The British Northeast Frontier Policy and the Kukis

Published on July 28, 2008

By T.H. Robert

The Northeastern region of India, popularly known as the ‘seven sisters’, comprises of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Recently, Sikkim was added as the eight state of the Northeast region due to its proximity to the area, a similar developmental problems, and convenience in implementing developmental projects.


The Chinese scholar and pilgrim, Hiuen Tsang, who visited the plains of Assam in the first half of the seventh century described the region as covered with beautiful mountains, lush forests and wild life, and depicted a fairly advanced civilization and rich cultural heritage in his narratives.


Contrary to the mainland Indian perception of Northeast India as a culturally homogeneous region of mongoloid races, the region is diverse in almost every aspect; it is inhabited by a mosaic of societies characterised by diversity of ethnicity, language, culture, religion, social organisation, economic pursuits, productive relations, and participation in political process.  J.B Fuller wrote in 1909 that the province of Assam at the far northeastern corner of India is a ‘museum of nationalities’.


Academically, the Northeastern region is still regarded as part of Southeast Asia from the cultural point of view. Peter Kunstadter in his two volume work entitled Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities and Nations included a chapter on Assam, which denotes the present day Northeast India. Kunstadter explain his inclusion of the region on the basis of the region’s large population of tribal and minority peoples whose languages are more closely related to the languages of Southeast Asia than to those of the Indian subcontinent and their cultures too resembling the cultures of their neighbours in Southeast Asia.


Sir Robert Reid, Governor of Assam (1937-1942) also stated that ‘they (tribals of Northeast India) are not Indians in any sense of the word. Neither in origin nor in appearance, nor in habits, nor in outlook and it is by historical accident that they are tagged to Indian province.’ Therefore, the inclusion of the region into Indian Territory can be termed as a ‘series of historical accidents’.


Most of the inhabitants consist of people who migrated from Southwest China or Southeast Asia via Burma at various point of history; they retain their cultural traditions and values but are beginning to adapt to contemporary lifestyles. One of the late migrants into the Northeastern region was the Kukis, who were scattered all over the region in due course of time. The earlier Kuki migrants into the region were termed by the British scholars and administrators of Northeast India as ‘Old Kukis’ who migrated about a hundred years earlier than the later migrants, the ‘New Kukis’.


Even though there exist a great diversity, the people of the Northeastern region can be broadly divided into three distinct groups of people; the hill tribes, the plain tribes and the non-tribal population of the plains. Most of the hill tribes in Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura are Christians while a substantial proportion of those living in the plains of Assam, Manipur and Tripura are Hindus and Muslims.


In spite of the modernisation and emergence of present day problems, the people still dearly cherish the essence of century’s old mutual ties and culture. The hill tribes can be grouped into four major groups: the Kuki-Chin-Mizos, Nagas, Khasi-Jintia-Garos and Arunachalis. The British rulers described these hill tribals of Northeast India as faithful and loyal subjects.


The Northeastern region of India has little or no contact with the mainland India throughout the annals of history. The different communities in the region maintain autonomy or independence not only from outside forces but also within themselves even though there was intimate relationship between the warring communities. The region was considered more as a part of Southeast Asia than that of the India subcontinent as the people interacted more with the people of this region and the culture and racial composition is more close to those of Southeast Asians.


The British military success over Burma in 1826 and the annexation of the Ahom kingdom of Assam to the Presidency of Bengal marked the entry of the British East India Company to the region and the region’s inclusion into the Indian sub-continent. Initially British India was strongly against the absolute possession of the region but due to strategic compulsions they were forced to so.


By the right of conquest, these territories were brought directly under the control of the British government and the region was redrawn as the political frontier upon India’s ‘Northeast’, away from its historical positioning at the cultural and ecological crossroads of South and Southeast Asia.


The whole of the present northeastern region was under Bengal province till 1874. Due to the British policy of expanding areas under their control and administrative rearrangements since the Revolt of 1857, the Assam province was created and governed by a Chief Commissioner who was subordinate to Lieutenant Governor of Bengal province. However, due to change in subsequent administrative policies, a new arrangement was made where Assam province became a distinct unit directly administered by a Governor-General.


