Earlier this month, the Manipur Police filed two cases against the author and editors of two books on the Anglo-Kuki War (1917-1919), one of the biggest uprisings by the Kukis against British colonial rule.

The cases were filed on the basis of a complaint by the Federation of Haomee, an Imphal-based organisation that claims to represent the interests of the Meitei community.

The organisation claimed that no Anglo-Kuki War had taken place in Manipur’s history and described the event as an “armed Kuki rebellion”.

However, historians from the Kuki community say that the first information reports are an attempt to question and erase the history of the Kukis in Manipur. “The police cases are attempts to delegitimise and omit Kuki history,” said a Kuki historian, who asked not to be identified.

Delhi-based lawyer John Simte agreed: “It is an attempt to rewrite history to discredit the role of the Kukis against the British.”

The complaints were also significant in the context of the current ethnic strife in Manipur between the Meiteis and the Kukis, Simte added.

The Meiteis have alleged that the root of the current violence is the influx of “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar, a version which was echoed by the Union home minister Amit Shah in Parliament and contested by all the Kuki legislators of the state.

“By disputing that it was not a war, they want to discredit the fact that the Kukis are indigenous to the area,” he said. “If they accept that the Anglo-Kuki War was true, they cannot say that Kukis have migrated from Myanmar in the recent past. Their theory of illegal migration would fall flat.”

Since the Myanmar crisis in 2021, which triggered the exodus of Kuki-Chin people to Manipur and Mizoram, there have been demands by the Meiteis to detect and take measures against “illegal” immigrants, often a barely veiled allusion to the Kukis.

Thongkholal Haokip, who teaches law and governance at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and is one of the editors booked by the Manipur Police, also argued that the Anglo-Kuki War lends historical weight to the Kuki cause. “A community that fought a colonial government twice during the two world wars cannot have their indigeneity questioned,” Haokip said.

This is not the first time that the Anglo-Kuki War has figured in the current ethnic clashes.

On May 3, violence broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities after a protest rally by tribal groups against a decision of the Manipur High Court that favoured Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis. But the immediate spark was a rumour that a gate memorialising the Anglo-Kuki War had been burnt down.

Though the structure suffered little damage, with the fire doused before it could spread, the rumour triggered a cycle of violence that has convulsed the state and killed nearly 190 in the last 100-odd days.

The police complaints

The first information report against Jangkhomang Guite and Thongkholal Haokip, the editors of the 2018 book, The Anglo- Kuki War, 1917-1919: A Frontier Uprising Against Imperialism During the First World War, was filed by the Manipur Police on August 7. Guite is an associate professor of history with Manipur University in Imphal.

“This [the book] was a purely academic exercise to commemorate the centenary of the war,” said Haokip. “It has nothing to do with politics. They [the complainants] only have malicious intent.”

Two days later, another first information report was filed against Vijay Chenji, a retired colonel of the Indian army, and the author of The Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919: Victory in Defeat. Chenji told Scroll that the book “highlights the military capabilities of the Kukis and how they were able to hold back such a powerful army”.

However, the Federation of Haomee alleged that the author and the editors had “distorted the state’s history”.

The police booked Chenji, Guite and Haokip under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code dealing with waging war against the Indian government, and promoting enmity between different groups, among others.

The complainants cited a letter dated June 27, 1919, written by JE Webster, who was then chief secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Assam, to say it was a “rebellion” and not a war.

“It is clear that the author has concocted many lies intentionally to usurp historical facts and distort history for personal gain and in favour of a particular community which has resulted in grave offences against India and the United Kingdom,” the complaint read.

Kuki warriors in Assam's Sadiya jail. Facebook/ I Support KUKI State Demand Committee-KSDC

The Anglo-Kuki war

During the World War I that started in 1914, the British recruited over a million people from India to fight or aid in the conflict. From the North East, the British demanded that the Manipur king raise a group of Nagas, Lushais, Kukis and other tribes and press them into service as members of the Imperial Army’s Labour Corps.

The Labour Corps provided logistical support to British soldiers.

However, Kuki chiefs refused to participate and revolted against the colonisers in 1917. After two years of fierce Kuki resistance, which tested the Assam Rifles as well as the British army, they were defeated.

Nevertheless, it is remembered as one of the most significant challenges to British colonial rule.

