Bethesda-Khankho Foundation



By Jangkholam Haokip


This article explores the social, political and religious impact of Western missionary work in the colonial period, noting the links between this and an emerging identity crisis among the Kuki in what is now North-East India. The article locates the Kuki historically and geographically, describes the outcomes of both British colonial rule and the incorporation of the region into the independent Indian state, and discusses the current crises confronting this people. Particular attention is given to the role of missions and it is proposed that specific weaknesses in missionary theology and practice may be identified as one of the main causal factors in regard to the present situation. It will be shown that the work of the missionaries contributed to the weakening of Kuki traditional life and administration and when Christianized, the kind of Christianity perceived and practised proved to be incapable of providing insights for the people’s search for identity and liberation. The conclusion is drawn that the work of western missions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notwithstanding positive religious outcomes, had unintended consequences at the socio-political level, and that these demand urgent attention by indigenous Kuki Christians, including the development of local theologies and the practice of integral mission. This study focuses on the Kuki people within the Indian state of Manipur on the Indo-Burma border.


The Kuki people are an indigenous group living in the region now called North-East India. They are also found in North-Western Burma and Bangladesh, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tract. The late nineteenth and the early twentieth century colonial officials and missionaries were the first to put down Kuki history in a written form. In the post-colonial era, in the 1990s, Indian anthropologists and sociologists began to take an interest in writing about the people. A study of the people’s history and culture written from the ‘inside’ is yet to develop.

A Kuki myth of origin says that the Kuki people emerged from a cave, or Khul. Although this cannot be taken literally, the myth indicates the affinity of the people now known by different names in the region. The myth is told differently depending on the clan and region to which a person belongs. Among the Mizo/Lusei group in the state of Mizoram in India, formerly known as the Lushai Hills, the place of origin is called ‘Chhinlung’, and in Manipur among the Kuki groups, including the Aimol, the Anal, the Chothe, the Chiru, the Maring, the Lamgang, the Kom, the Vaiphei, the Paite, the Gangte, the Simte, the Zo, the Thadou and their cognate groups, it is called ‘Khul’ or ‘Khur’. The Chins and other Kuki groups in Burma also called it ‘Khul’. In a Lusei or Mizo version, the cave is called Chhinlung and part of the story says, “as the people came out two Ralte people came out chattering so noisily that the guard of the entrance shut the opening with a stone-shutter thinking too many people had come out.”2 All clans accept the oral tradition that they came out of Khul, or a cave. This is a living tradition that has been passed down from one generation to another, speaking about the common origin of the people and their ethnic homogeneity.3


In Manipur, the Kukis were the dominant group in the hills prior to the colonial period. A colonial officer William Shaw observes this when he writes,

[t]he Thadou Kukis live in a large area of hilly country bounded by the Angami Nagas of the Naga Hills District in the north, the Province of Burma in the east, the Chin Hills and Lushai Hills in the south and the District of Cachar in the west. Mainly, it may be said, they occupy the hills of the State of Manipur on all sides of the Imphal valley.4

In this regard, an eminent Kuki scholar, T.S. Gangte describes the power and influence of the Kukis in the hills surrounding the Imphal valley of Manipur,

The Kukis here had been the dominant tribe spreading their authority over a wide range of hill areas surrounding the valley of Imphal during the hey-day of the Maharajah of Manipur and subsequently during the British period. The Kuki Chiefs were in supreme command over their respective domains in the hills....the Chahsad Haokip (Chief)… to the East of Imphal valley … extended up to the Burma Border, contiguous to the Thongdut State and part of the Somra Tract. The Doungel Kuki chief … the North-East of Imphal valley extending … to the unadministered areas of Somre which lie in between the Naga Hills of the erstwhile Assam Province and the Burmese territory, … the Sithou Chief, known as the Chief of Jampi, ruled the Western and North-Western part of Imphal valley bordering the Angami country. The Singson Thadou Chief ruled the areas contiguous to the Sitlhou country and the Lushai Hills of Assam. Pulverised in between the Sitlhou in the North-West and the Imphal valley in the North-East was the country of the junior of the Haokip Thadous, … To the South of them, bordering the Tiddim of Chin Hills of Burma, the areas were occupied by the Manluns (Zou), while the South-East of Imphal valley extending up to the areas of Kabo valley and Sukte country, were ruled by the Mangvung Haokip Thadous.5

