Importance of Identity and Land

Published on August 31, 2008

By Luntinsat Kipgen


1. Introduction


In my early youth, before I understood the journey of our forefathers or the history, identity and nation states of diverse ethnic nationalities of India’s Northeasterners, Manipuri or Burmese identity was of no concern to me. It did not matter until recently to which state I belonged. I still remember my high school principal calling the Meitei students Manipuri boys or Manipuri girls. I disagreed because, to me, Manipuris meant all the people living in Manipur, and not exclusively the Meiteis. Maybe, I was correct in the sense of geopolitics because both the valley and hill districts together make up the Manipur state.


It was during my high school years that the age-old simmering disagreements between the two groups of Manipur hill tribes culminated in open communal violence; the hills of Manipur was polarized. Throughout the early nineties, as one traveled across the state, one’s validity was determined by ethnicity, and not by conduct. This period saw a failure of both the secular law and religious teachings of various faiths – ‘good conduct adds to the length of one’s life’. Religion was blurrily, if not at all, demarcated from politics.


Politicians, armed men, pastors, innocent women and children, all had to pay the price of their ethnicity; the Pogrom of a hundred Kukis at Zoupi on 13th September, 1993 by the Thuingaleng Muivah’s armed group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or NSCN-IM), was the worst of such cases.  Since then, the search for answers to these fundamental questions of life: how to live with dignity, security, identity and self-determination, keep resonating. 


The territory of the Kukis, the community to which I belong, was ripped apart through the middle by the creation of the international boundary – the Indo-Burma border. This artificial barrier was imposed by the British Imperialists in the 1950s without consulting the owners. This partition remains a political challenge for us. The identity crisis it created is a serious consequence having far-reaching impacts on our socio-politics and economy and marginalizing us.


The answer to the question as to whether the colonial British had intentionally divided the Kukiland still lies with them (the British); we can only assume it. Some had drawn their own conclusion that for the British, this partition was the befitting punishment for two important offences: the Kuki Rising or Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-1919, and for helping the Japanese forces against the British during World War – II.


2. Identity Redefinition


It is a popular misconception that identity is absolute or rigid. This misconception probably encouraged the earlier Thadou leaders to make boastful and unscrupulous utterances about their tribe over the others. However, bad leadership (arrogance) coupled with migration, arrival of the gospel, western education, intermarriages, etc, have in due course proved ‘Kuki identity’ dynamic or subjective.


At a certain point, around 1947, in the process of identity redefinition, the people of Chandel district in particular started undergoing identity politicization. Two factors are connected to this: 1) politicizing gospel by the Tangkhul Naga missionaries and 2) arrogance of the Thadou tribe leaders. Here, it is difficult to say which one of these two factors has greater impact in promoting identity redefinition.


a) Tangkhuls in the mask of Gospel, identity thieves


First, the Tangkhul Nagas wearing the mask of gospel missionary, came from Ukhrul during the forties, systematically deceived and converted the Marings, the Anals, the Lamkangs, the Moyons, etc. of Chandel district into Christians, and organized them under Naga Baptist Church. Politicized Christianity in the district delivered a blow to the Kuki political homogeneity. (Let Heaven forgive me if I am offending).


Not long after, religious identity mutated into political identity when the crafty old fox, Thuingaleng Muivah (Tangkhul), leader of the armed group – National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) – orchestrated a political game of violence.  The NSCN-IM cadres, taking shelter in the villages of the above mentioned tribes, attacked and burned the villages of other Kuki tribes, particularly the Thadous, killing indiscriminately without sparing even women and children.


Never imagining things of that sort, the Kukis at the beginning had no arms to counter the well-prepared NSCN-IM.  Nevertheless, the Thadous’ retaliation took a heavy toll on their neighbouring kindred tribes who hosted the enemy. Overwhelmed with vindictive feeling, young boys of Marings, Anals, Lamkangs, Moyons, etc. were inducted into NSCN-IM. Thus, antagonism between the Kuki tribes (or Kukis killing fellow Kukis) expedited the process of Naga identity expansion, allowing Muivah to have his momentary laugh.


b) Thadou Arrogance alienates kindred tribes


Second, arrogant and unsystematic leaders, it is alleged, imposed Thadou dominance over the other kindred tribes. This further drove a wedge between the tribes, thus escalating the process of disintegration.  Mention should be made of the terming of the Thadou version of the Bible as the ‘Kuki Bible’. This is often referred to as ‘one of the divisive elements’. Like that of the legendary Greek ‘Pandora’s Box,’ it has brought the Kukis, political evils. Another forceful divisive wedge is the concept of Thadou superiority over other Kuki tribes who were considered and referred to as ‘Kuki siki’ or ‘Kuki makhai’ meaning ‘not real Kuki’ or ‘quarter/half Kuki’.


In fact, at no point of time in history had the term Kuki assumed a wider popularity among all the tribes. The late forties may well have been the most conducive period for Kukiazation. But before the term could gain widespread acceptance, the pride and greed of certain individuals was poised to undo the progress made. Those individuals responsible for retardation of the process of Kukiazation did not feel the slightest guilt nor did they, even as a damage control exercise, attempt to placate the infuriated kindred tribes. At the same time, we cannot argue with the fact that no other name was as popular as Kuki for both the outsiders and among the Kukis themselves. These tribes were not conscious enough to either refute or accept the term. 


