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Kuki Zo Odyssey: Journey from Tedim to Churachandpur in Manipur

Last Updated on November 15, 2023 by SPN Editor

Against the backdrop of the demand for a Separate Administration, a tale of migration to Manipur, coexistence, and shifting dynamics comes to light. The ancestral homeland of the Kuki Zo, also referred to as Khongjai, was situated in present-day Mizoram.

The region saw the initial habitation of the Kukis, specifically the New Kukis, prior to the migration of the Mizos (Lushais) from the Chin Hills of Myanmar. This historical dynamic is prominently documented in “Essays on the History of the Mizos,” authored by Sangkima in 2004. The Mizos subsequently displaced the New Kukis who had settled in Mizoram, leading to their eventual migration into Manipur.

The Mizos, primarily plain people, embarked on a migration to the hills circa 1463. Their initial settlement was focused in the Khampat region. However, the geopolitical landscape shifted when the Manipur King Kyamba and the Shan king gained control over Khampat, prompting the Mizos to migrate further towards present-day Mizoram. This migration led to the displacement of the original inhabitants, the “New Kuki” community, who found refuge in Manipur.

The historical parallels between the Meitei and Kuki communities are notable. Just as the Meitei descended the Koubru mountains to establish settlements in various parts of Manipur, the Kuki Zo undertook their migration from the Tedim hills to Mizoram, subsequently traversing into Manipur. While some researchers have suggested a migration of the Kuki Zo community from China, these claims lack substantive historical evidence.

The nomenclature “Khongjai” used by the Meiteis to refer to settlers in the Lushai Hills reflects a distortion of the term “Khunchai,” which denotes scattered villages. Upon encountering the Kukis in present-day Mizoram, the Meiteis observed a dispersed settlement pattern among the villages, possibly attributed to shifting cultivation practices and the search for sustenance. Subsequent British intervention in the Lushai hills identified Mizos and lesser-known tribes as “New Kukis.”

A historical episode of note is the Kuki rebellion led by the Meitei instigator Chingakhamba Sanajaoba against Maharaja Churachand Singh of Manipur during the years 1917-1919. The Kuki uprising emerged in response to the recruitment of laborers (Coolies) for the First World War, a recruitment process resisted by the Kukis. While the first batch of laborers was dispatched, some Kuki village leaders refused to comply with subsequent demands for more recruits.

In response, Maharaja Churachand Singh initiated punitive actions against the rebellious Kuki chiefs. Exploiting the absence of the Naga population, who were engaged in front-line duties in Europe and Africa, the Kuki rebels targeted innocent Naga villagers alongside select Meitei settlements. Following apprehension, many of the Kuki leaders confessed that their actions were not aimed at opposing the British, but rather at the behest of Meitei rebel Chingakhamba Sanajaoba, who sought to overthrow the Manipur Maharaja.

This localized incident has been retrospectively inflated into the celebrated “Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-1919,” a narrative now debunked. Consequently, legal actions have been initiated against the writers responsible for manipulating the historical narrative of the state.

The phrase “in defense of ancestral lands” appears paradoxical to informed historians familiar with the origins of the Kuki Zo community in present-day Myanmar.

Migration patterns and settlement histories of various Kuki Zo clans originating from Myanmar and Mizoram within a relatively brief timeframe of 150-170 years cast doubt on assertions regarding the ownership of Churachandpur, an epicenter of Manipur’s ongoing conflict. As per Moirang Kangleirol, Meitei already settled in the Churachandpur district around 236-297 AD during the reign of Laiyu Ningthou Punsiba of Moirang Principality.

Subsequent British involvement introduced the categorization of “Old” and “New” Kukis to denote various indigenous communities. However, this classification mistakenly encompassed indigenous groups such as Aimol, Anal, Chiru, Kom, Koireng, Lamkang, Moyon, Monsang, and Purum, which are distinct from the Kuki identity. These communities were not historically referred to as Khongjai by our predecessors.

The British colonial administration played a pivotal role in shaping the nomenclature and classification of various indigenous groups. This is exemplified in the labeling of certain tribes as “New Kuki.” Notably, this term encompassed tribes like Paite, Mizo, Hmar, and Thadou, suggesting their arrival alongside British presence in Manipur, particularly around the 1840s.

Mizoram is the homeland of Kuki

Historical accounts highlight an incident involving Manipur King Bhagyachandra, also known as Jai Singh, who embarked on a military expedition to the Kusu Valley (Champhai) in Mizoram during the months of January and February in 1787.

