The Kukis are indigenous people of Zale’n-gam, meaning ‘Land of Freedom’. Zale’n-gam is a terminology used to refer to the contiguous ancestral land situated in present-day Northeast India, Northwest Burma and the Chittagong hill tracts in Bangladesh. Broadly defined, in India this includes areas in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur; in Burma predominantly the Sagaing Division and in Bangladesh the Chittagong hill tracts. Prior to the advent of the British colonialists the Kukis were an independent people in their undivided domain, each of the clans governed by the Chief according to its own law, custom and tradition.
Kuki indigenity with historical reference
Historians such as Majumdar and Bhattasali (1930,6-7) refer to the Kukis as the earliest people known to have lived in prehistory India, preceding ‘the “Dravidians” who now live in South India.’ The Aryans, who drove the Dravidians towards the south, arrived in the Indian sub-continent around BC 1500 (Thapar, 1966, 29). In the Pooyas, the traditional literature of the Meitei people of Manipur, ‘two Kuki Chiefs named Kuki Ahongba and Kuki Achouba were allies to Nongba Lairen Pakhangba, the first historically recorded king of the Meithis [Meiteis], in the latter’s mobilisation for the throne in 33 AD’ (Telegraph, 17 Jan 1994). Cheitharol Kumaba (Royal Chronicles of the Meitei Kings) records that in the year 186 Sakabda (AD 264) Meidungu Taothingmang, a Kuki, became king.
Prof JN Phukan (1992, 10) writes:
If we were to accept Ptolemy’s ‘Tiladae’ as the ‘Kuki’ people, as identified by Gerini, the settlement of the Kuki in North-East India would go back to a very long time in the past. As Professor Gangumei Kabui thinks, ‘some Kuki tribes migrated to Manipur hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in the Manipur valley’ (History of Manipur, p24). This hypothesis will take us to the theory that the Kukis, for the matter, the Mizos, at least some of their tribes, had been living in North-East India since the prehistoric time, and therefore, their early home must be sought in the hills of Manipur and the nearby areas rather than in Central China or the Yang-tze valley.
In the second century (AD 90 – 168), Claudius Ptolemy, the geographer, identified the Kukis with Tiladai who are associated with Tilabharas, and places them ‘to the north of Maiandros, that is about the Garo Hills and Silhet’ (Gereni, 1909, 53). Stevenson’s (1932) reference to Kuki in relation to Ptolemy’s The Geography also bears critical significance to its period existence. In the Rajmala or Annals of Tripura, Shiva is quoted to have fallen in love with a Kuki woman around AD 1512 (Dalton, 1872, 10).
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1962, vol xiii, 511) records, ‘Kuki, a name given to a group of tribes inhabiting both sides of the mountains dividing Assam and Bengal from Burma, south of the Namtaleik River.’ Grierson (1904) marks out Kuki territory as follows:
The territory inhabited by the Kuki tribes extends from the Naga Hills in the north down into the Sandoway District of Burma in the south; from Myittha River in the east, almost to the Bay of Bengal in the west. It is almost entirely filled up by hills and mountain ridges, separated by deep valleys. A great chain of mountains suddenly rises from the plains of Eastern Bengal, about 220 miles north of Calcutta, and stretches eastward in a broadening mass of spurs and ridges, called successively the Garo, Khasia, and Naga Hills. The elevation of the highest point increases towards the east, from about 3,000 feet in the Garo Hills to 8,000 and 9,000 in the region of Manipur. This chain merges, in the east, into the spurs, which the Himalayas shoot out from the north of Assam towards the south. From here a great mass of mountain ridges starts southwards, enclosing the alluvial valley of Manipur, and thence spreads out westwards to the south of Sylhet. It then runs almost due north and south, with cross-ridges of smaller elevation, through the districts known as the Chin Hills, the Lushai Hills, Hill Tipperah, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Farther south the mountainous region continues, through the Arakan Hill tracts, and the Arakan Yoma, until it finally sinks into the sea at Cape Negrais, the total length of the range being some seven hundred miles. The greatest elevation is found to the north of Manipur. Thence it gradually diminishes towards the south. Where the ridge enters the north of Arakan it again rises, with summit upwards of 8,000 feet high, and here a mass of spurs is thrown off in all directions. Towards the south the western off-shoots diminish in length, leaving a track of alluvial land between them and the sea, while in the north the eastern off-shoots of the Arakan Yoma run down to the banks of the Irawaddy. This vast mountainous region, from the Jaintia and Naga Hills in the north, is the home of the Kuki tribes. We find them, besides, in the valley of Manipur, and, in small settlements, in the Cachar Plains and Sylhet.
