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The great Kuki rebellion of 1917-19: Its real significances

The great Kuki rebellion of 1917-19: Its real significances
By: Donn Morgan Kipgen
(Courtesy: The Sangai Express )


The Great Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919 was a defining event not only for the Kukis but for all Manipuris as well. It was the finest hours of the Kuki nation, because of the very fact that the military juggernaut of the mighty British Empire was kept at bay for full two years by bands of Kuki warriors. The British troops were ambushed, harassed, picked off, booby-trapped, and tormented at will by the tenacious Kukis in the hill areas like Apache or Sioux Indians. The image of the British Raj and her much vaunted army was shattered. For all the Manipuris, the debacle at Khongjom was more than avenged. The British then realised that they could be defeated as well. The realm was up in arms, for they then realised that they lurked a tribe of sturdy, resilient and martial race called the Kukis in the foothills of lower Himalayas.

The British threw in all their resources for a quick subjugation of an ill-equipped hillsmen but it took a full two year with the greatest of difficulties logistically imaginable to finally bring an end to a rebellion of a great significance unheard of since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The British claimed a military victory, which actually should be more of political and administrative victory with the brute military showmanship. Even if it was recorded by the British (military) historians as a full military victory, (remember, history is written by the victors), it certainly was a pyrrhic victory. In short, the Britishers' gains (with their heavy losses) did not justify the means for the crown. The heavy price paid by the crown was best recorded in 'The History of Assam Rifles' by the then DIGAR, WJ Shakespeare (not the one from Avon, nor related) who himself was directly involved in the overall military operations, thus: "It (the Kuki Rebellion) therefore grew into the largest series of military operations conducted on this side of India since the old (full-scale) Expeditionary days Generals Penn Symonds and Tregear in the late (eighteen) eighties, or the futile Abor Expedition of the 1911-12, eclipsing them all in casualties and arduousness of active service".

Nothing could be truer than this description. However, what Col. Shakespeare failed to mention was the very fact that the Great Kuki Rebellion of 1917-19 was the longest, largest, costliest military operation in the whole of India since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. It was also an absolute logistical nightmares for field commanders and inexperienced officers; that was exactly why 2000 fully armed soldiers, later on reinforced by over 5000 soldiers including Burma military armed police, took two full years, which was an eternity for the mighty Britishers vis-a-vis the size and status of the enemy, to subdue about 2000 Kuki militiamen with just about 1500 one-shot muskets and a 100 or so mountain guns but without adequate gunpowder and extra parts.

The sights of tenacious Kuki warriors picking out targets and stealth ambushes and resorting to scorch earth tactics would have been a demoralizing reminiscence of the Napoleon's Grand Armee' harassed and tormented by the Russians to the field observers in the first part of the rebellion. It was first armed jungle 'Guerrilla Warfare' faced and experienced by the British army in British India, a modern day equivalent of the Shivaji's Marathas and the Spanish rebels (which the great all-conquering Napoleon dubbed 'his Spanish Ulcer'). The Kuki warriors were undoubtedly the Crown's ulcers, which remained unremedied for two years during the height of her glorious days. The skirmishes were sharp and bloody. For young British officers, even field commanders, it was baptism by fire, a real live battle inoculation and an agonizingly unforgettable experience, which put them in good stead 20 years hence. The hard-earned lessons learned by those young officers and infantrymen barely out of their teens who eventually experienced the perils and miseries not taught, nor even acknowledged at the Sandhurst, nor instructed even at the West point for that matter, were nearly forgotten over the decades of peace.

The ingenious and most enterprising military tactics and finer points of guerrilla warfare learned from the resilient Kuki warriors over two years period and successfully improvised by the British field officers and operational commanders was finally put to maximum use after the Burma Retreat (1942) whey they, and the Americans too, were routed and overran by the Japanese Imperial Army in South East Asia in just too months period. The junior young officers and all ranks who suffered tactical setbacks at the hands of the Kuki militiamen during the height of the Great Kuki Rebellion and who also learned the 'art' of maximizing the most minimum resources perfected so successfully by the Kuki provisional army in so many stunning occasions were the senior field officer and operational commanders in mainland Europe and North Africa.

