare to judiciously categorize them into “Old Kuki” and “New Kuki” on the basis of their arrival (Table 1). However, there had been several contestations among the tribes by the end of British rule in the region about the collective nomenclature. While the Thadous and their cognate tribes stood staunchly for the conventional nomenclature “Kuki”, other groups rejected it on the ground that the term had become obsolete. One such group propounded the “Chin” theory with an avowed policy of creating a “Chin-land” for all the Kuki tribes on the plea that the term was used in Myanmar for the same groups of people. Yet another deviant group advocated the appellation “Mizo” as the most universal nomenclature. This group further argued that the term “Chin” used in Myanmar was as good as a counterfeit currency. On the whole, these contestations may be seen as signs of renewed awareness among the Kuki tribes.

OVERLAPPING NOMENCLATURE CONTROVERSY

The controversy over nomenclature has taken different shapes and turns, sometimes difficult and uncontrollable, at various levels. For instance, the Thadou-Kuki controversy continues to be hotly debated. In one of his papers, “Kuki appears to be a Manipur term”, Lehman claims that a number of tribes have expressed their dislike for the word “Kuki” and that even a section of Thadou disliked having the appellation after their names. In 1971 a controversy arose over publication of the Holy Bible in Kuki language that had serious social repercussion. A representation addressed to the Bible Society of India alleged that “[t]he present translation of the Bible by Rev. T. Lunkim is entirely in Thadou dialect…. Thadou is a recognized tribe whereas the ‘Kuki’ is not. Only a recognized tribe has its own dialect…. Rev. T. Lunkim strongly advocates publication of the Holy Bible in ‘Kuki’ just because he is a non-Thadou but speaking Thadou dialect.” It has to be understood herein that Kuki tribes while using their respective dialects can communicate among themselves as was in the biblical penticostal days (Acts: 2:1–16).

The term “Thadou language” is used by G.A. Grierson, R.K. Stewart and G.H. Damant. T.C. Hudson and C.A. Soppitt to contend that the language spoken by descendants and cognates of Thadou is called “Thado-Pao.” J. Shakespeare states that the language “is spoken by all the descendents of Thado and the non-Thado clans absorbed in them” and that “Thado-Pao” is the lingua franca among themselves. J.C. Higgins also states:

Thado is the language of the Kuki tribes in general and is intelligible to all the Kukis…. Manipuris and Thado contain certain roots in common, but are quite distinct languages and a language of one does not enable a person to make himself understood by persons speaking the other. The Assam Government grants separate rewards to officers passing in both. But Thado is closely allied to Lushai and a reward cannot be obtained in both these languages. It is also allied to the Northern Chin dialects.

The above facts should put to rest further controversy over language fuelled by clan rivalry and hegemony amongst closely allied tribal groups. But the controversy reached the Gauhati High Court, which constituted an Expert Committee comprising of three eminent anthropologists to go into the matter. Ultimately in compliance with the Gauhati High Court decision based on the Expert Committee recommendation dated 03/02/1995, the Government of Manipur, Education Department, issued an order No. 17/1/72-SE dated 12/05/1987 wherein it said that thereafter the language shall be recognized as “Thadou Kuki” language in supersession of the earlier two orders of even number dated 22/03/1977 and 03/01/1981 issued in favour of “Thadou language” and “Kuki language” respectively.

KNA VIS-À-VIS KUKI STATE

The struggle thus far simply heightened social tension, disunity and distrust among the erstwhile Kuki tribes in sharp contrast to the high ideal of political vision by the older generation in their memorandum to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 24/03/1960 vide the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) resolution adopted in its general meeting at Thingkangphai, Churachandpur, from 19th to 22nd January, 1960. The memorandum states that the only solution for the Kuki problem is the Kuki state, where the Kukis will have their own government to take care of their needs within the Union of India. A separate state for the Kukis with Manipur as the bastion will also give them the full opportunity to attain full growth. The Kuki state, as demanded, will enable collection of the Kuki minorities elsewhere together in a place where their lives and properties can be secure and their due share of development ensured.

NAGA INTEGRATION PROJECT

In contrast to the parochialism and political ambivalence manifest in their demand for a “Kuki state,” the Naga formulation was pragmatic, broad-based, and ideological. The Naga struggle is traced back to 1929 when they submitted a memorandum to the Simmon Commission urging that the Nagas (claiming sustained self-identity throughout history) be left alone to determine their own future when the British left India. The memorandum was signed by members of the Naga Club of Kohima who claimed to represent all those tribes to which they belonged. Having built their political foundation, the Nagas pursued their demand for “self-determination” and “integration of Naga inhabited areas” with Z. A. Phizo as the torchbearer.

