Ethno-political relations between Kukis and Meiteis

Published on July 3, 2008

By George T. Haokip


Abstract: Manipur is characterized by ethnic diversity. She is dominantly inhabited by the Meiteis, including Meitei-Muslim (Pangals), in the valley and Kukis, and Nagas in the hills. They live in mutual co-existences since time immemorial.


However, the amicable bond of relationship between the kukis and the Meiteis which was in vogue in the erstwhile period begun to deteriorate after the merger of Manipur into the Indian Union in 1949 and it reach its zenith during the sixties and the eighties due to the emergence of plethora militants in the region, this further intensified the relationship and led to the recent outburst of ethnic violence between the two communities in the border town of Moreh. Nevertheless, mutual respect, like in the past, will prevail again if all concerns play their respective responsible roles.


The territory which constitutes the present state of Manipur is inhabited by three major ethnic groups viz: the Meiteis including the Meitei-Muslims (Pangals) in the valley; the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo in the Hills, thereby indicating ethnographic boundaries.


One of the largest Kuki concentrations in the Indian sub-continent is found in the state of Manipur. They are found largely concentrated in the entire nine districts of the state which includes clans/tribes/sub-tirbes like Gangte, Hmar, Lushai, Simte, Paite, Thadou etc. They have close affinity with each other in terms of language, culture, dress, mode of living, food habits etc, but they are inclined to identify themselves separately by the names of their own respective tribes, sub-tribe or clans.


It is an undisputed fact, corroborated by many writings from the past on the Kukis that they were short tempered and a war-like people. Despite, their fiery temperament, they believe in the principle of peaceful co-existence, and from time immemorial, have maintained harmonious relationship with the people around them. However, they are proud people, and have close affinity with the land. This bond is recognized the world over and is a distinguished characteristic of the kukis.


The Kukis co-existed in peace with the Meiteis right from the time of their first settlement in Manipur. They indeed migrated and settled in the hills of Manipur as early as in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in Manipur valley[1]. However, the great kuki exodus is said to occur in the 18th century A.D[2]. It is true beyond doubt that so far/until very recently history has never recorded strained relations between the two communities. The kukis were indeed never ruled by the Meiteis but on the contrary, they came forward to give assistance to them.


In this regard, P.S Haokip writes, the Meitei King Chourajit could not fight the Ava’s in 1810 and therefore, asked the kukis for help by declaring “the hills surround Manipur Golden Land like a stockade and the tribal guards the stockades”[3] and in due course of time the kuki chiefs also sent its soldiers to guard the Maharajah and his Kingdom so as to resist the merger agreement on the eve of Manipur’s annexation to India in 1949 and that has brought about an ideological clash with the Akhil Manipur Hindu Mahasabha[4].


However, in the meantime, the introduction of a new system of administration in 1891 had threatened the bond of amiable relationship between the two communities where the entire administrations of hill areas were to be administered by the Vice President of the Manipur state Durbar[5] in which the contact between Hill people and British administrators was made through and depended entirely on the corrupted “Lambus” rather than the village chiefs.[6] It should be noted here that prior to the British, the role of the Lambus in the hill areas was no more than a peon though they sometimes acted as an interpreter between the Maharaja and the village Chief[7].


The Potthang[8] system too though officially abolished in the year 1913, the British meitei lumbus continued it despite, a series of Petition to exempt it to the authorities.[9] The Kukis conversion to Christianity and the Meiteis to Hinduism during the sanskritisation process has also driven a wedge in their hitherto cordial relationship. Thus, the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ has immensely endangered the cordial relationship among them.


This strained relationship was further intensified and escalated with the merging of Manipur into the Indian Union, and this has had intrigue a wider gulf between the two communities, in which various hill areas under the British administration became a ‘Scheduled Area’[10], thereby, forbids the plain peoples to settle in tribal areas/ the hilly region[11]. It thus, clearly alienated the meiteis and the tribals.