Therefore, successive legal and administrative decisions taken between 1874 and 1935 gave Northeast India, a distinct region and identity.  The region has been treated separately and distinctly from other parts of the region or province by British India throughout their colonial rule. The Northeastern region has been a difficult frontier region ever since the British colonial period.


The initial British policy for the frontiers, as commented by a mainland Indian Scholar- S. K. Chaube, was the policy of ‘segregation’. However, anthropologists like Verrier Elwin and most of the British administrators were for the protection and seclusion of the hill tribes. Since their contact and subjugation the British administration takes steps to give hill people a paternal government which allowed them to exercise their own genius in the management of themselves, with just that amount of control from above.


A series of acts and regulations were passed by the British to protect the peoples in the hill areas of the Northeastern region and most of these acts and regulations were followed by the independent Indian government. The legal enactments made for the rest of the country could not be automatically be enforced in these areas, except when they were specifically adopted for them. The administrative system developed for these areas were quite different from that in the rest of the country, and most administration was left by the British to the local tribal chiefs.


The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 was the first among them which allowed the colonial state to create an Inner Line along the Assam foothill tracts. This Inner Line, under the Government of British India, is defined merely for the purpose of jurisdiction. However, this regulation prohibits any subject living outside the area from living or moving therein on the pretext of protecting tribal minorities in the hill areas of Assam.


It allowed the tribes beyond the tracts to manage their own affairs with only such interference on the part of the frontier officers in their political capacity as may be considered advisable with the view to establishing a personal influence for good among the chiefs and the tribes. This regulation was added to by the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874 and the Frontier Tract Regulation Act of 1880 which permitted the exclusion of the territories under their purview from the codes of civil and criminal procedures, the rules on property legislation and transfer and any other laws considered unsuitable for them.


With the same purpose, the Government of India (Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas) Order of 1935 was passed and declared the Naga Hills District, the Lushai Hills District, the North Cachar Subdivision of the Cachar District and the frontier tracts as excluded. The Garo Hills District, the Khasi and Jaintia Hills District (excluding Shillong) and the Mikir hill tracts of Nowgong and Sibsagar District as partially excluded areas.


The Excluded Areas were under the direct jurisdiction of the British through the executive control of the Assam Governor and that no Act of the Federal Legislature or of Assam Legislature was to apply to these areas. The Partially Excluded Areas were under the control of the Assam Governor and subject to ministerial administration, but the Governor had an overriding power when it came to exercising his discretion. No act of Assam or Indian legislatures could apply to these two hill divisions unless the Governor in his discretion so directed.


Therefore, the politics of mainstream political parties did not have any effect in these areas. According to Sharma, the British rulers kept certain areas of the Northeast as ‘excluded’ from the rest of the country with two fold objectives: (i) to keep the area as a buffer region between India and the neighbouring countries; and (ii) to protect them from exploitation by the plainsmen.


Among the hill tribes of the British Northeast frontier region, the Kukis were one of the dominant communities. They are, to use Mackenzie’s word, ‘a hardworking’, ‘self-reliant race’, and the only hillmen in their neighborhood who can hold their own against the other powerful hill tribes.


The tribes Aimol, Anal, Chiru, Chongloi, Chothe, Doungel, Guite, Gangte, Hangsing, Haokip, Hmar, Kipgen, Kom, Lhungdim, Lamkang, Lunkim, Changsan, Lenthang, Thangeo, Kolhen, Lhangum, Lhanghal, Milhem, Maring, Mate, Mozo-Monshang, Paite, Sitlhou, Lhouvum, Singsit, Simte, Baite Tarao, Touthang, Vaphei, Zou, etc., may loosely be put under one egalitarian ethnic entity called Kukis.


They have freedom and sovereignty in their land. Their territory stretched from the Chindwin River in the east, the Naga Hills in the north, North Cachar Hills in the west and the Chittagong hill tracts in the south. Till the beginning of the twentieth century these hills were not largely populated and the Kukis reigned supreme all over these hills and wandered about freely all over these lands.