The memorandum submitted to the Simon Commision in 1929 is considered as the bedrock on which present-day “Naga polity” is shaped. But if one observes carefully, not a single member of any Naga tribe of Manipur figures among the signatories to the memorandum. This can be confirmed from the population of Naga Scheduled Tribes of Manipur according to census figures of 1961–2001 (Table 2).

The term “Naga” has served as a cementing force in the realignment of groups in Manipur, even enticing some tribes like the Anal, Maring, etc, hitherto designated “Old Kuki” as per Shakespeare’s classification. The Nagas have asserted that their differences are superficial and secondary, but their unity and solidarity are more basic and fundamental. They seem to profess this unity by subscribing to a “two-nation theory” as in the case of their demand for carving out Greater Nagaland or Nagalim.

The United Naga Council (UNC) press release (Imphal local dailies, 7th September 2003) on the identity of the Nagas of Manipur asserts that “… the Nagas and their land constituted the major portion of the territory of the present Manipur state.” The release further claims that “[e]xistence of Nagas, the expanse of their territory and the scope of the Naga national question, goes beyond the boundaries of present Manipur and necessarily has the Manipur Nagas and their land within the overall Naga jurisdiction.” To further consolidate their claim over parts of the territory of Manipur, the UNC further claims that “there are 14 clear Naga tribes in Manipur … . All these tribes are integral constituent units of the Naga(s)… on an equal basis with any other Naga tribe from present states of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Myanmar.”

After the UNC release, a NSCN (IM) declaration appeared in the local dailies of Imphal on 11th September 2003 spelling out the concept of two-nation theory: “… it does not believe in Manipur integration,” terming “the present Manipur state a temporary phenomenon” and that the NSCN (IM) is “… not greedy on land and will never take even an inch of Meitei’s territory, nor will it part with what is theirs.” This is with the backdrop of reconstituting the older Kuki tribes as Nagas inhabiting large portion of the hills of Manipur.

KUKI DIASPORA

The presence of the Kukis, both political and physical habitation, has been a hindrance to the Naga nationhood project. Since McCulloch’s “buffer policy” planted Kuki settlements at strategic places barriers, the Kukis have been found settled in a scattered pattern all over the Manipur hills. Kukis constitute an overwhelming preponderance in Churachandpur district, Sadar Hills sub-division of Senapati district and Chandel district. Otherwise, they are found mingling with Tangkhul tribes in Ukhrul district, Mao-Maram-Paomai tribes in Senapati district, and Zeliangrong tribes in Tamenglong district.

Demographic distribution of Kukis has remained as such till the ethnic violence of 1990s. NSCN (IM) made strategic attempts to wipe out the Kukis from their place of habitation through “ethnic cleansing” to strengthen claims of sovereign Nagalim state based on “Naga communalism”. Prior to this, the Thadou tribe alone (excluding other Kuki tribes) had formed a uniform 21 per cent of the total Scheduled Tribe (ST) population in Senapati, Churachandpur and Chandel districts. In Tamenglong and Ukhrul districts, it would still form one-eighth and one-twelfth respectively of the total district ST population. In other words, it would be extremely difficult to presume absolute majority of one tribe over the others in the entire hill areas. Due to lack of interest of the Maharaja of Manipur, and lack of proper administration of hills even after the Anglo-Manipuri War 1891, Kuki chiefs had substantive control over their lands and “managed their own affairs in their own ways.” But the situation changed after the Anglo-Kuki War of 1917–19. With the suppression of the Kukis, confiscation of all guns and punishment of several of the leading chiefs, administration became more invasive, particularly with the opening of sub-division headquarters at Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Churachandpur.

Significantly enough, its aftermath saw onset of a modern system of administration, thereby establishing a permanent boundary called the “Territory of Manipur,” whatever might have been the state of hill administration prior to that. Reid who had been the then Governor of Assam (including Manipur) had said that the state of Manipur consists of a Central Valley, some 700 square miles in areas, surrounded by 8000 square miles in the hills.

POLITICS OF ETHNIC CLEANSING

Contestations over claims and counter claims over territory on ethnic lines have been building up since the British rule in the region. With the growth of modern consciousness among the hill people, belongingness to newly constructed ethnic identities got inseparably tangled with the claims over territoriality. As much as KNA claimed a Kuki homeland, the Nagas claimed large parts of Manipur as Naga territory. What is significant about the Naga claim is the exclusive character of Naga territorial boundary, rejecting any counter claims with intimidating violence. Ethnic cleansing of the Kukis was an outcome of this politics.

The “ethnic cleansing” of the Kukis by the NSCN (IM) saw one of its worst manifestations on 13th September 1993 when a fleeing Kuki civilians were intercepted at Joupi village in Tamenglong district and butchered in cold blood. The most gruesome incident took place at Taloulong village in Tamenglong district on 19th September 1993 when NSCN (IM) activists swooped down upon innocent villagers, forcing the adults to flee leaving behind small children under 10 years of age. Thereafter, NSCN (IM) activists hacked 13 children to death.

