Federal Restructuring of the Kuki Nation

Published on July 21, 2008

By Luntinsat Kipgen


1. Who are the Kukis?


The following remarks are quoted directly from the Kuki International Forum website as compiled by Paoboi Kipgen:


Earlier writers gave the name Kuki to certain groups of people.


1) Col. J. Shakespeare, in his Lushai Kuki Clans, Part I, 1912:

The term Kuki, like Naga, Chin, Shendu, and many others… has come to have a fairly definite meaning, and we now understand by it certain closely allied clans with well marked characteristics, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman stock; on the Chittagong border the term is loosely applied to most of the inhabitants of the interior hills beyond the Chittagong hill Tracts; in Cachar it generally means some families of the Thadou or Khawthlang clans. In the Lushai Hills now-a-days the term is hardly ever employed, having been superseded by Lushai. In the Chin Hills and generally on the Burma border all these clans are called ‘Chin’.


2) Lt. Woodthorpe (1873: The Lushai Expedition, 1871-72):

The name Kookies has been given to this great tribe (Lushai)….


3) Col. Lewin, T. H., in Hill Tracts of Chittagong and Dwellers Therein:

The Lushais are the people named as Kukis. They were independent warrior tribes inhabiting the Chittagong Hills Tracts.


4) Reid Robert, Sir (1942, History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam Since 1873-1941 pp2-3):

…. The term Kukis form a mingling of clans, speaking dialects of the same language who are known to us by various names, such as, Kookies, Lushais, Pois, Shendus, Chins, etc…


5) Hutton stated:

Before the Kuki (war) of 1918-1919 the administration in the hill areas of the Manipur State was not very close, and the Kukis, ruled as they were by their own well-recognised Chiefs, and treated as they had been in the past at any rate, by the Manipur State as allies…. Managed their own affairs in their own way …


6) Pu. Thangkhopao Kipgen, Secy. (Dev.), Govt. of Manipur on the Inauguration of the Kuki Inn stated:

Perhaps some of us may not understand who the Kukis are because the term ‘Kuki’ has not been found in the list of Scheduled Tribes for Manipur. The term ‘Kuki’ had been applied to all the non-Naga tribes of Manipur, Nagaland, and North Cacahr hills for many years. Now, all of them do not agree to be called Kukis but they could not find any solution acceptable to all. Therefore, this house proposed to be constructed had been named as Kuki Inn, meaning thereby to cover all the tribes which came under the Kukis under the old orders of 1950.


7) Dorothy Woodman, in The making of Burma 1862 records:

The Chin people who lived in the Manipur plain, where they are called Kukis.


8) R.K. Jhalajit Singh in A short History of Manipur wrote:

Racially different from the above people are the Kukis. There are many groups and sub-groups among the Kukis. They lived in the hills of Manipur and Burma. In Manipur, they usually occupy the South Western hills. Most of the Kukis are new arrivals in Manipur. Even as late as the closing decades of the Nineteenth century, hordes of Kukis arrived in Manipur and were allowed to settle here by the Manipur authority….. The reign of Nara Singh may be remembered for the arrival and settlement of Kukis in Manipur between the years 1830-1840. They arrived in Manipur as they were driven north ward by the more powerful tribes. About 2000 Kukis migrated to Manipur from the south in 1877-78. They brought with them a large number of muskets and ammunitions. The Maharaja settled them near Moirang”. 


9) Maj. Anthony Gilchrist McCall, O.B.E., ICS, Lushai Chrysalis 1949 in a forward by Sir Keith C.Antlie, ICS:


Hrangkhol, Baite, Thadou and other kindred tribes… these have come to be called the ‘Kuki’ tribes, probably of one stock with Chins and Lushais.


10) R.H. Sneyed Hutchinson in, An Account of the Chittagong Hill Tract 1906:

A Chief of Chittagong sent a letter to Warren Hasting against the Kukis who invaded the hill in 1777.


