Reinterpreting the Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1920

Prof Lal Dena *

98th Anniversary of Anglo-Kuki war at Kuki Inn, Imphal :: 19 December 2015
98th Anniversary of Anglo-Kuki war at Kuki Inn, Imphal on 19 December 2015 :: Pix - DIPR

(A speech on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of the Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1920 at Kuki Inn, Imphal on 19th December, 2016)

The Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1920 was an epoch-making event not only of the history of Manipur but also of modern Indian history. Recently it has become a subject of serious research among academicians and scholars of different disciplines. But what has been so far sidetracked is its national and international character. The very fact that Great Britain, the then mightiest colonial power, had taken three long years to suppress the movement shows that it was an anti-imperialistic liberation movement of great magnitude.

In all the British documents both in India and London, the colonial authorities recorded the war as 'Kuki Rebellion" and the Kukis as 'rebels'. The colonial mindset was full of racial prejudice. They looked down upon the subject people and called them 'savage, wild, barbarian, uncivilized, headhunter' and what not. Different opinions were expressed on the nature and character of the war.

What was actually the war about? For what was the war fought? What was the ideological force behind it?. RK Sanahal Singh in his Manipur Itihas, (1947) called it 'Hao lal' meaning 'tribal uprising' while other Meitei scholars called it 'Khongjai lal' (Khongjai war). Dr SMAW Chisti preferred to call the war as 'Kuki Uprising' whereas Dr N Joykumar Singh in his book 'Colonialism to Democracy: A History of Manipur, 1819-1937' saw it as a 'social movement'.

Late Kaikhotinthang Kipgen and Thomson Kipgen called the war as the 'Thadou War of Independence'. Falling on line with them, Dr Margaret Sitlhou also titled her thesis as 'Thadou War and its impact on the society, 1917-1919. This is a narrow way of looking at history. No doubt, some prominent Thadou chiefs formed a powerful section of the leadership of the movement. But one cannot at the same time ignore the participation of other chiefs.

More than twenty Haokip chiefs held several rounds of meetings to declare war against the British. The Vaipheis under the leadership of Paokhulen, chief of Bongbal Khulen and Pabol, chief of Sita, joined hands with Pache Haokip, chief of Chasad right from the outbreak of the struggle against the British. (Priyadarsini M Gangte, 2013:12). The Zous of the Manhlun Manchongs also set a very exemplary conduct in resisting the British forces commanded by Ostrehan and Cosgrave at Hiangtam Fort on 19 March, 1918. (PM Gangte, 2013:27). This clearly shows that the war was not a one tribe-led war.

According to local oral sources, the war was also known as Zo Gal (Zo War). Late TS Gangte in his book 'Anglo-Kuki Relationship from 1849 to 1937 and Other Essays' edited by PM Gangte, and PS Haokip in his 'Zalen Gam: 'The Kuki Nation' have described the Anglo-Kuki War as the first Kuki War of independence which is the most appropriate term as a key to understanding the real character of the movement.

What had unified the Kukis living in different parts of Myanmar and those Kukis spreading in different parts of North East India and Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh? It was the sense of belongingness to one nation which bound them together. This was, in modern terminology, Kuki nationalism. This was the underlying ideological factor which constituted the long-standing cause of the movement. Of course, the concept of Kuki nationalism was an embryonic stage at that period of time. After a careful scrutiny of facts, it may therefore rightly be contended that the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-1920 was the first and major Kuki national liberation movement which formed, directly or indirectly, an integral part of Indian freedom movement.

Analysing the rise and growth of Kuki nationalism, Dr Joseph Suantak in "Chin+Kuki+Zo: Genesis and Exodus", New Delhi, 2012 (pp 225-227), has contended that Kuki nationalism was a pre-British colonialism phenomenon and it "runs in the veins of Chin+Kuki+Zos from birth and survives with existence of chiefdoms or villages.

Interestingly, Dr Suantak has divided the rise of Kuki nationalism into three phases: pre-colonial period, colonial period and post-colonial period. In the past before the coming of the British, Kuki villages were fragmented into independent chiefdoms or something like village republics. The chiefs were the monarchs of all they surveyed and they never tolerated any interference from outside. Dr Suantak has further argued that the concept of nationalism at that stage was in one sense 'village' or 'chiefdom-based.