The evidence which supports Gangte’s description is to be found in the Anglo-Kuki war map of the colonial administration called ‘Area of Operations’ which covers all of the present hill areas of Manipur. The vastness of the territory was reported to have caused problems for the colonial British as a document from this period indicates, “The ultimate cause of the trouble lay in the fact that, owing to the vastness and inaccessibility of the country which they inhabit, the Kukis in the Manipur State were out of touch with the Administration and almost uncontrolled.”6

Similar to their territorial dominance, the first missionary William Pettigrew talks about the popularity of their language in the hills. He writes,

‘The extraordinary thing that strikes one is the predominance of the Thado language among all these many and varied branches. Even the Kabui Nagas who occupy a good number of the villages to the north and south of the Cachar road, and whose population is estimated at about 6000, used the Thado language in intercourse with village and village. Thado is no doubt the lingua franca for all these branches of Kukis and Lushai who occupy this region, and there is no doubt that whenever mission work is established in these sections, Thado should be the medium of instruction for all. Whoever reduces the language to writing, and produces literature, will not only reach the Thado clan, but the many and varied clans that cover the southern and western hills of Manipur. 7

The purpose of this paper is to show the impact of Christian mission on Kuki identity and therefore, it is important first to highlight Kuki traditional life.


Chief, or Hausa in Thadou-Kuki language literally means ‘a rich person’, or a person who possesses great wealth in the form of land and bamboo, money and mithun, cattle, gongs, etc. When it applies to a village administration, it refers to the head of a clan in whose name a village is being set up by the clansmen. The practice goes back centuries to when there were constant feuds with other communities where a single authoritative figure was a necessity.8

In this tradition, a village’s chief is the senior member, or upa of a family or a clan. A particular clan sets up a new village and makes their Upa their Chief. When felt necessary and appropriate, a chief sends off his younger brothers in age, or seniority order, to set up a new village within his territory and the same goes on for the further expansion of the village. This is in line with the Upa-Naupa (senior-junior clan) relationship and makes villages identical with one’s own genealogical tree showing who the upa or the naupa is. In rare circumstances, incongruent to the Upa-Naupa order, an individual can also purchase land, set up a village and become a Chief there. In this way, an installation of a chief was an indicator to a person’s standing in clan seniority order. And in recognition of position, a junior chief gives Sating, or hunted meat to his next senior chief and the same goes on. For instance, the Hengleppa, or the chief of Henglep village in south Manipur gives his sating to Chahsatpa, the chief of Chahsat village in the West of Manipur as his senior clan and the Chahsatpa in the same way gives his sating to his immediate senior clan and it goes on.


The social relationship system is another important element that marks Kuki cultural identity and closely knits together not only the members within the community but also those outside. Unlike the vertical Upa-naupa relationship based on the genealogical tree, Tucha-Becha-Sunggao relationship is a horizontal relationship and it leaves no one free from the relationship. Tarun Goswami speaks of Becha and Tucha as “the friends, philosophers and guides of the Kuki families.”9

Be or Becha is a term used to refer to a person who is nominated by a family to act as the main responsible person and spokesman on behalf of the family. This is a special means of relationship instituted between a family and someone who is chosen by a family and hence, it has the privilege of discharging responsibility and respect. The responsibility of a Be is to act on behalf of the head of the family in all affairs including decision making, ritual ceremonies, and social activities. Goswami rightly says, “the Becha performs the job of a general manager of the family shouldering the managerial responsibilities in all the social functions including liaison work of the family….Without the Becha performance any Kuki social functions [are] unthinkable.”10

Like Becha, Tucha is very important and central to the Kuki social system. However, unlike the former, the latter has a marital link. Tucha is chosen from the offspring of the sisters or someone who marries one’s own sister or daughter from a clan. Their main responsibility includes activities such as cooking, carrying and fetching water during family events such as marriages, ritual ceremonies and death. Their role and responsibility is recognized by giving back a portion of hunted or sacrificed animals. That explains well the importance of Becha-tucha in order to set up a family.

