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OPINION

Revisiting the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919

The centennial commemoration is an ahistorical outlook towards the Zeliangrong movement led by Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu

Richard Kamei

Certain parts of Manipur witnessed commemoration of Kuki rebellion, 1917-1919 in the last two years. The Kuki rebellion, as described in the colonial accounts, or Anglo Kuki War in the words of Kuki people, is rooted in the First World War. The British reached out to Nagas, Lushais, Kukis and other tribes in their recruits for labour corps in France. The Kuki refused the call for labour corps and the British did not take this lightly which later led to Kuki rebellion against the British in 1917, and the Kukis were eventually contained by the British in 1919.

This incident is taken as a significant event in the colonial history of the region. The Kukis commemorated ‘Kuki rebellion, 1917-1919’ in 2017 and 2018 to mark its hundred years. This year marks the last series of hundred years of the Kuki rebellion commemoration. The main centennial commemoration of Kuki rebellion will take place at C Aisan Village in Kangpokpi district in Manipur. As a part of this commemoration, the Kukis have decided to erect memorial stones in every Kuki village with an inscription: “In defence of our ancestral land and freedom”.

The inscription on the memorial stones has evoked strong responses from various Naga civil societies where they objected that it is a ploy to claim the lands of Nagas as theirs and they also raised that the Kukis were not indigenous to Manipur. This ignited the long-standing confrontation between the Kukis and Nagas in Manipur.

This week, four Zeliangrong bodies -- the Inpui Naga Union, Manipur (INU-M); Liangmai Naga Council, Manipur (LNC-M); Rongmei Naga Council, Manipur (RNC-M) and Zeme Naga Council, Manipur (ZNC-M) -- released a joint statement urging the government and district authorities to not allow centennial commemoration of the Kuki rebellion.

The joint statement took strong objection to memorial stones being erected in the Naga ancestral land with the inscription, “In defence of our ancestral land and freedom”. The statement also added that during the Kuki rebellion, the Kukis attacked Naga villages where 289 Nagas and four Meiteis were killed, and burnt 34 Naga villages.

The attack on Nagas happened simultaneously with its confrontation with the Britishers. Tangkhul Naga Long (TNL), Ukhrul also released a statement on centennial commemoration of Kuki rebellion. They urged and conveyed to all the chiefs of Kuki villages in Tangkhul area not to erect memorial stones with the said inscription concerning ancestral land.

TNL took strong objection to it and informed them that the Kuki village in Tangkhul land is non-existent during 1917-1919. A memorandum from Naga civil societies in Chandel was also submitted to Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh bringing to his attention the inscription on the memorial stone and the proposed commemoration of Kuki rebellion with memorial stones in Langching village, Chakpikarong block and Maolhang village, Machi block.

Meanwhile, the government of Manipur took stock of the situation and issued an order on October 13 where it stated that memorial stones for Kuki Rebellion 1917-1919 containing the inscription “in defence of our ancestral land and freedom” must be removed on the grounds that it may cause a breach of peace and possibility of law and order problem.

A commemoration of Kuki rebellion means differently for Naga tribes who suffered at the hands of Kuki. There are several writings from scholars like Gangmumei Kamei, Arkotong Longkumer, Asoso Yonuo, Ursula Graham Bower and Lal Dena, among others, which gave an account that emergence of Zeliangrong movement under Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu stems from the ethnic attack on Zeliangrong people during Kuki rebellion 1917-1919. They saw this point of history as one of the reasons behind the Zeliangrong movement against the British colonial rule, in the late 1920s.

Zeliangrong people around that time were dismayed with the British that they were not protected properly from the attacks of Kukis, and they felt that the British were not trustworthy leading to distrust with the administration. This gave room for leaders like Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu to include their people’s anxiety, fear and insecurity, into the basis of waging Zeliangrong movement to liberate the Nagas from the British colonial rule.

In the memorialisation process of the Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919, the Kukis present it solely as a fight against the British by not delving into its ripple to neighbouring tribes around the time and how it affected them. This selective making of history amounts to a distortion of history, for the fact that there are accounts of violence carried out heavily on Zeliangrong Naga people during the Kuki rebellion.

Similar erasure is being attempted to Naga- Kuki conflict of 1990s where Kukis are portraying themselves as victims to an event where both Kukis and Nagas suffered heavy casualties, loss of resources and livelihood. Presentation of selective history is insidious in a sense that it erases the driving force behind these events, which is ethnic tension at worst and ethnic contestation at best.

This becomes very crucial to understand the dynamics of ethnicity and give attention as to how a selective narration which overlaps with neighbouring community can do more harm than it has us believed otherwise initially. It is in this regard that both Nagas and Kukis must reflect on what their ethnic politics does to neighbouring community. The cycle of violence and confrontation embodying ethnic politics will not see an end to it unless history is revisited with an approach to make amends and reconciliation.

This can perhaps pave way for building trust and instill a sense of co-habitation in harmony and peaceful living. The state must also take part in it to ensure that no further divide happens and look for ways to provide what each group of tribes seeks. The region has been witnessing endless violence from the past, and the present generation fears a repeat of the past and they do not deserve a horror and trauma which their ancestors experienced, and immediate elders continue to bear them with recurring anxieties.

(Richard Kamei is a PhD candidate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at jenpuna@gmail.com. Views expressed are his own)