During the freedom struggle, when the Indian National Army (INA) led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose marched to India in the 1940s with the call “Dilli Chalo”, the Kuki tribals of Indo-Burmese frontier played a major role in helping the INA.
In very difficult terrain, the Kukis acted as guides, spies and foot soldiers.
In an article for The Wire, Samantra Bose writes how Netaji had even gone to the Kuki town of Churachandpur. Later, many Kukis were given a pension by the Indian government for their involvement in the INA.
Dr Om Jee Upadhyay, Director of the Indian Council of Historical Research, has said that “out of 112 Indian freedom fighters from Manipur, more than 80 were Kukis”. Like the Kukis, the Meiteis also helped the INA, as outlined in Bose's article.
Kukis and the Indigeneity Question
Seventy-five years after India got independence, the Kukis are now in the middle of a storm where there seems to be a concerted effort to malign them with preposterous labels.
As far as the anti-colonial movement is concerned, even during the First World War, there was an uprising by the Kukis against the British which is known as the Kuki Uprising (1917-1919).
The uprising was so severe that the British spent Rs 26 lakh (an astronomical amount in those days) to crush the revolt. At one point, during a meeting in Shimla, the British government even considered using fighter planes against the Kukis.
Sadly, this uprising against the British has hardly made it to the pages of our history books, not unlike many other forgotten histories. While some Kuki scholars call it an Anglo-Kuki War, Meitei organisations refute it, saying that it was a mere rebellion.
Like many Adivasi communities of the country, Kukis have written very little of their history.
There are a few references by others though. Meitei writer LB Singh, in an article in Sangai Express, has written how the Royal Chronicle of Manipur, “Cheitharol Kumbaba”, mentioned the names of two Kukis, Kuki Ahongba and Kuki Achouba, in 33 AD.
Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India (1608) mentions the ‘Ko-ki’ inhabiting the mountain ranges between Bengal and Burma (present-day Myanmar) and their mountain highland as ‘Ko-ki land’. Taranatha also writes that “in the Koki lands, Buddhism was introduced at the time of Emperor Ashoka with a small section of the Sanghas residing there”. He also goes on to say that Kuki may be derived from Koki or vice versa.
This should put to rest the question of the indigeneity of Kukis in India. Why should the Kukis, a community that fought alongside the INA, be branded as outsiders?
Kukis and the Myanmar Coup
Very few people remember that Burma till one point in time, was part of British India which got separated only in 1937. Burma had a more peaceful partition compared to the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947.
One possible reason is that tribal communities like the Nagas, the Meiteis, and the Kukis among others, who live in both India and Burma could still move freely from one nation to another without much hindrance and the communities felt at home in both countries.
In fact, there is a Free Movement Regime for 16 kilometres within the borders of India and Myanmar as a result of which people living in the border areas move freely in both the country within the permitted limit.
In the military coup of Myanmar two-and-a-half years ago, which was tacitly backed by China (which it vehemently denies), pro-democracy forces who resisted the military government have borne the brunt of the Junta’s attacks.
Therefore, some of them have sought shelter in India’s Northeast.
While Mizoram has welcomed them with open arms, the Manipur government has been not only inimical, it even tried to search villages to detect illegal immigrants.
Though an exact figure is not available, the number of illegal immigrants is believed to be somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000. How many of them were actually within the permissible limits of the Free Movement Regime is also hardly asked.
India has ‘welcomed’ millions of people migrating to India at other times. To use the immigration of people from the pro-democracy forces of Myanmar to target the entire Kuki community as illegal is unfortunate.
Moreover, not all illegal immigrants are Kuki-Chins. Many of them are from different ethnicities not related to the Kuki-Chins, who would return to their homeland once the conflict in Myanmar subsides. The fact that even the Central government seems to believe such narratives would naturally hurt the sentiments of the Kukis.
What More Must Tribals Do?
For years, India’s northeastern periphery saw the outbreak of many secessionist movements that fought for independence from India. Interestingly, the Kuki tribals are one of the rare communities among the larger tribes inhabiting the northeast whose demands have only been within the ambit of the Constitution of India.
Col Vijay Chenji, the author of The Anglo-Kuki War 1917-19: Victory in Defeat | A Military Perspective, says that as many as 18 percent of the Assam Regiment of the Indian Army is made up of Kukis.
Even after 75 years of Independence, when other tribal communities are granted various autonomies within the Indian constitution, the tribals of Manipur (including Kuki-Zo and Nagas) are denied the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
Meiteis with a 53 percent population, control 67 percent of the state Assembly.
The first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) formed in 1966 in its "ARC Report on Union Territories and NEFA” recommendation number eight about Manipur stated that “the hill areas of Manipur may be constituted into two autonomous districts for the Kuki and Naga tribals areas. If necessary, autonomous regions can be carved out for smaller tribal groups. Necessary statutory provision may be made for this purpose in the Government of Union Territories Act, 1963."
However, even today, real autonomy for tribals in Manipur is still elusive. As India celebrates Independence Day, questions arise as to what more must tribals do to be treated as equals.
If a community that fought with INA can be hunted without mercy and labelled as illegal immigrants, the fate of other tribal communities must be equally grim, if not more.
The fact that this happened when India has its first tribal president, along with a tribal Governor of Manipur, would make adivasis very concerned.
This 15 August, as we play and sing the songs “Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja” or “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo” with patriotic fervour, we must remember that in Manipur, many are struggling for survival, in a ‘tryst with destiny’ of a different kind.
Not just the Kukis, even innocent Meiteis are suffering even as the power centres play out their games in the chessboard of Manipur. It's time Indians of all hues and colors come together to end this crisis, without which celebrating independence and freedom would seem very hollow.
(Dr David Hanneng is a Tata Samvaad fellow and a social activist based in Nagaland. A former professor at the Tetso College Dimapur, he is currently engaged as an independent researcher who focuses on issues that affect the Northeast. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)