Home Contribution General Articles THE KUKI IDENTITY THEN AND NOW



By Aheibam Koireng Singh

Tribes belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo or otherwise Zomi have close socio-cultural affinity in terms of their culture, tradition, language, custom and traditional administrative system. They are one and the same people who were collectively called ‘Kuki’ in India and ‘Chin’ in Myanmar. The Kukis are one of the native ethnic communities in Manipur having its glorious past and rich cultural heritage. The genesis of the word ‘Kuki’ merits discussion. The term ‘Kuki’ was given by the outsiders and its origin is not known. The first reference to the term ‘Kuki’ was made in 1777 A.D. in connection with the tribesmen who attacked the British subjects in Chittagong when Warren Hastings was the Governor General of Bengal.[Gangmumei Kamei, Ethnicity and Social Change: An Anthology of Essays, Imphal: PC Jain & Co., 2002: p. 25.]  According to William Shaw, the word Kuki first appears in Bengal, Rawlins writing of the “Cucis or Mountaineers of Tipra” in Asiatic Researches in the year 1792.[ William Shaw, Notes on the Thadou Kukis, Govt. of Assam, first ed. 1929, Delhi: Spectrum publications, reprint 1997, p.11.]  According to Grierson [GA Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. III, Part III,First published, 1904, Delhi: Motilal Banarisidas, 1967, p.1]:

“Kuki is an Assamese or Bengali term applied to various hill tribes, such as the Lushais, Thados, etc. It seems to have been known at a comparatively early period, in the Raj Mala, Siva is stated to have fallen in love with a Kuki woman and the Kukis are mentioned in connection with the Tippearah Raja Cachang who flourished about 1512 AD.”

For E.W. Dunn, the term ‘Kuki’ was derived from the word applied to a system of cultivation adopted by the Bengalis.[ EW Dun, Gazeteer of Manipur, First ed. 1886, Delhi: Manas publications, Reprint 1992, p. 32.] There are many more conjectures and theories about the origin of the word Kuki’. Some believe that it has been derived from the Baluchistan word ‘Kuchi’ meaning wondering people. And some say that it comes from the British word ‘Kooky’ meaning peculiar or unusual people. S. Prim Vaiphei believes that it was a derogatory name given by the outsiders to an ethnic group of people living in Western Burma, North East India and Bangladesh.[ S Prim Vaiphei, “The Kukis”, eds., N. Sanajaoba, Manipur: Past and Present, Vol. 3,N. Delhi: Mittal, 1995, p. 126.] Lal Dena contends that all the oral traditions and local sources point to the mainland China as the original home of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo.[ LalDena, “The Kuki-Naga Conflict: Juxtaposed in the Colonial Context”, in S Aggarwal ed., Dynamics of Identity and Inter-Group Relation in Northeast India, Shimla: IIAS, 1999, p. 185.]

The term “Kuki” was first heard of in Manipur between 1830 and 1840 though tribes of same race had long been subjects to the ruler of Manipur.[ M. Bhattarcharjee, Gazetteer of India: Manipur, Calcutta: GoI, 1963, p. 161. Sir James Johnstone also said that the Kukis were first heard of in Manipur between 1830 and 1840. He further said that they were causing anxiety and soon poured into the hill tracts of Manipur in such a number so as to drive away many of the earlier settlers. Also cited in Shakespeare: The Lushai Kuki Clans, N. Delhi: Lancers, 1971.] All the new immigrants came to be known as ‘Khongjais’ to the Meiteis. The British ethnographers and administrators, in order to distinguish them from those who were already there before them, used the term “New Kuki”. The census of 1891 gave the total population of Khongjais or New Kukjs as 17,204.[ EW Dun, Gazeteer of Manipur, First ed. 1886, Delhi: Manas publications, Reprint 1992, p. 32.] The old Kuki clans of Manipur are Aimol, Chothe, Chiru, Koireng, Kom, Purul, Anal, Lamkang Moyon, Monsang, Gangte and Vaiphei, etc. The new Kukis are Paite, Simte, Zou, Hmar and Thadou.

