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Naga-Kuki conflict: The search for definitions

Dr. Tuisem Ngakang

Once in an academic discussion in Jawaharlal Nehru University, a noted historian from the northeast stated that the Kukis and the Nagas are traditional enemy, this was resented by some young Naga scholars and make the historian to retract his statement.  It is true that despite the history of the Naga-Kuki relationship was marked by mistrust and suspicion, the enmity between the Nagas and the Kukis are not older than the colonial period.

In the colonial writings, the first reference to the ‘Kuki’ was made in 1777 when this tribesmen attack the British subjects in Chittagong when Warren Hastings was the Governor General of Bengal. In Manipur Sir James Johnstone, the Political Agent of Manipur in 1877-1886 writes in his book Manipur and the Naga Hills that  ‘Kukis’ were first heard in Manipur, between 1830 and 1840. The influx of Kukis in Manipur during the 19th century created a lot of ethnic tension and administrative problem for the state. The inter-ethnic relation between the Meitei-Naga and Kukis underwent change with the influx of Kukis in 19th century and the settlement of Kukis migrants in the hills of Manipur adjacent to the Naga villages. BC Allan in his celebrated book, Naga Hills and Manipur writes that “ by 1845 the British administration in Manipur faced problems when the Kukis began to come in great numbers and started to ‘drive away’ many of the older inhabitant.”

The British Political Agent W. McCulloch was entrusted by the then Maharaja of Manipur, Maharaja Nar Singh to manage the tribal affairs of the hills. Land was given to the Kukis and they were allowed to establish villages under their chief. This policy of colonial administrators allowing Kukis to settle in the land that belonged traditionally to the Nagas was designed to use them as a buffer against the raids on Manipur. This sown the seed of enmity between the Kukis and the Nagas.  Dr. Lal Dena has also pointed out that the double purpose of the Kukis settlement in and on the frontier of Manipur was that the warlike Kukis had to act as a buffer, first against Burmese and secondly against recalcitrant Nagas and Lushais tribes. The same policy was followed by Chandrakrity Singh (1850-85), the Maharaja of Manipur, and the British Political Agent R. Brown. The Nagas resented the attitude of the Manipur Maharaja and the British political Agents.

Between 1880-1890s, the Kukis attacked many Naga villages without provocation. In 1880 Chingsow, a Tangkhul village was attacked, killing 45 people (20 men and 25 women). In another incident 286 people were killed in a single night in Chingjaroi another Tangkhul village. 187 of whom were women and children. There were many accounts where the Nagas were captured and carried off by the Kukis as slaves. Ngahui, another Tangkhul village bears the brunt of the marauding nature of the Kukis. Many were killed and many were taken away as slaves. Many Kabui villages were burnt down, hundreds were killed, grains were looted, pigs, buffalos were slaughtered and carried off.  The Kuki-Naga relationship suffers a major setback during the Kuki Rebellion in 1917-1919 and the Zeliangrong Naga Revolt of 1930-31.

The relationship of Naga-Kuki becomes irreconcilable with the conflict in 1990s that took many precious lives and properties of both the communities. The aftermath of the conflict further aggravated with the kind of term that used for presenting to the international communities by the Kukis with the intention to jeopardize the ongoing Indo-Naga peace talk and the observation of September 13 as Black Day (Sahnit Nikho in local Thadou dialect) to commemorate the death of the Kukis during the conflict. The term like holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing etc are wrongly used to describe the conflict of 1990s in many writing by Kukis organizations and individual.

In a moment of violence, those who become the targets of violence, the culprit is always the other- so during the Naga-Kuki conflict the Kukis claim that the Nagas perpetrated all the violence and the Nagas will claim the same. It is not simple to say who the aggressor and who is the victim here. If the Kukis suffered the loss of 961 precious lives in the conflict, the Nagas loss not less than the number of lives! The Zeliangrong Naga alone claim that during the 1991-1995 Naga Kuki conflict 123 Zeliangrong people were killed by Kukis, 201 were injured, 940 houses were burnt down and 1500 people were displaced. Villages of both the communities were uprooted and people rendered homeless.  The conflict has often been termed as HOLOCAUST by many Kukis writers and organizations. Is it an apt term to be used in the case of Naga-Kuki conflict?  It will be wrong to compare to that of the holocaust of Germany where Nazis were clearly the aggressors and the Jews their victims. During this conflict, Kukis killed Nagas and Nagas killed Kukis and both the communities took advantage of their violence to kill and harm the other as they saw each other as their enemies! The conflict is also seen as GENOCIDE (as seen in many writings of the Kukis), where one community deliberately attempt to wipe out the other – this is not the case with the Naga-Kuki conflict.

Was the Naga-Kuki conflict of 1990s the case of ETHNIC CLEANSING? Ethnic cleansing is the systematic removal of a group from a given territory, it is usually accompanied with the efforts to remove physical, cultural evidence of the targeted group, through destruction of homes, places of worship, cemeteries etc. In the case of Naga-Kuki conflict both the communities suffered not less than the other. Many villages of both the communities were uprooted or deserted and many become refugees, some villages like Chasad a Kuki village and Kaihao a Tangkhul village was deserted and latter resettled.  Thus the term ethnic cleansing will be a badly chosen word to describe or define the nature of Naga-Kuki conflict.

Some even referred the conflict as RIOT. It is generally assume that riots are spontaneous bursts of anger and they die down quickly.  It is true that there may be some elements of spontaneity in the violence but most of the incidents were carefully planned and executed.

ETHNIC CONFLICT seems to be the most fitting term to describe the Naga-Kuki conflict of 1990s for the simple reason that both the communities look themselves as a separate ethnic group distinct from one another, secondly all the members of both the communities are directly or indirectly affected by the conflict.

No community gains from the conflict, both the communities were victim, there was no victor, they suffered, and they feel the pain and anguish and see the trauma. The conflict touched people live in unprecedented way. Death, displacement, loss of home and properties were so close to many people of both the communities. The observing of Black Day and Requital Day will only increase bitterness between the communities.

The writer can be contacted at tuisem.ngakang@gmail.com

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