The Kukis are indigenous people of Zale’n-gam, ‘Land of Freedom’. Zale’n-gam refers to the contiguous ancestral lands situated in present-day Northeast India, Northwest Burma and the Chittagong Hill tracts in Bangladesh. The Kukis lived in this part of the Indian sub-continent without being separated by international boundaries up until the early part of the twentieth-century. They were an independent people comprising numerous clans, each governed by its chieftain according to Kuki law, customs and tradition. After 1937, under British colonialists’ administration the upper Chindwin and Kale Kabow valley in present-day Sagaing Division was incorporated into Burma, the Chittagong Hill Tracts to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and the adjoining Kuki Hills ranging from present-day Manipur to Nagaland, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills in Assam, Tripura and the former Lushai Hills to India.
The dismemberment of Kuki territory and its incorporation within the three independent nations: India, Burma and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), has caused immense socio-economic and political hardships to the people. The effects continue to haunt the people to this day. Another major impact of this state of dispersal concerns the people’s identity. However, despite the absence of a known script, and consequently a lack of written contemporaneous history, the oral tradition, recognized as a key stone in the reconstruction of communities dispossessed of written documents (Vansina, 1985), has served to retain vital elements of the Kuki people’s past and their identity. Other aspects that connect the people with the earlier period is their shared history, the mutually intelligible dialects, a common culture, customs and traditions, which have remained intact. Folk-lore, genealogy and traditional forms of compositions and musical instruments have also remained unaltered. These characteristics of the people define them as a distinct entity, and combined with the oral traditions help to preserve the people’s past and ethnicity. Carey and Tuck (1978 (reprinted), p2) perceptibly observed that the people’s rich traditions, wealth of manners and customs all point to one origin.
Who Are The Kukis?
Various scholars and British colonialist officials broadly describe the Kukis as belonging to the Mongolian stock. Fro example, Yule (1885) and Col Phyre (1886) concluded that the Kukis belong to the Indo-Chinese family, and Capt Forbes and GA Grierson categorise them as belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group. Taw Sien Kho, a lecturer at Cambridge University classified the Kukis as a sub-family of the Turaneans, which include the Japanese, Chinese and Siamese. A pertinent query that arises is how the term ‘Kuki’ came to denote a particular ethnic group. According to Col Reid (1893), the term ‘Kuki’ is a Bengali word meaning ‘hill-men’ or ‘highlanders’. In his view, from the time of Warren Hastings, ‘Kuki’ had come to be regarded as a conglomeration of various tribes. Capt Lewin (1870, p.130), the then Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong Hill Tracts, observed that the Kukis are a powerful and independent people. Kukis have also been described as a nation of hunters and warriors, ruled by their principal hereditary Chiefs or Raja, but divided into clans, each under its own chief.
Regarding the categorisation of Kukis, William Shaw (1929, p.16), a British civil servant, stated that the Koms, Aimols, Khotlangs (Hmars), Thadous, Lushais, Pois (Marings) Paites, Gantes, Darlungs (Darlong), Khelma, Biete and several others are undoubtedly all connected. Lt Col Shakespear (1912, introduction) noted that the term ‘Kuki’ has come to have a fairly definite meaning, and we now understand by it certain closely allied clans, with well-marked characteristics, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman stock. In Shakespear’s view the term Kuki includes Aimol, Chothe, Chiru, Koireng, Kom, Purum, Anal, Lamgang, Moyon, Monsang, Maring, Gangte, Vaiphei, Simte, Paite, Thadou, Hmar and Zou. According to GA Grierson, in Linguistic Survey of India, the tribes connoted by Kuki includes Anals, Aimols, Chirus, Gangte, Hmars, Koms, Lushais, Paites, Purums, Raltes, Suktes, and Thadou, each able to understand the other’s dialect and having a common social and cultural life and place of origin. A classification of Kuki by Prof JK Bose (1934), a renowned anthropologist, includes Chiru, Chothe, Anal, Kom, Tarao, Aimol, Purum, Lamgang, Wainem, Thadou, Lushai and Paite.
In independent India, the above classification that highlight the fact of common ethnicity and identity has been represented under ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ in the Constitutional Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes lists of 1951 in the states of Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and in Nagaland simply as ‘Kuki’. However, the Constitution Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Lists (Modification) Order, 1956, The Schedule, Part X – Manipur, recognizes the various clans as separate individual ‘tribes’. This tribe modification order has exacerbated the identity crisis caused by the international boundaries that divide Kuki country.
