A Synopsis of the Kuki Movement: Past, Present, and the Future

Published on September 30, 2009


The Kukis are one of the most numerous tribes in northeast India, and whose area occupation stretches three countries – India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In spite of their numerical strength, vast territorial occupation, and various armed struggles – against the British, India, and Myanmar, their voice are still suppressed, without any positive sign in near future. This paper attempts to explore the brief history of the Kukis; their movements in the Pre and Post independence period in India, and also in Myanmar; and their present demands and status.


Regarding the origin of the term Kuki, as a specific reference to a particular group of homogenous tribes, Elly, a British official, in 1893, wrote that the terminology ‘Kuki’, meaning ‘hill people’ originated in Sylhet, in former East Bengal (Elly, 1893). Claudius Ptolemy (AD 90-168), the geographer, was the first person to have any, direct or indirect, mention of the Kukis in written records, identifying the Kukis with ‘Tiladai’, (who are associated with Tilabharas) and locate them "to the north of Maiandros, that is about the Garo Hills and Silhet" (Gereni, 1909). Stevenson also referred to the Kukis, with Ptolemy as his main reference, and with similar description (Stevenson, 1932). The first use of the term Kuki, in the present sense, appeared in 1777, when the East India Company’s official styled "The Chief of Chittagong" wrote to Warren Hastings, the then Governor-General, reporting that a disaffecting mountaineer had called to his aid "large numbers of Kuki men who live far in the interior of the hills, who have not the use of fire-arms and whose bodies go unclothed" (Shakespear, 1909). The Encyclopaedia Britannica records, "Kukis, a name given to a group of tribes inhabiting both sides of the mountains, dividing Assam and Bengal from Burma, South of the Namtaleik river" (EB, 1962). Edward Tuite Dalton also points out that the “Rajmala” or “Annals of Tripura” (written in 1431 AD) noted Shiva as falling in love with a Kuki woman (Dalton, 1872). This “Annal”, written by  the then royal priest Dhurlabhendra Chantai along with the two Brahmin Pandits name Sukreshwar and Baneshwar of the royal court,  can be a way of hinduising the Kukis of Tripura, just as the Brahmins hinduised the Bodos and Sonowals of Assam.

Taking into account the area describe by Ptolemy and the Britannica Encyclopaedia, and in the absence of proper geographical survey to assess the land occupied by the Kukis, it can be inferred that Kuki country (country, for its easy-to-use value) was colonised by the British and divided between British India and British Burma administrations following the ‘Kuki Uprising of 1917-19’ (Oriental and India Office Collections). Until the fateful defeat in the Uprising, the Kukis were an independent people ruled by their chieftains. The chieftain rule continues, but without the earlier independence of both the people and the Chiefs. There are vivid accounts of the older Kuki generations speaking about the “Japan Gaal”, which means Japan’s War, a clear reference to the WWII. My grandfather, use to narrate the incidents in WWII in a story form, without ever failing to emphasise on the point that, the Kukis collaborate with the Imperial Japanese army, and the Indian National Army, with the hope of flushing out the British, so that their lost territories after 1919, could be reclaimed. The large number of INA pensioners amongst the Kukis, and their unending story, of how they proudly fought alongside SC Bose, are just memories that can be satisfied in the form of irregular pensions. The consecutive loss dampened the spirit, of the Kukis, to such an extent that they are never able to recover from it again.

Today the Kukis are dispersed in northeast India, northwest Burma and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. In India, the Kukis are in the states of Manipur, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura; in the state of Mizoram, formerly the Lushai Hills, they are known as ‘Mizo’. In Burma, they are mainly in the Sagaing Division, and in Bangladesh, along the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They are known as the Chin-Kuki-Mizo today.

Kukis in India

There has been a lot of debate about the origin, and most importantly the arrival of the Kukis in India (within the present boundary of India). This debate is important in order to understand the present and the various movements that occurred.

