The Kuki People in Post-Independent India & Burma

Published on August 9, 2008

By Lenin H. Kuki


The Kuki People


The Kukis are an ethnic people comprising numerous clans. These clans share a common past, culture, customs and tradition. They speak in dialects that have a common root language belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group. Kuki country was subjugated by the British and divided between British India and British Burma administrations following the ‘Kuki Rising of 1917-1919’. Up until the fateful defeat in 1919, the Kukis were an independent people ruled by their chieftains.


During World War II, seizing the opportunity to regain independence, Kukis fought along with the Imperial Japanese Army and the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The success of the Allied forces over the Axis group dashed the aspiration of the Kuki people. 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.

With regard to Kuki identity, Prof JN Phukan writes, if we were to accept Ptolemy’s ‘Tiladae’ as the ‘Kuki’ people, as identified by Gerini, the settlement of the Kuki in North-East India would go back to a very long time in the past. Prof Gangumei Kabui states, ‘some Kuki tribes migrated to Manipur hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in the Manipur valley.’ This hypothesis will take us to the theory that the Kukis, for that matter, the Mizos, at least some of their tribes, had been living in North-East India since the prehistoric time, and therefore, their early home must be sought in the hills of Manipur and the nearby areas rather than in Central China or the Yang-tze valley.

In the second century (AD 90 – 168), Claudius Ptolemy, the geographer, identified the Kukis with Tiladai, who are associated with Tilabharas, and places them ‘to the north of Maiandros, that is about the Garo Hills and Silhet.’ Stevenson’s reference to Kuki in relation to Ptolemy’s. The Geography also bears critical significance to its existence in this period. The Rajmala or Annals of Tripura, refers to Shiva falling in love with a Kuki woman around AD 1512. The Encyclopaedia Britannica records, ‘Kuki, 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.’ Concerning the origins of Kuki, in 1893, EB Elly, a British official, wrote, the terminology ‘Kuki’, meaning ‘hill people’ originated at Sylhet, in former East Bengal.

Historians such as Majumdar and Bhattasali refer to the Kukis as the earliest people known to have lived in prehistory India, preceding ‘the “Dravidians” who now live in South India.’ The Aryans, who drove the Dravidians towards the south, arrived in the Indian sub-continent around BC 1500. In the Pooyas, the traditional literature of the Meitei people of Manipur, ‘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.’ Cheitharol Kumaba (Royal Chronicles of the Meitei Kings) records that in the year 186 Sakabda (AD 264) Meidungu Taothingmang, a Kuki, became king. 

Kuki defence against British colonialism

Kuki opposition to the British and interference in their territory began in 1777, during the time of Warren Hastings, Governor General of India, culminated in 1919. For the sake of reference, ‘The year 1860 saw the great Kuki invasion of Tipperah [Tripura], and the following year a large body of police marched to the hills to punish and avenge.’ ‘In 1845, 1847-1848, 1849-1850, and 1850-1851 there were raids culminating in what is called the Great Kuki Invasion of 1860s.’ ‘Early in 1860, reports were received, at Chittagong, of the assembling of a body of 400 or 500 Kookies at the head of the River Fenny, and soon the tale of burning villages and slaughtered men gave token of the work they had on hand. On the 31st January, before any intimation of their purpose could reach us, the Kookies, after sweeping down the course of the Fenny, burst into the plains of Tipperah at Chagulneyah, burnt or plundered 15 villages, butchered 185 British subjects,and carried off about 100 captives.’

Assam was brought under British rule after the Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. Thereafter, the British set out to extend their rule throughout the Northeast. Some of the major expeditions carried out in this region by the Assam Rifles and the Assam Military Police ‘include the ‘Kuki operations of 1880-1882 and 1917-1919’. The events of 1917-1919, recorded as ‘Kuki rising’ during WW I was momentous. This event is also referred to as ‘Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1919’. Shakespeare, Palit and the recently released book The Assam Rifles term it as ‘Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919’. Sir Robert Reid, Governor of Assam, noted it as the most serious event in the history of Manipur. It is worth noting that in recorded history, Kukis alone stood against the imperial power for nearly three years; no other peoples, particularly in the Northeast, have the reputation of such sustained opposition to the British.

Kukis also featured in WWII. This time round, Kukis fought alongside the Imperial Japanese Army and the Indian National Army. The victory of the Allied forces over the Axis group shattered the Kuki people’s dream of regaining independence that was earlier lost to the British. In post-independent India, Kuki opposition to Manipur’s merger with the Indian Union came to naught because of extreme pressure from Meitei people upon their Maharajah. As a result in 1949, the Meitei Maharajah signed the merger agreement with India, and both Meitei lands in the valley and Kuki hills, which were both under British administration, became a part of the Indian Union. Please note, the term Manipur applied to include Kuki lands did not come to being until the arrival of the British. It is misrepresentative to refer to present-day Manipur as an ancient entity.