The recognised tribes during colonial period in Manipur who were known as Kukis are as follows [S Prim Vaiphei, “The Kukis”, eds., N. Sanajaoba, Manipur: Past and Present, Vol. 3, 1995, p. 126.]: They are – 1. Aimol, 2. Anal, 3. Chothe, 4. Chiru, 5 Gangte, 6. Hmar, 7. Koireng, 8. Kom, 9. Lamkang, 10. Lushai, 11. Moyon, 12. Monsang, 13. Paite, 14. Thadou, 15. Vaiphei, 16. Zou, 17. Purum, 18. Simte, 19. Sukte; and 20. Ralte.

The tribes who were identified as belonging to the Chin-Kuki have started disowning the term ‘Kuki’ and ‘Chin’.  With the advent of Indian independence and implementation of Indian constitution, the Kuki identity undergoes a process of miniaturisation into various intermediary identities. According to Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, people identified themselves willy-nilly either as ‘Chin’ or ‘Kuki’ or ‘Lushai’ in order to be accepted in military service before India and Burma got independence. After India’s independence, the Government of India (GoI)  recognized the various tribes of Chin-Kuki group and they could get their services as members of a recognized tribes in India no longer requiring the mention whether he was a Kuki or not. He further contends that Kuki or Chin are terms used only in reference to outside world but not in use among and within the group. The ethnoses belonging to the Chin-Kuki group did not have a common name anymore after it was disowned by the ethnoses who were once known as Kuki. Excepting Thadou, most of the tribes now want to identify themselves by their individual tribal names and not as Kukis.[Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, “Groping for Identity”, pp. 1-16.]

Gangmumei Kamei contended that the appearance of William Shaw’s Notes on Thadou Kukis in 1929 claiming the primacy of the Thadous revived the old rivalry among the Kuki tribes and caused the disintegration or break-up of the Kuki fraternity. Added to this rift was the tension created by the over emphasis given to the Old and New Kuki syndrome.[ Gangmumei Kamei, Ethnicity and Social Change: An Anthology of Essays, Imphal, 2002: p. 37.] Some of the Thadou leaders also regarded other non-Thadou Kukis as ‘Kuki Siki’ and ‘Kuki Makhai’.[ S. Prim Vaiphei, “Who are We”, eds., Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, et.al, In Search of Identity, Imphal: Kuki Chin Baptist Union (KCBU), 1986, p. 22. ‘Siki’ and ‘Makhai’ are fractional denomination of the Rupee currency equivalent to ‘Quarter of a Rupee’ and ‘Half a Rupee’ respectively.]

The Kukis had war rites known as ‘Hansa-Neh’ and ‘Sajam-Sha’ which are symbolic oath-taking ceremonies involving the sacrifice of a ‘Mithun’ (a bison). It was normally performed by the senior most head of each clan or sub-clan. Pieces of flesh of the mithun so sacrificed were distributed to all the junior chiefs of the clans who cannot participate in the oath taking ceremony. The junior chiefs normally do not refuse to accept it. Refusal amounts to opposition to the decision taken and may consequently lead to social ostracisation and even physical elimination unless repented. Such war-rite was performed at the outset of the Anglo-Kuki war, 1917-1919. [Cited in, Untold History of Manipur, Imphal: Anglo-Kuki War Patriots Memorial Foundation, p.8.] The very practice of such tradition itself shows the authoritarian and coercive nature of the senior Kuki clans in their relationship with the junior clans. In the colonial past, the Kukis in Manipur in opposition to sending them as Labour Corps in France have fought gallantly against the British rule during the year 1917-1919. According to D. Letkhojam Haokip, negative outweighs the positive as regards the impact it had on Kuki society. It shattered the Kuki society into pieces, disintegrating and fragmenting them to the extent that they never come together as they did before and during the war.[ D. Letkhojam Haokip, “Significance of the Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919 AD”, The Orient Vision, Vol. VIII, Issue 1 & 2,  January to March & April to June 2012.]

