Kuki Research Forum (KuRF) on objective historical position of the Kukis in Manipur

STRONGLY INFLUENCED by the current discourse on indigeneity (rather than on citizenship and nation building), the past few years have witnessed different communities in Manipur embroiled in debates on who are the ‘indigenous peoples’. Ironically, this public debate centres on re-defining the histories by vested interests with ulterior motives. The Kuki Research Forum (KuRF) has been observing the debates for quite sometimes now and took serious note of the narratives, which have turned into ‘hate speeches’ against a community, assumed to be obstacles to those motives. We took a strong exception to the narrative which has now been slowly bending against the silence of the Kukis as if the axe is falling sharp on the innocent banana stem. We also observed and are convinced that the narratives (as circulated in the social media) emerged out of sheer ignorance and willful misinterpretation or disregard of the objective history of Manipur, especially the precolonial past, by few influential individuals/groups who would like to bring misunderstanding and conflict among different groups of indigenous peoples in the state. We are therefore compelled to brief the public and these ‘hate mongers’, if not the detail account, of the objective historical position of the Kukis in Manipur through this press statement.

A vicious narrative has been circulating in various local dailies and social network platforms which had incessantly attacked, insulted and terrorized the Kukis as ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’, and ‘foreigners’ from Burma (Myanmar) and are ‘not’ indigenous peoples of Manipur. If the ulterior design of such narrative is not difficult to comprehend, the name calling political narrative had already done more damage than imagined to the long-cherished peaceful and camaraderie relationship among different communities in the state. The KuRF has considered such narratives against the Kukis as immature, arrogant, communal and concocted in a highly dystopian way. Simply put, they lacked historical sense; evidences are omitted, tempered and manipulated to ‘control history’ in Orwellian way. Interpretations are based on fulfilling one’s present political agenda, despite fully aware of the future consequences for the state.

The central argument we put forward for those ‘hate mongers’ and the public is that the Kukis of Manipur are indigenous peoples of the state and not refugees or foreigners, as we are made to believe. There are ample historical and archaeological evidences to indicate the Kukis lived in their current area and state since time immemorial. As imagined by some groups, they did not enter Manipur (the present colonial boundary of Manipur); the annexation of the northern part of their ancestral domain, the southern mountains of Manipur (roughly present Pherzawl, Churachandpur, Chandel and Tengnoupal districts), into Manipur (Kangla) kingdom in the nineteenth century make them to be part of Manipur’s ‘subjects’. Unlike other hill tracts, the annexation of Kuki ancestral land into Manipur was made by sacred covenants signed by the Kuki chiefs and the Maharaj of Manipur in a most solemn manner. They were the covenants of peace and friendship which governed the relationship between the Kukis and the Kangla kingdom. It was under these covenants that the Kukis had sincerely served the Kangla kingdom until India’s independence, not as coolies and beggars but as warriors with their blood and iron. The military histories of Manipur testify how the Kukis had toiled against all odds for the kingdom of Manipur. Besides, the Kukis are not a migratory tribe. As learnt from history, and endorsed by scholars in Manipur, their seeming scattered settlements across the hill tracts of Manipur and beyond is the consequence of the deliberate policy of the British and the Maharaj of Manipur; it was not their choice. Likewise, it is a well-known fact that the increasing number of Kuki villages in Kuki dominated districts and the decreased in other districts, of the state in recent times (since 1980s) have been the consequence of their internal displacement from Naga dominated districts. It has nothing to do with immigration from beyond the border. In fact, the Kukis who came from Kabaw valley in 1967 and thereafter (so-called ‘foreigners/aliens’) after the Khadawmi Operation were home-comers (returnees), who were expelled by Burmese authority for being Indian citizens who had crossed the border from Manipur due to displacement caused by Naga movement in the Indo-Burma border districts.

Harping on emotionally filled hate speeches against the Kukis, only to insult and terrorize them, is not only unpalatable and inhumane (anti-human rights) but also to distort and dishonor the objective history of the Manipur and Kukis in Manipur, who have lived here since time immemorial. It also amounts to dishonoring their toiling sacrifices to safeguard the sovereignty and independence of this tiny state of Kangla (Manipur) at the frontier of empire. As the present state of public debate on indigeneity should be based on history, we like to briefly discuss in the following the historical position of the Kukis in Manipur.

When and what is the ‘Kuki’?