Professor Lal Dena in his book “In Search of Identity: Hmars of the Northeast”2007, writes: ‘… in this way, the term Kuki was turned into a centrifugal force, which drove homogenous ethnic groups into divergent tribal groups.’ Allegedly, the alienated tribes such as Marings, Lamkangs, Anals, etc began to align with the Naga fold while the Paites and the Hmars respectively adopted new identities called ‘Zomis’ and ‘Mizos,’ though both mean the same i.e. Highlanders.


Sadly, the census report of 2001 in Manipur reveals the identity dilemma. Some clans of the Thadou tribe (or clans which have been categorized under the Thadou tribe), redefined themselves, without giving the political pros and cons for the Kuki society a second thought, as ‘unspecified tribe’. The irony is in the choice of the term “unspecified” at a time when Thadous are considered the lone Kuki tribe. A few Thadou clans (I need not mention which ones), made every effort possible to assert their distinction, but had made unsuccessful attempts for tribe recognition under the government of India. Nevertheless, the attempt failed seemingly because of their inability to provide the authorities with distinctive enough culture, tradition, dialect, legends, myths of origin, etc.


3. Consent, determinant of Identity


Today, according to findings by social scientists, the main determinant of one’s identity is will or consent, and not territory. Geographical boundary does not automatically make the people living within it a nation. For instance, the Indian Nagas refuted Indian nationality in the statement of Mr Neingulo Krome, the general secretary of Naga Hoho addressing a meeting convened at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi on July 19, 2007 a day before the Indo-Naga peace talk.


He said, ‘God who created the Nagas did not allow us to be wiped out from the surface of the earth by another sovereign nation, India.’ Also, on one occasion during a rally against AFSPA {Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act} at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi in September, 2007, a Meitei student addressed the crowd and said, “in Delhi, there are about fifteen thousand Manipuri refugees who fled their homesteads because the Indian occupational forces have turned Manipur an unsafe place.”   


4. Kuki, the best and only name


To put it in a nutshell, it is not too late to attempt to unify these tribes under a single umbrella. History is the asset and basis of our people’s movement for political identity and space, and we cannot at this moment, to our own political disadvantage irrationally discard the age-old term ‘Kuki’ and look for an alternative one. Such an unwise move would be a ‘giant-leap-backward’ in the course of our struggle for self-determination. The written record of the deeds done by the past Kuki generation is an invaluable treasure; we only discover and do not create or conjure up history.


The proposed alternative nomenclatures for Kuki such as Zomi, Khulmi, etc., are indigenous terms, are more meaningful, and might literally be correct. Nevertheless, in the end, the limitation of their historical records outweighs their meaning and connotations. Thus, the term ‘Kuki’ is the much better choice. Any other option would be politically disadvantageous.


5. Messianic campaign for unification


Notwithstanding the myriad problems so far, there are a few diehard and unfazed men carrying on messianic campaigns for unification. This is the need of the hour. On the other hand, if there is evidence to demonstrate the inefficacy of such a campaign, then the dedicated ones should make extra effort to explore a different means of identity expansion. Let us research ways to effect happy reunification of our kindred tribes. A number of consultations need to be held before coming to a decision on the next move.


Alternatively, the Thadous should objectively reason among themselves regarding the viability of the realization of Zalengam or Kukiland by their efforts alone. If the conclusion is that we are 99% sure of it, then the messianic campaign for identity expansion (or re-expansion) stated above might be unnecessary.


In this regard, however, the unification must precede Zalengam or Kukiland as the later shall remain utopian without the former. Here, my point should not be misconstrued as an implication to halt the movement for self-administration before unification. The two can simultaneously be pursued. The day after we are unified, Zalengam or Kukiland will be celebrated.


6. Zalengam’s promise to every one of us


On one occasion during campaigns, Daw Aung San Suukyi was told by a woman that the later was not interested in politics but only wanted to build a good family and give her children good education. Daw Suu replied: that’s exactly the essence of politics. Today, the Kukis under the administrations of different states are lagging behind others in education, living standard, business, health care, consumption of quality food, etc. Even for qualified students, it is more of a chance that determines access to professional courses like medicine, engineering, and other branches of sciences due to a limited number of seats. One’s ten fingers are more than enough to count the number of Kuki professors in the above mentioned departments or branches.


I often hear my fellow Kukis saying the Meiteis, the Kols (Mainland Indians) or the Burmans are much more brilliant. To them, my reply is, it is because they get easy access to better educational institutions by virtue of being residents of cities or towns, where all the facilities are. These facilities have been available to the city dwellers for generations. A good number of the landlords I know in Delhi do not work at all but live splendidly by the income from their house rent. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not making a statement of jealousy but presenting facts about the rift between us and them.


Understanding the quality of lives enjoyed by the Mizos in Aizawl, a town built on a rugged hill, will give you an example of what Zalengam promises you and me. These promises are; easy access to education and healthcare, better living standard, job security, better communication and transport network, development of our culture and tradition, good prospects for talented sports persons, better infrastructure for full development of talents in fine arts, fifty or more MLA’s, a Legislative Assembly with a Kuki Chief Minister, longer life expectancy, old age pension, and the list goes on. All these will give the talented Kukis opportunity to work in our own land and serve our own people.