Kuki Polity and Government
Prior to the advent of the British, the Kukis were in their own right a sovereign nation. Kuki polity, based on chieftainship, functioned with a full complement of governing bodies, such as Semang (Home Minister), Pachong (Defence & External Affairs), Lhangsam (Minister, Public Relations & Broadcasting) Lawm Upa (Minister of Youth, Economic & Cultural Affairs), Thiempu (Priest), Tollai Pao (Law and Order Enforcement Minister). At the national level, this governance is known as the Kuki Inpi. The pattern is replicated at the Lhang (district) and Gamkai (state) level. Integral to Kuki polity is the Inpi, the apex body, in which each Kuki Chief is a member.
The Inpi met to execute policies and programmes, and as matters of importance, such as which affect the security and safety of the entire Kuki nation arose. One such instance took place in 1917: the Kuki Chiefs from the entire length and breadth of Zale’n-gam held a series of conclaves at Chassad, Jampi, Longya, and Khongjang. At these conclaves they resolved to rise against the British to protect the sovereignty of Zale’n-gam. To mark their resolve for a concerted effort, the Kuki Chiefs performed Sajamlhah and ate the heart and liver of the mithun or bison killed for the occasion, symbolising commitment from the depth of one’s heart or core. As is customary, portions of the meat are sent to every Kuki village Chief not present on the occasion. The tradition of Thingkho le Malchapom (hot king-sized chilly tied on to smouldering firewood) was launched, signifying a declaration of war against the British. Thingkho le Malchapom was sent to every Kuki village to convey that an offensive against the British has begun. This practice, which also indicated the Kukis were fully prepared, enabled the united Kuki Rising of 1917-1919.The traditional Kuki Inpi, which remained latent since India gained independence from Britain, was revived following the fresh lot of crises faced by the Kuki people from 1980s and 1990s.
Kuki Custom and Culture
Over a thousand Kuki proverbs exist. Uililoh in tui asuneh in, ngachun, ngaha’n athi lo e (Tiny tadpoles smirch the pond, innocent goldfish and salmon give up the ghost), Benglam in den a nisa lep ah ako-e (Benglam seeks the warmth of the sun in the shade) are a few examples in a Kuki dialect. Legendary tales of our heroes and heroines, such as of Galngam, Khupting and Ngambom, Pujil and Langchal, Benglam, Jonlhing, and Nanglhun have regaled many generations. These folklores have been passed down through the oral tradition. Customary rites, such as Sa-Ai, Chang-Ai, Chon le Han, Hun, Kut, Semang are observed. Zale’n-gam is also blessed with exquisite flora and fauna. Teak and bamboo forests cover vast tracts of our land. The mithun and the hornbill are the national animal and bird.
Historical defence of Zale’n-gam
Opposition to British aggression and interference in Kuki territory began in 1777s, during the time of Warren Hastings, Governor General of India (Chakraborty, 1964, 53). ‘The year 1860 saw the great Kuki invasion of Tipperah [Tripura], and the following year a large body of police marched to the hills to punish and avenge’ (Carey & Tuck, 1932). ‘In 1845, 1847-1848, 1849-1850, and 1850-1851 there were raids culminating in what is called the Great Kuki Invasion of 1860s’ (Elly, 1978, 8). ‘Early in 1860, reports were received, at Chittagong, of the assembling of a body of 400 or 500 Kookies at the head of the River Fenny, and soon the tale of burning villages and slaughtered men gave token of the work they had on hand. On the 31st January, before any intimation of their purpose could reach us, the Kookies, after sweeping down the course of the Fenny, burst into the plains of Tipperah at Chagulneyah, burnt or plundered 15 villages, butchered 185 British subjects, and carried off about 100 captives’ (Mackenzie, 2005, 342).
In the twentieth-century, Kuki featured in both the World War theatres. The period of WW I marked a momentous Kuki offensive against the British, which is recorded as ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’ (OIOC). This event is also referred to as ‘Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1919’. Shakespeare (1928), Palit (1984) and the recently released book Guardians of the Northeast, The Assam Rifles (Guardians…, 2003, 19-20) term it as ‘Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919’. Unable to engage in cultivation for such a long period of warfare the Kukis could not sustain food supplies and so suspended their offensive and turn themselves in to the enemy.
A notable feature of the Kuki rising is that a relatively minor ethnic group withstood the intruding British imperialist power continuously for nearly three years. Of its scale and magnitude the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam in the Political Department states (27 Sept, 1920):
The ‘Kuki rising, 1917-1919’, which is the most formidable with which Assam has been faced for at least a generation … the rebel villages held nearly 40,000 men, women and children interspersed … over some 6,000 square miles of rugged hills surrounding the Manipur valley and extending to the Somra Tract and the Thaungdut State in Burma.