There has been various (mis)interpretations of the origin and meanings attached to the name ‘Kuki’, a nomenclature coined by Bengalis, and popularized by the Britishers to collectively identify the various cognate tribes/clans based on their linguistic and cultural affinities, which also includes the Meiteis (Grierson, 1904). Evidently, research clearly suggests that the name ‘Kuki’ is originally derived from the Tibetan Buddhist usage of ‘Ku-ki’, meaning, the ‘birth of incarnate Buddhas’ or ‘incarnated Buddhas’, the followers of Buddha who lived in the eastern mountains of Bengal (Chatterjee, 2013: 2). Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India (1608: 330) called the people inhabiting the mountain ranges between Bengal and Burma as ‘Ko-ki’ and that mountain highland as ‘Ko-ki country’. Taranatha mentioned that ‘from the time of Asoka, samghas were established in these Ko-ki countries’.

The Panchakhanda Copper-plate of Tripura (641 CE) also mentioned the land granted to five saintly Brahmins that bordered in the east ‘by the settlements of the Hānkulā Kukis, within which paddy is cultivated by the Tengkori Kukis’ (Bhattacharjee: 38th NEIHA Proceedings, 2017). Another copper-plate of Tripura, the Itā Copper-plate (1194 CE), also mentioned land-grant to the saintly Mithila Brahmin ‘the Kuki inhabited land in Manukula Pradesha bounded by Langlā hill on the east’ (Bhattacharjee: ibid.). Kukis had a long association with Tripura kingdom is attested by its royal chronicle Rajmala. From the early usages, the name ‘Kuki’ has been known to the Bengali world to mean the hill tribes of the eastern mountains of Bengal and the highland region between Bengal and Burma as ‘Kuki land’ (Chatterjee: ibid). The British borrowed it from Bengali vocabulary and regularized its spelling as ‘Kuki’ to mean the same hill tribes living in between Bengal and Burma.

The ancestry of this term is not without any scientific validity. It has eventually assumed the name for the large group of people who knew themselves as the Zo-nalhah or Zo hnahthlak (pronounce Zo as Zou or Yow) or the Zo descendants/fraternity that includes people who are presently known in different names as Kuki, Chin, Mizo, Zomi, Hmar, Khulmi, Komrem, Halam, etc. In fact, the Meiteis, who had established kingdoms, centre at Kangla, Moirang, etc., in the valley of Manipur, were/are always considered to be part of the Zo-nalhah cultural collective. The Kukis called the Meitei as ‘Meilhei’ (mei is tail, lhei/lhai is run, meaning, who run behind me), probably connoting the group that is behind them in the ‘long march’ toward the tropic. In the Kuki-Chin-Mizo dialects, the word Zou/Zo means or refers to ‘hilly/mountain ranges or dense forested lands’.

Legend has it that Kukis left their old Kholkip-kholjang settlement (identified as present Keithenmanbi village of Kangpokpi district, known to the old Meiteis as ‘KhongjaiKhunman’ [William Shaw, 1929: 28-29]), the place where all living beings took refuge during the ‘great flood’ (Tuitobin), and followed Imphal river (Gun in Kuki) to reach the southern hills. Meiteis were behind them. William McCulloch (1859) and T.C. Hodson (1911) went further in noting a ‘widely spread’ tradition prevailing in Manipur during their research, saying, ‘the Nagas, Kukis and Manipuris [Meiteis] descended from the common ancestor, who had three sons who became the progenitors of those tribes’ (Hodson, 1911: 9). Further, scientific studies on language and culture also supported this set of traditions and origin stories as collectively noted by Hodson and McCulloch, among others. For instance, the classic work of G.A. Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1904) sufficiently illustrates the cultural commonness of the Kukis, Meiteis and Nagas. Meitei or ‘Meithei’ is part of the ‘Kuki-Chin Groups’ of the ‘Tibeto-Burman Family’ whereas Tangkhuls, Marings, Mao, Maram etc., are classified under ‘Naga-Kuki Sub-group’. LSI remains the scientific testimony of the common ancestry shared by the Zo-nalhah cultural collective.

The Zo-nalhah cultural and ancestral collective had a long history of ancestry in the southern mountains of Manipur that extent up to the northern limit of Arakan ranges in the south and from the eastern mountains of Bengal to as far as the Chindwin river in the east. If the Meiteis are excluded from this Zo-nalhah collective, the northern boundary of their ancestral domain ran roughly along the old ancient route of Manipur toward the west, known as ‘Khongjai route’, and then along the foothills of the southern valley of Manipur and then along the old ancient route of Manipur toward the east, known as ‘Imole [Aimol] route’ (Pemberton, 1835:55-56). Pemberton (1835: 15) had also clearly demarcated this ancestral domain of the Kuki people thus,‘the Khongjuees [Khongjais], who under the more generally known names of Kookies, Koochungs, and Kuci, stretch from the southern borders of the Muneepoor valley to the northern limit of the province of Arracan’. This mountain country was what the medieval Buddhist monk, Taranatha, had called the ‘Ko-ki country’. The Kukis of Manipur were always in this northern part of the Zo- nalhah ancestral domain since time immemorial. Cheitharol Kumbaba (the royal chronicle of Manipur) vaguely understood this highlandas as the ‘Khongjai hills’, ‘Khaki(gi) land’, etc. These hills have become part of Manipur only in the nineteenth century.