Different from all the rest is the Jol-le-gol relationship. The term Jol-le-gol therefore refers to a special relationship between two individuals or families who are from different tribes or communities for the well-being of each other. Through this system of relationship, until the recent past, Kukis have jols with others including non-tribal Meitei Hindus. The bond of the jol-le-gol relationship is sometimes claimed to be stronger than some of those ones which are based on blood relations. One of the powerful resistance movements emerging in recent times involved in Kuki-Naga ethnic conflict was the jol-le-gol relationship among the people. Many of them have had a tearful departure when they were forced to separate by the militant groups in the 1990s. In Kuki traditional society, a person is connected to other members in the society through this web of relationships.


Andrew Walls argues that ‘primal’ is not a euphemism for ‘primitive’ nor does it indicate any evolutionistic understanding. What it does, he maintains, is to underline two features of the religion of the people concerned: “their historical anteriority and their basic, elemental status in human experience.”11 It is with the same conviction that we need to see Kuki traditional religion.

Unlike the dichotomised concept of religion found in modern cultures, Kuki primal religion holds together what are generally called sacred and secular. Religion and secular are integral parts of a person’s life and hence, life is seen as one whole. There is a parallel with African traditions as described by John Mbiti. Referring to the inseparability between sacred and secular and spiritual and material areas of life, Mbiti writes, “Although many African languages do not have a word for religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long before his birth to long after his physical death.”12

Often primal people were mistakenly thought to have worshipped nature. In the case of Kuki it is not nature but God, the creator of nature, who takes a central place in the life of the people. Incantation, much of which has been destroyed in the process of Christianization, is the single most important source for understanding Kuki primal religious beliefs in the absence of a sacred book. One example is the ways in which God, or Pathen, is named. In the incantations, different names are used for God besides Pathen, such as Nungzai, believed to be a consort of Pathen, Noimangpa, one who rules the underworld, and Thennu, the mother god. They are mentioned in the beginning of incantation as Pathen nalhaijin, Nungzai nalhaijin meaning, ‘May Pathen and Nungzai be propitiated’ or chunga Pathen nalhaijin, noija Noimangpa, ‘May you (wine) be pleasing to Pathen above and Noimangpa below’. Incantation also mentions thennu-thenpa, meaning Mother Pathen and Father Pathen.

This may sound polytheistic, but in reality it is not the case. The different names were employed to help view God in God’s totality in the minds of the worshipers. The use of different names for a particular thing, or concept, is the people’s traditional practice as shown, for instance, in the sayings of Thi le man ‘death and loss’ referring to the dead in all forms, van leh lei ‘heavens and earth’ meaning the universal, and so forth.

Another important element often unnoticed by observers is the belief that God is in the highest of the heavens and yet God is available to each household in and through Indoi, or Doibom. Hemchon Chongloi in his seminal work, Indoi, beautifully describes this.13 Indoi is a bundle of selected articles taken from parts of animals and plants bound together by a single cord and it is hung on the front porch of a house. The articles include Vohpi maikem (a slanted skull of a mother pig), referring to a long life, Kelchal kiheh (a twisted horn of he-goat) representing maturity, Peng or um (small gourd), referring to its usefulness, Chao (Bangle made from gopi a particular kind of bamboo) symbolizing the well being of the girl’s family, and gopi, smoothness and perfection, Chemkol (knife made from gopi) symbolizing defense, Teng (a spear made of gopi), durability, Miluh/ pothul/ pocha (a small basket made from gopi), symbolizing household management, Khaopi (a cord made from a fiber tree called khaopi), symbolizing perfection.