The land of the Kuki people comprising predominantly the hills of Manipur, extending to vast ranges of hills in present-day Western Burma in Sagaing Division, was always ruled by Kuki chieftains with no external interference until the arrival of the British in the eighteenth-century. “‘Manipur’ is not used at all until the British period.’ Meitei people’s land, which consists of the valley only from time immemorial, is ‘Kangleipak and Meeteileipak (pak/bak for land). Even in the mid-nineteenth century the inhabitants did not use Manipur to designate the country. A letter written in the Meetei script to the Viceroy of India in May 1868 by Maharajah Chandra Kirti of Manipur is dated “1790 (Sakabda) Mahe 11 Kalen”. “Mahe” is here the name of the country. Pemberton writing in 1835 noted the country was variously called Kathe, Moglei, Meklee or Cassay.’

In reference to the identity Kuki and their territorial domain, Grierson delineates Kuki country as follows:

The territory inhabited by the Kuki tribes extends from the Naga Hills in the north down into the Sandoway District of Burma in the south; from Myittha river in the east, almost to the Bay of Bengal in the west. It is almost entirely filled up by hills and mountain ridges, separated by deep valleys. A great chain of mountains suddenly rises from the plains of Eastern Bengal, about 220 miles north of Calcutta, and stretches eastward in a broadening mass of spurs and ridges, called successively the Garo, Khasia, and Naga Hills. The elevation of the highest point increases towards the east, from about 3,000 feet in the Garo Hills to 8,000 and 9,000 in the region of Manipur.

This chain merges, in the east, into the spurs, which the Himalayas shoot out from the north of Assam towards the south. From here a great mass of mountain ridges starts southwards, enclosing the alluvial valley of Manipur, and thence spreads out westwards to the south of Sylhet. It then runs almost due north and south, with cross-ridges of smaller elevation, through the districts known as the Chin Hills, the Lushai Hills, Hill Tipperah, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Farther south the mountainous region continues, through the Arakan Hill tracts, and the Arakan Yoma, until it finally sinks into the sea at Cape Negrais, the total length of the range being some seven hundred miles.

The greatest elevation is found to the north of Manipur. Thence it gradually diminishes towards the south. Where the ridge enters the north of Arakan it again rises, with summit upwards of 8,000 feet high, and here a mass of spurs is thrown off in all directions. Towards the south the western off-shoots diminish in length, leaving a track of alluvial land between them and the sea, while in the north the eastern off-shoots of the Arakan Yoma run down to the banks of the Irawaddy. This vast mountainous region, from the Jaintia and Naga Hills in the north, is the home of the Kuki tribes. We find them, besides, in the valley of Manipur, and, in small settlements, in the Cachar Plains and Sylhet.

The Kuki rising of 1917-1919 epitomises Kuki nationalism. It is a reminder of the spirit of nationalism exercised by our forefathers. This fact is recounted in Zale’n-gam: The Kuki Nation. In present-day context, Kuki country covered by the event ranges broadly from the upper Chindwin, Burma, in the West; the hills in Manipur; and Aisan, Nagaland, in the East. The leaders were Chengjapao Doungel, King of Kuki; Pache Haokip, Chief of Chassad and all Haokips; Tintong Haokip, Commander-in-Chief of Kuki Army; Enjakhup Kholhou, Dy Chief-in-Command of Kuki Army, Khotinthang Sitlhou alias Kilkhong, Cief of Jampi and Nohjang Kipgen Chief of Saisem.

The magnitude of the national movement of 1917-1919 is evident in the words of Lt Col RS Chhetri: to handle the ‘Kuki Rebellion’. ‘An Assam Rifles Brigade under Col LW Shakespear, the newly appointed Deputy Inspector General, set out with a strength of 2,600 men assisted by a contingent of Burma Military Police numbering 400.’ A Minute Paper refers to ‘23 principals involved, 13 in Manipur under Assam, 10 in the Somra Tract under Burma.’ Military columns, commandeered by British officers Coote, Hebbert, Higgins and Clocte, ‘criss-crossed the area and fought a number of actions to successfully suppress the Kuki rebellion. In the process, they won 1 CIE, 1 OBE, 14 IDSMs, 1 King’s Police Medal, innumerable Mentions-in-Despatches and Jangi Inams.’ With regard to Kuki, the British Advisory Committee passed recommendations to subject the prominent leaders (those mentioned above and others) to a ‘period of restraint’, each for fifteen years, with the exception of the Commander-in-Chief Tintong Haokip of Laijang, who received a penalty of twenty years.

