Kukis and Koubru: Epitome of Unity

The ‘Pooyas’ mentioned the involvement of two Kuki Chiefs: ‘Kuki Achouba’ and ‘Kuki Ahongba’ in the mobilization of the throne of ‘Pakhangba’. Besides, have we forgotten the numerous instances of successful expedition carried out by Kings of Manipur with the assistance of Kukis?

While the country battles against the dreaded Covid Second Wave, the religiosity and sacredness of Mount Koubru (Mount Simtong) has been the topic everyone immerses with in recent weeks. The issue revolves around two communities who have their own points on the ancestrality of the Mount. It becomes a hotbed of discussion as the government initiates declaring Koubru as reserve site. Moreover, in line with the state Chief Minister N Biren Singh, certain valley-based organizations does pursue for protection as a religious site. On the other, the Kuki communities who inhabit these mountain and its ranges would not easily gave up. It opposes the state intention of declaring as reserve forest and stands firm against any proposal to declare it as a site exclusively of a particular religion. Thus, a heated social frenzy ensued endangering the social relation between the Meiteis and the Kukis, to be specific.

The issue of Koubru would not have attracted such attention or opposition had the government policy confined itself to declaring and protecting as a reserve forest. Thanks to the huge cry from religious groups, the very intention of the state and its pressure groups become increasingly evident to the extent that the indigenous tribals cannot remain silent over the matter. Since few weeks back, interestingly, several personalities such as the lone Rajya Sabha MP Leisemba Sanajaoba and other dignitaries have visited the mount and perform certain religious rites. The visit by states’ prominent personalities might be a ploy to encourage others to follow, however, the precedent set by them in anyway cannot be a healthy one as it remains a contested one. These deliberate acts on the part of the government show its insensitive side and successfully present itself as a ‘majoritarian’ government with scant regard to values of the other.

Interestingly, the whole population of the indigenous non-tribals became so conscious of religion. People with liberal views on religion are seen to have jump to the bandwagon and began showing its one-sided view of the debacle. These include highly respected academicians and journalists who otherwise are expected to view a conflict inclusively and holistically. However, the integrity of such profession seems to become secondary when tested. This reminds once again how religion has been increasingly employed to serve an agenda; a noticeable character of India in recent years. However, religion alone serves little purpose as the intention of Koubru and its ranges is beyond religion.

In an attempt to present itself as a rightful claimant, another strategy adopted by the indigenous non-tribals is to set an agenda to discredit and delegitimize Kukis of their indigeneity and ancestrality. The increasing hate-speech, the refugee tag and the rhetoric of exclusion of Kukis as indigenous community are becoming a matter of serious concern. This short write-up attempts to present Kukis against the general narrative on Kukis- their indigeneity and ancestrality.

Refugee: A colonial construct with no ‘locus standi’

Kukis remain the least understood community to colonial ethnographers or communities settling along its periphery. The social and political system is such that it does permit little interference in their administration and social life. The village with its capable chief is self sufficient in every aspect. While such independence and self-sufficiency was necessary, such seclusion from the other worlds reduced them to be the least understood community in any modern discourse. It was only with British colonialism that they were finally brought to notice in huge numbers.

With no documents or script to referred upon to ascertain the extend of Kuki indigeneity in the present adjoining areas of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, hapless modern day scholars rely on colonial writings to reconstruct Kukis’ past. In doing so, narratives on Kuki origin, identity and indigeneity are being built around those writings. As there are no other options, colonial writings remain the infallible interpretation of Kukis and their historicity.

On the origin of Kukis, colonial officials share more or less the same version. The earliest known account was found in the works of RB Pemberton (Eastern Frontier of India, 1835) when he describes that “the Kookies have been gradually advancing for years in a northerly direction”. This was followed by Alexander Mackenzie (Northeast Frontier of India, 1884) who claims that “the Kookies are all immigrants from the south”. Similarly, James Johnstone (My Experience in Manipur and the Naga Hills, 1896), argues Kuki was “first heard in 1830s and 1840s” and John Shakespear (Lushei Kuki Clans, 1912) referred them as “migrants from the south”. Colonel McCulloch (Valley of Manipur, 1980) assumed that Kukis were made to settle in Manipur “to serve as a buffer zone” against enemy tribes of the British subjects. While every writer agrees Kukis migrate, none of them are certain from where, when and how the migration does took place!