11) G.A. Grierson, in Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. III, Part III, 1904 wrote:

‘Kuki’ is an Assamese or Bengali term; applied to various hill tribes, such as the Lushai, Rangkhols, Thadou, etc. it seems to have been known at comparatively early period. In the Raj mala, Siva is stated to have fallen in love with a Kuki woman, and the Kuki are mentioned in connection with Tipperah Raja Chachang who flourished about 1512 AD.….Chin is a Burmese word used to denote the various hill tribes living in the country. It has been noted that the word ‘Chin’ has the same meaning as the name Kuki.


2. What is meant by the term Kuki?


The literal meaning and connotation of the term ‘Kuki’ is still obscure like that of the term ‘Naga’. Writers, anthropologists, social scientists and historians have propounded different theories about the meaning of this term and there is no unanimity among them even today. While some say it is a corruption of Bengali word ‘Khuci’ meaning ‘unrestrained liberty’ or the people who live a free life and act at their will, there are others who say that it is a just a name given to this group of people by outsiders without necessarily having a pre-meditated meaning. Whatever the origin, one thing most important is that it is now clearly the political identity by which a particular ethnic people of about two dozen tribes is known. Thus, Kukis are one of the ethnic and indigenous people who have distinct culture, custom and tradition, and whose land forms parts of the present day India and Burma. 


3. Tribes Under the Kuki


The Kuki tribes and how their identities were kept preserved can also be understood from the Schedule Tribes of five Northeast states of India, viz, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.


Assam: Any Kuki tribes including: i) Biate, Biete, ii) Changsan, iii) Chongloi, iv) Doungel, v) Gamalhou, vi) Gangte, vii) Guite, viii) Hanneng, ix) Haokip, Haopit, x) Haolai, xi) Hengna, xii) Hangsing, xiii) Hrangkhawl, Rangkhol, xiv) Jongbe, xv) Khawchung, xvi) Khawathlang, Khothalong, xvii) Khelma, xviii) Kholhou, xix) Kipgen, xx) Kuki, xxi) Lenthang, xxii) Lhangum, xxiii) Lhouvum xxiv) Lhoujem xxv) Lupheng xxvi) Mangjel xxvii) Misao xxviii) Riang, xxix) Sairhem, xxx) Selnam, xxxi) Singson, xxxii) Sitlhou, xxxiii) Sukte, xxxiv) Thadou, xxxv) Thangngeu, xxxvi) Uibuh, xxxvii) Vaiphei.


Manipur: 1. Aimol, 2. Anal, 3. Chiru, 4. Chothe, 5. Gangte, 6. Hmar, 7. Koirao, 8. Koireng, 9. Kom, 10. Lamgang, 11. Maring, 12. Any Mizo (Lushai) tribes. 13. Monsang, 14. Moyon, 15. Paite, 16. Purum, 17. Ralte, 18. Simite, 19. Suhte, 20. Thabou, 21. Vaiphei, 22. Zou.


Meghalaya: Any Kuki tribes including i) Biate, Biete ii) Changsan, iii) Chongloi, iv) Doungel, v) Gamalhou, vi) Gangte, vii) Guite, viii) Hanneng, ix) Haokip, Haupit, x) Haolai, xi) Hengna, xii) Hangsing, xiii) Hrangkhwal, Rangkhol, xiv) Jongbe, xv) Khawchung, xvi) Khawathlang, Khothanlong, xvii) Khelma, xviii) Kholhou, xix) Kipgen, xx) Kuki, xxi) Lenthang, xxii) Lhangum, xxiii) Lhoujem, xxiv) Lhouvum, xxv) Lupheng, xxvi) Mangjel, xxvii) Misao, xxviii) Riang, xxix) Sairhem, xxx) Selnam, xxxi) Singson, xxxii) Sitlhou, xxxiii) Sukte, xxxiv) Thadou, xxxv) Thangngeu, xxxvi) Uibuh, xxxvii) Vaiphei.