The national character of the events of 1917-1919 is clearly indicated in Webster’s report:

Soon after the actual recruiting began, however, some of the Kuki chiefs in the outlying hills adopted an obstructive attitude. It was reported that the chief of Aishan, Chengjapao, who is “Piba” [Pipa] or head of all the Thado Kukis, had sent orders to all the leading Thado chiefs to resist recruiting with force if necessary. Other influential chiefs were reported to have taken similar steps.

Extensive preparations had undergone prior to launching offensives against the British. Knowledge of manufacturing flintlocks enabled Kuki to stock them in thousands, for use in any eventuality. From 1907-1917, the British collected from the Kukis 1,195 guns. Palit observes: ‘Mention has been made earlier that the Kukis had been encouraged by emissaries from Bengali nationalists in Assam, but any thought that the Germans had also had a hand in it had not occurred to any one.’ This matter came to light at Tamu in May 1918, whereupon a ‘Medical Officer on his round of inspection came upon some Sikhs of the Burma M.P. in a hut tearing up some papers they said they did not want. The M.O. picked up some of the papers and found among them photos of two Germans, one in uniform. On the back of one of them was written in Hindustani: “If you fall into rebel hands show these and they will not harm you.”’

In the first week of March 1917, Chengjapao Chief of Aisan, held a gathering of various chiefs to chalk out details concerning the impending war. According to Kuki custom, a buffalo was slaughtered on the occasion, and Shajam lha was performed. Shajam lha is an auspicious part of the war tradition: the flesh of the animal is distributed among the chiefs as a mark of solidarity; the heart and liver is shared, symbolising commitment to the cause. The same tradition was observed at the Chassad conclave, as well as at Jampi, Henglep, Mombi (Lonpi), Joujang, Phailengjang (present-day upper Chindwindeclaration of war, thingkho le malchapom (king-sized red chillies strapped onto smouldering firewood) was passed, for example, from Aisan to the adjoining villages. This tradition was observed in different parts of Zale’n-gam, thereby linking all of Kuki country to rise against the invaders. These solemn proceedings indicate the nature of the ‘Kuki rising of 1917-1919’: it was a concerted national movement against aggressing colonialists.

Official British perspectives suggest otherwise. On 27 June 1919, Webster wrote to the Secretary, Government of India, ‘the province of Assam was asked to furnish a quota of “labourers” for employment with the Army in France’. The implication here is that the Labour Corps drive was the cause of the Kuki rising. Various scholars, including some journalists, have propagated this view to downplay the actual significance of the event. From Kuki point of view, the event was a culmination of the ongoing act of self-determination, triggered by the Labour Corps drive. It is a preposterous notion that the cause of such a movement against the imperialists, sustained for nearly three years, could be merely because the Kuki people wanted to resist working as labourers.


The enormity of the event is self-evident in the official letter of the Chief Commissioner of Assam:
The ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’, which is the most formidable with which Assam has been faced for at least a generation … the rebel villages held nearly 40,000 men, women and children interspersed … over some 6,000 square miles of rugged hills surrounding the Manipur valley and extending to the Somra Tract and the Thaungdut State in Burma.

A confidential despatch of Sir HDU Kerry, General Officer Commanding, Burma Division shows how the British reacted to the Chief of Aisan’s call: ‘I therefore decided to put an end to the Kuki revolt by force of arms, break the Kuki spirit, disarm the Kukis, exact reparation and pave the way for an effective administration of their country.’

A retrospective view shows that ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’ is a paradoxical event. On the one hand, its subjugation, in a manner resonant of Sir Kerry’s avowal, was a turning point in Kuki history: it broke the spirit of the people and set in decline Kuki as a nation, the effects of which still linger. The main Kuki chiefs were arrested and put in different jails in Assam, Burma and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal (see Appendix for the lists of Chiefs arrested).


On the other hand, it is a historical landmark of Zale’n-gam: it demonstrates Kuki’s relationship to their land, and is a veritable reminder of their legitimate status as a nation. The Government also adopted administrative measures to keep the Kuki people suppressed. Kuki areas were brought under civil authority. The first Sub-Divisional Offices were opened at Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur, which are now hill districts in Manipur. In Gangte’s words these new administrative posts successfully achieved two planned objectives: a) ‘containment’ of Kuki activities to prevent another rising and b) ensure Naga domination especially in Ukhrul and Tamenglong sub-divisions.


The state of Kukis in post-independent India

In post-independent India, trusting safety and security of their land would be guaranteed the Kuki people abandoned the path of armed movement as against the British. The Kuki Chiefs’ Association, which was formed in the 1930s officially, became the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) on 24 October 1946. The late Zavum Misao was its first President, and late Thangkhopao Kipgen, its Secretary, who was Special Officer during the time of FF Pearson, President of the Manipur State Durbar. In 1952 the Kuki National Assembly declared its position against the merger of Manipur State with Assam, opting for separate Kuki statehood.