The significance of these articles is seen when a priest prays: for instance, Vohpi maikem nasah bangin neisan meaning, bless me as you blessed a slanted skull of a mother pig, referring to a prayer for long life. It is clear that these articles are not the objects of worship. They are only instruments for worship, reflecting the goodness of the Creator, and at the same time, they symbolise God’s presence among the people.


The foundation, the binding code as well as the vision of Kuki traditional life in a community, was the concept of Khankho. Like the term religion, we have no precise English translation for the concept. The term Khankho is made up of two different words, khan and kho. While the former means ‘grow’, ‘develop’, ‘behave’, the latter means ‘life’, ‘lifetime’, ‘conscience’ and so forth. When the two words are put together, it means, ‘principle of life’ or ‘a way of living’ or ‘the way a person is expected to live’.

Khankho refers not to a mere intellectual knowledge or an act of performing duties toward others but rather it is about the ‘being’ of a person, who she/he is. Negatively put, someone who does not care about others or who does not perform his or her duty such as tucha or becha as discussed above is called ‘khankho helou’ or someone who does not know the way of life. In the same way, khankho-he is someone who behaves in the way he or she is expected to, that is, to fear God and live in solidarity with others including nature in the interest of others. It is both the foundation and the guiding principle of life in a community. Similar to Dharma in Hinduism, which also means ‘that which upholds or supports or sustains the community’, 14 Khankho upholds the society. It is the foundation and vision of life in a community. It is a local version of the biblical concept of Shalom.

The question of sin, sickness and the need for healing or solution arise when Khankho is not followed. For instance, when someone causes harm to a person and sheds his or her blood, the earth also suffers and therefore unable to produce fruits until the fertility of the earth is restored by performing a ritual called Lei-le. In the following pages, we shall show how the modernization process impacted the traditional life and administration, creating a vacuum which left people ineffective in addressing the contemporary issues surrounding their identity as a people.


Northern Manipur: The American Baptist Union

As one of the major agents of change, Christianity came to Manipur in 1894 through William Pettigrew of the Arthington Aborigines Mission who later joined and represented the American Baptist Union. The Princely state, Manipur, was sanskritized and Hinduism was officially declared as the state religion in 1705 and the British Indian policy on religious affairs for the State was ‘non-interference’ or ‘strict neutrality’.15

Pettigrew was the lone recognised missionary in the state. As was his original vision,16 Pettigrew worked among the valley Hindu meiteis but sensing the risk of his work for their administration, colonial administrators asked him to leave the Manipur valley.

Pettigrew established his mission station at Ukhrul, in the north eastern part of Manipur, in 1896 and established a lasting impact on the Tangkhuls. There were initially three reasons why Pettigrew started the work in Ukhrul: firstly, the tribe themselves should be evangelized, secondly, a missionary located there in the Manipur territory will hold the ground in the state until such time as the way is open for beginning work again among the Manipuries and thirdly, it is a step towards occupying the ground between Assam and Burma.17 Pettigrew established his work in the North of Manipur with a lasting impact.

Southern Manipur: ‘The Kuki Mission 1910’

Christianity came to the Kukis through a back door. While the official missionary concentrated his work among a particular community in the North, a private missionary, Watkin Roberts, brought the Christian message to the Kukis in the southern Manipur in 1910. If in some respects Edinburgh 1910 was the climax of world evangelization, for the Kuki people it was the dawn of Christianity.