However, in spite of this, the meitei elites are of the view that Manipur which comprised of both the valley and the hills was an independent Princely State before the coming of the British and that the merger agreement as null and void since its annexation was much against the wishes of the people, and goes contradict with the International laws and the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947[12]. Professor Joykumar has rightly stated that “the Maharaja was forced to sign the agreement”[13]. He continue to writes, “It is reported that Budhachandra was quite upset to see the unexpected and undesirable policy adopted by the Government of India and having no other alternative; Maharaja signed the instrument of merger agreement on the 21st September, 1949”[14].


The meitei elites are also of the view that the hills and the valley people are of common origin. G.A.Grierson in his monumental Linguistic Survey of India has grouped the Meitei in the Kuki-Chin sub-family of the Tibeto Burman languages[15]. P.S Haokip also records that if all the Benagali and Hindi words are to be omitted from Meitei language, the leftovers are all of Kuki dialect. Thus, to Gangumei Kabui, a more appropriate name of this sub family, in the opinion of many linguists, would have been the Meitei-Kuki-Chin.


Therefore, with this strategy and also with the slogan ‘Hingminnasi eikhoi’[16], in course of times and in spite of various modifications and amendments, passed and recognized by the government, the Meitei communities gradually continue to pour into the hills and its adjoining areas and thereby, begun to settle mostly in Kuki inhabited areas[17]. At the time, a number of militant organizations, nationalist in nature came into existence, and within a short span of two decades, every ethnic community had its own militant nationalist organizations.


These organizations had separate objective, goals, and aim and follow different strategies to achieve these objectives. This often leads to friction and disharmony amongst the various groups pursuing different goals. And in order to protect their sphere of influence and also to maintain their own respective status quo, both the meiteis and the kuki elites harp upon the ideology of Nationhood and democratic value based on peaceful co-existence.


As already stated, Manipur/Kangleipak being a princely state before the advent of the British, and its merger agreement to the Indian union in 1949 being unconstitutional, as also much against the wishes of his highness the then Maharaja of Manipur, Budhachandra and of the people. This led to the mushrooming of numerous militant organizations in the sixties in which mention may be made of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), etc. with the prime objective to restore the Monarch and his government; to sum up, for the attainment of an independent kingdom “Kangleipak”.


However, the kuki nationalist are of the view that Zalengam/Kukiland and Manipur/Kangleipak are in co-existence since the inception of time. They considered that they were never the subject of the meitei’s Maharaja but on the contrary like many other kings, they also formed an alliance with them. They further say that the meitei nation state was conquered by the British in 1891 while the kukis were subjugated only towards the end of 1919 episode[18]. It is apparent that prior to the British the Kukis has exercised sovereignty over their lands which is clearly evident from the events of ‘the Kuki war of Independence 1917-19’ and also from the coalition made with the INA during the course of the World War II.


However, this has had the result of scattering them in three different countries viz: India, Burma and Bangladesh, resulting in the status “Minority in Ghetto” characterized by lack of political unity among them. The patriots who took part in the war, live through a period of trials, pain and agony and left their imprints on the sands of time to inspire later generations which gradually culminated into the formation of Kuki National Assembly (KNA) on the 24th October 1946[19], the first political organization, demanding a separate statehood for the Kukis within the frame work of the Indian constitution in the mid sixties.


This was further intensified by two revolutionary groups viz: (Kuki National Army) K.N.A and the (Kuki National Front) K.N.F in the eighties. The KNA demanded for an Independent state “Zalengam”[20] while the KNF demand for “Kuki Land” (Kuki state) within the frame work of the Indian constitution[21]. Indeed, it was a surprising shock and distress for the Kukis who were not much mediocre and inferior to their counterparts in the North-Eastern states with respect to population; having distinct custom and tradition, and a rich cultural heritage within the region they inhabit to be kept in limbo by the government even after sixty years of India’s independence.