Drawing heavily from Ptolemy, Phukan wrote that, “If we are to accept Ptolemy’s ‘Tiladae’ as the Kuki people, as identified by Gerini, the settlement of the Kuki in the North-East India would go back to a very long time in the past”, which would be well past BC (Phukan, 1992). Kabui also states, “Some Kuki tribes migrated to Manipur Hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the meitei advent into the Manipur valley”. This hypothesis easily inferred that the Kukis are in India since BC era. The Kukis are also referred to as the earliest people known to have lived in prehistory India, even preceding ‘the "Dravidians" (Majumdar & Bhattasali, 1930). That two “two Kuki chiefs named Kuki Ahongba and Kuki Achouba were allies to Nongba Lairen Pakhangba, the first historically recorded king of the meithis (Meiteis), in the latter’s mobilisation for the throne in 33 AD”, is well recorded in the Pooyas, the traditional literature of the meitei people of Manipur (Rakung, 1994). Cheitharol kumaba (Royal chronicles of the Meitei kings) record that in the year 186 Sakabda (AD 264), Meidungu Taothingmang, a Kuki, became king.

However, there are also new immigration into northeast part of India, in which the latter immigrants are often called the “New Kukis” and the other, the “Old Kukis” (Ranjit, 1988; Gangte, 1993). Some Kuki historians claimed that these artificial divisions are a well-thought nomenclature to divide the unity and the spirit amongst the Kukis (Haokip, 1998).

The Kuki and Naga hostility is well known. However, there are also inter-tribal rivalry and open conflict between the various Kuki groups amongst themselves as well. Hmars fought with Singson (Thadou) in 1960s (manipur channel, Ethnic Races Manipur, Chieftainship among Meiteis Mizos, Chieftainship among Meiteis Mizos, www.e-pao.net). This was a result of social change among the Hmar people, whose Chiefs were Singson one of the Kuki clan. There was also conflict between the Thadous and Paites in 1997.

The Kuki War of Independence

Of all the uprisings in this part of the region, the one which could be rightly termed as a war of independence by virtue of its enormity and involvement of massive logistics is the Kuki War of Independence, which is wrongly termed by some writers as Kuki Rebellion (Hangshing, 2002). It was noted that, even the British India had to include, the counter-operation of the war, for grants of military honours such as the British General Service Medals, and the like to the officers and personnel who distinguished themselves in this operation.

The war was fought to mainly oppose “house-tax and free labour”, and also the restriction on the use of firearms, which the Kukis never dreamt of, even in their nightmares. The final ‘spark’, however was the compulsory raising of corps, by the Maharaja of Manipur, at the behest of the British Government, from the hill people of Manipur to be employed in the war. To this the Kuki Chiefs openly flouted the King’s order and went to war against the British in 1917 till 1919. The magnitude of the war can be realised from the simple fact that, the British authorities under the direct command of Brigadier General Macquloid pressed into service the strength of 2400 riflemen in addition to 3000 riflemen of Burma Military Police (Hangshing, 2002; Shakespear, 1929). For the simple fact that, “one officer got CIE; one OBE, and 15 officer got IDSM and one officer got King’s Police Medal” for their role in this war, we cannot discount this war, just as another rebellion or disturbance (Haokip, 1998).

The two-year long encounter between the British and the Kukis came to a close with the announcement of general amnesty by the British Government and with the surrender of Chengjapao, Chief of Aisan, followed by Pache Chief of Chahsat, on 20th May 1919 (Shakespear, 1929). The end result of the war can be summarised as, a) forcible occupation of the Kuki areas, and b) division of their areas between India and Burma.

The “Japan Gaal” (WWII), fought by the Kukis alongside the Japanese and the INA, is often called as the Second Kuki War of Independence by the Kuki historians. It is well known that they were again defeated.

The Mizo Movement

The movement for a separate State of Mizoram, was originally meant to include all the Chin-Kuki-Mizos of the Southern Northeast, which will include the present southern part of Manipur also. However, the sacrifices made by the Kukis in the War against the Indian State was neglected by the Mizo National Front leaders when it was time for negotiation with the Indian government, and no part of the Kuki inhabited areas were to be included, much to the dismay of the Kukis, especially those who made supreme sacrifices (Kipgen, 2006). The involvement of Demkhoseh Gangte as a commander, and Lalkhohen Thangeo as a Senator in the MNF, points to undeniable sacrifice made by the Kukis for Mizoram, which are at present totally ignored.

