Many Histories of Kuki Rebellion (1917-1919)

Recently, I published an essay on Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919, titled “To bridge the divide in Manipur, the effects of a long cycle of violence should be accepted” about how the rebellion affected neighbouring Naga tribes especially Zeliangrong. This aspect has been hardly presented in the existing writings on Kuki Rebellion wherein it has been largely portrayed as a history in isolation from ethnic tensions between Naga and Kuki tribes since nineteenth century.

Kuki Rebellion has been usually portrayed as a heroic act of fighting the Colonial force but this particular ‘anti-colonial’ narrative ignores the sufferings meted out to Zeliangrong people (a conglomeration of Naga tribes- Zeme, Liangmai, Rongmei and Inpui). How a significant part of historical event has been obscured so far requires a retelling/rewriting experiences of Zeliangrong people from Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919. The horrors unleashed on Zeliangrong people cannot be passed off as ‘unfortunate’, as Mr. Sonthang Haokip does in his thesis on “Anglo Kuki relations” [footnote]Haokip, Sonthang. (2011). “Anglo Kuki relations”, Unpublished Thesis. Manipur University[/footnote], or circumstantial as presented in the essay in The Statesman titled “Misrepresenting the Past” by Thongkholal Haokip.

I relied on secondary data like books and archival records to piece them together into a historical account of Zeliangrong people under the shadow of Kuki Rebellion. In doing so, I have presented how events before and after Kuki Rebellion are replete with Naga Kuki ethnic tension and its politics by keeping myself away from making subjective comments.

Historical writing is susceptible to interpretation and reproduction, and the outcome can lead to distortion of original contents. To start with, Mr. Thongkholal Haokip’s misinterpretation of a particular line from my article is deceptive wherein I wrote based on archival record that “…in the Naga Hills, Kukis took 250 heads from the neighbouring villages” changes into “250 Kabuis in the North Western hills, now in Tamenglong…” in his article. The archival record I referred to is from the year 1910.[footnote]National Archives of India- New Delhi. Government of India. Foreign Department. External-A. Proceeding, July 1910, Nos. 20-27[/footnote] This account of heads being taken is to highlight the existing feud between Kuki and Naga tribes long before the Kuki Rebellion began.

Kuki warriors in Sadiya jail

It is with great dismay to put our Zeliangrong Naga history and suffering in the face of wilful distortion of history. While at it, I would also like to point out that there were multiple instances where colonial sources documented number of casualties/deaths. I have found the sources not once but multiple times. One of many instances being this record in the State Archives of West Bengal, where Major-General W.F. Nuthall, Political Agent, Munipore, in his letter to Lieutenant J. Butler, Deputy Commissioner, Naga Hills in 1871 informed that

[su_quote]…four Nagas from Toofai have this morning come in and reported that on the 21st Boisak (3rd May) their village was attacked by about 450 Kukies from the village of Kooding-mang and its dependencies, who killed ten men, ten women, and eight children of their number, and carried off their heads, together with three women and three children alive, (two females, one male,) besides having burnt eight-seven houses and 100 granaries, and despoiled them of all the cattle and property they could lay their hands upon.[footnote]State Archives of West Bengal. 1871, “Raid by Kookies on the Kutcha Naga village of Toofai”. Progs., August 1871, Nos. 465/470. Foreign Department, Political- A[/footnote][/su_quote]

As to how the article “Misrepresenting the Past” reminds us that the effort of Kuki to instil peace is largely forgotten is at best selective writing and at worst distortion of history. The efforts of few Kuki chiefs in reaching out to Naga villages to join them in resisting recruitment for labour corps is remarkable in a sense that a space for alliance against the colonial rule is hardly initiated between the Kukis and the Nagas. However, this effort is subdued later by calculated attacks of Kukis against Zeliangrong Naga. For instance, as per Sonthang Haokip, Tintong, Chief of Laijang initially sought cooperation from Nagas in resisting Labour Corps recruitment, and later he masterminded and took part in raids on Naga villages causing burning of houses and several casualties.