This campaign led to the plunder of several Khongjai (Kuki) villages situated near the Myanmar border, including Tuipui, Tuipang, Tuidang, and Tuikhat. As a result of this conquest, King Bhagyachandra earned the epithet “Khongjai Ngamba” or “Victor of Khongjai.” The Khongjai chiefs from these villages acknowledged his supremacy by paying tributes.

In the aftermath of these events, the Mizos from the Chin Hills in Myanmar launched an attack on Mizoram. This offensive prompted the New Kukis to seek refuge in Manipur, marking the onset of a significant influx that began in the 1830s and has continued since then.

During the reign of Maharaja Gambhir Singh, Senapati Nara Singh was dispatched to Mizoram in 1831. The Meitei forces captured Kuki chiefs from areas that now constitute Aizawl, Saiha, Tuithong, and other villages. Notably, the Khullakpa of Tuithong, a prominent figure, headed 18 Kuki villages in Mizoram. Upon their arrival in Manipur, these captive chiefs adhered to Meitei traditions and paid homage to Maharaja Gambhir Singh, demonstrating their allegiance to the Manipur Kingdom.

The Kuki Zo people, residing across Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh, had a tumultuous history characterized by intertribal conflicts and bloodshed. Despite these past hostilities, a shift in nomenclature, transitioning from “Chin Kuki Mizo” to “Kuki Zo,” has taken place within Zomi and Kuki Civil Society Organizations. This change may partly stem from a desire to conceal the notion of illegal Chin infiltrations in India, particularly in Manipur.

Sukte and Paite Tribes: An Exploration of Myanmar’s Powerful Clans

The Sukte tribe stands as one of the most influential clans within the realm of Zo tribes, hailing from Mualbem in Myanmar. Their dominion extended over the regions encompassing Tedim in Myanmar for nearly eight generations, an impressive span of roughly 400-500 years. Amidst the historical annals, frequent confusion emerges between the Sukte and Paites, much like the longstanding conflation of Lushais and Kukis by British historians.

Distinct and separate, the Sukte and Paite clans hold their own identities. Referred to as “Aakham Hao” or “Kamhao” by the Meitei people, the Paite tribe bears its own unique designation. The Sukte chief, Khanthuam, embroiled himself in wars with tribes such as Vaiphei, Guite, Ngaihte, and Thadou.

Following Khanthuam’s demise in 1840, his legacy bore forth two divided territories as his sons partitioned their father’s realm. Zapao took the reins over the Sukte domain, while his sibling, Kamhao (Paite), founded a new settlement known as Kamhao near Tedim in Myanmar.

The territorial boundaries of the Paite extended to the western bank of Manipur River, weaving its course through the dynamic border region between Manipur and Mizoram.

Exodus of Guite: A Journey into Manipur’s Refuge

Upon the passing of Zapao and Kamhao, a torrent of atrocities, relentless raids, and tyranny befell the people residing within Mualbem and Tedim areas of Myanmar. Unfolding under the oppressive rule of new chieftains, the inhabitants found themselves at a crossroads. The horrors they faced propelled some Guite individuals to seek asylum within the confines of Manipur in the year 1882.

The Sukte tribe’s onslaught upon the Guite village of Vangteh, situated in the present-day Southern Tedim Township within the Chin State of Myanmar, led to a period of upheaval. Subsequently, the Guite people wandered through the rugged terrain of Chin Hills, flanking the edges of Tedim. As fate would have it, the rising power of the Paite tribe around Tedim spurred the Guite to pursue sanctuary in Mizoram.

In the year 1870, the Guite community found themselves at the mercy of the Mizo chief, Pawibawia, who subjected them to severe torments. Driven by the intolerable suffering inflicted by Pawibawia, the Guite people fled from the clutches of the Mizo chief and established settlements within the expanse that straddled Manipur and Kamhao.

By 1877, the Guite had secured the approval of the Manipur king to reside within Manipur’s territories, previously inhabited by the Paite tribe. This allocation was solidified within the framework of the Kabaw Valley Agreement, a pivotal accord inked between Myanmar and the British colonial administration.

Thadou’s Transition: From Myanmar’s Hills to Manipur’s Heartland

Among the Khongjais, the Thadou tribe emerged as the largest group in Manipur. Nestled within the folds of Phaileng, situated in the Chin State of Myanmar, both the Guite and Thadou tribes vied for supremacy. Their rivalry persisted within the cradle of the Chin Hills until the ascendancy of the Sukte tribe.