The Kuki-Naga Conflict

The Nagas demand for a Greater Nagaland has always been a slow, but a constant process. However, this territorial based demand has complexities, as many of the areas they claimed to be a part of Greater Nagaland, are not exclusively inhabited by the Nagas. Eg. Those parts of Assam which they claim to be are also occupied by Dimasas, Karbis, Cacharis and Kukis among others; Kukis in Manipur; Mishings, Mikirs etc. in Arunachal Pradesh.

This also arises from the long desire to take revenge on the Kukis, as historical record shows the subjugation of the Nagas, by the Meiteis with the help of the Kukis, to control them and to force them to pay tribute to the Manipuri King (Saha, 1994). The revenge begin early. Goswami reported the removal of 60 Kuki villages by armed Nagas, in Tamenglong and Ukhrul subdivisions, in Manipur, between 1956 to September 1964 (Goswami, 1979). Kuki historians also widely attributed this incident as one of the factor which arouse consciousness for the need of a ‘Kuki State’. Problems, between the Nagas and Kukis in Manipur, reached its pinnacle when the leaders of the NSCN (IM) forced Kukis living in the Naga dominated areas to pay them House tax (Subba et. al, 2005). They also wanted absolute control over the National Highway no. 39 in the Pallel-Moreh Sector and started imposing taxes on goods carried in trucks. The Kukis as expected refuse to pay give into the Nagas’ demands. The last straw was the killing of the killing of 6 member family who returned from their in-laws village, in Chandel district, on the way in 1992. Three of the women were raped to death, and a stick of 7 inches being found in one of the Vagina (Phanjaubam, 1993). Thus, started the conflict in Manipur. The casualties totalled over 900 Kuki people dead (a significant number of them women and children), 350 uprooted villages, and more than 50,000 people displaced. The worst happened on 13 September 1993, when the NSCN (IM) cadres at gunpoint tied up and massacred 107 Kuki men (87 died at the spot; 20 later succumbed to injuries), butchering them with matchetes and spears. There are also report of innocent civilians being killed by the Security Forces; the figure put at 56 by the KNO (Haokip, 1998).

Movement in Myanmar

The demand for a separate state, within Myanmar has been a long historical one, arising out of the unjust treatment meted out to the Kukis because of their minority status. To cite an example: In 1967, under U Muang Maung’s “Khadwami Operation”, the Government of Revolutionary Council headed by General Newin, displaced 20,000 Kukis in the Kabow valley under the excuse that they were holding bogus “National Registration and Family Registration Cards”. There are also many instances of harassment, torture, discrimination, and forced displacement to give way to Army Camps, Dams, and other developmental projects, over the past decades (Haokip, 2007).

One of the KNA’s twin objective is to establish a State in Myanmar, as already seen. Eg. On Oct. 23, 1993, the then Chief of KNA, Hanglen, in a press statement, ‘vows to establish’ a ‘Kuki State’, within Burma (Myanmar). Therefore the KNA waged guerrilla warfare against the Military Junta between 1991 and 1999, mainly targeting patrol parties and also Steamers along the Chindwin River. Also on June 13, 1997, fifteen Myanmar security force personnel and 10 civilians were killed when the KNA ambushes an Army truck at Thenjen village of Myanmar bordering the Chandel district of Manipur. However with the banning of the KNA and its ally Kachin Independent Army (KIA), because of their support to Aung San Suu Kyi, and the rights of self-determination of the Chin people, who had been exploited by the military Junta, for decades, the movement suffer a setback. To further strengthen its base and network, it is also in alliance with the Democratic Alliance of Burma, an alliance of pro-democracy exile organizations and ethnic insurgent organizations in Myanmar and the Federation of Ethnic Nationalities of Burma. But, this gives them a chance to use democratic means, at the behest of Suu Kyi, and with the expectation of being granted statehood, once Myanmar became democratic. (for more detailed information, see http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/manipur/terrorist_outfits/Kna.htm, accessed on 8-09-09)

