The ethnic clashes between the Kuki tribes and the Meitei people of Manipur have generated debates on communalism, ethnic cleansing, and political propaganda. It is therefore important to be able to look beyond the ambiguities created around these two communities and trace their historical origins in the country.
The Kuki Tribe
The Kuki Zomi tribe, also known as the Kuki Zomi Mizo Chin people, is a group of numerous clans famously known for their skills as warriors. They are the hill tribes of Manipur, and the majority of them are Christians. They occupy 90% of the hill region (which is also inhabited by other tribes) and have 20 MLAs in their state's assembly.
Regarding their historical origins, there remains a great amount of ambiguity surrounding it. According to the popular narrative, the Kukis were brought by British political agents from neighboring areas of Burma (now Myanmar) and Bangladesh to counter the Nagas in the region. However, the insurgent Kuki Zomi people contest this narrative.
According to several anthropologists like Edmund Leach, the Kuki people originally inhabited Inner Asia or mainland China and first arrived in Burma around the 11th century due to displacement by more powerful tribes. The first set of Kuki people to arrive were Huangkhol and Biate, and they are famously referred to as the "old Kuki." They entered India, specifically the Lushai Hills, around the 16th century due to displacement by other more powerful tribal groups. The New Kuki people, comprising of Changson and Thadou, were pushed into the Lushai Hills in the 19th century due to similar reasons.
It's interesting to note that the name "Kuki" was actually given by the Bengalis of Chittagong hills to the tribe.
The Meitei Tribe
While the Meiteis claim their origin to be from within the country, according to several historians and anthropologists, the Meitei were residents of ancient China, and they migrated towards Burma before entering Manipur. Some anthropologists, such as Edmund Leach, point out that the Meitei people's historical background is very similar to that of the Kukis.
Originally, the Meitei tribe consisted of four different tribes: Khumau, Luwang, Moirang, and Meitei. According to the royal chronicle of Manipur, the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Meitei belong to the Kanglepak Kingdom, dating back to 33 AD.
While the majority of them are now Hindus, they were first introduced to Hinduism in the 15th century due to an influx of Hindus from Bengal as a result of Sultan rule in the region. In the 18th century, King Pamheiba made Hinduism the official religion of the kingdom, leading to the decline of their tribal religion, Savamahi.
The Meitei people are from the valley and have historically been linked to their skills as fishermen. They are the majority in the region and occupy 10% of Manipur.
An article in Outlook states, "A closer analysis of the incidents that unfolded in Manipur reveals not just burgeoning ethnic tensions but also deeper divides - between a valley and the hills, between shifting and settled agriculture, between state and non-state, between so-called ‘civilized’ and ‘anarchist’."
Understanding the clash between the two communities requires keeping their true historical origins in mind. The clash goes beyond ethnicity and religion and is fueled by deprivation, alienation, and propaganda. It is thus important to look beyond the biases and ambiguities created around the conflict and have a clearer picture of realities to contribute towards the betterment of the situation in Manipur.
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