If indigeneity is all about the root formation, the concept of indigeneity throws‘Kuki-Chin Groups’ (including the Meiteis) or the Zo-nalhah fraternity back to the same ‘parent stock’ for identity formation. Hence, there is no rational sense to treat part of the same people as ‘indigenous’ and another part as ‘non-indigenous’ or ‘foreigners’ to the land they inhabit together for generations. If so, it makes a mockery of the long-cherished tradition of common ancestry, the scientific validity for such shared belongingness, and the very concept of indigeneity itself. It would be a bigger mockery to the objective existence of history and culture, perhaps unless there is a more sinister design to rejuvenate the notion of indignity in the recent times.

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Kuki-Kangla Relation: From the pages of Cheitharol

It has often been argued that ‘Kuki’ had been not mentioned in the Cheitharol Kumbaba (the royal chronicle of Manipur) until about the nineteenth century and hence their entry into Manipur by such date. This is factually wrong. Space will not permit us to discuss in detail the ancestry of Kukis in Manipur from the legendary period to historical time. If legends and mythologies of Manipur have an iota of believable reality or truth, they have many references of the Kukis in the old literature of Manipur. Our intention here is, however, to provide the objective existence of the Kukis in Manipur from the historical accounts of the Cheitharol.

Two reasons would suffice to argue why the name ‘Kuki’ appeared quite late in the Cheitharol. First, the term ‘Kuki’ was imported to Manipur by the British in the 1820s, and in 1850s a new name known as the ‘new-Kuki’ (Steward: 1855). Second, Kukis contact with Kangla and the annexation of their ancestral land in the southern mountain by the latter took place very late compare to other hill tracts. So, Kukis in Manipur were known by different names in the Cheitharol such as Khongjai (‘new’ Kukis), Kyangs (Chins), Sairem (Faihrem), Maring, Anan/Namphou (Anal), Sakang (Kom), Lamkang, Mayon, Monsang, Chothe, Langlong (Ranglong), Charai (Chorei), Cheeroi (Chiru), Aaimon (Aimole), Khaki/gi haos (southern tribes), etc., or simply haos. Those Kukis living in Tripura territory were simply known as Takhen (Tripura). A comparison of the first appearance of the names of different tribes in the Cheitharolis self-evident. For instance, the term Maring first appeared in 1302, Tangkhuns (Tangkhuls) in 1404, Koirengs in 1404, Kyangs (Chins) in 1467, Khongjai in 1508, Sairem in 1523, Takhen (Tripura) in 1533, Tekhao (Assam) in 1536, Anan/Namphou in 1559, Sakang in 1562, Lamkang in 1570, Kapui (Kabui) in 1573, Mayon (Muyon) in 1580, Maram in 1583, Monsang in 1595, Chothe in 1597, Langlong (Ranglong) in 1603, Purum in 1608, Cheeroi in 1641, Kharam in 1672, Aaimon (Aimol) in 1678, and so on. The mention of ‘Khongjai’ in 1503 is especially to be noted.

The Manipuri expedition into the ancestral territory of the Kukis (Khongjais) began in the early eighteenth century and went on until the southern boundary of Manipur was drawn in 1894 by a boundary commission. Therefore,it is not much a surprise that there was little mention of the ‘Khongjais’ (Kukis) before that time. This process of annexation/expedition began from the southwestern part, in and around the present Tipaimukh area, in 1734 known as the Mangaitang expedition. It was followed by an expedition into the ‘Khongjai hills’ to the east of Mangaitang ranges, in and around the Tuipui river valley, in 1786. Later, followed by expeditions against the Saiton (Seitol) hills and other mountain ranges toward the south of the valley, which began in 1789. Cheitharol had chronicled all these events in details for reference. We describe briefly these events as follows.

The Mangaitang Expedition 1734: Although there was frequent mention of Takhen (Tripura) since 1519, it is not clear which part of Tripura was attacked and so on. The present western hills of Manipur, in and around the Tipaimukh area and the northern hills of Mizoram and southern plain of Cachar, were for a long time under Tripura kingdom. This is the area where different tribes of the Kukis had settled down since time immemorial. The confluence of Barak (Tuiruong/Tuilong) and Tuivai at Tipaimukh locally known as Ruonglevaiso is consider by the Kuki people as the point of dispersal as the Makhel of the Nagas. An island at the confluence was said to be the gateway to mithikho (village of the death) and hence a place of cultural significance. Some of the Manipur expeditions against Tripura (Takhen) kingdom were in reality an attack on the Kuki villages in this area, particularly in the Vangaitang (Mangaitang) and Bhuban ranges and southern Cachar plain.