As the Sukte tribe gained ascendancy over the Thadou and Guite, the latter two tribes embarked on a quest for a new abode. The Thadou tribe charted a course leading them to the Cachar Hills and Patkai Hills, eventually culminating in their migration to Manipur. The Thadou tribe settled within locales such as Lawmpi, Tualbiung, Leivumkhau, Sialsawn, Baumbal, and Lukotam, thus engraving their mark upon Manipur’s tapestry.

Vaiphei’s Exodus: A Journey from Tuitwang Valley to Manipur’s Haven

In the past, the Vaiphei tribe inhabited the Tuitawng Valley of Myanmar, locked in strife with the Shans (Pong) of Upper Myanmar. Driven by the pressures of enmity, the Vaiphei tribe relocated their villages to Tungzang. Within the intricate web of interactions, the Vaiphei tribe initially found themselves under the dominion of the Sukte tribe in Myanmar. However, the passage of time saw their liberation from Sukte’s grasp, leading them to establish roots on the western fringes of Manipur.

Hmar tribes from the Shan State of Myanmar

The Hmar tribes initially entered the unoccupied fertile areas of Kolhai in Myanmar. They settled in the Kabaw and Chinwind valleys of Myanmar. According to Mizo historians, the exodus from Kawlphai Khampal (Myanmar) to Lushai Hills through Tedim Hills was prompted by a severe famine and the cruelty of their new village chief. The search for better land could also be a contributing factor.

The Hmars first entered present-day Mizoram through Chin Hills, and another group entered Manipur through Mizoram. Due to various circumstances, including oppression by Lushai chiefs, the Hmars who initially settled in Mizoram left in several batches, leading to their dispersion.

The second batch of Hmars settled in Mizoram’s Lushai Hills and later migrated to southern Manipur, establishing three villages successively: Thiek, Singawl, and Thangching. From Thangching, they further migrated to Suorgsang in the present Tamenglong district of Manipur.

The third batch left the Lushai Hills in a smaller stream. After crossing the Barak River, they followed the Vangai Range and settled in about a dozen villages in the western part of Manipur, which now falls within the Tamenglong district. In the 18th century, a small group of Thiek family members left Lushai Hills and moved northwestward, settling among the Simte tribe in the Thanlon area of Manipur.

War of Territorial Claims: Paite versus Meitei

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Yandaboo, a significant portion of Southern Manipur fell under the sovereignty of Maharaja of Manipur. It was during this period that the Paite tribe launched an assault on the Thadou people, under the false assumption that the Thadou were their subjects. The misguided territorial assertion by the Paite stemmed from a belief that the land inhabited by the Thadou rightfully belonged to them.

Responding to this breach of peace, Maharaja Chandrakirti of Manipur embarked on an expedition to Tedim in 1856, aiming to reprimand the Paite tribe. In a decisive encounter, the combined forces of the Paite tribe, along with their Sukte brethren led by Chief Zapau and the Chief of Sizang village, triumphed over Manipur’s forces.

Within Manipur’s territory, a contentious divide arose between the Thadou and Guite tribes. The Thadou pledged allegiance to the Manipur kingdom, while the Guite found themselves aligned with the Paite tribe. The Paite tribe remained steadfast in their belief of being an independent entity.

Subsequent events bore witness to the Guite tribe perpetrating acts of violence upon the Thadou community, with houses set ablaze, men executed, and women and children taken captive. Manipur sought a fitting opportunity to administer retribution against the Guite and their allies, the Paite tribe.

Misconceptions and Escalations: A Complex Nexus

The Paite tribe’s perception of itself as an independent entity stemmed from a misconception, as the Treaty of Yandaboo had placed their territory under the aegis of the Burmese Kingdom. However, the Burmese Kingdom, keen on maintaining a safe distance from the hostile tribes dwelling in the Shan State, (Kale) refrained from imposing tributary obligations upon them.

The year 1871-1872 marked Manipur’s participation in the Lushai Expedition spearheaded by the British. This successful campaign included contingents from Manipur, comprising the Meitei and Thadou tribes. Along the journey, Manipur’s forces encountered the Guite tribe, who were in the midst of returning to their home in Tedim, accompanied by 649 Mizo captives.