Descriptions presented by these officials are still sold out like hot cakes among many social leaders, the public and even scholars. Not even a single doubt has been raised! No one question the methodology adopted by the colonial ethnographers and none cross-checked the authenticity of their accounts. It therefore reminds of a strong colonial critique Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh (TSE, 2019) who argues that, “In the days gone by, a handful of colonial officials and Christian missionaries wrote ethnographies of the primitive and tribal people of Northeast India, in which they always included a guesswork description of their migratory origin…these clever clogs searched for probable stories of migration and substitute with fantasy story”. Therefore, to treat colonial writings as true in totality is simply unethical and pose serious threat to independent academic discourse. 

Here comes the interesting episode. Accounts maintained by these writings are ridiculously repetitive, and there are a lot of inconsistencies even the writers itself admits. The earliest, possibly, account presenting Kukis as migrants appears in the work of RB Pemberton. Here, Pemberton himself made it clear that this information was “fetched from the Kupooees (Kabuis)” and not the Kukis. Thus, the first account on the migratory nature of Kukis was not accounts of Kukis but of the Kabui Nagas. Next, Col. Lister follows the row in 1850 by describing Kukis as “migratory in their habits”. Captain Butler made the same comment in 1854 as Pemberton and Lister did. Mackenzie reproduced the versions of Lister and Butler. In 1896, Johnstone cited the work of Butler and reproduced it as if his own independents work. Clever and deceiving? Yet it is easy enough for modern scholars to locate such loopholes.

While these officials acted as experts on Kukis history and identity, they contradict and sometimes admit upon. In his report of 1856, Col. McCulloch noted, “the southern portion of Manipur territory [Kuki areas] had never been explored, and that the Manipur authorities had never tried to bring the tribes inhabiting it into subjection”. Similarly, Mackenzie (1884) also writes: “The tribe of the Chahsads (Kukis) has only recently brought itself to notice. No mention of these Kookies can be traced in any correspondence previous to 1878. They are not mentioned in Dr. Brown’s account of the hill country and tribes under the rule of Manipur, contained in the administrative report for 1868-69, nor in any of the subsequent administrative reports”.

In his ‘A Short Account of the Kuki-Lushai Tribes on the Northeast Frontier’, CA Soppitt (1887) regretted and wrote, “the writer unfortunately has not had the same personal acquaintance with these four tribes [Rangkhol, Bete, Changsan, Thadou] as he had with the others [tribes], and has had, therefore, to trust a great deal of hearsay”. These statements are contradictory to their earlier statements on Kuki history and ancestrality, and therefore serve as a basis to reject colonial narrative in totality.

One of the latest colonial accounts was that of William Shaw’s Notes on Thadou Kukis published in 1929. Hutton (1928) in introduction to Shaw’s work remarked: “Before the Kuki Rising of 1918-1919, the administration in the hill areas of the Manipur state was not very close, and the Thadous, ruled as they were by their own well-organized chiefs, and treated, as they had been in the past at any rate, by the Manipur state as allies almost as much as subjects, managed their own affairs in their own way and had recourse to the courts only in exceptional case”. From Hutton’s words, it comes to light that it was only after the Kukis were defeated in the Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-1919 that hill districts came under the direct control of the colonial authority. Prior to 1919, the chiefdoms of the Kukis remain largely unexplored.

Quite interesting and remarkable yet ridiculous episode in the history of Kuki-British relation is — prior to penetrating their inhabited areas to get to know them better; the Britishers had already marked them as nomadic, immigrants or refugees. It is, indeed, a universal truth that humans move or migrate from one place to another since their existence. Either movement or shifting takes place in different forms under differing circumstances. This culture will have no end. And Kukis are no exception. However, the generalization of Kuki people as stateless lack logic and its rationale behind is questionable. As Hutton remarked, the Hill country was largely unexplored till 1919, and thus evidently, any descriptions of the Kukis prior to this year or period are but simply an account of others, or few migrating Kukis, and nothing to do with those whose settlement stretched over many hundreds of years.

Kukis’ indigeneity in the region has been supported by many evidences. Though further research awaits the account of Ptolemy’s Geography; Puyas/Pooyas, Cheitharol Kumbaba, which record Manipur civilization dating back to 33AD; the Rajmala; the ‘Kukisthanan’ inscription dating back to 1195AD; Taranatha’s account of Buddhism dating to several century ahead of British rule, and what is more, the Vangchhia civilization dating back in time to 600 BCE proved Kukis indigeneity in the adjoining frontier of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The above cited regional accounts predate British imperialism to several hundred years. Notable historians such as Gangmumei Kamei, RC Majumdar and N Bhattasali agree that Kukis are not later migrants but settled since ancient times.