Sir HDU Kerry, General Officer Commanding, Burma Division wrote: ‘I therefore decided to put an end to the Kuki revolt by force of arms, break the Kuki spirit, disarm the Kukis, exact reparation and pave the way for an effective administration of their country’ (Maymyo, June 1919). The Military awards given to the British officers and soldiers were: 1 CIE, 1 OBE, 14 IDSMs, 1 King’s Police Medal, innumerable Mentions-in-Despatches and Jangi Inams’ (Guardians…, 20).
At Phaikoh, in Eastern Zale’n-gam (western Burma), where Jamkhai (Haokip, 1998, 17), a Kuki king and his descendants reigned, there exist a great stone cave, where the king held court daily. A similar type of cave exists at Laijang in Western Zale’n-gam, which the British changed to Tamenglong. Tamenglong is now a district of Manipur. Innumerable expeditions were carried out by the Kukis to preserve the territorial integrity of Zale’n-gam. For example, an encounter in which Thanglet, a Kuki prince, took Ningthi’s (Shan king) head is recorded (Op cit, 46). Kuki Picket (Thompson, 2002, 149) or Kuki kitla refers to the location, where an encounter with the Angami Naga at Kohima, in Nagaland. In another episode, 1200 Kuki warriors fought against Kamhou Sukte, a Chin king, who had captured Chandrakirti, the Meitei ningthou. Following the victory over Sukte, the Kukis reinstated Chandrakirti to his throne.
In 1949, Sadar Vallabhai Patel, Home Minister, asked the Meitei ningthou to sign the Merger Agreement to include Manipur within the Indian Union. Kuki chiefs opposed this move because they thought it probably would entail ceding Kuki territory, which was annexed by the British and administered along with Meitei’s territory, the Imphal valley. Over 250 Kuki warriors(Annexation…1995, 182), sent by the chiefs, were deployed at the palace gate to support the Meitei ningthou, who initially was against merging with India. The ningthou, pressured by a Meitei demonstration group, ultimately yielded and signed the merger of Manipur, including Kuki hills with India. WWII and Kuki, Bengali and German connection
One of the theories of the origin of the terminology Kuki is ‘cucci-cucci’. The Bengali people used this term – meaning ‘people who do as they please’ – to describe or identify the Kukis. This sense of freedom and independence inherent in the Kukis is embodied in the term Zale’n-gam.
In WW II, Kukis, under the leadership of Pu Pakang, alias Japan Pakang and the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, sided with the Axis powers. Many Kuki leaders and warriors actively participated with the Japanese in expeditions against the British to regain Zale’n-gam’s sovereignty from the British (Haokip, J, 1984). There are about one hundred and fifty Kuki INA pensioners. Eighty of these are listed in Freedom Fighters of Manipur(1985).
In the memory of our elders during WWI the Bengali people of Sylhet provided valuable support to the Kukis in their fight against the British colonialists. This recollection is corroborated Palit’s writings (1984, 81):
Mention has been made earlier that the Kukis had been encouraged by emissaries from Bengali nationalists in Assam, but any thought that the Germans had also had a hand in it had not occurred to any one. This matter, Palit continues, came to light at Tamu in May 1918, where upon a Medical Officer on his round of inspection came upon some Sikhs of the Burma M.P. in a hut tearing up some papers they said they did not want. The M.O. picked up some of the papers and found among them photos of two Germans, one in uniform. On the back of one of them was written in Hindustani: “If you fall into rebel hands show these and they will not harm you.”
In this connection with the above incident, the Kuki National Army (KNA) condemned the abduction of Herr Heinrich Wolfgang Grey in the local newspapers of Manipur. An excerpt:
The Kuki National Organisation and its armed wing Kuki National Army strongly condemn the abduction of Herr Heinrich Wolfgang Grey by the Kuki Liberation Army, on Sunday, 23 March 2003. Herr Grey, who is an employee of the German-based Church Development Service (EED), arrived in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, on a mission to benefit the public, i.e. to inspect the activities of non-governmental organisations funded by Germany.
The KNO urge the KLA to release Herr Grey without any further delay. KLA must realise that Kuki had good relations with the Germans during WWI, which must not be spoiled. To this effect, KLA is advised to take note of General DK Palit’s observation in Sentinels of the North-East: The Assam Rifles (1984, 81).
