Two books trace the story of ethnic tensions in Manipur; one views Indian politics from the ‘prism’ of the state, and the other chronicles a people’s war against discontent under colonialism

Viewing Indian Polity From The Prism Of Manipur: A Compendium on the Continuing Manipur Conflict and Crisis, Compiled by Dr Syeda Hameed and Clifton D’ Rozario. Published in association with Manak Publications

The Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1919 — A Frontier Uprising Against Imperialism During the First World War, edited by Jangkhomang Guite and Thongkholal Haokip, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), pp. 300, Rs 1,499

May 3 marks a full year of terrible violence on a people and a faith in a distant corner of India: Manipur. And while it has scalded the conscience of the common people, and seared the date in the macabre roster of massacres and targeted violence since the republic was born with the promise of fraternity and the rule of law, it has not moved the Indian government into any action. On May 3, 2023, the Kuki-Zo-Hmar group of tribes of Manipur, still discussing how to really celebrate the century of their “victory” over the colonial British, woke up to an incomprehensible but explosive violence. Grainy snips of a mobile camera video capture the moment — a naked woman with two uniformed men flanking her, a mob of young and old men and women closing in on her.

The chargesheet filed in April 2024 by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), under the orders of the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, tells it as no reporter in any media did. Two Kuki-Zomi women of Kangpokpi district had sought refuge with the Manipur state police to escape a frenzied group of Meitei men and women bent on mayhem. The Manipur Police personnel drove two in their official Gypsy jeep and handed them to a mob of about 1,000 Meitei rioters. The mob assaulted them, stripped them naked and then paraded. But not before a few men, and a youth, gang-raped the women. One of the hapless women was the wife of a Kargil war veteran. Six policemen, the youth and several men have been charged with multiple counts of rape and violence by the CBI.

A compendium of four ground reports

This gang-rape was the most sordid, but not the only such case; armed attacks using weapons looted from state police armoury, and widespread arson which razed almost every house, business and church of the Kuki-Zo in the Imphal valley and villages in the foothills. Retaliatory violence erased Meitei enclaves in the Kuki-dominated hills of Churachandpur and nearby districts. The state was roiled when the Meitei demanded scheduled tribe status which would allow them to leave the crowded but very fertile valley, and buy hill land now settled by the Kuki-Zo and the Nagas, both mostly Christian, surrounding the state capital region. Both tribal communities have kinship with similar groups in neighbouring states as also in Myanmar which many centuries in the past had exercised military and ethnic sway in this huge region of south Asia.

A High Court judge ordered the government to accept this demand of the politically powerful Hindu Meitei, triggering a series of incidents which followed each other in quick succession, and increasing provocation. The emboldened Meitei disturbed a celebration by the Kuki of one of the brightest spots in their history, a century old “victory” over the British, and the focus of the book in review. The roused Kuki-Zo redoubled their protests against the Meitei demand for tribal status. This they said, would strengthen the plains dweller stranglehold on government and politics. The Arambai Tenggol, a Meitei paramilitary group supported by the chief minister and the ruling party and by the Mothers’ groups which control the economic life of Imphal, were the major “enforcers”, targeting the Kuki-Zo. Allegations that the Kuki in Manipur and Myanmar were involved in the growing of poppy, further sought to criminalise the Kuki-Zo identity.

By the end of April 2024, the official death toll in Manipur was close to 225. This includes about a hundred Kuki-Zo, about 70 Meitei, 6 unidentified persons, and 8 security personnel. Bodies remained unclaimed and rotting in badly managed government hospitals for close to nine months. The violence saw over 300 churches burnt in the valley and in the hills. A rough estimate of 10,000 Meitei and 60,000 Kuki were displaced in the districts of Bishnupur, Imphal West, Tengnoupal, and Thoubal. Even now, while the Meitei live in camps set up and provisioned by the government in schools and college compounds, the Kuki-Zo have been left by the government to their own fate. They are being cared for by local Catholic and protestant churches.

The Karwan-e-Mohabbat, led by activist Harsh Mander and consisting of this writer, three doctors, a lawyer and young activists, visited Manipur last year as soon as travel was possible for people from outside the state. The Karwan (its vehicles were driven by “neutral’ Meitei-speaking Muslims) was caught in crossfire once, challenged by armed men at half a dozen government and ethnic check-posts. The Karwan’s report warned of a continuing human crisis, with malnutrition and disease impacting children and pregnant women, rudimentary medicare, and little effort by the administration to help the people. This and other similar ground reports form part of Viewing Indian Polity From The Prism Of Manipur: A Compendium on the Continuing Manipur Conflict and Crisis, compiled by Dr Syeda Hameed and Clifton D’ Rozario. These reports, by teams from different backgrounds and sociopolitical affiliations, were aimed at “bringing out the narratives of various segments of the population of Manipur and try to make the facts to speak for themselves.”

A people’s war against discontent under colonialism

The firings continue. So do the ill-equipped refugee camps. Outside of the state, the Kuki-Zo diaspora worries about its future, afraid to go back. And where indeed they will go back, for their homes are burnt, and their parents are in refugee camps. This is certainly an unbearable situation for a proud people who have survived nature, regional turmoil, and indeed two world wars where they came close to facing the Japanese and their allies. The insults heaped on them by the Meitei muscle groups are compounded with the government openly siding with the militant gangs. The union government, in turn, sides with the state government and the Meitei chief minister.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has found time to dive into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Gujarat to pray at what the government says may be Dwarka, the capital of Lord Krishna. He has meditated in Himalayan caves. But he has not visited Manipur even once. His assurance of peace has been made on X (formerly Twitter). No decent debate on the situation has been allowed. The captive national media gives space to the issue only when people are killed, or raped. If anything, the government has a narrow and very partisan understanding of the history of the region. Its action rub salt into the wounds of the Kuki-Zo, and in fact also insults the Nagas, who for now have maintained a delicate silence without openly siding with their fellow Christian Kuki-Zo. The Nagas have Scheduled Tribe status as much as the Kuki-Zo. In the past, they have clashed with the Kuki, as they have with the Meitei, on issues of land, resources and political strength. All three ethnic groups host underground well-armed guerrillas which are currently quiescent. The Christian Naga “neutrality” has kept the international community from branding the violence as “communal”, or specifically targeting the Kuki-Zo for their faith.