Apparently, the logic of “ethnic cleansing” is triggered by the pattern of Kuki-Naga concentration of population in the five hill districts. A memorandum submitted by the Delhi-based Kuki Students’ Organization (KSO) to the Prime Minister on 27th June, 2001, highlighted that the landholdings of the Kukis on their ancestral land are greater than those of the Nagas (Table 3). Ethnic cleansing did not happen in Churachandpur district only, as the district has nil Naga habitation. But, in the other four hill districts, Naga-Kuki land holding had been mixed, conforming to the census population ratio. There is no such hill district or areas in Manipur that is exclusively Naga-inhabited. The 1991 census data clearly shows that the Thadous alone comprise 26.8, 12.1, 21.4, 25.8, and 8.1 per cent of the respective district population of Senapati, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel and Ukhrul. This explains how the Kukis emerged as a stumbling block in the NSCN (IM)’s ongoing effort in achieving Greater Nagaland or Nagalim.

CONCLUSION

Land still remains the single most important physical possession for both the Kuki and the Naga peoples. On the one hand, land resource – the extent thereof – would apparently measure one’s social status and temporal power. On the other, cultural, socio-political and economic considerations have prompted the ethnogenes to attach land with primordial significance.

The above generalization would hold true in respect to Manipur where for apparent reasons the limited valley area has received the largest population incidence. Against the Manipur valley population (2001) of 14,11,766 persons occupying 700 sq. miles in the four valley districts, the same census registered 8,82,130 persons in the five hill districts measuring about 8000 sq. miles. The valley district population (majority Meitei Hindu and Muslims) would reflect a man-land ratio of 631 per sq. mile against mere 44 (mostly ethnogenes recognized as 33 STs) in the hill districts.

Further, there are differences between hills and valley regarding the nature and legality of land-holding. In the hills individual rights granted to tribal chiefs used to be handed down from generation to generation as a legacy of the British India. Indian government has since then been granting implicit cognizance under the Directive Principles of State Policy, where the documents issued by the District Magistrate or the Sub-Divisional Officer to the tribal chiefs is treated as equivalent to patta in the valley. In the valley, land has been surveyed and individual land-patta cites the extent of land, village and map-sheet under which the Dag Chitha is issued to the landholder. The land transfer in the valley becomes legal and absolute with possibility of the landowner becoming vendee moving from vendor. On the contrary, the land in the hills can be shifted (and thus alienated) from one chief to another through political posturing, threat of isolation, communal tension, etc. Such a form of alienation happens when a tribal chief’s right over land shifts due to threat or otherwise. Some minor tribes may face threat of extinction, whereupon the minor tribe seeks or is forced to seek merger with a larger tribe. The shift in identity and privilege is expected to lead to greater political bargaining by the larger tribe.

The Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956 (80 of 1956) created a strong sense of opposition by generating a great deal of discontentment and apprehension of a possible government intent to do away with the chief’s right. The Kuki chiefs vehemently protested the application or extension of the Act in the Manipur hills. In desperation, the pan-Kuki social organization, KNA, demanded creation of a Kuki state in 1960 through Thingkanphai meeting. Since then KNA has been repeatedly demanding the right to “self-determination” in their own homeland to be curved out by unifying all Kuki-inhabited areas in the Northeast. In 1988 the Kuki National Front (KNF) was set up to pursue the KNA demand. In an Aide Memoire (8th April 1988) to the Prime Minister, the KNF urged expeditious formation of a Kuki homeland by highlighting the democratic principles based on which several ethnic groups need to be encouraged to fulfill their socio-political aspirations, and also by soliciting prior solution of the land problem in Manipur hill areas for the benefit of the long-neglected Kukis. This was followed with reminder to then Prime Ministers, I. K. Gujaral, on 15th August 1997, and Atal Bihari Bajpayee on 8th April 1998. The last reminder was sent to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on 20th November 2004 on his visit to Manipur under the presidentship of Thangminlien Kipgen, MLA, of the Kuki Chiefs Association, Manipur. Even after all these decades, the aspiration of a Kuki homeland remains unfulfilled.

The crises of identity manifesting fragmented identities (prioritizing clan or sub-tribe, for instance) is a recent phenomenon, and is the outcome of recognition accorded to smaller ethnic groups as separate Scheduled Tribes. Had this not been done – of giving constitutional benefits – the above kind of identity crisis would not have erupted. While the psychological need of different smaller tribes is still unmet and they continue to amalgamate or incorporate themselves into differing socio-political identities, these smaller communities has been manipulated and controlled by the larger ethnic communities. Appropriation of the Komrem, Anals, Lamkang or Monsang to adopt the Naga identity is a case in point. As the amalgamated and projected identity are found to be of not much use, the smaller clan identities are becoming the order of the day. An in-depth study of the culture, customs and linguistic commonness of the various tribes would require to be made so as to make proper modifications in the lists of Scheduled Tribes in the interest of the country as a whole.