The expedition against Takhen (Tripura) in 1734 was an attack on the various Kuki villages in the Vangaitang area. The Cheitharol (Parratt, 1: 142) puts that king Mayampa (Garibniwaz), at the head of his army, left to attack Takhen on 11 Monday [of Hiyangkei, Oct/Nov], camped at Sekchai at the confluence of Gwai [Barak], Tuyai [Tuivai] and Wakonok, built a bridge over Gwai river, and ‘marched right up to the top of the Mangaitang [Vangaitang] mountain range’. He had ‘scattered Langlong’ (Ranglong people) who live in the villages of Chainu, Satrachit, Tonaran and others and the ‘Charai people’ (Chorei) whom he made them all tributaries to Manipur. He captured Musuklai [Masuklal] of Takhen, who was at Roskon in Langlong. He also placed a stone at the Tuyai Yirong to commemorate his victory and return with 1100 persons as captives. Ranglong and Chorei are two of the Kuki tribes who lived on the Mangaitang (Vangaitang) range since time immemorial. Today they lived along the border of Assam-Tripura states. The victory stone erected by king Garibniwas still stood today as a testimony to this first major expedition of Manipur into Kuki ancestral territory.

The Khongjai Hills Expedition, 1786: To the east of Vangaitang mountain were a series of lower ranges along the Tuipui (Tuipi) river valley. Tuipui river originated from the northern points of Thanlon ranges and flow north and release its water into Irang river. These series of ranges around the Tuipui valley that merged with the Thanlon and Kailam ranges constituted the ‘Khongjai/Khongchai Hills’ of the Cheitharol. A reference of a ‘Khongjai’ in 1741 who had abducted nine persons from Chothe Paya, and for which ‘the guru set out to attack the Khongchais’ in 1742. (Parratt, 1: 151, 153). However, it is not clear which Khongjai village the ‘guru’ had attacked. Some ‘Khongchais’ were also received at the court in the palace in 1784 (Parratt, 2:22). However, in 1786, king Chingthangkhompa (Jai Singh) mobilized the whole forces of Manipur, and at the head of his army, set out to attack the Khongchai villages of the ‘Khongjai hills’ (Parratt, 2: 25-27). A certain scholar opined that this expedition was sent ‘towards Tuivai in the Manipur- Mizoram border’ and it was carried out to expel the ‘Kuki intruders’ into Manipur (Kamei, 2015: 321). This is also factually wrong. Cheitharol recorded the detail account of the expedition, and evident that the Khongjai villages in the ‘Khongchai hills’ were in the ‘Tuipui’ (Tuipi) river valley. The forces had already encountered many Khongjai villages after they passed through the Kuchu valley (where a temporary royal residence was erected), identified at the upper course of Leimata river where it meets the Tuipit river.

From the base camp at the foothills of Khongjai hills, they attacked the Khongjai villages. On 17 of Phairen (Sunday) the army ‘scattered the Khongchais’ and attacked on their villages such as Phunchong Yanlam, Khongchai village, Khongchai Haram, Khongchai Hapham, Khongchai Heemang, and Phunchongyon, one after another. Ningthem (the king) ‘marched through the centre of the Khongchai village and continued up to Tuyai Yirok’ (where Tuyai or Tuivai river begins its great southward bend at about latitude 24°14́ 16 ̋ N and longitude 93°19́ 42 ̋ E). He had ‘erected a stone pillar at Tuyai’. On 22 of Phairen, ‘Meetingu Chingthangkhompa performed the spear dance in the centre of the Khongchai village and Oukri was also sung to indicate subjugation. A stone was also erected in the village’. Other Khongjai villagers visited the king and paid presents, and villages visited by the king on his journey were Simangnung, Phaitan, Kentak, Hao Latyampa, Khongnem, Haimang, Nungkai, etc. The records evidently indicated that Kukis (Khongjais) settled in this part of the western hills of Manipur in great numbers starting from the south of the Kuchu valley (roughly, at  latitude 24°26́ 57 ̋ N and  longitude 93°32́ 36̋ E)  in the  north when the  first expedition to this area took place in 1786. The ‘Khongjai hills’, which was very much within the present southern boundary of Manipur (running along the western bend of Tuvai river) have been inhabited by the Kukis for many generations.