However, that hope was soon belied when the Government turned a blind eye to KNA’s petition. Rather than oblige Kukis who were opposed to the British and who fought along with the Indian National Army, the Government rewarded other communities in the region who were pro-colonialists. This lack of insight and wisdom in not responding to Kukis’demand for statehood has left the people completely vulnerable. As a result, the Government of India failed to protect the rights and lands of the Kukis against the onslaught of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak & Muivah).


This failure of the Government and apathy was reinforced by categorically sidelining the Kukis and instead engaging in political dialogue with NSCN (IM) to solve the problems of the ‘Nagas’, but not the Kukis’. This situation has been aggravated by the inability of the Government to oust Meitei militants, such as United National Liberation Front, from Kuki territory where they plant landmines and kill and rape Kukis at whim. In Churachandpur District, UNLF raped 25 Hmar Kuki women and also killed Pu Thangtuam, a senior Indian Police Service officer because he is Kuki. The intention of both NSCN (IM) and United National Liberation Front (UNLF) is to forcibly snatch Kuki lands to include within a) Nagalim and b) Kangleipak, the designs respectively of the two aggressors.


KNO’s principal objective is to resurrect ‘Zale’n-gam: the Kuki nation’. In this regard, KNO (Kuki National Organisation) aims to secure integration of all Kuki lands in present-day India and Myanmar into a sovereign State. However, in view of the existing international politico-geographical context of the historical ‘Zale’n-gam’, KNO apparently is open to negotiate an alternative settlement, as is evident from the statement of its president. The Bangkok based The New Era Journal (June 2002) quotes the statement of KNO’s president: ‘If amalgamation of Kuki territory is viewed as problematic, in the least, creation of two Kuki states is essential: one within Burma and the other within India’.


Creation of Zale’n-gam’s statehood is no skin off Meitei’s or anybody else’s teeth. In the event that the two Kuki states, respectively in India and Myanmar, are not forthcoming, the resurrection of Kuki sovereign ancestral land seems to be KNO’s main objective.

A pertinent question today is whether the people of India have benefited much after 61 years of independence from Britain. This question relates mainly to economics and development matters; political freedom (apart from misrule by our own national leaders) and territorial integrity are no longer issues. For the Kuki people, however, their issues remain primarily political freedom and territorial integrity, precisely what they fought for during British rule. Being citizens of India or Burma has had no impact to improve their lot. When the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak & Muivah) carried out the Kuki genocide from 1992-1997, over 900 souls perished, 350 villages were uprooted and more than 50, 000 were rendered refugees in their own lands.


These facts reveal the stark reality of the Government of India (GOI) and the army not being in a position to provide adequate protection to the Kukis. Following this demonstration of severe inability, to rub salt into Kuki wounds, GOI proceeded to sign a peace accord with NSCN (IM) and engage in political dialogue to solve the ‘Naga’ problem while refusing to engage in a similar dialogue with Kuki National Organisation, which is the only Kuki armed organisation with twelve different armed groups in its fold. This shows that GOI considers NSCN (IM) more important despite declaring the organisation a ‘terrorist group’ and knowing fully well that it is Kuki territory, not Meitei people’s in the state of Manipur, which is at risk with the demand of ‘Nagalim’.

More recently, the United National Liberation Front, a Meitei armed organisation in Manipur have been planting landmines in Kuki territory causing the death of 33 people in Chandel District and 25 more in Churachandpur District of Manipur. Again, the army has proven ineffective to oust the UNLF cadres from the Kuki hills. Besides these landmines casualty, UNLF have also killed innocent Kukis at Moreh and other parts of Chandel District. The plan of UNLF is to grab Kuki territory in the name of Manipur’s or Kangleipak’s struggle for independence from India.

Well, this is the pathetic condition of the Kuki people in India despite their historic opposition to British colonialism and history of association with the Indian National Army. Instead of integrating Kukis fully with the country, it is NSCN (IM) perpetrators of genocide that GOI seeks to please. And, rather than prevail upon the state government of Manipur not to hinder GOI and KNO talks, it permits them to lay down unacceptable conditions for talks to take place within Manipur! This, however, further vindicates that the condition of the Kukis in Manipur, where the dominant Meitei population use muscle tactics (underground forces as well as the state government), is extremely precarious. The question now is what have the Kukis gained in the independent nation-states of India and Burma?


Given this backdrop of Kuki history and its present predicament, it would be in the interest of not only the Kuki people, but also the Indian nation, to establish a stable political state for the Kukis. It is therefore important that through GOI and KNO dialogue Kuki political aspirations are fructified at the earliest possible date. In this regard, all conscientious individuals, especially those sitting in Delhi’s political throne, are urged to take up the issues concerning the Kuki people and their political aspirations.


The writer is the publicity secretary of the Kuki National Organisation.