The Kuki National Assembly (KNA) was formed in 1946 with the primary objective of fostering consciousness of common identity and making a single political unit of the Kukis. The constituent tribes of KNA were Thadous, Paites, Vaipheis, Gangtes, Simtes, Zous, Anals, Koms, Hmar, Guites, Chirus, Monsangs, Koireng, etc.[W. Nabakumar, “The Inter Ethnic Relationship of the Different Communities of Manipur: A Critical Appraisal”, Vol. 2, Issue 1,The Orient Vision, Canchipur: NRC, Oct-Nov-Dec 2004, pp. 29-32.  

The fragmentation of Kuki polity started with the formation of Khulmi National Union (KNU) by a breakaway faction of the Kuki National Assembly in 1947 because of Thadou arrogance. Thus another generic group ‘Khulmi’ constituted by the Vaiphei, Gangte, Paite Simte, Zou and other Non Thadou tribes from the Kuki-Chin who claimed to have originated from a ‘Khul’ meaning a ‘cave’ came into existence. According to Prof. Nabakumar, it was evident from the contents of a memorandum submitted by Teba Kilong, the then Forest Minister of Manipur state, to the Dewan of Manipur that in the pre-independence period, the people were ethnically categorised into three main groups, namely, the Khulmi, the Kuki and the Naga.

In 1951, the unification of different Non-Naga tribes under the nomenclature, Khulmi received a fatal blow as it was not granted recognition by the GoI. The GoI notified the Scheduled Tribes list of Manipur as – i) Any Kuki Tribe; ii) Any Naga tribe; and iii) Any Lushai Tribe; without mentioning the ethnic names of different communities. [W. Nabakumar, Communalism and Ethnic Divide: Anathema to Secular Society, paper presented in the National Seminar on the Indigenous Tribal Religions of Manipur of the North East India, Imphal, 21-23 March 2005.] At such a point of identity crisis, the rising armed Naga expansionist movement engulfed many of the kindred tribes of non-Thadou Kuki-Chin group. Though pan-tribal concept of Khulmi disappeared, none of its member tribes except the ‘Mates’ returned to the Kuki fold.[ S Prim Vaiphei, “The Kukis”, eds., N. Sanajaoba, Manipur: Past and Present, Vol. 3,N. Delhi: Mittal, 1995, p. 126.]

As the aftermath consequences of following the British policy of polarizing the ethnic diversity of Manipur as – ‘Any Kuki Tribe’; ‘Any Naga tribe’; and ‘Any Lushai Tribe’; without mentioning the ethnic names of different communities, Manipur had her first experience of considerably large inter-community clashes in the form of Hmar-Kuki conflict (1959-1960). The post independence GoI introduced scheduled lists for certain tribes and castes of the country and all the then tribes under Kuki ethnic group got separate recognition in the scheduled list under the constitution of India in 1956. But the Thadou political leadership still clung to the term Kuki as its common nomenclature and adopted a policy of re-Kukiazation of the erstwhile Kuki tribes. One of the fundamental causes of the Hmar-Kuki conflict in 1960 was the direct outcome of this policy. Another factor responsible for the Hmar-Kuki conflict was the question of re-grouping of different tribes of Manipur into two groups, namely, Naga group and Kuki group. Disturbed by the rising Naga movement, the then Manipur administration perhaps felt the necessity of regrouping the hill tribes into Naga or Kuki and submitted the strange proposal namely, the regrouping of all the non-Naga tribes of Manipur as Kukis to the union government for endorsement. Any non-Naga tribes unwilling to identify themselves as Kukis were to be regarded as is purpose, ‘Nagas’ and treated as ‘Naga Hostiles’. As a matter of fact, this issue came up sometime in the month of October, 1959 for secret discussion and decision and the question was said to have come up at the instance of the GoI. For this purpose, the Manipur administration invited public opinion of all tribes concerned as to whether they would join either of the two groups – Naga or Kuki. The Hmars strongly protested the proposal for regrouping the tribes in Manipur into Kuki or Naga on the grounds that – the Hmars never called themselves even from their forefathers and would never do so in future; the term ‘Kuki’ was wrongly given to them much against their will, consent or interest by the British officers; and  grouping or terming various communities as Kuki or Naga against their consent was quite unconstitutional and was clearly against the fundamental rights conferred to them by the Indian constitution and it was therefore legally objectionable. Coupled with it, the movement for creation of Kuki state by forming Kuki National Volunteer (KNV) and also imposing ‘Kuki fee’ of Rs. 10 per household among the various non-Naga tribes. The spark of the Hmar-Kuki communal war was ignited when armed Kuki volunteers first forced Hmar villagers at Rovazawl of Tamenglong district to contribute the ‘Kuki fee’. The demand of the Kuki fee was perhaps based on the notion that many Hmars, though given a separate recognition, were still regarded as the subjects of Singson chiefs and had to pay the fee as a token of their loyalty to the Kuki leadership. On failing to get the fee, the whole village was completely burned down on 8 February 1960. The consequence of this incident was electrical as armed clashes and serious incidents took place not only in Manipur but also in some districts of Assam and Naga hills and Tuensang areas.[Laldena, In Search of Identity: Hmars of North-East India, Akansha, N. Delhi, 2008, pp. 102-107.]   