Born in 1886 at Carnarveron, North Wales, Roberts was a successful slate miner and merchandiser. He was a product of the 1904 – 1906 revival in Wales and the was led to missionary work in India through the agency of the Keswick Convention in 1907. At that convention, Roberts heard the sharing and appeal of Peter Fraser: “Hundreds of tribes in Assam and North India are in utter darkness. They need the Gospel. They need Jesus to save them from their heathen darkness”. Roberts felt God’s call and responded to it by deciding to go to the tribal peoples of then Assam.18 He arrived in India as an independent missionary and assisted the work of Fraser, a medical missionary sent by Welsh Missionary Society Mizoram.19 Roberts was never on the staff of the Welsh Presbyterian Mission or of the Baptist Mission, but acted as a self appointed, unpaid, unordained, and untrained missionary working as an assistant to Fraser. One thing to note here is that, besides evangelistic works, both Fraser and Roberts unswervingly fought for the abolition of Bawi, a local slavery system. An aspect of local culture involved chiefs keeping poor people as slaves and the colonial administration adopted a policy of non-interference with this practice. Fraser, joined by Roberts, fought against the structure, and thus opposed both the colonial administration and the mission agencies, until it was finally abolished. The rationales for the fight include the issue of justice, the abolition of slavery in Britain and the Indian anti-slavery law which were an integral part of their understanding of Christ’s work for salvation.20

Roberts, as the product of the Revival in Wales and subsequently the Keswick Convention, was committed to the spread of Christianity. He learned Lusei and did evangelism while he assisted Fraser in the clinic. They used to distribute medicines in a small box made of bamboo called go-bong on which different bible verses were written. It was during that time he received a gift of £5 through a minister in Wales with which he bought some copies of John’s Gospel that he distributed among the surrounding chiefs. As a result, he got an invitation from the chief of Senvon, Mr. Kamkholun Singson, to come and explain the message of the book which he considered as the ‘Macedonian call’. The message read: “Sir, come yourself, and tell us about this book and your God.”21 Roberts knew that Manipur was the official territory of Pettigrew. He also knew that the Kukis were left without a missionary. To his knowledge both the American Baptist mission and the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Mission had abandoned earlier plans to work among the Thado Kukis.22

Despite many difficulties and obstacles created by the structure of the private mission, Roberts managed to respond to the call of Kamkholun Singson by visiting him at his village in 1910. He formed an independent mission called, ‘Thado-Kuki Pioneer Mission’, better known as ‘The Kuki Mission 1910’, for the evangelization of those who did not yet have a missionary namely, the non-Naga groups in the hill areas of Manipur and beyond. The print on the official letterhead reads, “The Thado-Kookie Pioneer Mission: A thoroughly Evangelical Mission, formed with the express desire of preaching the Gospel among the Thado-Kookies in the State of Manipur, India”23 The mission expanded even beyond Manipur wherever the Kukis settled, including those areas which are now parts of Bangladesh and Burma. However, the connection was difficult to maintain due to the creation of present international boundaries in the 1940s. In addition, being a private missionary, Roberts was considered an ‘intruder’ by both the official mission and the colonial administrators and was later deported from the land leaving his mission gradually declined without a leader.


Possibly what was more detrimental to the people’s identity was the theology of the missionaries. Mission work among the native people is often spoken of as bringing light to darkness, or bringing people from darkness to light. Another term interchangeably used for the transition was from being uncivilized to ‘civilized’.

The local religion was classified as animism, a faith of pre-literates and unarticulated. J.M. Lloyd narrates, “In those days the people were animists. Animism has been described as the faith of pre-literate people. It depends on tribal memory and oral traditions more than on sacred literature and it is inarticulate in comparison with the great religions of the world.” 24Missionaries schooled in this kind of approach regarded the traditional life of the people as evil, including their cultural values such as Khankho, social relationship systems and Indoi described earlier, and they sought to replace traditional beliefs and practices with what was called ‘Pathen-oi hinkho’, or the lifestyle of Christians as the missionaries taught them. Some examples of such a lifestyle include removal of Tuhcha, or a traditional hair style, making a shorter Drum for Christians to differentiate their religious identity, burning of Doibom, or elements of traditional worship, social relationship systems and so forth. A good example for this was the triumphal burning of Doibom of my father, including his Themthu, or incantation, at his conversion, which could have been priceless treasures for learning traditional Kuki view on God and the world for contextual theology today. Themthu contains some names of people, places, and important events which could have been used as indicators to the people of past history in the absence of written history. Themthu was also the traditional resource for prevention against natural calamities, healing, and safety/salvation. It was with such a negative view on the people’s cultural life that the missionaries undeservingly collaborated with the colonial administration in suppressing them during the Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919.

