Locating the History of Kuki Nationalism
By Ngamjahao Kipgen and Th. Hethang George Haokip
Locating the History of Kuki Nationalism – With Special Reference to Suspension of Operations
The present paper seeks to understand the rise of Kuki nationalism in the backdrop of the recent political development (Suspension of Operations) of the Kuki revolutionary groups. Therefore, it is imperative to briefly discuss Kuki nationalism since the colonial India to the post-independent period and conclude by analysing the present Suspension of Operations (SoO).
A nation of warrior, the Kukis, since time immemorial have always felt that the territories they inhabited belonged to them and that they have been living independently in a country supposedly in their ancestral land called Zalengam or Kukiland.
This can be well visualised from the events that have begun since the time of Warren Hastings to which AS Reid has pronounced, ‘these tribesmen (the Kukis) attacked the British subject in 1777 AD at Chittagong during the Governor-Generalship of Warren Hastings’ (Reid, AS: Chin-Lushai Land, Calcutta, 1893. p.3).
It is affirmed that the Raja of Chittagong sought the protection of British authority from the occasional raids and atrocities in the year 1777 AD and this in fact was the first ever anti-imperialist stance on the British subjects. The Kukis were indeed, a warlike and independent people who seldom hesitated to lay down even their lives in order to defend their territory (ancestral land), which is apparently evident/witnessed from their fights against the mighty Britishers. It is thus stated that an organised movement started at the time when the Sun never set in the British Empire.
This has been manifested in the form of attacks and counter-attacks on British subjects – Government officials and their expeditions. In this regard, Col EB Elly has recorded, “In 1845, 1847, 1849-50 and 1850-51 there were raids, culminating in what is called the Great Invasion of 1860’s, where 15 villages were burnt or plundered, 188 British subjects killed, and 100 carried into captivity. In 1864 raids recommenced, and were continued in 1866-67, 1868-69, 1869-70 and in 1870-71” (Elly, Col EB: Military Reports on the Chin-Lushai Country, p. 8).
The British on the other-hand, had launched a series of expeditions in order to subdue and crush the power of the Kukis in which mentioned may be made of Cpt Blackwood’s Expedition of 1844 (Shakespear, Col LW: History of the Assam Rifles, Spectrum Publication, Gauhati, 1929, p. 21), Col Lister’s Expedition of 1847 (Ibid, pp. 21-22), Major Raban’s Expedition of 1860, General Nuthall’s Expedition of 1868, the Lushai Expedition of 1871-72, Col Tregear’s Expedition of 1888-89 (Reid, Robert: History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam From 1883-1941, Spectrum Publications, Guwahati, 1942, Assam Govt. Press. p.1), Chin-Lushai Expedition of 1889-90 (Ibid. p. 10).
The objective of the expeditions can be summarised as – “firstly, to punitively visit certain tribes that have raided and committed depredations in British territory…, secondly, to subjugate tribes as yet neutral… circumstances brought within the sphere of British dominion…, thirdly, to explore and open out as much as…, then as yet only partly known, country between Burma and Chittagong; and, lastly, if the necessity arises, to establish semi-permanent posts in the regions visited so as to ensure complete pacification and recognition of British power” (Confidential: Bengal Secretariat, Political and Judicial, A, Military Proceedings, June 1891, Nos. 1-27. File L/43 of 1889).
Thus, the war with the mighty imperialists had weakened the position of the Kukis and this had resulted into their initial dispersion in various contagious regions. As such, the intrusion of the British into the ancestral domain of the Kukis resulted in a series of confrontation between the Kukis and the Britishers and that the never-ending aggressive nature of the imperialists and the Kukis’ desires for want of status quo in their native land erupted in an ever lasting enmity which gradually escalated and culminated into the first war of “Kuki Independence, 1917-19” popularly known as the “Kuki Rebellion/Uprising (See, Chisti, SMAW: The Kuki Uprising in Manipur, Spectrum Pub., uahati: Delhi, 2004) in the history of India’s freedom struggle.
It is also noteworthy that even during the course of the World War II, many Kukis had joined the INA (Indian National Army) led by Subhas Chandra Bose, with a view to get independence from the British oppression to which PS Haokip has termed the event as the “IInd War of Kuki Independence”.
