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Significance of the Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 AD


Introduction: The Kukis who have inhabited the present North East India from the ancient times have shown one of the toughest wars to the British in India and its adjoining areas, particularly in the Myanmar region in the form of the Great Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 AD. Col. Shakespeare, who was personally involved in the battlefield, said that, of all the military operations in the North-East India, including the most talked about and dreaded Abor Expedition under General Symond, the Kuki rebellion 1917-1919 AD is the toughest.1 There are writers who claimed the war as a part of the First World War. No doubt, this war was partly the result of the World War I that shook not only the Manipur hills but also some parts of  Myanmar, Assam and also the Naga hills. We can rightly call it a part of the Indian struggle for Independence. The entire North east region at that point of time was under the colonial administration, under the Assam province. The Kuki who were independent from outside interference had encountered the British for almost one and half century from different locations or pockets of north east India including Chittagong Hill tracts. Like many other communities of the world, the Kuki were aware that intrusion of the British in the Kuki territory will replace or affect their traditional socio-political, economy and religious institution.  They were also certain that the influence of the British in the tribal society would erode their political institution especially Chieftainship. Interestingly, in all the wars which had been directed towards the British, the Kuki chiefs initiated their leadership. Before we make an estimate of its significance, we would like to highlight the course of the war and important events that took place in Manipur, the extent and magnitude of the war in brief.
Course of the war:  In fact the First World War losses were very heavy on the part of the British. The British, who largely depend on the resources of the colonies, found lots of hurdles in managing and conducting the war. Being established rulers, they had every right to impose and also could ask any one of their colonies for any kind of service whenever the need arose or were called for. India being one of their colonies was also asked to contribute in men and material for conducting the War.2 In this connection, the British Government of India made an appeal to supply labour corps. The North east region of the British India offered to raise five labour corps of two thousand men each. The Naga hill and the Khasi corps were raised and had accordingly left for France. This was followed by the second batch of the Khasi corps, the Lushai Hill corps and also the Garo Hill corps. The Raja of Manipur had contributed a Double Company of Infantry, five ambulances to St John’s Ambulance Red Cross Fund and Rs. 2,81,860 plus Rs.22500 (installments) for purchasing an airplane.  In addition to this, he expressed his desire to send two more labour corps though he could not keep up his commitment due to technical reasons, i.e. the size and frequency of the draft required for the first corps of the Manipur hill men. He was ready to recruit from the valley and command personally if the need arose3. However, many leaders from the state and the Chief Commissioner, decided not to depute the Maharaja to Mesopotamia, on the ground that many hill men had revolted and military operations against them were going on and also instead asked the king to accept honorary rank of captain. In the mean time many Kuki chiefs started killing mithuns, distributing its flesh, warn their subjects not to go for labor in France. Similar to the Kuki chiefs, some Tangkhul started the same. The Kuki chiefs who were completely out of touch with the British officer prepared to resist the recruitment policy and at the end of the year 1916, four eastern Kuki chiefs started sending animal flesh to their junior clans or minor chiefs along with an order not to sent labour corps to France.4 The abortion of Higgins’s mission to the Kuki chiefs by Ngulkhup, Chief of Lonpi, had plunged both entities to a War. Had the British pay respect to the religions of other communities and also ensure security to their family members, from the raids or attacks from their enemy, the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-1919 AD would have been possibly avoided.            
At the same time, many hill dwellers were illiterate and lambus, acted as middlemen between the British and the chiefs. There is ample evidence that they, talked in favor of the chiefs, thereby giving room for revolt against to the former. Perhaps, they favored the chiefs for security reasons. By this time however, there was only a single government school in Mao region and a mission school at the present Ukhrul district headquarters.
