The Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919

Thanggoulen Kipgen *

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

During the First World War in 1916, the British had demanded the government of India a supply of 50,000 volunteers to serve in France as Labour Corps. The Northeast region of British India also offered to raise five Labour Corps of two thousand men each.

The Naga Hill corps, the Khasi Hill corps, the Lushai Hill corps and the Garo Hills corps had fulfilled the demand and went to France to help the Allied forces. But there was a crisis in areas governed by the Kukis. The Kuki chiefs refused to join the Labour Corps and instead fought the British.

The event has been variously described as the "The Kuki Rebellion", "The Kuki Rising", "The Kuki War of Independence", "Anglo-Kuki War" etc. Though recruitment in Labour Corps can be said to be the immediate cause for the Anglo-Kuki War, there are also several political, social and cultural factors and events that also added resentment among the Kukis against the British imperialism.

In the early 1917, while the British authorities with the help of the Maharaja of Manipur continued their drive of raising the Labour Corps, the Kukis remained mentally and physically alerted. The Kuki chiefs held several meetings and conclaves since the early 1917 against British imperialism into the areas they inhabited and governed.

The most attended and decisive conclave was the Chassad Conclave held in early March of 1917 which was attended by 23 principal Kuki chiefs. Hosted by the Chief of Chassad, a Mithun was killed and a traditional and customary war-rite ceremony was performed as a symbol of their solidarity to fight the British.

With absolute refusal to send their men in France among the Kuki chiefs and several failed attempts of persuasion and approaches from their part, the British had no choice but to wage war against the Kukis. Captain Coote of the 4th Assam Rifles went to Mombi (Lonpi) and burnt down the village on October 17, 1917, the Kukis retaliated marking the commencement of the Anglo-Kuki War.

The later part of 1917 and early 1918 marked several attacks from both sides of the camp. The first battle took place in December 1917 where three British soldiers were killed. The news of the Kuki victory against the mighty British soldiers spread far and wide across the Somra Tract, North Cachar Hills, Thaungdut state in Burma along the Chindwin River (present day Sagaing Region) and the Naga Hills. In North Cachar Hills in the present day Assam, the Kukis attacked government institutions and properties, brought down telegraphic lines, attacked Police Thanas and killed policemen.

In other words, preparation for full-scale war against the British was witnessed in all the areas inhabited by the Kukis though the Hills of Manipur remained the epicenter of the war.

In mid-1918, the British became aware that the war is a serious matter that could not be dealt with simple, traditional and loosely coordinated plans. A meeting was held at Shimla between military officers fighting the Kukis in the field and the Commander in Chief of India. It was apparent that the British took it as an embarrassment leading to some decisive actions being taken.

The new .303 Lee-Enfield magazine rifles replaced the old single-shot Martini Henry rifles used by the Assam Rifles. Even W. Street was recalled from his duties with the Chin Labour Corps in France to deal with the Kukis thanks to his experiences in the Somra Tracts before.

The Kuki traditional technique of warfare using stone or booby-traps and gueralla tactics and their considerable successes caused great damage and confusion within the British forces in the field. The homemade leather canon called Pumpi and traditional gun called Thihnang were their only ammunitions.

The Deputy Inspector General of the Assam Rifles Colonel, L. W. Shakespeare observed that- "It (Anglo-Kuki War) grew therefore into the largest series of military operations conducted on this side of India since the old expeditionary days of Generals Penn and Symonds and Tregear in the late eighties, or the futile Abor Expedition of 1911-12, eclipsing them all in casualties and arduousness of active service. During these operations all the advantage lay with the active scantily-clad Kukis, who are adept at guerilla and jungle warfare".

By late 1918, the First World War had just ended in which the British forces returned to India. Several reinforcements were created to fight the Kukis. Towards the early 1919, the weary and exhausted Kukis could not matched the massive arrival of the British troops leading to several villages being burnt down and most importantly capturing of important Kuki chiefs. On 20th May 1919, the Anglo-Kuki War officially came to end. All the captured and surrendered Kuki chiefs were put under various trials and sentences.

The Kuki chiefs from British Burma were detained in Homalin Jail and later sent to Taunggyi Jail for up to 15 years imprisonment. The Kuki chiefs from British India were sentenced ranging from 15 to 20 years imprisonment. They went detained at Imphal Jail, and later sent to Kohima Jail and Sadija Jail in Assam. The Kuki chiefs who played a major role in opposing the British were later sent to as far as the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Island.

The Anglo-Kuki War may not be the most glorious expedition of the British in India and the event may be deliberately under-publicized. But the British military and financial involvement and loss, the extension of the war to almost three years and the Kukis exertion of courage and bravery in holding the mighty British force, their seriousness and unity deserve recognition.

Most importantly, whom the British regarded as savage, barbaric and easily subdue-able in quick times, the Kukis in single-handedly fighting the mighty British military prowess is a huge achievement in itself.

The Kukis lost the Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919 but the significance and consequences of this event for the Kukis and also as significant historical event in the history of British India and Burma needs to be highlighted and recognized as it commemorate the centenary year of the commencement of the war this year.

* Thanggoulen Kipgen wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a scholar at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya This article was posted on December 07, 2017.

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