But this bond of Kukis’ unity was shattered by the imperialists through the mechanism of divide and rule when they ceded Burma (Myanmar) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1937 and in 1947 respectively, thereby scattering the Kukis in three political units viz, India, Burma and Bangladesh and that has created a wide gulf which cannot be bridged again.
However, the long sufferings and sacrifices of the Kukis (freedom fighters/patriots), the pains and the agony of their forebears were not in vain. Similar sentiments and objectives were an intrinsic part of the actions of the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) in the mid-sixties (The KNA was formed on the 24th Oct 1946 with Zavum Misao and T. Kipgen as its founding President and Secretary General respectively).
The KNA had submitted a memorandum to the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru for the creation of a separate Kuki-State within the framework of the Indian Constitution (Preamble to the Constitution of the KNA, NE India, as amended in 1986, “Aims & Object” of the KNA p. 2).
Since then, a number of memoranda and reminders were sent thereof many a times (Aide-memoir: To the P.M. of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee for immediate creation of Kukiland; 1989, April 8, submitted by the KNF). These endeavours remained futile (till date) even after 60 years of India’s independence despite the fact that the erstwhile NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh), Naga Hills (Nagaland) Khasi Hills (Meghalaya), Lushai Hills (Mizoram) etc. were created by carving it out from the State of Assam in just 30 years time (General Studies Manual: Tata Mc.Graw-Hill Pub Co Ltd, New Delhi. General Information, 2005, PH14).
In full consciousness of this creation of States in North East India and the neglect of the Kukis’ demand for “Kuki-land” (State) has hurt the sentiment of the Kukis which resulted in alienation and marginalisation to a great extent from the mainstream India.
Having witnessed and experienced the step-motherly attitude and treatment from the Government of India for many decades since India’s independence, the young generations of the late eighties pledged to take up arms and resolved to fight until a separate State for the Kukis is carved out (Kipgen, Nehlun: Founder of the KNF: The Shillong Times, 1st Oct 1993 & also in Ahsijolneng, Annual magazine, 2007, Shillong KSO Pub, p. 18-21).
This, in their assessment, was the only viable strategy to pressurise the Govt of India. Thus, the formation of a revolutionary organisation was nothing new nor was it an accident; rather it is a continuation of the unfulfilled works which had long been started by their predecessors in the mid-sixties. The disparity between the earlier Kuki National Assembly and the present revolutionary groups can be prepared to that of the moderates and the extremists in the erstwhile pre-independence India.
Though there may be variations in their approach and ideology, their objectives however, remain the same. Thus, the formation of a revolutionary organisation appears to have been a fulfillment of a long-awaited cherishing dreams and desires of the Kukis regardless of men and women, the educated, the rich and the poor, et al. The formation of the Kuki revolutionary organisation, however, has led to the birth of Kuki National Front (KNF) and later on, the Kuki National Army (KNA).
The KNF demands for a separate homeland/Kukiland within the framework of the Indian Constitution, while the KNA, a Burma-based organisation fights for the independent Zalengam. The map of Zalengam includes part of North East India, Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh. The motive behind the Zalengam movement is to unify all the Kuki-inhabited areas into a single administrative unit that was demarcated by the British India.
These two organisations representing the Kukis no doubt, have pioneered the movement to usher Zalengam/Kukiland. Of late, various plethora militant organisations or factions both from the KNF and the KNA sprang up in the so-called post Kuki-Naga ethnic clash. However, the formation of the UPF (United Peoples Front) [Aide-Memoir: To the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh for the recognition of UPF, Jan 2006] and the KNO (Kuki National Organisation) [A KNO Communiqué over KSO Rally in Delhi, p.1] a common bi-platform for all the existing Kuki militant groups has shown a new sense of hope for the political movement of the Kukis once again.
These indeed, transpired to be a welcoming step towards uniting and consolidating various organisations into a single unit, however, for an effective and lasting solution they ought to voice in unison. And from an optimist viewpoint, the day is not far when all the factions would come under a single umbrella and fight unitedly to achieve their political goals. In pursuance of their goals, various organisations under the two umbrellas of the KNO and the UPF have recently approved the tripartite agreement on the Suspension of Operation (SoO) and signed the documents on the 22nd Aug 2008 under laid down ground rules (The Sangai Express: Cabinet nod to SoO deal, p.1, Dt. 23/08/2008).