Mizoram: Any Kuki tribes including: i) Baite, Biete, ii) Changsan, iii) Chongloi, iv) Doungel, v) Gamalhou, vi) Gangte, vii) Guite, viii) Hanneng, ix) Haokip, Haupit, x) Haolai, xi) Hengna, xii) Hangsing, xxxii) Sitlhou, xxxv) Thangngeu, xiii) Hrangkhwal, Rangkhol, xiv) Jongbe, xv) Khawchung, xvi) Khawangthlang, Khothalong, xvii) Khelma, xviii) Kholhou, xix) Kipgen, xx) Kuki, xxi) Lenthang, xxii) Lhangum, xxiii) Lhoujem, xxiv) Lhouvum, xxxiii) Sukte, xxxvi) Uibuh, xxv) Lupheng, xxvi) Mangjel, xxvi) Misao, xxviii) Riang, xxix) Sairhem, xxx) Selnam, xxxi) Singson, xxxiv) Thadou, xxxvii) Vaiphei.


Tripura: Kuk including the following sub-tribes: i) Balte, ii) Belahut, iii) Chhalaya, iv) Fun, v) Hajango, vi) Jangtei, vii) Khareng, viii) Khephong, ix) Kuntei, x) Laifang, xi) Lentei, xii) Mizel, xiii) Namte, xiv) Paitu, Paite, xv) Rangchan, xvi) Rangkhole, xvii) Thangluya.


The above-mentioned tribes are of those who mostly live in the present day India, and some of these identities defined during the British colonial period have also undergone change resulting from demarcation of territory in the post independent era. Particularly in Chandel district, the arrival of politicized Christianity is responsible for redefinition of identities of the people there.


4. The Kuki in Contemporary Burma


In the light of present day Burma’s context, we need to accept the nomenclature ‘Kuki’ as a political identity, which if necessary may be redefined. In order to restructure the nation, I propose two options as how the people may be classified 1) using the existing tribes or 2) by region.


First, based on the existing tribes, the term Kuki may, in present day Burma, encompass all such permanent residents of Sagaing division who belong to the clans under the tribes of Thadou, Zou, Vaiphei, Gangte, Tiddim, Hmar, Falam, Lushai, Anal, Kom, etc. Since there are no Kuki tribes other than those mentioned above, it is felt that their inclusion or omission in the list does not make difference.


A status of Kuki’ may be extended to non-Kuki tribes and communities who have been settling in the aforesaid Sagaing Division if they so desire to embrace the term Kuki as their new identity with a pledge to remain loyal to the same. As to whether the tribes and communities under ‘the Status of Kuki Community’ should enjoy the same rights and discharge the same duties as the Kuki tribes themselves shall be decided later as and when the new Kuki National Assembly sits.


Second, irrespective of tribe names, like that of the Burman community, the term Kuki in northern Sagaing division of Burma may, by consensus, adopt the geographical or regional names and be sub-divided accordingly into Tonjang Kuki, Khampat Kuki, Tamu Kuki, Myothit Kuki, Homalin Kuki, Khamti Kuki, Laysi Kuki, etc.


While accepting that neither of the aforesaid suggestions for classification is completely free from shortcomings and criticism, it is also to be noted that either of them is workable provided the people concerned accept them.


In the context of Manipur, the Kuki identity has, for more than half a century, remained ambiguous. This, it is alleged, is because visionless and arrogant leaders of the preponderant Thadou tribe, attempted to impose their dialect upon and exercise political dominance over the remaining twenty one tribes. The latter were so alienated that they reacted to the point of rejecting their ‘Kuki identity’ outright. The consequence was for the Thadous, Kuki theoretically continues to be the generic nomenclature for all the twenty two tribes. But to the remaining twenty one tribes, only the Thadou tribe is considered Kuki.


In this pathetic condition there has been no attempt made by errant leaders to rebuild the nation through a free and objective discussion by all concerned tribes to arrive at consensus. Instead of admitting their fault, these leaders make every possible effort to justify their action. These justifications remain unconvincing.