T.S. Gangte stated two main reasons for the near extinction of the ethnonyme Kuki.[Dr. TS Gangte, “Whither Kuki Ethnicity: Is this a Centrifugal Force”, Tri-Millennium Souvenir Kuki Students organisation, Manipur, 2000.]  They are political and social. According to him the class-composition of the Kukis and their political organization were so independent of each other that the Kukis were obsessed with the idea of clan rivalries, being fostered by the socio-political structure so designed. As a consequence, despite their being one and the same, clan rivalries for supremacy over each other strained their relationship. But such polemics could not raise its ugly head during British rule that recognized Kuki Chieftainship and administered the hill people through efficient functionaries. However, after independence in India, when the public became conscious of modern political trends that espoused the principles of democracy, the inherent but the process of disintegration came to a lead. Another factor was social. It was intertwined intricately with political factor. The social system of Kukis was so segmented that every individual was made consciously aware that he or she belongs to a particular clan or sub-clan. It obviously became a fertile breeding ground for hatred, rivalry enmity factionalism, etc. Afterwards when the GoI started preparing a list of scheduled tribes in Manipur, every conceivable group or clan aspired to get recognition by inclusion in the said list as scheduled tribes. Later this resulted in antagonism between recognized and unrecognized tribes.

The year 1947, also witnessed the birth of another socio cultural association of the non-Nagas called the KomRem Association. The Kom, Aimol, Chini, Koireng, Purum and Kharam were the member tribes of the association.[W. Nabakumar, “The Inter Ethnic Relationship of the Different Communities of Manipur: A Critical Appraisal”, The Orient Vision, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Oct-Nov-Dec 2004, pp. 29-32.]   

Another attempt of the Kuki Chin kindred to find an acceptable nomenclature was the formation of the Aizawl based ‘Mizo Union’ in 9 April 1946 at Mullangthu Conference. It was initiated by those who wanted to replace the word Kuki’ by ‘Mizo’. The term Kuki was disowned on the ground that it was a name given and imposed by the outsiders.[ S. Thankhangin, “Why should We be called Zomis?”, Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, et.al, In Search of Identity, 1986, p. 61.]