Understandably, in that context, the ultimate goal of the missionaries was to bring people out of darkness or ignorance or blindness to light through spiritual conversion. It was for that reason that Roberts refused to attend the missionary orientation programme at home in order not to waste time for the work of evangelisation. For that reason, he viewed denominational structures as hindrances to the spread of the Christian message. It was true that the people were given education but it was not to provide them with knowledge and skills to address issues surrounding their socio-political and cultural context but to help them learn how to read the Bible and evangelize others. Thangkai, one of the first native converts writes about his own experience:

Ka Pathian thugen haw chu zia hi ahi deupen hi. John 3:16 kasimua, Pathian thu awi un thawi le kithawi takiun. Thitha le ho diak kiu. Pathian thu la awi u chun, van gam lam a khin kumkhawtuang hinna a um ding la hiu, tin ka gen ka gen mai sek ui. Chule kuale cha thu awi tapoh chu hingzingin tin kuale Cha thu awi lo chu thin a, tin le ka gen ui.25

[Translation: What we preach was mainly this. We read John 3:16 and preached to them to obey (or worship) God and to stop performing sacrifices. Also, we preached to them to stop appeasing evil spirits and said if you obey the word of God you will have everlasting life. Whosoever believes in the Son will live forever but whoever does not believe in Him will die].

The missionary work was hastened by a belief in the nearness of the Parousia. Franklin, prompted by the conviction that the Second Coming of Christ was soon, writes: “In all our planning let us constantly remember that our task is essentially spiritual.”26 Similarly, The Assam Mission report in 1923 reads, “The near approach of the Lord’s coming as indicated in the dreams and visions related by many from each area led to an earnest desire to form themselves into parties, and sometimes one only would feel a call to go alone to a village or a group of villages and preach the gospel of God’s grace.”27 Vanlalchuanawma observes the theme of the second stirring Revival in Mizoram as “combining in it the Cross of Christ, Christian Love, the Holy Spirit and the End Time or the Second Coming.”28

The above experiences reflect the dominant belief among the people that spiritual conversion was the prime concern of theology and on personal holiness and evangelism paved the way for faith-mission movements within which non-defilement with this world meant the abandonment of socio-political concerns. Unlike the earlier type of premillennialism during the nineteenth-century where the afterlife was understood in terms of ‘restitution of all things’, or a belief in an establishment of God’s kingdom on a renovated earth populated by resurrected human beings, rather than for the soul to go to heaven after an individual’s death, this kind of theology makes the people inactive and non-participatory in the societal life of a person, so that the primary focus of life becomes a waiting for the Parousia. It was true that Roberts unswervingly worked against a form of slavery in Mizoram however, it was also true that in the early twentieth century evangelical theology the soul of a person was taken to be more important than his or her physical body.

Related to this was the teaching of the church promoting a Christian pacifist attitude toward political administration. A monthly official publication of the North East India General Mission The Herald of Truth, October 1942 includes a well articulated article on a Christian understanding of war called, Kristian leh indona or a Christian and War. There were three main points that the article argued: (1), God is a warrior or God is the God who fights in a war, a point drawn from the story of God’s deliverance of Israel recorded in Exodus 15:3 ;(2), one could be at the will of God in a war situation by seeking and following God’s leading, drawn from 2 Samuel 5:19 wherein David asked for God’s direction in a war and this was further exemplified by the fact that in the New Testament, Matthew 8:5ff, Jesus did not refuse to accept the faith of the Roman Centurion nor did he stop being a soldier after his confession of faith in Him and finally (3), Government is an instrument in God’s hands to punish wrong doers. The point is based on Romans 13:3-4 wherein rulers are said to represent God in punishing the wrong doings and the example used for this was a conviction that God used Great Britain to punish Hitler. Having followed the three points, the application of this article was clear: to accept the given structure. This was done by uncritically reaffirming, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21)’ and ‘submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men (1Peter 2: 14-15).’29

The theology, with due recognition of its positive aspects, was one-sidedly biased to that of the missionary context and hence, the identity issues of the people, including concerns for their integral well beings - culture, history, land, territory, peace, health, and healing - were not recognised in the missionary agenda.