Each of the disintegrated tribes is acting in isolation without the slightest concern for the political disadvantage as a whole. A tribe will issue press communiqués and the other will either refute or counter it. With the mushrooming of new terms (for Kuki) such as Zomi, Khulmi, Sinlung, etc. in Manipur, consensus on the original term (Kuki) has not yet been arrived at. Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism as under the leadership of United Peoples’ Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO), a consensus on the term Kuki is close.


5. A new Kuki idenity


For an amicable solution to any problem, all the parties involved must agree to accept the principles of ‘give and take’ and ‘to respect and be respected’. To build a strong Kuki Nation, each unit tribe needs to be strong, should have equal rights and have proportional representation as a binding force. A Federal structure would serve this purpose best. In fact decades of political upheaval in Burma can be traced to non-implementation of federalism. Similarly, detailed analysis and minute observation has revealed that no other single deed or collective error has done more harm to Kuki homogeneity than non-acceptance of Thadou as the name of their tribe by all the Thadou speaking clans. Whether or not Thadou is the name of the tribe’s progenitor should not be made an issue – that is irrelevant. There are many examples of tribes being identified by non-related progenitor terms.


To cite a good example, out of the twelve tribes of Israel, the majority of eleven tribes (Reuben, Shimon/Simion, Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Yisachar, Zevulun/Zebulun, Yosef/Joseph, Binyamin/Benjamin) do not object to being identified as Jews, which is but a derivative of Yehuda or Judah, the twelfth one. Equally, Geman, English, Australian, etc., are not the names of the progenitor of the people these terms identify. It is imperative that Thadou must be accepted if a strong Kuki Nation is to be built. It might not be an exaggeration to state that the problem facing the Kuki society is an extended complication of the Thadou problem.


6. A common language


The question of whether the Thadou dialect should be the Kuki national language is a diversion from the greater issue of federation. Let the Kuki state be created first and then the Kuki (common) language can be discussed by linguistic experts. It is too early to talk about a common language for a nation composed of more than twenty tribes. In Mizoram, the erstwhile Lushai or Duhlian dialect has become so popular that it has been recognized as the state’s official language or Mizo language. On the other hand, Nagaland has the Nagamese composed of multi-dialects of Naga tribes, Nepalese, Assamese, Bangali and Hindi.


In the Kuki’s case, there are slight variations in dialects with 90% of nouns being the same. Therefore, it would not be hard to invent a common language acceptable to all the Kuki tribes by blending their dialects in proportion to their popularity. For this purpose, a standard grammar book has to be published. I therefore would like to propose that, however distasteful the term ‘Thadou’ might be to some of us, it is desirable, to accept it until a better substitute has been coined or discovered. Imagine what it would be like for the Kuki to be minus Thadou. Kuki would, in reality, be a soulless Nation. I hold this view honestly and sincerely and if this offends anyone I readily offer my apology.


7. The Myth of Thadou king in Mannan Zarzawin


Again, in contrast to the movement for Kuki identity expansion, some of us openly campaign that Thadous are, as found in the Burmese Royal Chronicles – Mannan Zarzawin, are of royal descend, and that it should be accepted as the national name instead of the exotic term ‘Kuki’. To those who hold this view, my fervent appeal is, to further research it so as to distinguish between history and myth. It is due to this misunderstanding that in Burma, Thadou is often advocated to substitute “Kuki”. Similarly, myth about a Kuki king is found in the Manipuri royal chronicle. To clear this confusion, let us try to distinguish myth from history.