The causes: The Anglo-Kuki war broke out due to the expansion of colonialism into the territory of the Kuki. Before the Kuki of Manipur has direct confrontation with the British, many other Kuki who lived in Chittagong, Tripura, and the Lushai Hills have encountered the British. Encounter with the British by the Kuki took for the first time in 1777 AD.5 This shows that the Kuki and the British were enmity as soon as the British expanded their unpopular colonialism and ceases sophisticated weapons seize from the Kuki. The Kuki, who kept weapons almost proportionate to all the able men, were forced to surrender or deposit their weapons to the government authority before the outbreak of the war that further widen the enmity between the two.
For second, recruitment of labour corps hurt the sentiments of the Kuki who prided themselves as ‘people who never bowed down before others’. Lieutenant Colonel, H. Cole, the political agent, supporting the view of JC Webster, commented: “I am convinced that the present rebellion is due primarily to the unpopularity of recruiting for the labour corps, and therefore the cost of suppressing the rebellion should be paid from Imperial Revenues.”6 A clear assertion of the priorities can be seen in these statements with regard to the British policies.
Besides, the Kuki religious system was also another big factor. It was the head of the family alone who could worship, the good Lord on his behalf and also on behalf of all his family members during the Hun ceremony that took seven days in the last week of the month of May or first week of June, of the Christian era.  Recruiting almost all the able men for labour corps in other words would mean all the heads of the family. So, sending them to overseas, without certain dates of their return would have surely dismantled the Hun ceremony. Thirdly, the tribal feud sustained by head hunting tradition, or land dispute- dispute over land boundaries between villages and tribes- developed fear psychosis among the Kukis that gave big setback to the idea of recruiting  labor corps among the Kuki of Manipur. Besides, the economic pressure was increasingly becoming overwhelming upon the masses of the Kukis.
Important events: At Lonpi Battle that was fought at Chakpi River crossing point, in September 1917, the Kuki warriors and the British have a prolong pitched battle. Here, three British soldiers died and several have been wounded. The British troops numbering 80 marched towards Lonpi to Punish the Kuki but the Kuki attacked them. As stated above Higgins’s mission to convince the chief failed. When Higgins went to Lonpi, with an escort of Fifty Rifles, to study the situation, he found the village deserted. Lonpi village was burnt down on the 17th October, 1917.7  The War between the Kuki and the British was set into motion after these events. Chingakhamba Sanachaobao Singh, who professed to have supernatural powers went to Wakha( Ukha) a Kuki village, called ten Kuki and looted the forest toll station at Ithai on the 19th December, 1917.8 The Kuki planned to attack Imphal on the 22nd December, 1917 certainly causes considerable anxiety among the people of Imphal. Longya battle followed Lonpi and Ithai incidents. The kuki troops under the leadership of Ngulbul and British, under the command of Captain Montifiere show down another battle in February 1918. Ngulbul was killed while trying to escape from the stocked with his little son on his arm.9 The mid March, 1918, witness another show down at Chassad-Kamjong. In the encounter, several casualties inflicted and Lt.Molesworth was killed and Lt.Kay Mauyatt, who came from the Burma, was seriously wounded.10
The Kuki directed their action towards the British and their supporters and vice-versa. The Kuki chiefs murdered Khopum Chaukidar and in retaliation, the British under the leadership of Cloete consisting of 150 rifles burnt down, eleven villages. Durbar   president and his team burnt down two villages between March 5 and 10. On the 18 May, the Kuki raided Pangsang Chingmai, a Chiru village. Twenty one lost their lives and five persons were missing. At Khongakhul, twenty six were killed on the 22 May and thirteen were found missing. On the 23 May, the Kuki burnt down a suspension bridge built over the Thoubal River. At the Kasom village, thirty-five died after they refused to supply rice and coolies to the rebels.  Angered upon the loyalty of the Manipuri Raja, Khutinthang, chief of Jampi village proclaimed himself the Maharaja of Manipur. Collections of guns and terrorizing different villages followed his proclamations. On June 3, 1918, the rebels killed seven Muslims of Kwakta, after receiving reports that the latter had nexus with the British. They also shot dead twenty persons from the Kharam village and forty were found missing after gun shots. It is believed that some might have succumbed to death after getting wounded. On the 16 June, Khongde, Kuki village chief was shot dead for guiding Hutton on his visit to Sapvomi. The Kuki opened fire at some cultivators of Iringbam villagers on the 18 June.11
The situation turned from bad to worse. Fear Psychosis, tensions, rumors and nervousness shook the valley and also the hilly regions. Anarchy that developed in Manipur was now extended to the Naga Hills, in the North, North Cachar Hills in the North west, Lushai Hills in the South and South West, Chin Hills and Chindwind valley in Myanmar and the Somra tracts in the North east of Manipur.12 The development of anarchy almost in the entire north East India compelled the British Government to hand over the Administration from the civil authority to the Army to curtail the Kukis who defended the Independence that they had.