Although, comparisons are odious, it is important to note that the Khongjom war of 1891 which resulted in the domination of the state by the British was fought between the Meitei and British forces for the duration of only one week, whereas the Kuki war of Independence lasted for almost 3 long yrs. The Kukis exhibited a strong determination to cling to their independence. Although the Meitei Generals who fought the British in 1891 like Thangal general and Bir Tikendrajit have been honoured by the Manipur government, Kuki generals like General Tintong and Pu, Chengjapao have been ignored, and this has hurt the sentiments of the Kuki community.


Similarly, the Black September or the massacre of 90 kukis on the 13th Sept., 1993 is commemorated today only by the Kukis in Manipur. The 18th June uprising, 2001 which is regarded as a milestone of Manipur’s history pertains however, only to the Meitei community, as 18 innocent meiteis lost their lives in the uprising. To honour and salute their courage and dedication to the preservation of Manipur’s territorial integrity, this date is observed as a state holiday. This has offended the sentiments of other communities in the state. The kukis in particular have always wanted to preserve the territorial integrity of the date, yet their efforts in this direction have not been taken into cognizance.


As such, many of the Kukis are in affirmation that, this is an indication that confirms the present ‘Manipur/Meitei land’ to no more than the ‘valley’ which constitutes 10% of the state[22]. This has had resulted in the Kukis proclamation of each other territorial rights. They stated that “there will be a peaceful co-existence between the Kukis and the Meiteis by promoting mutual respect for each others territorial rights”[23].


On the other side, a wide chasm has appeared in the hitherto harmonious co-existence of various communities in the state. This is exacerbated by the fact that the fruits of development are mainly confined to the Imphal valley where the meiteis reside. The tribals have been increasingly alienated and marginalized. Therefore, some elements of the population wanted the Meiteis to confine themselves to the valley. And thus, assume that they will no longer tolerate the discriminatory nature of the government and the inferiority complex of the meiteis[24]. Indeed, it is pertinent to note that so far the UNLF landmines planted in kuki inhabited areas have took the lives of 9 people in Churachanpur district and 33 in Chandel district[25].


It is also obvious that four hundred kuki villagers were abducted and taken to Lallim/Namunta in Myanmar on 13th March 2007[26]. Moreover, the rape of Hmar women by the UNLF cadres at Parbung and Lungthulen villages[27] have fuelled the resentment and discontentment of the kukis who feel neglected by the government which pays no heed to the difficulties of the kukis, and pours no balm on their wounds; despite, the (Kuki Students’ Organisation) KSO rally in Delhi on March 2007 and the judicial enquiry into the Hmar rape case, the victims have not been rehabilitated or given any compensation and the women have been subjected to severe trauma for several months. All these incidents have impacted greatly on the kuki community and made them suspicious in some instance of the Meitei community.


The ministry of Information and publicity of the NSCN (IM) outfit in this regard affirmed that the local kukis were denied the right to live peacefully in Moreh and its surrounding areas soon after the UNLF succeeded in collaborating with Burmese army while the government of Manipur activate by far, not lesser than a canopy to the Kuki’s grievances[28]. It further asserts that the KNO/KNA fails to understand the plans of UNLF but now realize its mistake lately[29].


The kukis indeed, realized their folly very late that they were being exploited by the meiteis in various ways in the past and in the present which was clearly portrayed in the recent Moreh incidence where the two rival militant organizations i.e. the UNLF & the KNA came into confrontation in the border town of Moreh in the Indo-Myanmar border resulting into the death of 11 innocent civilians from both the communities[30]. The government however, promised to provide compensation to the bereaved families by providing jobs to their next of kin, as also to erect a memorial tomb for the deceased but this promise was made only to the affected Meiteis, while the affected Kukis were not compensated on the ground that they were not civilians[31].