WWII and Kuki-Japanese relations
According to our folklore, there were the progenitors Songthu and Songja. As referred to in Lambert’s report(25 Oct 1944), from Songthu followed Kuki, and from Songja the Japanese. In Burma, the Kuki chiefs and the Japanese leaders signed a ‘MoU’ for their joint venture against the British according to Kuki custom: they ate the liver and heart of a mithun and by bit upon a tiger’s tooth. The agreement was that while the Japanese would keep Burma under its rule, the Kukis would regain their sovereignty once the British had been defeated.
Nishi Kikan’s reference to the Japanese, Kukis, Burmese in relation to the names of members of Nishi Kikan (7 July 1944) of Homalin Tamanti Branch and Nakakisa, a Japanese intelligence officer, who served in the Imperial Japanese Army notes ‘Kuki is a nation, as are India, Burma, and Japan.’
Pu Japan Pakang worked with Japanese officers Masada, Co-operation Commissioner, Nikikong and Ikamura, Deputy Co-operation Commissioner, Civil Affairs Office. With regard to the Kuki-Japanese relationship, for example, Tongkhothang, Chief of Chassad, son of Pache, a war hero and leader of the 1917 Kuki rising, crossed the Chindwin river in November 1943, where he contacted the Japanese requesting four hundred rifles to fight against the British (25 Oct 1944).
During WWII, in accordance with the above pact, Kukis aided Japanese engineers (disguised as Kukis) to survey the terrain, where several strategic roads were constructed. From Thamanti near the river Chindwin in Burma to Phoilen, Khotuh, Kongkailong, Leijum, Molheh Camp, Akhen and Kanjang stretching to Jessami near Kohima. Secondly, from Homalin to Phailen, Khongkan Thana, Chassad to Imphal. Thirdly, from Kalemyo to Tamu, Moreh, Pallel to Imphal. From Fallam, Behieng, Singhat, Bishenpur to Imphal. The Japanese trained Kukis and relied on their espionage amongst the Britishers to gain vital information regarding their movement, etc. On certain occasions, the Japanese, disguised as Kukis, pretending to sell chicken, eggs, and other food items also went to the British camps. Taking advantage of the Kuki-Japanese alliance, the British carried out counter espionage: they employed Nepalis and disguised them as Kukis to infiltrate Japanese camps. Maj. Gen. Palit (1984,143) relates an incident:
Typical of these returning parties was one under N K Kalur Gurung, who returned with four rifle men all disguised as Kukis. The NCO and his foreman had been captured by the Japanese at the start of the offensive, but managed to escape. They remained in hiding in the jungle until the advancing enemy echelon has passed. They then brought Kuki clothes from the villages and, once in disguise tried to make their way back thorough the Japanese lines. Again they were captured; and this time they were produced before a Japanese officer. During interrogation, they pretended not to understand Hindi, merely repeating ‘Kuki-Kuki’ in a wailing voice. Satisfied that they were only local tribals, the Japanese let them go.
On some occasions, incidents similar to those related by Palit appear to have caused some misunderstandings: it made the Japanese think that Kukis were working against them. Such an act would have been contrary to Kuki loyalty to honour their relations with the Japanese, which was marked by biting on a tiger’s tooth. The mass Kuki support for the Japanese is immortalised in a traditional form of elegy called lakoila:
Theilou Koljang toni lep banna,
Ging deng deng’e Japan lenna huilen kong.
Pego Lhemlhei saigin bang
Mao deng deng’e van thanmjol Japan lenna.
Amao deng deng’e Japan lenna mongmo,
Vailou kon sunsot selung hem tante.
Atwi theikhong tabang a ging deng deng,
Ging deng deng’e Japan lenna huilen kongin.
The first of these verses expresses a deep-felt emotion evoked by the sound of Japanese planes passing over Zale’n-gam. The emotion is likened to that stirred by the evening sun. The British banned the singing of this particular elegy for obvious reasons, but in vain only. The Kukis continue to cherish it even to this day.
The victory of the Allied forces led to the division of Bose’s motherland into India and Pakistan, and a trifurcation Pu Pakang’s Zale’n-gam among India, Burma and Pakistan. This defeat was felt greatly by the two leaders, and so at the end of the War they left for Japan. Speculations continue to this day regarding the fate of the two heroes.
Pu Japan Pakang’s composed a dirge to mark his departure for Japan:
Kathi leh toni phal khat,
Kahin leh janglei chung chon ding.
If I die, it is destined for me,
If I live I shall be exonerated worldwide.
The meaning behind the elegy is that Pu Japan Pakang planned to embark upon great deeds for the Kukis once he reached Japan. To this day Kukis refer to WWII as Japan Gal (Japanese War), not British Gal (British War).
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