The shallowness of the views of the missionaries, particularly the official missionary, was further reflected during the two World Wars. Although the policy of the colonial administration involved non-interference in local affairs, the administration and the official mission agency collaborated in various ways. The colonial administration first paved the way for the entry and activities of Pettigrew among the Hindu Meiteis in the valley, directed him to work in the hills, and also in 1910-11 he was appointed as superintendent of the first ever Census conducted in Manipur. During the First World War, at the failure of J. Higgins, then president of the Manipur state durbar, to recruit local people to support the British in France, Pettigrew was asked to persuade his converts and others to join the Labour Force in France. He successfully recruited two thousand local people out of whom one thousand two hundred were the Tangkhul Naga new converts.30 Referring to his success in the task, he writes, “The writer feels certain in his own mind that if such a scheme had been put up to them in 1897 instead of 1917, no one would have been willing to go.”31Lal Dena observes how this recruitment was perceived: The missionary took it as a hopeful sign pointing to the unity and solidarity of Christians as if the war were for the defence of Christian faith. In the process, the native Christians were also made to feel that the prestige of Christians was raised and the confidence of the government was greatly enhanced.32

Pettigrew wrote about the benefit of the service in France for the advancement of the Christianization in Manipur;

Another element in helping to bring many to decision for the Christian religion was the large company of young men who had been to France and had come back with new ideas and new aspirations, and the rigid belief in a ceremony of this kind did not appeal to them any more, and they were ready to give it up, and many other things besides.33

At the local level, on their return from France, Tangkhul converts were employed in the suppression of the Kukis as Dena writes, “On the return from the war, the Tangkhul Nagas were again enlisted in the coolie sections of the Kuki Punitive Measures which was unleashed for the sole purpose of suppressing the Kuki uprising [referred to above].”34

Did the colonial administration and the missionaries have common interests in the collaboration? It must be noted that not all the missionaries supported the colonial rule. Watkin Roberts, for instance, was against structures including the colonial administration and denominations. However, some missionary writings seem to show that for some it was the case. The writing of Rev William Ashmore indicates this, “we must evangelize other countries in order to save our own country.”35

The immediate context of the conflict and suppression of Kuki administration in the hills of Manipur had to do with the recruitment of the local people for labour work in France during the World War I. The administration termed ‘Kuki Rising’36 or ‘Kuki Revolt’/‘Kuki Rebellion’37 and the missionaries treated as a mere local problem between the Kukis and the Nagas.38 But for the Kukis the event was an occasion39 to raise their voice against the colonizing power, hence it was called the war of Independence.40

The Telegram message from the Viceroy to the Secretary of State on the 10th of December 1917 includes the internal condition of India and reads: “Temporary disturbances occurred among Kuki tribes, Manipur State, in connection with recruitment for Labour Corps in France. Recruitment being held in abeyance until Political Agent is satisfied that it is not likely to provoke opposition.”41

In the following telegram for a half-month ending 15th December 1917 which was sent on 22nd December 1917 there is a tougher warning against the Kukis:

Kuki chiefs are being summoned to Manipur and informed that recruits for labour corps will not be demanded, and that immediate attendance and submission of Chiefs will save them from drastic punishment. If summons is disobey(ed), Political Agent with escort of 150 rifles will visit villages and burn them, provided this will not interfere with co-operation from Lushai hills in connection with Chin rising reported separately.42

Having failed to bring the Kukis to submission through political means, the colonial administration resorted to the use of force to suppress the Kukis in Manipur, although they were concerned that none of the Kuki brethren in the Lusei hills and the Chin hill were provoked by their action. In other words, care was taken so that the whole Kuki groups were not provoked to rise against them.