The actions taken up by the Govt. of Manipur established a sense of alienation and distrust. The kukis feel that all their efforts to preserve the territorial integrity of Manipur have not been acknowledge or appreciated. “It is deeds that will establish the sincerity of the State Government, not mere words”[32] in the existing political climate in Manipur, only then, the relationship which has got stranded over the past few years can be restored back to its historical state of peaceful co-existence/normalcy, only if the Meiteis, the majority community, change their attitude of assuming themselves as the paramount owner of the land for which the Kukis and the alike (Nagas and Pangals) have also equally sacrificed their lives.


Therefore, it is a high time for the general populace to joined hands and pool their thoughts and knowledge to unearth how and why such an awful episode has cropped up so that the escalating communal tensions are clamped and averted.


The writer is a research student in the History Department of Manipur University, India.

[1] Kabui, Gangumei: History of Manipur, vol.I (Pre-Colonial Period), p.23, National publishing

House,New-Delhi, 1991.

[2 Shakespear,J: The-Lushai-Kuki clans (1912), Cultural Publishing House, Delhi, p.118.

[3] Haokip, P.S: Zalengam, The Kuki Nation, Private Publication, 1998. p.27.

[4] Annexation of Manipur, 1949 by Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM),1995. p.182.

[5] Naorem, Joykumar: Colonialism to Democracy-A History of Manipur,1819-1972. Spectrum

Publications, Guwahati:Delhi, 2002,p. 123.

[6] Ibid.p.124.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Literally poththng means carrying of ones luggage.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Aide-Memoire: To the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohon Singh for the recognition of U.P.F, Jan 2006.

[11] Haokip,P.S: Zalengam, The Kuki Nation, p-27, Private Publication, 1998.;

[12] Kangujam, Sanatomba: Ethnic Discourse in the North East: in search of an alternative paradigm, p.8.

[13 Prof.Naorem, Joykumar: op.cit. p.193

[14] Ibid.

[15 Grierson, G.A: Linguidtic Survey of India, vol.III, prt. III p.6.

[16 ‘Hingminasnsi eikhoi’ means lets live together (Live and let live).

[17] Today many of the meiteis community are found largely settled in various hill districts of


[18] Haokip, P.S op.cit. p.27.

[19] Dr. Rosiem Pudaite: Indian National Struggle for Freedom and its Impact on the mizo Movement, 1935-1953 A.D. (2002 editon) p.99.

[20] Haokip,P.S, “Zalengam, The Kuki Nation”.

[21] Aide-memoir: To the P.M of India, Shri. Atal Bihari Vajpayee for immediate creation of

Kukiland; 1998, April 8, K.Maneithangja, General Secretary, KNF).

[22 Statistical Abstract Manipur 2005, Directorate of Economics & Statistics, Government of Manipur, p-1. * (Total areas of Manipur= 22,327 Hill areas= 20,089 sq.kms., vaslley areas= 2,238 sq.kms.)

[23] The Sangai Express, 12/06/07: KNO verbally fires at UNLF.

[24] Ibid.

[25] A K.N.O. COMMUNIQUE over K.S.O. rally in Delhi. P.1.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] The Sangai Express, 12/06/07; GPRN-NSCN on recent Moreh killings.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, 10 June 2007.

[31] As per the Sangai Express: 27th June 2007, “KNO ponders over emerging realities and issue” the KNO asserts that the following kuki victims/ diseases were of innocent civilians and in no way are connected with the KNA/KNO; they are’ (L) Pastor Hemjang Lhungdim, 40 yrs. (Church Pastor), (L) Doumang Haokip, 31 yrs.(Charcoal worker), (L) Lunkhomang Misao, 17 yrs. (Student), (L) Lunkholal Haokip, 19 yrs. (Student), (L) and Tongkholun Sitlhou, 17 yrs. (Auto-ricksaw driver).

[32] The Sangai Express, 18th July 2007, “ KNO urges Government to free Haokip”.


The writer is a research scholar at Manipur University, India.