The government’s political abrasiveness was on full display, for instance, at the recent launch of an indigenously built warship. INS Imphal, a ‘stealth guided missile destroyer,’ which was commissioned on 23 December last year at Mumbai’s Naval Dockyard by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The Government public relations said the name “emphasises the pivotal role of the Manipur capital and the broader north-eastern region in national security, sovereignty, and prosperity.” INS Imphal carries the Indo-Russian Brahmos missile. The missile is a proud export by the Indian government to friendly Armies and Navies, including those in some neighbouring Southeast Asian regimes.

The Meitei felt honoured. For the rest of the Northeast, it was just another spray painting of local proud histories and fiercely guarded independence from long before the British drew state lines on this map in the 19th and 20th centuries leading up to Indian independence. Just a 100 years ago, when British India provinces and feudal satraps “were busy assembling combatants, non-combatants, labourers, funds and materials for the Great War, the Kuki of the North-eastern frontier of India declared ‘war against the King-Emperor’, note Jangkhomang Guite and Thongkholal Haokip, co-editors of The Anglo-Kuki War, 1917–1919 —A Frontier Uprising Against Imperialism During the First World War.

Initially provoked by the ‘forcible’ recruitment of a labour corps for France, the opposition turned into an armed resistance, partly because of the intemperate local officers — who were incompetent to handle the situation — and partly because the Kukis were overawed, as intelligence reports acknowledged, by the revolutionary ideas from the valley of Manipur, from Bengal in the west and from the China/Germans from the east. The editors underline that though such influence cannot be overstated, the fact that it had happened made the Kuki bold in their war against the ‘Sahibs’ and the ‘Sarkaris’ and the local governments becoming extremely careful in dealing with them. The clash was bloody. Casualties on British troops were 60 dead (including one British officer), 142 wounded (including 3 British officers) and 97 dead due to diseases. Interestingly, only seven ‘coolies’ were killed by the Kuki, the figure which could have been higher had the target of attack been them. Official estimates of Kuki killed by the troops were 120. As many as 126 Kuki villages were burnt to the ground.

The editors, both academics, write (and this reviewer agrees) that the three-year war (1917–1919), spanning over 6,000 square miles, is crucial to understanding present-day Northeast India. The chapters in the volume examine several aspects of the war, which had far-reaching consequences for the indigenous population, as well as for British attitudes and policies towards the region, including military strategy and tactics, violence, politics, identity, institutions, gender, culture and the frontier dimensions of the First World War itself.

A project of the Kuki Research Forum (KuRF), a collegium of the Kuki people, it brought together a group of young scholars who drew on archival material, with extensive fieldwork and oral histories. Its sweep and depth may make it seemingly too academic, but it will more than justify time spent reading it. It also comes at a moment in history where the region within the Indian birders, and swathes of lands in neighbouring Bangladesh and, in particular, Myanmar face deep unrest. Myanmar, in fact, is on the verge of a civil war.

Editor Jangkhomang Guite is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a specialist in the history of the tribes in Northeast India. His colleague Thongkholal Haokip is also from JNU, teaching at the Assistant Centre for the Study of Law and Governance. Haokip is the editor of Journal of North-East India Studies and Executive Editor of Asian Ethnicity. The 20-page introduction by the two editors is in itself an excellent précis of the movements and seminal events in the histories of the tribes and sub-tribes across at least a century. The Anglo-Kuki was the fulcrum, but the scope and the narrative in its eleven chapters take fascinating side trips, looking at, for instance, the role of the Kuki women, as much as the military details of strategies and battle formations.

To a Kuki reader or a young Zo scholar, there are moments of deep community pride, much as the people of Rajasthan seek kinship and familiarity with their heroes, or the Tamils speak of the Cholas. And perhaps nostalgia, for these were free clans, unburdened and untamed by colonialist powers. The tribes drew their strength from their own clan structures. But the developments also uprooted large numbers of Kuki from their ancestral villages. They were taken to the various grouping centres under the new sedentarisation programme. “Manipur, so far un-administered (except by an annual political tour by the Political Agent in Manipur or hill ‘lambus’ collecting house-tax) and the un-administered Somra Tract in Burma, were finally brought under direct administration. Administrative subdivisions, military outposts, construction of communication lines (750 miles of bridle path were constructed during the operations) and so on, were established.’

There is a general agreement among the authors that the ‘Anglo-Kuki War’ was a people’s war against elevated discontent under colonialism, ignited by labour recruitment for the Great War. The Editors write: “The conflict aimed at achieving a clear objective of freedom from colonial yoke. This dispels the received wisdom that the war was the ‘chief’s war’ and it was fought only by the ‘Thadou-Kukis’. All sub-tribes, including their youth and women, took part in the uprising. The book fills a void that scholars and more serious readers feel as they try to understand the import of recent developments. To the young and inquisitive among the people themselves, even though they are in refugee camps for now, there is strength in knowing more of their people’s history. There is no need for them to fabricate myths, otherwise a popular pastime in India.

Next Story