 The said Mizo Union submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly of India on 22 April 1947 entitled “The case of Mizos”. Among the tribes mentioned as ‘Mizos’ in the memorandum, Hmar, Paite, Kaum (Kom), Thadou (Thadou), Chiru, Anal, Purum, Vaiphei, Rangte (Gangte) were found in Manipur.[ Gangmumei Kabui, “Genesis of the Ethnoses of Manipur, eds., N. Sanajaoba, Manipur: Past and Present, Vol. III, N. Delhi: Mittal, 1995, p.22.] The Lushai speakers who were formerly parts of Kuki and Chin had completely succeeded in disowning the term ‘Kuki’ and ‘Chin’ by adopting the nomenclature ‘Mizo’ for their identity.[ Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, “Groping for Identity”, 1986.] But many of the kindred tribes of the Kuki-Chin group felt betrayed when the leaders of the Mizo Union were satisfied with the granting of Lushai Hills District as it fell short of their dream for unification of other kindred tribes outside it into one political unit. Those who did not enjoy the fruits of their hard-bitten movements began to feel ashamed to call themselves Mizos. The attempts made by the Aizawl based Mizo Union to unite the Kuki-Chin Lushai tribes under the banner of a common name ‘Mizo’ were ignored in Manipur except the Hmars who launched a boycott movement in 1949 for the integration of their areas into the former Lushai Hill.[ Gangmumei Kabui, “Genesis of the Ethnoses of Manipur, eds., N. Sanajaoba, Manipur: Past and Present, Vol. III, N. Delhi: Mittal, 1995, p.22. Cited from Hmar People’s Boycott Movement, Imphal: Resistance, 1975]    ‘Mi’ literally means ‘Man’ and ‘Zo’ means ‘hill’. So, the use of the term ‘Mizo’ was also opposed on the grounds that it was grammatically and philologically not correct to precede ‘hill’ by Man’.

Some sections wanted to adopt the term ‘Zomi’ as the common nomenclature of the Kuki-Chin-Lushai tribes. It came into prominence “during the period from late seventies to mid-eighties”. One Zomi National Council was also there about this time which stood for the unity and re-unification of all those tribes who belonged to the Kuki-Chin-Lushai.[ Senjam Mangi Singh, ‘A Study of some selected Socio-political Problem in Manipur’, PhD thesis,  Dept. of Political Science, Manipur University, Imphal, pp. 57-59.]  It sought to foster unity through the framework of socio-cultural affinities among the old and New Kukis.[ RK Ranjit Singh, “Emergent Ethnic Processes in Manipur”, eds., B. Pakem, Nationality, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in Northeast India, N.Delhi: Omsons, 1990, p.247.] L.S. Gangte contended that the term ‘Zomi’ was the oldest and generic name of the “so called Kuki-Chin Group. “ Dr. Vumko Hao also maintained that ‘Zo’ was the progenitor of the people known as Kuki-Chin.[ LS Gangte, “Who are we?”,  Dr. H. Kamkhenthang, et.al, eds.,In Search of Identity, 1986, p. 48, 49.]  In this connection, Dr. Vum Ko Hau remarks [Ibid., Cited from dr. Vum Ko Hau, Profile of Burma Frontier Man. Bundung, Indonesia, p. 301. ]:

Had the word Kuki been changed to Zo at that time the right word for calling the various tribes and clans of the Zo race inhabiting the area joining Burma, East Pakistan and Assam would have been answered a long time ago.”

Within the state of Manipur, it (Zomi nomenclature) has varied response. Its impact transcends the national boundary. Large sections of the Chins of Burma have responded favourably to this call.[ [RK Ranjit Singh, “Emergent Ethnic Processes in Manipur”] Another group proposed a new ethnic appellation, which they claimed to be accommodative, and the most compromising formula. This group proposed the phraseology, “Chin-Kuki-Mizo”. Exponents of this phraseology gave the acronym, CHIKIM, as common nomenclature that literally means “whole tribes” or “all Nationalities”. This also has not gained much currency so far.