The Army took over the war on November 7, 1918 with 5400 combatant force both from India and Myanmar, following the meeting of the chief Commissioner of Assam, Colonel Shakespeare and the commander-in -chief of the British Indian Army in June 1918 at Shimla.13 The combined force of two countries, British India and British Burma (now Myanmar), after modification and transferring powers and administration to the Army revised their mighty campaign against the Kukis from November 25, 1918. With this the war entered the second phase. The formation of the British Army area wise much resembled that of the Kuki strategy during the second phase. By deploying various ranks of military officers not below the rank of 2nd lieutenant numbering 118 in Manipur and Myanmar, who commanded five thousand four hundred troops, crushed the Kuki movement for independence within a short time. The mighty military campaign against the Kuki came to an end on 20 May 1919 after the subjugation of the Kuki. Therefore, following the Great Anglo-Kuki War, the hill people who were independent were for the first time brought under the intensive political and administrative control of the imperial power.
Perhaps, during the military campaign under the civil administration, the British had underestimated the war strategy of the Kuki causing several casualties, death and shame in the hands of the Kuki whom they thought as barbaric and uncivilized. Yet, they came to know how the Kuki chiefs could command, lead and protect their people since time immemorial. The search to identify the head clans of the Kuki remind us how the British admired and respected the Kuki traditions, the base of their chieftainship.
Based on the sources available so far we are certain that the Great Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919 AD was the greatest war directed against the British colonialism, in the North-East India, whose epicentre was rooted in Manipur’s Hilly regions. We are certain today that the war was part of the great Indian National movement and partly it was a part of First World War. According to Sir Robert Reid, “The most serious in the history of Manipur…”14. And to DK Palit the war broke out due to the influence of the Bengali Nationalists. “Mention has been made earlier that the Kukis had been encouraged by emissaries from Bengali Nationalists in Assam…”15 According to H.K. Borpujari “… the German spies had a secret hand in fomenting the war…and that the Kukis were under the influence of the activists of the revolutionaries of Bengal.16

The war exposed to the world how the hilly regions of Manipur in particular and other areas in general were much neglected by the government. One can see that the annual expenditure of the hill areas was below 18,000, eighteen thousand, which is about a quarter of the house tax paid by the tribal of Manipur. 
In fact, the war broke out and peoples of past and the present share the negative and positive aspects of the war. Here we are concerned more about the significance of it. The War had brought drastic changes in the colonial history and post colonial history of Manipur in the form of administrative reforms besides many others. The most significant result of the War was the overall reorganization of the administration and the kind of concession made to the state, Manipur. After the war, Cosgrave, political Agent of Manipur, wanted to put the hill administration exclusively under his office. But the chief commissioner of Assam thought it to be too drastic, and proposed to put under the personal management of the Maharaja, who was guided by the political agent. He suggested for “reconstruction”. His scheme of reconstruction to improve the Government and Hill people relations was accepted by the Government of India.17 Accordingly under the new scheme, three new Subdivisions were formed.18 Each subdivision was under the charge of a European Sub divisional officer who was directly accountable to the president of the Durbar. These officers were appointed from the Association of Provincial Civil Service whose designations were equal to that of Sub-Divisional magistrate, who were first class magistrate under the Indian Criminal procedure code, 1898.19  Once appointed they were entitled to receive similar allowances, provided the total pay and allowances did not exceed Rs.800/- per month.20 Accordingly the South- west area with headquarters at Songpi, later changed to Churachandpur after the name of Maharaja Churachand Singh was placed under BC Gasper’s charge. For the Tamenglong Subdivision or the northwest area with temporary headquarter at Tamenglong itself, William Shaw was appointed and for the north east area, with headquarter at Ukhrul, L.L. Peter was appointed.