Epitome of Unity

History is the witnessed that Meitei Kings and Kuki Chiefs share close relations. The ‘Pooyas’ mentioned the involvement of two Kuki Chiefs: ‘Kuki Achouba’ and ‘Kuki Ahongba’ in the mobilization of the throne of ‘Pakhangba’. Besides, have we forgotten the numerous instances of successful expedition carried out by Kings of Manipur with the assistance of Kukis? Are we here to deny that fact there are numerous instances Kukis save the face of Meitei kings? In 1857, When Maharaja Chandrakriti lost the battle against the Suktes and all of his army fled in confusion, was it not Kuki chief who took pity of the weeping king? William Shaw (1929) wrote that a Kuki chief called Chongja Kuki fired his round and declared, “The Rajah shall not die until, I, Chongja, am first killed by the Rajah’s enemy” and later took the king to safety. Are we to deny this incident? Why don’t these feature in school and college textbooks? Are we to believe colonial writings that Kukis are later migrants and deny the same of Kukis assistance to Meitei kings at crucial times?

Furthermore, have we forgotten the united stance against the signing of accession in 1949? Have we forgotten that Kukis stood against ceasefire agreement between Government of India and the NSCN-IM without territorial limits? Have we forgotten that it was Kuki militants who agree to respect the territorial boundaries of the state while signing agreement with the Government? All these are plain proof that Kukis are but the most peace loving community in Manipur and that the relationship it shares with the Meities is not a recent phenomena. It is as old as the history of Manipur itself.

As such, Kukis deserve an enormous share of praise and recognition in the history of Manipur. Sadly, every emerging scholar purposefully chooses to avoid the relation these community shares since several hundred years ago. Instead, modern day scholars engage themselves in delegitimizing and discrediting Kukis in every aspect. The act of defending and protecting the kingdom where Kukis feature has never been taken seriously in any academic discourse. Interestingly, it does not feature in any of school textbooks. Instead, scholars and academicians purposefully choose to focus on the relationship the kingdom maintains with its subjects, denying the rightful place its shares with Kuki chiefs as partners. The way emerging scholars treat Kukis with doubt leave an impression that a day will come when scholars of such temper will show signs of suspicion on their own texts and chronicles as it mentions Kukis and its allied ethnic groups in great frequency.

Rather, there has been an increasing hate speech directed against Kukis by those calling themselves ‘Yelhoumee’, ‘Haomee’ and so on. Initially, such libelous and slanderous activisms were confined to few individuals and groups. Today, such narrative become deeply ingrained amongst the population that it is becoming a matter of deep regret to all peace loving Manipuris. It is becoming doubtful if the idea of peace and being loyal is taken otherwise. The Koubru episode brings unto us how volatile the relation has been now. Even individual in the highest echelons got madly involved with the idea that other religion shall be respected. Well, in a diverse culture such as ours where culture, tradition and geography overlaps, it is prudent to see the risk if one narrative is given more space over the other.

Therefore, unnecessary drama over Mount Koubru (otherwise called ‘Simtongbung’/ Mount ‘Simtong’) should be put to rest at the earliest. Hasty and mad rush by the government of Manipur, as seen this time, in the name of protection and preservation should be avoided. As assured by the Committee on Protection and Preservation of Mount Koubru (COPPK), everyone shall have the freedom to get access to the site, irrespective of caste and religion. In order to preserve and better maintained the mount; it will be wise on the part of the government to join hands with the Committee and the local population and work together either in plantation and preservation. Koubru will be best protected when the public in the area take initiatives.  Top- Down approach in development has been long discarded. The government has to consider this as well.

Any misadventure on such complex issue will leave serious implication on the relationship and the unity of the people. The adoption of ‘refugee tag’ to Kukis has been a costly but futile exercise. Every time an issue such as this is raised it has to be borne in mind that it consciously or unconsciously pushes Kukis emotionally away, never physically. Peace and loyalty at this age is hard. Understanding the intricacies involved over mount Koubru and respecting the interest and dignity of the Kukis will be a good gesture; for the reason that they exhibit the very epitome of unity and continuity.

Haoginlen Chongloi is the author of the book ‘History, Identity and Polity of the Kukis’. He can be reached at lienchongloi@gmail.com. Views are personal.

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