Among these captives, Guite Chief Kokatung (also known as Ngoukhothang) and his son were apprehended and detained in Manipur. In 1872, a messenger from the Sukte tribe appealed to Manipur, requesting the release of 14 Thadou captives previously seized by the Guite tribe. Negotiations ensued, and an agreement was reached, resulting in the release of these captives.

Pledges, Promises, and Perseverance

The year 1873 witnessed the return of the Sukte messenger, Kykole, to Manipur’s court. Kykole beseeched the British Political Agent to secure the release of Guite prisoners confined within Manipur.

During this discourse, the Manipur king articulated a condition: the release of Kokatung’s son would be granted in exchange for a solemn vow of non-aggression toward Manipur’s subjects, encompassing the Thadou, Mizo, and other tribes. This pledge, sealed with a symbolic sacrifice of a dog and drinking water dipped with gunpowder, marked the submission of Sukte and Guite to Meitei.

The Maharaja of Manipur fulfilled his end of the bargain, handing over the skull and bones of Kokatung, releasing Kokatung’s son and a handful of Guite men.

Yet, the Guite tribe reneged on their commitment, launching assaults on two Thadou villages – Kumsol and Mukoong. The Manipur king, incensed by the Sukte tribe’s betrayal, retaliated by attacking two Sukte villages, Mualpi and Lawmpi, in 1875.

Following a series of confrontations, the Sukte tribe eventually capitulated, surrendering to the Meitei. This marked the beginning of the Guite tribe’s migration to Manipur, with approximately 2000 Guite individuals seeking refuge within Manipur’s borders in 1877.

Mizo Resettlement: Seeking Sanctuary in Manipur

The influx of Mizos into Manipur took place within a broader context. The earliest knowledge of the Mizos by the British was recorded in 1777, soon after the acquisition of Chittagong in 1760, when one of the chiefs of Chittagong Hill Tracts appealed to Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, for help against them.

During the Lushai Expedition, a remarkable number of 649 Mizo captives were rescued, subsequently and allowed to settle in Manipur. In addition, a surge of 2112 refugees, comprised of 373 Sukte tribes, 957 Paite tribes, 110 Soomties (vassals of Paite), and 612 Mizos, sought sanctuary under the protective mantle of Manipur Maharaja. These refugees settled in the Thangjing range, an integral part of Manipur’s southwestern hills and valleys.

Furthermore, In a noteworthy update from the second half of February 1947, the official report on Assam’s political relationships highlights a significant development. The Kabui community, residing in the Khuga Tampak of Churachandpur district, extended an invitation to the Mizos to collaborate in settling and cultivating wet paddy fields. This collaborative effort has resulted in approximately 120 Mizo households coming up in Khuga Tampak.

Even today, migrations of Myanmar Kuki-Zo continue in Manipur. Amidst claims, counterclaims, and the clamor for separate administration, one truth remains steadfast: the coexistence of diverse communities.

The recent outbreak of violence in Manipur, erupting on May 3, 2023 has revealed distorted narratives and manipulated historical accounts. The orchestrated ethnic cleansing by Kuki Zo targeting Meitei communities in Churachandpur and Moreh carried out at the onset of the violence, was driven by specific individuals who had been advocating for the establishment of a separate state within Manipur for an extended period.

Upon retrospective analysis of the violence that has engulfed Manipur over the past century, it becomes evident that the strife has been driven by a decade-long effort to misrepresent the Meitei community, the rightful inhabitants of Manipur, as encroachers into tribal territories.

False narratives concocted in neighboring states, particularly Mizoram, have come to light due to the undue influence of the Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and certain press releases from the purported Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF).

The clamor for a separate administration in Manipur’s Churachandpur region appears to be a dubious proposition upon closer examination. The assertion of defending ancestral lands becomes somewhat ironic when considering that the arrival of the Kuki Zo (Khongjai) in Manipur spans less than two centuries.

In contrast, indigenous communities such as the Meitei, Tangkhul, Thangal, Poumai, Kabui, Maram, Chothe, Aimol, Anal, and Maring have deep-rooted histories in the region that extends back to time immemorial.

Rather than engaging in hostilities against the Meitei community, the Kuki Zo people might do well to express gratitude for the hospitality extended to them by allowing settlement within Manipur’s borders.

Their Odessy from Tedim Hills in Myanmar to Churanchandpur in Manipur cannot be hidden to claim Meitei’s land as their ancestral property!

Furthermore, acknowledging the protection provided to them from internal clan conflicts on numerous occasions adds a dimension of appreciation to their history in the region.

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