In ethnological terms a ‘tribe’ denotes a people with distinct culture, tradition and language. By these criteria, in the state of Nagaland the Constitutional Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes classify the Ao, Angami, Lotha, and Sema, which all have a distinctive culture, customs, traditions and language are recognized as different tribes. By the same criteria, the Kuki clans, which share a common culture, customs and traditions, and dialects with the same root language need to be collectively identified as a single ‘tribe’, not separate ‘tribes’. The error of the tribe modification order of 1956 was rectified in the year 2003 by ‘The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act, 2002, No. 10 of 2003, in Part X Manipur’, which reintroduced ‘Any Kuki Tribes’.
‘Any Kuki Tribes’ also helps to dispel the anomaly introduced by the Constitution Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Lists (Modification) Order, 1956, which recognised Thadou, a sub-clan, to represent the various related sub-clans who speak the same dialect. The anomaly essentially relates to varying accounts of genealogical origins.
Efforts to bridge the gap of identity that prevailed from 1956 onwards has led to a rather frantic quest for alternatives to Kuki as a common identity. Nomenclatures, such as ‘Khul’, ‘Mizo’, ‘Tribal League’, ‘Tuhbem Som’, ‘Chikim’, ‘Zomi’, ‘Zo’, and ‘Eimi’ were experimented with, but to no lasting avail. The re-introduction of ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ provides an avenue to generate the much-needed unity among the people, particularly in reference to the dire political condition prevalent in present-day Manipur state. In specific regard to the existing predicament faced by the people, the present may prove to be an opportune moment to reconsider the credence of Kuki as a historically bona fide identity. With regard to Kuki’s historicity, for example, published in The Telegraph (17 Jan 1994), the Pooyas, the traditional literature of the Meitei people of Manipur testify that ‘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’. When Kuki chiefs existed in prominent state in 33 AD (referred to above), it is a self-evident fact that the Kukis and the identity Kuki existed preceding that period. The identity Kuki is also endorsed by eminent personalities associated with the people in the past, such as Grierson (1904), Shakespear (1912), Lewin (1856), and Mackenzie (1884). Their accounts provide a rich cultural heritage of the Kuki people and their identity. Their narratives are also singular because none other exists that can legitimate an alternative identity. In other words, owing to its antiquity, Kuki’s appropriateness as a terminology for the collective identity of the people is self-evident. The identity is particularly important with regard to the crisis of identity in Manipur.
Kuki Indigenity with Specific Historical References
Historians such as Majumdar and Bhattasali (1930, 6-7) refer to the Kukis as the earliest people known to have lived in pre-history India, preceding ‘the “Dravidians” who now live in South India.’ Comparatively, the Aryans, who drove the Dravidians towards the south, arrived in the Indian sub-continent around BC 1500 (Thapar, 1966, 29). Apart from the refernce to the Pooyas dating back to 33 AD, Cheitharol Kumaba (Royal Chronicles of the Meitei Kings) records that in the year 186 Sakabda (AD 264) Meidungu Taothingmang, a Kuki, became king. This is supported by the statement of Prof JN Phukan (1992, 10) who 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 of 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 Wingspan of Ancestral Kuki Territory
According to Capt Pemberton (1853), the Kuki territory stretch from the southern borders of Manipur valley to the Northern limit of the province of Arracan. Meerwarth (1835) observed that the Kukis occupied the hill ranges south of the Naga Hill, to the east the tribes of upper Chindwin and the Chin Hills, on the south those living on the hill tracts of Chittagong, while on the west they are bounded by the plains of Sylhet and the hills of North Cachar. William Shaw (1929) stated that the Kukis live in a large area of hilly country bounded by the Angami Nagas of the Naga Hills District in the North, the Province of Burma in the East, Lushai Hills in the South and the districts of Cachar in the West. Dalton (1872) had noted that the Kukis are the neighbors of the Nagas in Assam and in contiguity with the Mugs of Arracan. The Hill country occupied by them extends from the valley of the Kolodyne, where they touch on the Khumis to the Northern Cachar and Manipur. Similarly, DN Majumdar (1944) also observed:
The Kuki Chiefs rule over the country between the Karnapuli river and its main tributary, the Tuilampai, on the west, and the Tyao and Koladyne boundary is roughly a line drawn east and west through the junction of the Mat and Kolodyne rivers and their northernly villages are founded on the borders of the Silchar district.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1962, Vol 13, 511) records, ‘Kuki, a name given to a group of tribes inhabiting both sides of the mountains dividing Assam and Bengal from Burma, covering regions of the Nantaleik River.’
The wingspan of the Kuki territory as noted by Grierson (1904) is reproduced 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 chieftains reigned supreme in Zale’n-gam, the undivided ancestral lands, and their people lived in peace traversing its entire expanse like a grand eagle in flight.
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About the author: The writer PS Haokip is the president of Kuki National Organization.
Title: THE KUKIS
Author: PS Haokip