To implement the new administration-scheme the following concessions were made to Manipur so that the durbar could meet the increased cost to run hilly region not covered under the Headquarter, Imphal. Some scholars and the Kukis feel that these concessions were granted for the loyalty shown by the durbar and the ruler to the British. However, the following measures had been adopted.
I)    That the annual installment of Rs. 60,000 towards the liquidations of the loan of Rs.2,75,000 granted to the state in 1917  was reduced to 30,000
II)    That the annual tribute of Rs. 50,000 payable by the durbar was reduced to 5000 only from the current financial year.
III)    The state Manipur was relieved from the contribution of Rs. 30,000 per annum towards the maintenance of Mao Imphal Road.
In addition to these concessions separate budget for the hilly region was introduce for the first time in Manipur by the local authorities. The legacy of the Anglo-Kuki results can be still felt in the Manipur State Assembly, in the form of setting up of Hill Area Committee, headed by a Chairman, not below the rank of Cabinet. Its historical significance lies in the fact that it established strong and valuable local custom and tradition of resistance to the British. The British learned the social structure of the Kuki’s, which was based on the clans and kinship. The importance, power and position that the Kuki chief, had enjoyed by this time gave an ample room to the British to split and divide the Kuki society along the line of genealogy, based on clans thereby causing confusion over the head clan. It also consolidated the Kuki traditional chieftainship by issuing land rights to the chief. It is now difficult to up root them from the society by modern government. The Manipur legislative Assembly had passed chief-ship acquisition Acts but they are still not effective.21
The war had both negative and positive impact among the people of Manipur. Negative impacts were much on the Kuki community and positive impacts go to the general population, particularly who have shown loyalty to the British during the war. It shattered the Kuki society into pieces, disintegrating and fragmenting them to the extent that they never come together as they did during and before the war.  It germinated spirit of nationalism to the people of Manipur. We are also certain that the kind of administrative reforms that the British had introduced did not satisfy the people of Manipur in general and the Hill population in particular. The tribal’s unsatisfactory upon the colonial regime came to light again in the form of Kabui rebellion, the Nupilal and also during the Second World War again, when many people from Manipur join INA and fought the British once again. This time more determined to drive out the perpetrators of crime against the community of Manipur.  Despite all the sufferings said and unsaid, the Great Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-1919 laid the foundation for fighting the colonial administration in Manipur in the form of armed struggle. We feel the core value of the Great Anglo-Kuki War should be focused on the younger generation for political posterity of the next generation. It will not be possible to hide away its significance in the age of information technology and also when the world is moving toward a global village.  The great Anglo-Kuki war was purely anti-Imperialism, defending their political rights- independently. This war has also reflected how the Kukis were very advanced in technology at least in making gun powder and some sophisticated weapons. It lays the foundation in the history of arm struggle against the British. But one of the saddest parts of the movement was that, no man came forward or shared sufferings of the prisoners during this time many of whom were humiliated, brutalized and consequently killed by the British. The significance of the Kuki war will keep beaconing the youth for greater and yet greater sacrifice for the Kuki nationality. 


Dr. D. Letkhojam Haokip
Assistant Professor, Department of History
Gauhati University

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