Why Kukis Cannot Claim Chandel As Part of “Kukiland”: The Lamkang Example

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FOR YEARS, Kukis (Thadous) have been coopting and appropriating Lamkang people’s identity, history and material culture as part of their ethnopolitical narrative. In the yearly Kut festival, material culture of Lamkang tribe would be appropriated without prior permission; in Kuki political discourse, the ancestral land of the Lamkang tribe would be incorporated unilaterally; and in Kuki historiography in Manipur and other commemorative monoliths, Lamkang (and other Chandel Naga tribes) would be coopted without formal endorsement from the concerned tribe(s). This has resulted in the creation of a false impression of the Lamkang people’s identity and history to those outside Chandel. 

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The fact of the matter is that the Lamkang people have never identified as Kuki ever since the term was introduced in Manipur by the British in the nineteenth century. It has always been understood in the tribe that the Kukis (Thadous) are a different people with a different history. Their political system (autocratic) has always been considered as alien to the Lamkang political system (republican). Ever since the Lamkang people became politically conscious of their (or need for) ethnic identity in the second half of the twentieth century, they identified with the Naga group and contributed to Naga nationalism. Yes, before Manipur merged with India in 1949, a few individuals from the kindred tribes in Chandel, who perhaps saw an opportunity to make political gains, “convinced” a few Lamkangs to be part of the Khulmi Union in 1947. Khulmi Union was mobilised by using the “khul” or “khur” origin myth (hole in the ground) as a common cultural denominator for electoral alliance among the Zo and Chandel tribes. The Union did not last a year as it dissolved due to internal differences. Nonetheless, the khur origin myth is problematic for application to the Lamkang people as a whole.

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Not all Lamkang people claim to have originated from the bowel of the earth. My clan, Sankhil, for instance, is believed to have originated from the egg of the sun that was laid on the crown of a tall bamboo plant. Therefore, the sun is the totem of the Sankhil clan. Until a few decades back, Sankhil women refrained from going out or working in the fields when the sun hit noon. If they exposed themselves during this time of the day, they were said to have suffered from terrible sunburn. The phenomenon was explained as the sun “marking” his daughters; therefore, the Sankhil women would take cover in the shade until the period of noon was over. Likewise, in the past it was taboo for the Khurthu clans (Shilshi, Jangvei, Tholung, Leivon, Kangten, etc.) to consume some type of mushroom and cricket (insect). This was because the said mushroom and cricket were associated with some significant activity of their progenitor, who is believed by the Khurthu clans to have emerged from the bowel of the earth. Khular and Dilbung clans have overground origin stories like Sungnem and Sankhil. So, the khur origin hypothesis of the tribe is problematic. It does not apply to all the clans.

After Manipur merged with India in 1949, the Lamkangs began to involve in the activities of the Naga National Council (NNC). Angnal Khumlo (originally a Lamkang of the Tholung clan) was a prominent figure who had direct contact with A.Z. Phizo and other NNC leaders. In the late 1950s and 1960s there were more than fifty men from Chandel who served as NNC volunteers. This was stated to me by a maternal relative, Angshel Khular before he passed in 2021. He was one of the NNC volunteers during the said period. Also, when Phizo fled to England via Manipur, Mizoram, East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and Lahore (Pakistan), the Zo people (Hmars, Paites, Zous, etc.) are said to have assisted him. In the late 1960s, my own grandfather, Darshel Sankhil of Angbrasu village in Tengnoupal district, was brutalised by the Assam Rifles on suspicion that he was in possession of a Light Machine Gun. Just before this incident, the NNC volunteers had ambushed the Assam Rifles between Angbrasu and Larong, in which the Rifles suffered casualties and lost a few soldiers.

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Then in 1977 the Lamkang Naga Baptist Association (LNBA) was formed after Southeast Manipur Baptist Association (SEMBA) devoluted financial responsibility to the affiliating tribes. The existence of LNBA, with “Naga” in the nomenclature since 1977, categorically refutes the preposterous claim made by Kuki scholars that the NSCN (IM) forced the Chandel Naga tribes to adopt the Naga identity. For the record, the NSCN was formed only in 1980. Moreover, when the Naga-Kuki ethnic conflict of 1992 took place, the first incident happened in Moreh, Chandel district. It was very clear to the parties involved in the conflict which tribe belonged to which ethnic group. Some ill-informed Nagas have been misled by the Kuki narrative to state that the “smaller” tribes in Chandel aligned with the Naga group after the 1992 conflict (History of Naga Anthropology 1832-1947, p.3). But this is clearly not supported by the facts recounted above. In fact, the 1992 ethnic conflict displaced several Lamkang villages in Chandel due to Kuki aggression.