In Manipur, records dating back to AD 33, during which Nongba Lairen Pakhangba, the first Meitei king existed refer to two Kuki Chiefs named Kuki Ahongba and Kuki Achouba. Also, the Royal Chronicles of Meitei Kings called ‘Cheitharol Kumbaba’, notes, in the year 186 Sakabda (AD 264) Meidungu Taothingmang, a Kuki, became king of Manipur. However, a correct historiography can be understood from O. Tomba’s statement when he wrote,


A study of all the Manipuri history books available in the market will show that the writers of these books use a type of historiography which is not universally acceptable. Using a strong historiography, these historians have produced a history of Manipur spanning about twenty centuries beginning from the early part of the first century. It is a fact that very little is known about the history of Manipur before the 14th century. However, most Manipuri historians write that Pakhangba was the first Meitei King who ascended the throne of Manipur in 33 A.D. at Imphal Kangla. Actually, this is a concocted history because the Meiteis did not settle in Manipur before the fourteenth century. Also Lainingthou Pakhangba, like Lord Rama of Ayodhya, is a mythical or imaginary king which was created by some ancient story tellers.


Almost all the noted Manipur historians do not try to differentiate history from myths. They have relied solely on myths for writing the history of Meiteis from 33 A.D. to the fourteenth century. One also cannot rely on Meitei Puyas or Puranas, written in Meitei script for historical reference for the period before the nineteenth century as these Puyas are found to be fabricated. The Meitei royal chronicle or the Cheitharol Kumbaba which is used as a reference book by Manipuri historians is also not a reliable record because the original Cheitharol Kumbaba, written in Meitei script, is a fabricated one. The work of fabricating the Cheitharol Kimbaba might have been done during the time of Maharajah Churachand Singh after the Meitei script was invented in the early part of the 20th Century (op.cit.,pp.1,2)


Also, O.Tomba in his booklet, A Need to Rewrite Manipuri History, 1993, stated:


Most part of Manipur valley, including the whole of Imphal Kangla, was under water till the beginning of 15th century. Geologists have now found scientific evidences to prove that the entire Manipur valley was under water about 500 years ago. Actually there was a large lake covering the entire Manipur valley and over the years this lake shrank to the present Loktak lake due to siltation. There are no authentic archaeological finds to show that the Meiteis settled in Manipur before the 14th century. Excavations carried out at different places of Manipur valley by various agencies have shown that there is a thick layer of decomposed water plants undergoing lignification process about 30ft below the ground level… (p2).


Thus, from the above excerpts, it is cleared that myths are often misunderstood to be history. Undated, Mannan Zarzawin, the Burmese Royal Chronical that recorded the Thadou King is also not reliable and universally acceptable. Even the most noted Burmese historian, Dr. Than Tun has rejected the historicity of Mannan Zarzawin.


At the same time, other Kuki tribes should not feel sidelined because the above statement may seem to overemphasize the role of the Thadou tribe in restructuring the Kuki society. I do firmly believe that a restructured federal system alone will hold us together. Thus, the contribution and effort by each tribe is equally important. Without a united struggle for a common goal, the best efforts by each tribe towards their own isolated security will take us nowhere near the materialization of the much trumpeted slogan – Zalengam, Kukiland, Kukigam or Zogam.


8. Conclusion


Why have we not yet achieved a self governing Kuki society? Why cannot the Kuki groups work together? Let us ponder over this very simple question unemotionally and come to an objective conclusion. We should not allow parochial interest to hamper our prime objective. True Federalism is the only pre-requisite for unification to achieve success in our Kuki political movement.


Please consider the following questions:


1) Why are the Kukis not the master of Zalengam, the best land on earth their forefathers left for them?

2) What would our forefathers say if they come back to life and saw us, as we are, serving others in our own homeland?

3) The Kuki Innpi or Kuki government has no proper office, no telephone, no fax and no office staff, not enough money, no transport, etc., the list goes on.  In such government office, imagine how the president of this government would work.

4) What have you done to establish the genuine Kuki government that has military power, economic and financial power and governing authority, legislative power of an assembly if not a parliament?

5) How long, according to your estimate based on your contribution would it take to create the Kuki government?


* This is an edited version of paper presented at a seminar on ‘Kuki National Reconciliation for Dignity and Political Space in Federal Union of Burma’ held from 17-19th June, 2008 in Moreh, India.