The present Status

The two original groups from which the Kuki armed struggle started are the Kuki National Army (KNA), and the Kuki National Front (KNF). The main objectives of the KNA is to bring together all the Kuki-inhabited areas separated by artificial boundary created in 1935, specifically in the Kabaw valley of Myanmar and the Kuki inhabited areas in the hill districts of Manipur under one administrative unit called ‘Zalengam’ (Land of freedom). In case of the eventuality of such integration not materializing, the KNA aims at the creation of two Kuki states: one within Burma i.e. ‘Eastern Zalengam’ and the other within India, ‘Western Zalengam’ (op. cited). The KNF has, since inception, strive for a separate state within the framework of India (Haokip, 1998).

Presently the Kuki militant groups are under two main organisations:

a)      The United People’s Front comprises the Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki National Front (KNF), United Kuki Liberation Front, Kuki Liberation Army (KLA/UPF), Zomi Revolutionary Army, Kuki National Front (S), Hmar Peoples Conference (D) and the Zou Defence Volunteer (UPF).

b)      The Kuki National Organisation (KNO), is made up of Kuki National Front (Military Council), Kuki National Front (Zougam), United Socialist Revolutionary Army, United Minority Liberation Army (Old Kuki), United Komrem Revolutionary Army, Zomi Reunification Front, Zou Reunification Front, Zou Defence Volunteer (ZDV/KNO), Kuki Revolutionary Army (Unification), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA/KNO) and the Kuki National Army.

The groups belonging to various tribal communities have suspended operations with security forces since August 2005. The arrangement was formalised with the Delhi pact (The Telegraph, 2008).

The future

It is very sad to know that the Kukis, even after all these struggles doesn’t have a separate district of their own, in any of the State, not to talk of a State. Their demand for a hill district, SADAR Hills, in Manipur has been ignored, even though the demand has been there for more than 40 years (Kipgen, 2003). And also that some of the areas where they are hugely populated (eg. Kangpokpi in Manipur), falls under the General Seat, even in the State Legislative Assembly. This raise a very important question as to: “Do the ruling class (Govt. of India) take a struggle seriously only when armed struggle, which manifests itself in the form of violence, is employed?”. This is a very valid question, as the centre seemed to engage in a serious dialogue with a community only when there is serious and unwanted violence, from the demanding community. As far as I can remember, in any case of killing or harassment (sexual or physical) of Kuki civilians by the Security Forces, the Nagas, or the Meiteis, the most the Kukis do is to submit a Memorandum to the “Who’s Who”, and stage a dharna for a day, and that’s it. Sometimes, I feel that we have taken the meaning of peaceful and non-violence method, too far. Any Social movement, violent or non-violent, which doesn’t achieve results and the method of which doesn’t merit response from the “other-side”, is not worthwhile. The “means” should have its way of producing “results” as well.

In this light it may not be an overstatement to say that to regain the past society, which is the “primitive Communistic” society [to use Marx’s; the society where there are no class distinction, land owned by the community, no unwanted subjugated by the other outside-community(ies), people choose who should rule them], there is a need for a revolution, which maybe a bloody one, as Marx and Engels declared in 1848 that the objectives “can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” (Marx & Engels, 1848). It may be an overthrow of the domination of the Meiteis, putting an end to the exploitation by the Nagas, by the Junta regime in Myanmar, and also the harassment, and most importantly the step-motherly treatment meted out to the Kukis by the Indian State. Force in this sense may encompass a variety of forms: “mass demonstration, general strikes, even relatively passive boycotts, as well as armed uprisings” (Jafa, 1999).