The term ‘Khongjai/Khongchai’, as used by Meiteis, has been derived from the name of the main village being attacked (pronounced as ‘Khongsai’ by the Kukis) was inhabited mainly by ‘Khongsai’ king and other clans of Kukis, and one of the famous Kuki villages in olden days. The original inhabitants of this village were the Lhangum clan of the Kukis. The Lhangums had preserved their family history that says the heyday of their ‘kingdom’ under ‘Lhangumlengpa’ (Lhangum king) was when they were at Khongsai. The Thadou tradition has it that the Lhangums later migrated to ‘Cachar-side’ when Khongsai was destroyed by Chinthang and Toijam ‘who were great warriors’. Chinthang refers to king Chingthangkhompa who led Manipur army and erected stone at Tuyai Yirok and Khongjai village. Khongsai village was particularly famous for its agriculture fields called ‘Saite Loulen’. The Thanglhai sub-clan of the Lhouvum clan of the Kukis later occupied Khongsai village and renamed it as ‘Khongson’ (Shaw, 1929: 47).

The Saiton (Seitol) Hills Expedition, 1789:Although some references had been made in other sources about an expedition into the southern hills during king Mungyamba’s time to place like Changbi Lakongphai it is difficult to identify from the Cheitharol. There was an old village of the Khongjai in the lower range of Haopi range called Changpi or Changpikot which is probably referred to. Yet no further evidence of an expedition is known on this side of the south except an occasional reference of Sakang village (of the Kom Kuki tribe) whose original seat was close to the foothills of the southern mountains. This place was already noted in 1562. However, towards the deeper south of the hills, Cheitharol is virtually silent until 1789 when an expedition was sent against the Saiton (Seitol) village and other Kuki villages in the same hills. It was for the first time that Manipur expedition took place toward these hills.       

Cheitharol recorded that ‘Chingthangkhompa left to attack Saiton’, halted at Bishnupur, then at an army camp at Cheklaphai, and finally ‘all the Hao villages were scattered’. ‘Meetingu Chingthangkhompa and others sang Oukri (in the village)’ (Parratt, 2: 29). The expedition, however, later met a debacle when the Kukis (Khongjais) attacked the troops ‘who were out to search for rations and looting’, killing nine persons. This attack led to ‘a great catastrophe’ when the troops ‘scattered in all direction’ and the ‘enemies took possession of the big metal gun and other arms and ammunitions’. Due to this debacle, Sagol Semba Chandra and seven men were deported to Loi and those who left their weapons ‘were flogged in the bazar before the public’ (Singh: 66). Saiton was the village of a Haokip clan of the Kukis, which had subsequently came down to their present location near Torbung, south of Moirang, in 1858.

Manipur expedition into the southern hills continued for a while in the lower ranges in 1790s, and after a lull of twenty years, that is after the expulsion of the Burmese from Manipur, a series of expeditions again picked up during king Gambhir Singh’s time. It went on in the 1840s and continued in different paces until the Chin Hills was occupied by the British and the eventual settlement of the southern boundary in 1892. The term ‘Khongjai’ was not used initially in this part of the hills in Cheitharol. A generic term like ‘Khagi/ki haos’ or ‘haos of kharam’ (southern tribes) or ‘Kamhaw country’ or more often the names of the villages or hills being attacked were used. For instance, the ‘Chahsat Haos’ referred to the Haokip clan of the Kukis (Khongjais) who lived on the Haopi range in the southern mountains. Place names like Tumman (Toomal), Saipum (Shaiboon), etc., were attacked in the 1790s. Since 1826, Kuki villages of the southern hills were one after another attacked. It was recorded by different names like ‘Thonglang Haos’, ‘SumtanHaos’, ‘Thomkham Haos’, ‘Chahsat Haos’, ‘Saya Haos’, ‘Sekpao Hao’, ‘Kam Haos’ etc., or village names like Sumthan, Phatang, Langhao, Yangbi, Tuithong, Lomyang, Sitlang, Totee, Menod, Melhang, Saokok, Saiton, Senpung/Shembong, Chongpimang/Chabimang, Tayon/Taron, Changsen, Sinnam, etc.

In Kuki, tui means water (river), hat is strong, pui is big, vai is curved/horizontal, tang/lhang means ranges/mountains, etc. Such geographical terms cannot be overlooked. These names registered the ancestry of the people in the area. These rivers and mountain ranges had their respective supernatural guardians who were venerated as they are believed to cause life and death, climate and livelihood, tradition, culture and religion to the Kuki people in olden days. These beliefs still persisted even today, despite the conversion of the Kukis to Christianity after a century or so. The Kukis had venerated them so much and worshipped them for centuries. They all constituted the core of their cultural collective and complexes and played a central part of their various legends, myths, folklores and rituals, such as the practice of Doi (spirits worship).