 

Table 1: Kuki Tribes (ST) Population of Manipur, 1961–2001

SL No.

Scheduled Tribes

1961

1971

1981

1991

2001

Remarks

1.

Aimol

108

836

1862

2108

3643

Old Kuki

2.

Anal

4868

6670

9349

10642

13853

– do –

3.

Chiru

1809

2785

3743

6032

5487

– do –

4.

Chothe

1035

1905

1687

2571

2675

– do –

5.

Koirao

406

1620

919

1716

1200

– do –

6.

Koireng

531

458

949

873

1056

– do –

7.

Kom

5477

6550

9830

13004

15467

– do –

8.

Lamkang

1866

2622

3452

4031

4524

– do –

9.

Maring

7745

9825

11910

15698

17361

– do –

10.

Monsang

1342

930

1139

1803

1635

– do –

11.

Moyon

647

1360

1642

2081

1710

– do –

12.

Lushai

2749

7483

6126

8240

10520

New Kuki

13.

Paite

17029

24755

30959

40792

44861

– do –

14.

Purum

82

447

388

503

Old Kuki

15.

Ralte

80

154

107

250

110

– do –

16.

Sema

4

3

24

111

25

Naga

17.

Sukte

3

283

746

311

New Kuki

18.

Thadou

47998

59955

56466

121994

115045

– do –

19.

Gangte

4856

6307

7891

12793

15100

– do –

20.

Hmar

15365

23312

29216

35767

42690

– do –

21.

Simte

2818

4177

5035

8833

7150

– do –

22.

Vaiphei

8215

12347

15462

25136

27791

– do –

23.

Zou

6761

10060

12567

15887

19112

– do –

CENSUS REPORTS:
*
The division between “Old Kuki” and “New Kuki” is based on Shakespeare’s classification

Table 2: Naga Tribes (ST) Population of Manipur, 1961–2001

SL No.

Scheduled Tribes

1961

1971

1981

1991

2001

1.

 Kabui
(i) Puinei
(ii) Rongmei

29218

40257

26006

64287

62216

2.

 Kacha Naga
(i) Zemei
(ii) Liengmei

9734

13026

12753

20328

3.

Mao

28810

33379

50715

71517

80508

4.

Maram

4928

4539

6544

9292

10510

5.

Tangkhul

43943

57851

79029

100088

112944

6.

Sema

4

3

24

25

Source: Census Reports

 

Table 3: Percentage of Kuki and Naga Landholdings in Manipur

SL No.

Districts

Kukis

Nagas

1.

Churachandpur

100

Nil

2.

Chandel

75

25

3.

Senapati

50

50

4.

Tamenglong

35

65

5.

Ukhrul

30

70

Source: Memorandum dated 27-06-2001 submitted by the KSO to the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

 

NOTES & REFERENCES:

1. T.S. Gangte, The Kukis of Manipur, Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1993, pp. 231–32.

2. G.A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. III, Tibeto Burman Family, Part III, 1904, p. 383.

3. R.K. Stewart, “A Slight Notice of the Grammar of Thadou,” Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. II, 1857, pp. 187–88.

4. G.H. Damant, “Notes on Manipuri Grammar and North Cachar Hills,” Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. XXIV, p. 173.

5. T.C. Hudson, Thadou Grammar, Shillong, 1906, p. 17.

6. C.A. Soppitt, Grammar of the Rangkhol Language, Shillong, 1887, p. 37.

7. J. Shakespeare, Lushai Kuki Clans, London, 1912, pp. 1978–79.

8. J.C. Higgins, No. KPM/37/198 dtd. 10/01/1919 addressed to Inspector General of Police Burma, Imphal.

9. J. Shakespeare, op.cit., p. 147. J.K. Bose has further endorsed this. For details see, J.K. Bose, A Glimpse of Tribal Life in the North East India, 1980, pp. 31, 55, 57–83.

10. J.H. Hutton, The Thadou Kukis: Introduction on the Work of William Shaw, Shillong, 1928.

11. Robert Reid, History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam 1883–1941, Shillong, 1942, p. 88.

12. J.H. Hutton, op. cit.

13. Statistical Abstract of Manipur, 2004, p. 1.

The writer was chairman of Council of Higher Secondary Education, Manipur, India. This paper is a revised version of the one presented at the national conference on “Folklore, Identity and Performance” held at Imphal on 23rd May 2006 and organized by the Forum for Laboratory Theatres of Manipur.