Desperate situation calls for desperate measures. Veterans of the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-19 were summoned by Lord Archibald Wavel along will the legendary Brig. Wingate (later on Maj Gen Orde Wingate of Burma fame) to train British (chindits) and Americans officers (Kachin Rangers) in the jungles of Assam and Manipur hills, especially the war operational areas of the Kuki Rebellion, to confront the much lesser forces of the jungle warfare experts Japanese Imperial Army on their own ground and in their own chosen conditions. The chindits and the American Kachin Rangers successfully tormented and demoralized the much larger Japanese ground forces in small numbers of not more than 30-35 specially trained real commandos. Like the small band (15-20) Kuki warriors who were excellent shots, the chindits and the American Rangers knew that the less the number, the lesser the targets (from enemies), the swifter the tactical retreats, the more the operations and the more the division of resources. The Kukis had always attacked in small numbers with stunning outputs, spreading their warriors to greater logistical field of operations, thereby totally confusing the war office at home as to the real number of the Kuki militiamen, and therein successfully stretching the limited resources and manpower.

The Kukis rebels would snared unwary British columns into a narrow pass or battle-field in the hilly areas and cut loose the netted big stones and boulders along the slope, thereby surprising them with deadly enterprising tactics, and then also cutting off the only small route for a retreat and reinforcement(s) from the British command Hqtrs. After pinning down the army column with death and injuries all around, the Kuki rebels peppered them with a remarkably well-directed volleys of incessant gunshots. On other occasions, the unwary British columns were most often than not 'welcomed' with home-made canons, mountain guns, with full of shrapnel. Therefore, a Kuki musket section would picked them off methodically from vantage positions with maximum 'returns', these Kuki warriors were arguably the first regular snipers in the history of Manipur.

The factual historical unrecorded fact pertaining to the early successes of the Kukis were due to the very fact that unlike the British troops, the Kuki marksmen never wasted even an ounce of gun power and bullets. One of the two most remarkable military tactics was that the Kuki rebels would always picked off/target the British and Indian officers and they preferred to cause serious injuries to the enemies so as to demoralize leaderless troops who invariably would remained confused and undecided. And then to seriously wound the infantrymen with another two less ready combat soldiers, for an injured needed to be tended and carried around. A dead soldier can be left behind buried but an injured cannot be abandoned. Moreover, the more the wounded or injured the slower the peace of their movement. The idea was that if you killed 20 soldiers out of 50, the rest 30 would come running down one's neck but to injured even 10 soldiers would mean only 10 men could ran after the ambushers. Another deviously successful tactic, which was put to good use by the American Kachin Rangers during WW (II), was to put sharpened stakes planted under cover on either side of the road or jungle route, so when the Kuki rebels sent volleys of shots at the British troops, the soldier would automatically dive on either side of the road (nullah), with indescribable effects. Because of this, the Kukis were the only nation, which was defeated outrightly in open battlefield militarily by the great British Empire. All the Kuki leaders/commanders were treacherously invited to capitulate with a promised general amnesty, with a dire threat that all Kuki men, women and children and their settlements would be destroyed mercilessly. However, they were all tried as war criminals and ruthlessly sentenced to long years of rigorous imprisonment.

The war was brought to an end on 20th May, 1919, the losses received by the British army were:-

Killed in Action Wounded in Action
British officer 02 05
Indian officer 02 02
British sepoys 30 100
Indian sepoys 34 47

The total number of those British soldiers who died due to wounds, injuries and other diseases were officially recorded as 477.

Though Though the Britishers won the war, the Kuki nation, with its sheer courage, tenacity and resilient, could and did claim full moral victory. In this great Kuki Rebellion of 1917-19, honours were even. The Kukis were subdued during and in their finest moment in history.


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