In 1971, a controversy started between the Thadous and their non-Thadou cognates due to publication of the Holy Bible who was a non-Thadou Kuki. It had serious social and political ramifications. This led to a long-drawn political battle between the Thadou protagonists and the Kuki protagonists. The issue was that the Thadou protagonists objected the publication to be described as one in Kuki, saying that the dialect in which it was translated is entirely in Thadou dialect. In a law suit filed against Dr. T. Lunkim, he was alleged of advocating the book as a translation in – Kuki as he was a non Thadou even though he spoke Thadou dialect. [Dr. TS Gangte, “Whither Kuki Ethnicity: Is this a Centrifugal Force”, Tri-Millennium Souvenir Kuki Students organisation, Manipur: KSO Souvenir sub-Committee, 2000, p.44.] The Thadou protagonists contended that the language had been known as Thadous and nothing else. On the other hand, their cognates claimed that the language in question was not the exclusive possession of the Thadous only. One Kuki Tribes Recognition Demand Committee was formed by the non-Thadou Kukis speaking Thadou dialect but in conflict with the Thadous to press upon the State Government as well as Central Government to make a revision of the list of Scheduled Tribes of Manipur. A rejoinder was submitted to the GoI through the Government of Manipur. However, the Thadou National Council (TNC) opposed the demand and requested the GOI to reject such a claim on the following grounds [Dr H. Kamkhenthang, “Identity Crisis among the Tribes of Manipur”]:

“Firstly, it fails to draw distinction between a tribe and a clan….

Secondly, there are certain communities the bulk of whom are strongly opposed to the term ‘Kuki’ being used and in fact this led to the deletion of Kuki in the 1956 when the order was issued.

 Thirdly, the term Kuki is not an indigenous word. It has no meaning at all. There is no dialect/language/ custom/tradition/ culture to be called ‘Kuki’. These same people are known as Chins in Burma which is a Burmese name applied to them; in Mizoram they are known as Paites, Hmars, etc. At present, some leaders suggest to adopt Mizo in lieu of Kuki while some other again prefer Zomi. In the situation of uncertainties amongst themselves, to bring the name ‘Kuki’ back by the backdoor and that also through the government machinery is most undesirable.”

The tribes in the Kuki-Chin group present a picture of diversity in unity. Despite their socio-cultural affinities, they were not able to come under the fold of a unified common nomenclature. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Kukis have faced various hardships and atrocities in the process of evicting them from their habitual residence for the realization of aspired homeland of the Nagas led by the faction of its rebel groups. It had miniaturised the Kuki identity further as some tribes belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group, either out of fear or at their own volition had denounced the Kuki identity. Also in 1997-1998 there were instances of violent ethnic clashes between the Thadous and the Paites in Churachandpur district both of which are kindred tribes of Kuki.

One of the main reasons for the eruption of the said clash was the disagreement over the adoption of nomenclature. The non-Thadou Kukis spearheaded by Paites wanted to adopt Zomi nomenclature in opposition to the term ‘Kuki’ preferred by the Thadous. The Kukis including the non-Thadous as well were greatly inconvenienced by the ‘Kukiland tax’ levied by the armed Kuki outfits. The non-Thadou Kukis also doesn’t want to be a part of ‘Kukiland’ under Thadou hegemony. The clash was finally concluded with an agreement to mutually respect the Zomi and Kuki nomenclature and leave it to the choice of the individuals or groups concerned. The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) and the Zomi Council were authorised by the respective armed groups to sign the peace accord on their behalf so as to end the clashes.  The first point of the agreement in the Peace Accord between the KIM and the Zomi Council says that “the nomenclatures ‘Kuki’ and ‘Zomi’ shall be mutually respected by all Zomis and Kukis. Every individual or group shall be at liberty to call himself or themselves by any name, and the nomenclature Kuki and Zomi shall not in any way be imposed upon any person or group against their will at any point of time.” The accord was signed on 01 October 1998, with Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister of Manipur, Member of Parliament of Outer Manipur and all the Members of Manipur Legislative Assembly and some prominent tribal leader as witness. It can be recollected that there were other two alternative nomenclatures proposed by the members present at the time of forming KIM. One of it was Kuki Zomi Council.

In fact, despite their close socio-cultural affinity, an acceptable nomenclature that encompasses all the tribes belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo or otherwise Zomi group is still eluding them. Furthermore, fragmentation is being heightened because of inherent idiosyncrasies on the basis of the hierarchical order of genealogy and other endogenous factors as well in addition to the activities of the armed outfits.

Next articleHumanitarian Activist Binalakshmi Nepram met Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla; ; appeal to develop a State Diversity Policy and to ensure Implementation of Bezbaruah Committee Recommendations


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