Covenants of peace and friendship between the Kangla and Kukis

Unlike other hill tracts, the southern hills became part of Manipur through proper and sacred covenants signed by the Kuki chiefs and the Maharaja of Manipur. The incessant military expeditions into the southern mountains by Manipur since 1826had incited the Sukte-Kamhau Ukpis (principal chiefs) and the Lushei Lals. The participation of them in the war of conquest and subjugation complicated the situation in the southern hills. The Kukis who had initially migrated toward the south against Manipur invasions had been pushed back only to face Manipur campaign while many of them remain there under subjection. As the pressure from both sides, the Sukte- Kamhaus and Lusheis and Manipur, got hardened against the southern hills in the 1840s and 1850s, and sandwiched between the contesting devil and deep blue sea, many of them left their home for safety, rendering the southern hills deserted look for sometimes.

Many of them had to come down to the valley of Manipur, seeking protection from Maharaja. For instance, in 1840, the ‘Khongchai Haos’ came to ‘Snakhwa and pleaded that the people from the south had devastated them’. Therefore, Yipungsi the Senapati and 1050 sepoys ‘marched to battle’ and ‘returned after attacking the Khongchais of the south’ (Parratt, 2: 120). Manipur also sent an expedition against the Kamhaus in 1856-57 (Parratt, 3: 75). When it was impossible to prevent the Kamhaus and Lusheis from their expansionist policy towards the southern mountains, the Kuki chiefs eventually entered into a covenant (agreement) with the Maharaja of Manipur to expel and prevent the Kamhaus and Lusheis from controlling over their land. This took place in 1859. Cheitharol puts thus:

7 Monday [of Kalen], the Maharaj went down to Moirang to make a covenant with the Khongchai Haos. 8 Tuesday, in the presence of the king, the Khongchais made a covenant. They confirmed that they were the servants [subjects] of the Maharaj and requested that they be given guns so that they could protect the land from the Aakam Haos [Kamhaus]. They drank the water in which all nine Umang Lais, guns, spears, swords and all other objects which were considered sacred had been immersed, and after giving them 200 guns they were commissioned to protect the land against the Aakam Haos (Parratt, 3: 84).

People of those days understood such covenant in the spirit of what Cheitharol would call ‘blood brother ties’. If such ‘covenant’ was challenged and contested by the Kamhaus and Lusheis, the solemn covenant continues to guide the relationship between the Kukis and Manipur in subsequent period. In fact, both the Kamhaus and Lusheis had also subsequently entered into covenant to end their war against Manipur and the Kukis. Both of them signed the covenant of what came to be known as the Treaty of Sanjenthong and the Lushei-Manipur Treaty in 1873 (Parratt, 3: 156; Manipur Administration Report, 1873: 7). The ‘Kaparang Agreement’ of 1875 was another significant treaty.

In keeping faith in the covenant, the Kukis had sincerely helped Manipur in all its wars against their enemies until India’s independence. Even before they were officially ‘commissioned’ to protect their land from Kamhaus, many Kukis had already joined the Manipur’s army in their various campaigns. Hence, 1000 Khongjais joined the Maharaja to attack the Kamhaus in 1856- 57 (Shaw, 1929: 48). Similarly, when Manipur contingent was sent to guard its border during the Lushai Expedition, 1871-72, about 3000 Khongjai fighters had joined them (Singh: 188; Parratt puts at 1000 men). In another expedition against Kamhaus in 1875, 1000 Khongjais joined 3000 Manipur sepoys (Singh: 201). Also, against the Nagas, they formed larger part of the 2000 strong ‘Manipur Levy’ (Sangchois) to suppress the Khonoma uprising in 1879 (Parratt: 209).

Some sources even said that there were about ‘10000 (sic) irregular Kuki levies in the service of the Manipur Government’ by 1891 and many of them had participated in the Anglo- Manipur War 1891 (See English Overland Mail, 8 April 1891; available at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Most colonial newspapers had reported that Mr. Quinton and other British officers were handed over to ‘the Kuki levies to be killed’ after they were condemned to death by public executioner (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). After the war was suppressed, the 200-strong Manipuri forces with Ningthem, Jubraj, Senapati, etc., took shelter in the ‘Chassad hills’. They stayed there in the Chassad village until they were arrested by the British forces, the forces which the Chassads had no power to oppose (Parratt: 274).

In later years, the Kukis were compelled to fight against the British colonialism during the Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919 after reaching an agreement with the Manipuri revolutionaries under Chingakhamba Sanachaoba, with the agreement that the latter would fight in the valley and the Kukis in the hills to expel the British from Manipur. Again, the Kukis had joined forces with the Japanese and Indian National Army (INA) in 1944 to free the land from British colonialism. It was the Kukis who had opposed the merger of Manipur to Indian Union in 1950. Unfortunately, the Kukis had silently obeyed the policy of Manipur kingdom to protect valley by scattering their settlements across the vulnerable hill tracts of Manipur, but later suffered at the hands of the Naga nationalists who had caused them mass displacement, deaths and penury throughout the seventy years of India’s independence. The irony is that the descendants of the great Maharajas of Kangleipak (whom the Kukis served for generations) have conveniently forgotten the ‘grand covenants’ and the valley people have been mute spectators throughout the sufferings of the Kukis in the hands of the people who challenged the territorial integrity of the land they lovingly called Sanaleibak/Kangleipak.