Chiefdom was the binding factor that promoted the feeling of oneness. To quote him, "The name of their chief or their glorious village became their national identity or nationality that promoted solidarity and the feeling of oneness" and has concluded that "the elements of nationalism were already rooted in their socio-cultural life which can fairly be termed as proto-nationalism." (Joseph Suantak, 2012:227-228)., Therefore it has been rightly contended that, according to Kukiland (KNF), factors which helped in the formation of the spirit of nationalism were in existence among the Kukis prior to their encounter with British.

The second phase of Kuki nationalism, according to Joseph Suantak, can be traced to the period in which the Kukis came into contact with the British. By holding the same view, Kukiland (KNF Publication), 2012 again contends that any organized Kuki movement which manifested in the form of attacks and counter attacks on the British began from 1777 AD (Kukiland, 2012:69). Seilen Haokip, spokesman of KNO also strongly holds the view that "Kuki nationalism demonstrably opposed British colonialists' interference in Kuki territory, which began in 1777, during the time of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India". (Seilen Haokip; Rhetorics of Kuki Nationalism: A Treatise,, 2010:22).

Regarding the third phase of Kuki nationalism in post-colonial era, both Dr Joseph Suantak and Seilen Haokip have painted a very gloomy picture because Kuki's historical opposition of colonialism fell short of realizing an honourable political status for the people. The socio-political condition of the Kukis in post-independent era was extremely vulnerable.

Where feelings of Kuki nationalism ceased to exist, according to Seilen, clannishness prevailed. As a result, clan-centrism has been deduced as an internal cause which gravely affected Kuki unity and created conditions for the collective status of the identity to decline. With the introduction scheduled system resulting in the recognition of every tribe by the Indian constitution as separate tribe, tribe-based nationality had emerged and simultaneously the process of dekukization had started.

In my earlier paper "Nationality Formation: The Case of Kuki" which was first published in 'Kuki Society, Past, Present and Future' published by the Kuki Research Forum (2011) of which I was a patron member, I listed the basic tenets of nationalism such as common name or common nomenclature, myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories (events and celebration, heroes or other common experiences), common culture, defined by language or religion or customs, link with a geographical homeland, and a sense of common cause or solidarity among the members of the ethnic group.

By possessing all these basic ingredients of nationalism, I argued that Kuki people were in the on-going process of nationality formation and my conclusion was that more liberal and accommodating Kuki leadership could be a rallying point for more effective re-unification of all the erstwhile Old Kukis and New Kukis..

As mentioned before, another historical issue which merits further research and reinterpretation was the connection between the extremist nationalist movement in Bengal and the Kuki liberation movement of 1917. Bengali nationalist organizations from Sylhet and Cachar sent their emissaries to the Kuki chiefs of the southern clans encouraging them to resist the high-handed methods of British colonial rulers.

The Bengali revolutionary nationalists resented the partition of Bengal in 1911 and as a result intensified the freedom struggle against the British. Therefore, Kuki people's liberation movement in this part of the country in 1917 can be seen as an extension of the nationalist freedom struggle of the country. Definitely, the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917- 1919 cannot be studied in isolation and must therefore be juxtaposed to other popular anti-colonial freedom movements of the country.

From what has been indicated above, we can safely conclude that the Kuki people wherever they live today have a strong historical foundation and that, in the words of Rev Dr Jangkholam Haokip, "should dispel all false ideas and rebuild the spirit of progressive nationalism and transforming identity for peace in the region".

No doubt, the movement failed but the nationalistic feeling which prompted the unified mass-based struggle in 1917-1920 still lives on and so we are here today to commemorate the 99th anniversary year of the GREAT ANGLO-KUKI WAR, 1917-1920 which is the FIRST AND MAJOR KUKI NATIONAL LIBERATION MOVEMENT.

(A speech on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of the Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1920 at Kuki Inn, Imphal on 19th December, 2016)

* Prof Lal Dena wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on January 09, 2017 (Later corrected for a typo in the year ) .

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