The lack of a viable Kuki (Thadou) territory in Manipur had motivated their scholars and politicians to invent tradition in the manner described by the English historian Eric Hobsbawm. This includes regurgitating a colonial misnomer “Old Kuki” in scholarly publications and media to claim that Lamkangs (and the Chandel Naga tribes) are Kukis. The lack of consistency in the definition and use of the ethnic category, “Old Kuki”, in colonial accounts does not seem to bother the Kuki scholars and general public. In the first ever colonial account of the Chandel tribes published in 1835, Lt. Pemberton describes them as Nagas.

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Further to the south through the Anal and Mueeyol (Moyon) tribes of Nagas, several other lines of communication are shewn in the map, by which the southern extremity of the Kubo valley might be entered (56).

Then in 1904, in the Linguistic Survey of India, Volume III Part III, G.A. Grierson used the term “Old Kuki” with a caveat. 

The terms Old Kuki and New Kuki are apt to convey the idea that the tribes so denoted are closely related to each other. But that is not the case. Not only do their customs and institutions differ considerably, but their languages are separated by a large group of dialects in the Lushai and Chin Hills. (1904: 2).

Grierson further qualifies that the use of the term “Old Kuki” in the linguistic sense was necessitated by a “want of a better word to denote a language which we know in many dialects” (1904: 2). However, he adds a disclaimer that says “Kom, Anal, and Hiroi-Lamkang show a closer connection with the Naga languages than the other dialects of the Kuki-Chin group” (1904: 9). The distinctive feature of the Kuki-Chin-Zo group is linguistic homogeneity – which is absent in the Naga group. Meaning, all the tribes under the Kuki-Chin-Zo group share functional linguistic intelligibility. This linguistic feature, however, does not extend to the Naga tribes of Chandel. Hence, Grierson’s disclaimer in using the term “Old Kuki” when examining specimens from Chandel tribes.

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Yes, it might be argued that J. Shakespear’s monograph, The Lushei-Kuki Clans, published in 1912 considers Lamkang and the Chandel tribes as part of the Lushei-Kuki ethnic spectrum. However, Shakespear’s monograph, though reliable in some aspects, is not entirely without methodological problems and errors. For instance, a Bengali babu, Nithor Nath Banerji of the Manipur State Office, was his primary source for the monograph. In “The Identity of the Pakans” (2001), an unpublished dissertation submitted to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, S.R. Tohring, a resident of Chandel, critiques colonial methodology, especially when it concerns Chandel tribes. James C. Scott also cautions that “the entire landscape of the hills has always confused outsiders – states as well as ethnographers. The taxonomies about the hill peoples have almost always been wrong” (cited in Sanjib Baruah’s Durable Disorder, p.102). Colonial accounts in Manipur require interpretation due to the huge number of tribes with overlapping racial and cultural similarities. They should not be simply taken at face value.

Having said that, village histories would be more accurate as they are typically transcribed from verbal statements of the concerned villager. For instance, a court order from this period, Hill Misc, Case No. 323 of 1908-1909, issued by the President Manipur State Durbar in the matter of an inter-village land dispute between my village Pantha Khullen (Lamkang) and Lambung village (Anal) introduces the two chiefs in the following manner:

Thamchuk/Kangchup Naga Khullakpa of Pantha Khullen village

On behalf of Lerchung a villager. ______________________Plaintiff.

Vs

Movol Naga Khullakpa of Lambung village

And his villagers. ____________________________________Defendants.

Note the term “Naga” used as an ethnic suffix to the name of both chiefs. The court order was executed on 28 May 1909.

Against these historical facts, it is very disrespectful, and also provocative, that the Kukis continue to claim Lamkang tribe and their ancestral land as part of Kukiland (Zalengam). It is unacceptable that the Kukis should think they know the history of the Lamkangs better than the Lamkangs do. In an ethnically sensitive region like the Northeast of India, we risk peaceful co-existence by engaging in wilful misrepresentation of another people’s history and identity.

Shelmi Sankhil teaches comparative literature and translation studies in the school of letters, Ambedkar University Delhi.

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