Kukis had toiled for so long in the hills that the valley population could live happily in the valley through the centuries. To consider their sorry state of situation as Kuki’s own making by the present state and society of Manipur is not only to dishonor the authors of the sacred covenants, the Maharajas, who had vowed to protect and keep the Kukis in safety. It is the responsibility of the present Government of India and Government of Manipur, as the successor state of Manipur kingdom, to honour such old ‘covenants’ and to ensure that they are not dishonoured by anyone so that peace, progress and prosperity in the state is ensured.

Distorted history turned hate speeches must stop

The objective historical position of the Kukis in Manipur being noted, we would like to briefly addresson the anti-Kuki narrative here. The narrative which now come to be known as ‘hate speeches’ against the Kukis was largely based on two official sources. First, Cheitharol Kumbaba (the royal chronicle of Manipur) was used only to be dishonoured. Second, and the main reference to spew the hate speeches, is James Johnstone memoir (My Experience in Manipur and Naga Hills, 1896). While Cheitharol was summarily dismissed for not having anything about the name ‘Kuki’ and hence said to be one proven evidence of their absence in Manipur before the nineteenth century and their subsequent entry into Manipur, Johnstone memoir was used as the bible of hate speeches. He would certainly dislike his memoir to be misused this way. Johnstone wrote:

The Kukis are a wandering race consisting of several tribes who have long been working up from the South. They were first heard of as Kukis, in Manipur, between 1830 and 1840; though tribes of the same race had long been subject to the Rajah of Manipur. The new immigrants began to cause anxiety about the year 1845, and soon poured into the hill tracts of Manipur in such numbers, as to drive away many of the older inhabitants. (p. 45).

Johnstone went on saying that the Political Agent, Col. McCulloch, had ‘settled them down, allotting to them lands in different places according to their numbers, and where their presence would be useful on exposed frontiers’. (p. 45).

Johnstone use of the terms ‘wandering race’, ‘first heard of’ or ‘new immigrants’ have been largely manipulated and loosely interpreted without considering its context and without verifying with other sources. For instance, his idea of ‘wandering race’ was not acceptable to other colonial sources before him. Pemberton (1835: 15) had found that all the tribes in the region had been already well settled in permanent villages with its own polity sufficient to preserve the social compact. W. McCulloch (1859: 57-8), during whose time most of Kuki northward movement took place, declared that ‘Originally they [Kukis] were not migratory, but have assumed this character latterly’. Robert Brown (1874: 48) was very specific about this: ‘Since the tribes [Khongjais] came under the rule of Manipur, they have remained scattered over nearly the whole of its hill territory, except to the extreme north’.

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It was only after they leave their ancestral home in the southern mountains of Manipur and after they became the ‘subject’ of Manipur that they were scattered to different places. It was not their choice. The political compulsion of the time such as the official policy of Manipur to scatter them in different parts of Manipur hills and need for new land for cultivation when their ancestral home was under control by others compelled them to migrate.

Johnstone idea of ‘first heard of Kuki’ merely refers to the used of the term ‘Kuki’ in Manipur, which was a luxury import here by the British in the 1820s. His idea of ‘new immigrants’ was based on the official colonial map (which can be seen in his book, Fig. 1) of his time in Manipur (1877-1886). The present southern boundary of Manipur came only in 1894 under Chin- Manipur boundary commission. As hundreds of them left their ancestral home in the southern hills towards the northern hill tracts, by crossing the southern boundary line (known as Pemberton’s imaginary line, officially considered to be the southern boundary of Manipur by that time), Johnstone was carefully using the term ‘new immigrants’ who ‘soon poured into the hill tracts of Manipur’.

Fig.1. Map of Bengal with Assam and Manipur | Source: Johnstone (1896: 31)

Why the narrative has avoided other sources then? There were series of accounts of colonial officers before Johnstone such as Pemberton, McCulloch, Robert Brown, etc. Nowhere did we come across any author and records saying that the Kukis of Manipur came from the Chin Hills or Burma. Instead, they all (including Johnstone) agreed that Kukis came from ‘the southern borders of the Muneepoor valley’ or ‘South of the Valley of Munnipore’ or to ‘the South of the Koupooees’. Thus, Pemberton’s (1835: 15) said that the native hills of the Kukis ‘stretch from the southern borders of the Muneepoor valley to the northern limit of the province of Arracan’.