And in concerning top priority for the future political development, the ground rules set for the Suspension of Operations (SoO) between the GOI, State Government and the Kuki Militant groups is indeed a positive measure to working out a tangible solution through peaceful means. In fact, this has been the desire and aspiration of the Kukis since the commencement of their movement in the post-independence India.
But in defining the ground rules of the SoO, the State Government has inserted a clause stating that, ‘the territorial integrity of the State should be maintained on the ground that it is of rational sensitive issue’, to which Calvin H & Dr Seilen Haokip, spokespersons of the UPF & the KNO respectively have given their consent that this ought to surface in political dialogue (Imphal Free Press: Buhril, David: KNO, UPF & the SoO, Long Walk to Talk, Dt. 07/09/08. p. 3). Thus, the very formation of this camp should not be an end in itself but it should wisely be materialised as a means to an end.
SoO and the present imbroglio
With respect to the recently concluded tripartite agreement on the Suspension of Operations (SoO), some critics might have held the view that the Kuki revolutionary groups lack in propagating their political aspirations to the masses and in that some have gone up to the extent of blaming the leaders that they have given the people a shadow rather than a substance. The glaring lacunae is the fact that the masses have not been consulted before taking up such an important issue. Hypothetically, one of the probable reasons behind these fissures could have been the prevailing conservative ideas, thoughts and ignorances among the Kuki peoples.
And at the time, it is an undisputed fact that the people have suffered bitterly and made many sacrifices for the cause of the ongoing Kuki movement. They therefore, deserve to be consulted; if not the programme taken up by the revolutionary groups need to be conveyed to the masses. Sadly, the present SoO has reflected one inherent quality of the Kukis i.e. their over-far sightedness.
They really are skeptical and bothered by things which are still unseen and unheard of, i.e. ‘… mulou lai del hoh’ [in Thadou-Kuki dialect] and this very pessimistic nature often buries them into grave; even good things often turn out to be ugly. The general public therefore, should have patience, i.e. to wait and watch. One should not simply talk ills about a picture, even when the show and countdown has not begun yet.
Now, in any revolutionary movement, for the revolting groups to come into a negotiating table, violence must be shunned. As such, the signing of the tripartite SoO therefore, is not the beginning of the end of the 20 year-old Kuki insurgency movement, rather the beginning of the gateway to the political solution of the Kukis (Kuki homeland). This statement needs to be vividly elucidated.
To put in a nutshell, it is pertinent to note that since time immemorial, Kangleipak (Manipur) and Zalengam (Kukiland) have been in peaceful co-existence with mutual respect for territorial integrity and that the inhabitants vis-à-vis the Meiteis and the Kukis have been living peacefully in their own respective territories without any interference in each other’s internal affairs (The Sangai Express: KNO verbally fires at UNLF Dt. 12/06/2007).
It would be prudent to recall and retrospect the events that have occurred in 1891 (Khongjom war) & 1917–1919 (Kuki War of Independence) in which the Meitei’s land (Manipur) and the Zalengam (Kukiland) were subjugated and conquered successively i.e. one after another (Haokip, PS: Zalengam, The Kuki Nation, 1998. p.27).
Nevertheless, the SoO has opened up a new vista and it is going to be a landmark in the annals of the Kuki history. The Kukis therefore, with the prime notion of what John F. Kennedy had once stated, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. Let us never fear to negotiate” and also with the strategy basically based on ample historical records/facts, and for want of harmonious relationship with the ethnic groups around them and that of the status-quo were much enthusiastic to sign the SoO.
The revolutionary groups on their part, vehemently asserts that the ‘Kuki Nation’ which have a distinct ethnic and socio-cultural identity has every right to self-determination, i.e. the freedom to decide their own future, and that would be possible only when political autonomy (self-governance) is granted to them within the fabric of the Indian Constitution.
To sum up, “Article 244 & 244 (A) and Schedule I to IV of the Indian Constitution, ‘… the tribals of North Eastern India may or shall have separate administrative units for their own”, and thus, the question is ‘Why not Kukiland (Zalengam)?’ (Kipgen, Nehlun, op.cit, p.19).
Ngamjahao Kipgen and Th. Hethang George Haokip are research scholars at Indian Institute of Technology and Manipur University, India.