The Kukis use bows and arrows instead of spears, ready at once to avenge an inroad, and therefore were much respected by the powerful Angami Nagas. The British, as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, recognized the strength of the Kukis and therefore proposals were frequently made in British India Government to utilize the Kukis as a buffer or screen between the timid British subjects like the Cacharis/Kacharis (Bodos, Dimasas, etc.), Mikirs (Karbis), Aroong Nagas (Zaliengs) and the offensive Angamis.


In 1856-57, lands were assigned rent-free for ten and afterwards for twenty five years to any Kukis who would settle in this designated buffer areas and fire arms and ammunitions to be given free by the British Government. Apart from the already settled Kukis in North Cachar, many Kukis from the south accepted free settlement on these terms and by 1860 the colony contained 1,356 inhabitants in seven villages. These colonists had risen to almost 2000 as more immigrants came from Manipur.


With the settlement of substantial Kuki population in these buffer zones, the British Government stopped supplying arms and the Angamis too stopped incursions in these areas. It was a great relief to the British Government and the weaker tribes like the Cacharis, Karbis and Zaliengs. In 1880, a Kuki militia, 100 strong was raised as a protection against Angami raids and under a British officer this militia was used for more effective control of the different tribes.


But with the establishment of the Naga Hills District, the Kukis in these buffer areas were deprived of much of their political interests. The saddest part is that for the past two decades, most of the warring tribes whom the Kukis protected against repeated onslaughts and their possible extinction consider the Kukis as immigrants (though they were also a migrants themselves) and butchers, instead of recognising their contributions to peace and tranquility in the past.


A Labour Corps was raised by British Government for France in 1916 among various clans of Nagas, Lushais and others, as Colonel L. W. Shakespear mentioned, ‘who willingly came in, having in many cases done this short of work for (British) Government before in border expeditions, and knew the work and good pay.’ In 1917, more Labour Corps were needed and to supply it the British Government felt that it was necessary to draw from other sources, viz the various Kuki clans inhabiting the hill regions of the native state of Manipur, the people who had never left their hills and knew little of British people and their ways.


The strong optimism among higher authorities in British Government was turned down at the first attempt. In their repeated attempts to raise Labour Corps among the Kuki clans, violence erupted and the world began to witness the Kuki War of Independence in December 1917. The Kukis adopted guerilla and jungle warfare techniques, where the war lasted for one and half years. The war could have still continued had not the British gone rampaging the Kuki villages by destroying houses and paddy stocks, finding the weaknesses of a Kuki man who has great love for and responsibility to his family.


The Kuki chiefs and warriors fearing an impending outbreak of famine surrendered to the British and this marked the end of the war. Many of the Kuki chiefs and warriors in Burma were imprisoned in Taungkyi Jail while those in the British India, in Sadiya Jail in Assam. The Bravery of the Kukis made Shakespear to comment that the Kuki Rebellion was ‘the largest series of military operations conducted on this side (Northeastern Region) of India.’ An Indian linguist, M.S. Thirumalai, also made an observation that: ‘The 1917 Thadou Rebellion or the Kuki Rebellion against the Britishers is a special and significant event in the history of the Indian freedom movement.’


During the 1930s, British India separated Burma from India and therefore divided the Kukis into two halves. The Partition of British India in 1947 and subsequent political events brought the cutting and restriction of old routes of mobility in the Northeastern region, as well as major demographic mobility shifts: together these two forces give Northeast India the shape and location we see today.


Further, there are popular movements after 1947 which attempts to close off and regulate national borders more rigorously than ever before with a goal to defend national territory against foreign threats and to secure national territory against internal disruption that might be fed by forces across the border. All these forces worked against the interests of the freedom loving Kukis, who were segregated into parts (India, Burma and Bangladesh), weakened and restrained their freedom of movement in their own ancestral lands.


The British policy against the Kukis in particular and the Northeast Frontier people in general can be termed as a policy of segregation, exploitation and divide and rule. All these policies were responsible for the indifferent attitude and resentment to the gospel. They have left a number of communities in the region alienated in their own land, with untold miseries and tears unnoticed.


The British were also responsible for the integration of this region into India and displacing it from its historical position as the cultural and ecological crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, and making them almost engulfed in this vast Aryan world, neither their voices heard nor their miseries understood.


The author is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science in North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), India.