Naga Labour Corp in WW 1

Gangmumei Kamei in his book,[footnote]Kamei, Gangmumei. (2004). “A History of The Zeliangrong Nagas. From Makhel To Rani Gaidinliu”. Gauhati: Spectrum Publications[/footnote] The History of Zeliangrong Nagas- From Makhel to Rani Gaidinliu, described the genesis of attack on Zeliangrong during the Kuki Rebellion. He wrote that it began with the incident of an attack on some Kukis leading to confiscation of their guns at Rongmei village, Lukhambi. Two Rongmei villages – Awangkhul and Rangkhong came forward to help Lukhambi. Tintong responded with a retaliation by leading a raid on Awangkhul, and they took 30 heads. Akhui, a Rongmei village led an attack on nearby Kuki village causing a death of dozen Kukis. Tintong then responded with an attack on Akhui village killing 76 persons and burnt down the village. The pattern here reveals that ethnic lines are being drawn leading to ethnic tension. Sensing the situations of Rongmei villages, Liangmai Naga came to rescue them. Loss of multiple of hundreds of Zeliangrong people and several villages burnt down to ashes, is not a circumstantial incident, it happened with strategic, deliberate and pre planned massacre by Kukis against Zeliangrong people during Kuki Rebellion. Gangmumei Kamei added that Tangkhul Nagas were also attacked by Kukis during the Kuki Rebellion. He also wrote that around that time the Kukis had already ceased the use of “the bow and arrow, sword and spear”, for they possessed a skill to manufacture “guns, gunpowder and leather canons.” The absence of Naga men can also be drawn into this particular event for the fact that many were sent to France as labour corps to help the Allied Forces during World War I.

In the words of Lal Dena,[footnote]History of Morden Manipur (1826-1949). New Delhi: Orbit Publication & Distributions.[/footnote]

[su_quote]By the end of April 1918, a series of brutal outrages were committed on their surrounding villages by the rebels and in the next three month 19 villages were raided with the loss of 193 persons killed and 26 missing. The causes of some of these raids were old feuds. In October 1918, 20 Kabui Naga villages were raided and burned with a loss of more than 85 lives. These raids were mostly carried out by Tindong chief of Layang who declared war with Kabui Nagas in retaliation against the latter’s raid on the Natjang Kuki village. No wonder the Kabui Naga rebellion in 1930-32 was directed both against the British and Kukis.[/su_quote]

After Kuki Rebellion, towards the end of 1919, is marked by introduction of direct administration of hill people under the British, a move which is unprecedented considering how the hills were administered indirectly after the British conquest of Manipur in 1891. The hills come under the rule of three sub-divisions constituted by Chief Commissioner of Assam.

Historical writing in this form begs a question to re-examine and bring out dynamics at play and processes surrounding events from the past. In addition to EH Carr’s emphasis on the need of historiography as Mr. Haokip reminds us in his article, it will be of great value to extend our ears also to Ronald Aminzade’s take on the role of historical sociologists where he sees it to be a way to bring out diverse patterns, and linkages among events by critically assessing historical accounts. This involves focussing on the causes and consequences of the events, and other processes among events like overlapping and intersection.

Less than ten years after the Kuki Rebellion, the Zeliangrong movement began under the leadership of Jadonang and later Rani Gaidinliu. The arrest of Rani Gaidinliu by the British came through with the help of Kuki informer. The role of Kuki informer in aiding the arrest of Rani Gaidinliu is corroborated in the writings of Ursula Graham Bower.[footnote]Ursula Graham Bower. (1952). Naga Path. Delhi: Spectrum Publications.[/footnote] So, it will be unwise to say that there existed a group which has been forgotten for their effort to initiate peace during the colonial period. Zeliangrong movement is a freedom movement against the British colonialism, and also plays out its rivalry with Kukis.

In Assam State Archives, there is a letter written by W.A. Cosgrave, Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam on February 25, 1931, where he highlights about the unrest among Kabui Nagas in North-west of Manipur state.[footnote]Assam State Archives – Appointment II & Political Department Branch, Nos. 20-94, “Unrest among Kabui Nagas in North-West of Manipur State”.[/footnote] He noted that Kuki villages were set up in Naga inhabited areas especially of Kabui and Kacha Nagas, and they were described as not indigenous who migrated into the region some generations ago. A description here conveys that the main dispute is around land, and land has been an important factor which is central to formulations of Naga identity. Land is also attached to Naga notions of culture, custom, belief system and rituals. The formation of Naga Club in 1918 and its memorandum (one of the signatories was Kuki) to the Simon Commission in 1929 are a clear indication of ethnic identity consciousness and its expression back in the early twentieth century.

Scholars from northeast writing on colonial history, must critically look at the British administration, and how they created fault lines to implant their divide and rule policy. The contours of colonialism can be easily identified by people who are at its receiving end. One must stay vigilant from falling into the trap of colonialism and internalising it, like how Zeliangrong Naga, one of the largest tribes in Manipur being referred to as “smaller hill communities in Manipur in T Haokip’s writing, is dishonest. A concerted effort to skirt acknowledgement of violence and its excesses on Zeliangrong Naga people during Kuki Rebellion, is an ahistorical approach towards Zeliangrong movement which happened later under Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu.

Memorial statue of Jadonang who founded Zeliangrong movement at Puiluan, Tamenglong district, Manipur



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Richard Kamei Written by:

Richard Kamei, PhD Candidate, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

One Comment

  1. Holiram Terang
    November 30, 2019

    Great writing. Hoping to read a comprehensive history.

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