Kukis | Fight for land and identity

The hill tribe’s traditional migratory patterns and engagement in shifting agriculture have played out in conflicts within Manipur’s complex hill-valley divide

June 18, 2023 02:47 am | Updated June 19, 2023 06:26 pm IST

In 1870, Captain T.H. Lewin, the Deputy Commissioner of the Chittagong Hill Tracts at the time, described the Kukis as a “powerful and independent” people who “touch the borders” of the Hill Tracts. “They extended in numberless hordes North and Northeast until they reach Cachar (Assam) on one hand and the frontiers of Burma on the other,” the official wrote of the Kukis in his account. Other accounts of Kuki origins also describe the Kukis as groups inhabiting “both sides of the mountains dividing Assam and Bengal from Burma”. The records point to the traditional Kuki patterns of moving through large tracts of land as land ownership was passed on only to the eldest son of the village chief, leading to expansion, dispersion, and formation of new pastures by other men in the family.

The Kukis are an ethnic group including multiple tribes originally inhabiting the Northeastern States of India, including Manipur, Mizoram and Assam; parts of Burma (now Myanmar), and Sylhet district and Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh.

Zooming out into the present, when the State of Manipur has been the epicentre of widespread communal clashes since May 3, non-tribal Meitei organisations have described Kuki tribes as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants”. They are holding Kuki-Zomi groups responsible for the ethnic clashes that have claimed more than 120 lives and displaced more than 50,000 people. The Kuki-Zomi groups have denied the allegations, insisting the tribal communities have been systematically targeted for ethnic cleansing. They accuse BJP leader N. Biren Singh’s Government of treating them as “outsiders”.

Also read |Explained: What is behind Manipur’s widespread unrest? 

A look at the ethnic background of the Kukis reveals that the Kuki-Zomi-Mizo-Chin people migrated from inner Asia or mainland China. Interestingly, multiple Anthropologists, including Edmund Leach, trace to China, the origins of the other two prominent communities in Manipur (Nagas and Meiteis), both having had their share of conflicts with the Kukis. Another British officer Col. W. McCulloh has argued that linguistically too, Kukis and Meiteis have commonalities of origin, with V. Elwin having gone so far as to describe the Meiteis as a “mixed race” of the Kukis and the Nagas.

Yet today, with sharpened ethnic differences, all three prominent groups in the State are vying for exclusivity, land, and political representation. This can in part be traced back to the fact that the concretisation of tribal identities and nomenclatures in the region happened during the time of the British, who did so for administrative convenience and to fit groups into the distinctions of “civilised” and “uncivilised”. Notably, Kuki is not a term coined by the ethnic group itself, the tribes associated with it came to be generically called Kuki under the colonial rule, and were further divided by the British into ‘old Kukis’ and ‘new Kukis’.

Settlement patterns

Over time, the ethnic communities forged through generations adopted their own, often conflicting, patterns of settlement, livelihoods, and land ownership — with the Nagas engaging in territorial agriculture in the hills, the Kukis engaging in shifting or Jhum cultivation resulting in their expansion through the forested tracts, and the Meiteis choosing to live in the cultivated valley area. It was these seemingly expansionist patterns of land ownership and cultivation that put the Kukis at odds with the other two communities. Land and cultivation patterns are also behind the current conflict as the Kuki-Zomis are opposing the surveys and evictions being conducted by the administration to categorise more areas as reserved forests, while the state government also cracks down on poppy cultivation by the tribes.

Moreover, Meities and Nagas have also objected to the intermingling of Kuki settlements in areas dominated by them. This has been traditionally evident in communal conflicts in Manipur in the instances of ethnic cleansing and driving out of communities from regions predominantly inhabited by the other. The recent conflict saw Kukis being driven out of parts of the Imphal valley, while Meities were forced to leave the tribal-dominated Churachandpur district.

Besides, it is true that the Kukis and their strong kinship patterns have often resulted in the tribe giving shelter to their extended kin from the other side of the border as seen this time in the case of Myanmar Kukis entering the State in the wake of the junta takeover of 2021. This phenomenon has given rise to claims by the State government that Kuki-Zomis are illegal immigrants and outsiders. This, meanwhile, has coincided with the increasing integration and assertion of the Hindu nationalist identity by the Meiteis, also seen as partly backed by the ruling administration.

Another trigger for the current clashes was the longstanding and apparent divide between the hills and the valley region of Manipur. The State is like a football stadium with the Imphal Valley representing the playfield at the centre and the surrounding hills. The valley, which comprises about 10% of Manipur’s landmass, is dominated by the non-tribal Meitei who account for more than 64% of the State’s population and yields 40 of the State’s 60 MLAs. The hills comprising 90% of the geographical area are inhabited by more than 35% recognised tribes but send only 20 MLAs to the Assembly. While most of the Meiteis are Hindu or Sanamahi and a minority is Muslim, the Naga and Kuki-Zomi clans mostly follow Christianity.

The trigger for the violence was a tribal solidarity march organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) to protest the Manipur High Court’s direction to the State to pursue a recommendation to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the non-tribal Meitei-speaking people. The grievance of the hill tribal people that according to ST status to the Meiteis will eat into their share of reservation and resources, meanwhile, seems to be borne out by data. Those living in hilly regions have relatively poor access to basic facilities, are poorly represented in public sector jobs, and very few of them work in industries and don’t earn a sufficient income from tourism. Meanwhile, the Meiteis, who are strapped for land in the valley want the right to buy land in the hills just like tribes can do in the valley.

Also Read | Data: Kuki-Meitei ethnic violence: The sharp hill-valley divide that is Manipur’s burden

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