However, the failure may also be because of the lack of “Leadership”, “Organisation”, and even “Tactics” (Oberschall, 1973; Wilson, 1973; Gamson, 1975; McCarthy and Zald, 1977). Lack of mobilisation to channel this discontent into an effective mass movement.  Horton and Hunt also theorise that it is “very possible that even when discontent is probably greater, resources can be fewer” (1984). All this leads us to the very basic idea of Gramsci on the need for an “ideologue” for any movement or revolution to succeed or to persist. I firmly believe that it is in this front that the Kuki Movement fails.






















Dalton, ET (1872): Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, Government Printing Press, Calcutta

Elly, E.B. (1893): Military Report on the Chin-Lushai Country, reprinted 1978,  Firma KLM (P) Ltd, Calcutta.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1962), Vol 13, 511.

Gangte, T.S. (2005): Origin of the Kuki people, 06 December, 2005, www.kukiforum.com 

Gamson, W.A. (1975): The Strategy of Social Protest, The Dorsey Press, Illinois

Gereni, G.E. (1909): Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography of Eastern Asia (further India and Indo-Malay Archipelago), published in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society, London, reprint 1987, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, Hardcover.

Goswami, B. B. (1979): The Mizo Unrest: A study of politicisation of culture, Aalekh, Jaipur, 1979

Hangsing, H. (2005): A review of the Kuki War of Independence, Sangai Express, Sunday, September 22, 2002

Haokip, P.S. (1998): Zalengam: The Kuki Nation, Kuki National Organisation, Zalengam

Haokip, P.S. (2007): The state of the Kuki people in Post-Independence India and Burma, Burma Digest, Aug 11th, 2007

Horton, P.B. & Hunt, C.L. (1984): Sociology, Tata McGraw Hill, Singapore

Jafa, V. S. (1999): Counterinsurgency Warfare: The Use and Abuse of Military Force, Faultlines, edt. By Gill, K. P. S. & Sahni, Ajai, Vol. 3, 1999

Kabui, Gangmumei (1991): History of Manipur, p24, National Publishing House, New Delhi

Kipgen, Donn Morgan (2003): Sadar Hills District: A Necessity, Sangai Express, Saturday, December 27, 2003

Kipgen, Donn Morgan (2006): The Great Bretrayal: Brief Notes On Kuki Insurgency Movement, Monday, September 25, 2006, The Sangai Express.

Majumdar, RC & Bhattasa1i, N (1930): History of India, pg. 6-7, fifth revised edition, Dacca.

Marx, Karl & Engels, Frederick (1848): Communist Manifesto, concluding paragraph

McCarthy, J.D. & Zald, M.N. (1977): Resource Movement and Social Movements: A Partial Theory, American Journal of Sociology, May 1977.

Oberschall, Anthony (1973): Social Conflict and Social Movement, Prentice-Hall, Inc., NJ

Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC): Burma and Assam Frontier, ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’, L/PS/10/724, British Library, London (Archives).

Phanjaubam, Tarapot (2003): Insurgency Movement in North-East India, New Delhi, 1993

Phukan, JN (1992): The Late Home of Migration of the Mizos, International Seminar, Aizawl, Mizoram, studies on the Minority Nationalities of Northeast India – The Mizos, pg. 10.

Rakung, N.P. (1994): Letter to the Editor, The Telegraph, 17 January 1994, Reader, Imphal, Manipur.

Shakespear, J. (1909): The Kuki-Lushai Clans, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 39 (Jul. – Dec., 1909), pp. 371-385, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Shakespear, L.W. (1929): History of the Assam Rifles, Firma KLM Pvt. Calcutta.

Stevenson, E.L. (edt.) (1932): Claudius Ptolemy: The Geography, (2nd century), Translated and Edited by Edward Luther Stevenson, Dover edition first published in 1991 (p.xiii), an unabridged republication of the work originally published by The New York Public Library, N.Y., 1932, Dover Publications, Inc. New York.

Subba, T. B., Som, S., Baral, K. C. (2005): Between ethnography and fiction: Verrier Elwin and the tribal question in India, North Eastern Hill University, Dept. of Anthropology

The Telegraph (2008): Militants in truce told to stay off crime, Saturday, December 20 , 2008.

Wilson, John (1973): Introduction to Social Movements, Basic Books Inc., New York