“The revolt against British rule in 1857 is called a mutiny by the British, but Indians know it as the First War of Indian Independence,” said sociologist Lam Khan Piang, who teaches at the University of Hyderabad. “Similarly, what the British call a rebellion, the Kukis call the Anglo-Kuki War.”

Robert Reid, who was the governor of colonial Assam between 1937 and 1942, had described the long-drawn conflict as “the most serious incident in the history of Manipur and relations with hill subjects”...“which took Rs 28 lakh to quell”, said Piang.

The Kuki historian, who declined to be identified, said, “It is not necessary that we should stick to colonial terms.”

‘A part of Indian freedom struggle’

Some historians said the contest over this chapter of Manipur history is a fallout of the violence that has split the state on bitter ethnic lines.

“This is the result of hatred against the Kuki community,” said Doungul Letkhojam Haokip, who teaches history at Gauhati University.

The Anglo-Kuki War, Letkhojam Haokip said, was also a part of the Indian national movement. Several Kuki fighters were influenced by Bengali nationalists, he added, citing the work of LW Shakespear, who was the deputy inspector general of the Assam Rifles in 1917.

In the History of the Assam Rifles, Shakespear had written: “It was also believed, though not actually proved, that Bengal seditionists in Sylhet and Cachar, quick to divine where discontent could be fanned, sent emissaries amongst the southern Kukis urging them to rebel and thus to cause more trouble to the British Raj.”

Other historians, such as Lal Dena, former professor of Manipur University have also argued that the “Kuki people’s liberation movement in this part of the country in 1917 can be seen as an extension of the nationalist freedom struggle of the country”.

Said Letkhojam Haokip: “To say that the Anglo-Kuki War never happened is actually to demean the history of India and the Indian national movement.”

Kuki Inn, also known as the Kuki Independence War Memorial Complex, was burnt down in Imphal on May 28. Photo credit: Special Arrangement.

A contested history

Two scholars from the Meitei community, who Scroll spoke to, also criticised the police complaints as harmful for academic discourse.

A Meitei academic, who did not want to be identified, said the Kuki scholars have the right to call it a war. “It’s about interpretation…,” the academic said. “You call it revolt or rebellion or war.”

He explained that the Meiteis oppose this view as the Kukis had revolted against the Meitei king and his efforts to recruit on behalf of the British. “Meiteis cannot accept the history of a tribal uprising against the Meitei king,” this person said. “But in truth, the king was a puppet. It was a rebellion against the British government.”

Historian Malem Ningthouja, while opposing the police complaints, said there were grounds to contest the narrative of a war. “To term some sporadic, uncoordinated aggressive actions led by some feudal Kuki chiefs on vulnerable villages in the hills as ‘war’ or ‘rebellion’ or ‘revolt’ is a politically motivated choice in the present context,” he said.

He added: “Whether those aggressions were purely directed against British colonial rule or motivated by the interest for plunder has not been studied by the authors who tried to show it as an anti-colonial war.”

In the past, Thangkul Naga groups, too, have objected to the celebrations of the Anglo-Kuki War.

Naga scholars point out that Kuki accounts do not acknowledge the violence against the Nagas during the rebellion. “For the Nagas, the Anglo-Kuki War was a horror as the Kukis massacred Rongmei and Thangkul Nagas,” a Naga anthropologist, who did not want to be identified, told Scroll.

The police complaint against the author and the editors of the books also mentions the alleged violence against other communities during the war. “It was not a Kuki rebellion but a massacre of Nagas and Koms [a tribal community in Manipur] in the hills, and Meiteis and Mahomedans of the valley,” the complaint said.

‘Once celebrated by both Meiteis and Kukis’

But, as other historians pointed out, while there have been disagreements on the interpretation of the Kuki revolt, the current ethnic clashes have added a harsh edge to the debate.

Historian Rajib Handique, who teaches at Gauhati University, said there is so much hatred between the communities that attempts are being made by one group to erase the history of another.

“The Anglo-Kuki war was once celebrated both by the Meiteis and the Kukis, and was taught in Manipur University,” Handique said.

He pointed out that the Centre and the Manipur government had given a plot at the heart of Imphal to construct a stone pillar to mark the war.

The Kuki Inn, where the memorial was housed, was burnt down on May 28 in the recent violence.