McCulloch (1859: 55-57) similarly emphasized that the ‘Khongjais or Kookies until lately occupied the hills to the South of the Koupooees [Kabuis]’ (p. 55), and they were ‘occupants of the hills to the South of the Valley of Munnipore’. He went on to say they initially migrated from the ‘north’ rather than from the south (pp. 56-57). He said that they were ‘driven from their native hills’ and ‘are now scattered around the valley of Munnipore, and thence through the hills of North and South Cachar’ (p. 55). The ‘hills to the South of the Koupooees’ and ‘to the South of the Valley of Munnipore’ were always the ancestral homeland of the Kukis and their kindred groups.

Johnstone use of the term like ‘pouring’ into the hill tracts of Manipur should be understood in term of Manipur state policy to scatter them into other hill tracts. It was the official policy of the Maharajah of Manipur and the British Political Agency to allot land to those Kukis who left their home. Cheitharol and British records attested many such instances where the Kukis, who had come down to the valley, were allotted land in different places. Many of them were allotted land along the foothills of the southern part of the valley, in a line which McCulloch had referred to as the ‘sepoy villages’. He said that ‘as a protection to the south of the valley, the Rajah and I have established in the south villages of the Kookies, to whom are given arms, and whom we call sepoy villages’ (Mackenzie, 1884: 156-57).

Many Kukis were also allotted or ordered to migrate to the exposed frontiers and in certain hill tracts to control over the recalcitrant tribes there. Thus, for instance, in 1862, Cheitharol (Parratt, vol. 3: 95) recorded that ‘the Maharaj entrusted the Chasat Khongchai Haos to attack the villages of Thongkam, Paoyi, Huimi, Ngapum, Tuisen, and Tonngou and devastate these six villages’. This is how the Chassad began to settle down in the present Chassad hills in Kamjong district. They were not brought from the Chin Hills but from their ancestral home in the Haosapi (Haopi) range in present Churachandpur district where their old village site still stands today.

To say that these allotments of lands to Kukis by Manipur state were made out of sympathetic consideration alone would be incomplete. The political contingencies of Manipur state of the time such as the new responsibility entrusted to them by the British empire to keep the hill tribes quiet and peaceful, the need to keep up Manipur as a powerful frontier state as a buffer against Burmese invasion into British territory, and so on had played a major role. In this policy, the Kukis have been fully utilized by Manipur kingdom just as the Kukis served them with loyalty, despite their sufferings, but hoping the Maharaja will take care of them.

To pretend that the Kukis of Manipur were/are ‘a problem’ to Manipur by few individuals and organizations, therefore to malign them, emerges out of sheer ignorance of Manipur history and a blatant dishonour to the sacrifices the Kukis had made for Manipur.

The Kuki Research Forum made a strong appeal to all the peace-loving citizens of India, and particularly the people of Manipur, to understand the objective historical position of the Kukis in Manipur and not to entertain any individual or organization from spreading hate speech against any community. We also urge those individuals and organizations who are propagating hate speeches to stop spreading malicious lies and to honour instead the historical position of the Kukis vis-à-vis Manipur. We also request them to commit themselves for the truth that empire had gone and colonialism is history. Long live the sacred covenants, long live peace and friendship.

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  1. Brown, R. (1873), Statistical Account of the Native State of Manipur, Delhi: Mittal, Reprinted
  2. Chatterjee, (2013). Forgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages, and Memories of Northeast India, OUP.
  3. Cheitharol Kumbaba (Manipur Chronicle: from 33 AD to 1897 AD), trans. by Bama Charan Mukherjee and edited & published by L. Joychandra Singh in The Lost Kingdom: Royal Chronicle of Manipur, Imphal,
  4. Grierson, A. (1904), Linguistic Survey of India,Vol. 3, Part 3, Delhi: LPP, Reprinted 1994.
  5. Hodson, C. (1911), The Naga Tribes of Manipur, Delhi: LPP, Reprinted 2007.
  6. Johnstone, (1896), Manipur and the Naga Hills, Delhi: Gian, Reprinted 1987.
  7. Kamei, (1991), History of Manipur: Pre-colonial period, Delhi: National Publications.
  8. Mackenzie, A. (1884), The North-East Frontier of India, New Delhi: Mittal, Reprinted
  9. McCulloch, (1859), An Account of the Valley of Manipore and of the Hill Tribes, New Delhi: Mittal, Reprinted 1980.
  10. Pemberton, R.B. (1835), The Eastern Frontier of India, Delhi: Mittal, Reprinted
  11. Shaw, W. (1929), Notes on the Thadou Kukis, Delhi: Spectrum, Reprinted 1997.
  12. Taranatha (1608), History of Buddhism in India, by L.C. Alaka Chattopadhyaya and edited by D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Motilal: Delhi, 1970.
  13. The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur: The Cheitharon Kumpapa, (Vol. 1-3) by S.N.A. Parratt, London: Routledge.

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