While the ultimate purpose of the missionaries was to change the religion of the Kuki people, the colonial administration used language indicating their desire to ‘crush’ their morale or ‘break their spirit’ as a people and rule their country. This is clearly stated by Lieutenant-General Sir H.D’U Keary, the General Officer Commanding, Burma Division. By the end of the war in 1919, Keary wrote to the Chief of the General Staff, Army Headquarters, India, Simla, dated June 1919 about the war. He mentioned the reasons why, in his opinion then, the Kukis should be punished. He writes,

I considered that in view of (1) the acceptance by both local Governments of the need for subduing the Kukis; (2) the heavy responsibility which we had towards the Maharajah of Manipur; (3) the fact that we were not asking the Army for any men; and (4) the opportunity which had now arisen of pacifying the Kukis once and for all, that the operations for the punishment and disarmament of the rebel Kuki tribes should be undertaken without delay.

His plan, he continues, was to …. put an end to the Kuki revolt by force of arms, break the Kuki spirit, disarm the Kukis, exact reparation and pave the way for an effective administration of their country. To do this, my plan was to divide the hostile Kuki country into suitable areas, to enclose these areas by a chain of posts, and by movable columns and active patrols so [to] harass the enemy, as to crush his ‘morale’ and force him to submission. 43

It was according to this plan that Longja village, or Mombi as it was called44, a centre of opposition, was destroyed in 1917 and thus the war began. In the war against the Kuki tribes, as it was called, the British seemed to underestimate the Kukis’ strength in that it took more than five hundred armed men and three years to suppress the Kukis under the traditional leadership of their chiefs. A.W. Botham, the Chief Commissioner of Assam in his post-conflict report, titled, ‘Resolution of the late Kuki Rising’, 16th September 1920, has a full account. He divided the Kuki Rising history into five periods: 1, April to December 1917 – during which the trouble was brewing 2, December 1917 to mid-April 1918 – during which the first attempt at the suppression of the rebellion was made 3, April to October 1918 – during which the Kuki raided and harried loyal tribesmen and interrupted traffic 4, November 1918 to April 1919 – when operations under military direction were in progress and the rebels were systematically attacked and disarmed 5, The stage of punishment and reconstructions.45

The magnitude of the clash is reflected in the comment of Sir Robert Reid that it was the most serious event in the history of Manipur.46 Similarly, Botham in his report referred to above writes, “The Kuki rising of 1917-1919, which is the most formidable with which Assam has been faced for at least a generation, was confined almost entirely to the Thado Kukis, who with few exceptions were implicated, and to the Manhlun and Mangvung.”47

As the result of the war, all the able chiefs were taken captive to the Andaman Islands in 1919, while more than sixteen British officers were honoured with various awards.48 The Kuki territory was divided and put under different administration: “[a]fter an uprising of the Kuki hill tribes in 1917, a new system of government was adopted; the region was divided into three subdivisions, each headed by an officer from the neighbouring government of Assam.”49 In his post-conflict report in September 1920 referred to earlier, Botham made a triumphant statement:

On the 15th November the operations were commenced by the Assam Force; owing to delay, due to epidemics of influenza and surra which broke out, the Burma Force was not able to co-operate in the southern areas until the beginning of December. Nevertheless by the 31st March I had achieved all my objects more effectually than I had ever hoped for.50

Botham’s claim of success needs to be understood in the light of the purpose for which the ‘punitive measures’ were carried out, that was, to ‘crush’ the morale of the Kukis or to ‘break the Kuki spirit’ as noted earlier.

Understandably, the post-war life was a sudden and day-night experience of change for the Kukis as their traditional administrative power was snatched away and they found themselves like sheep without a shepherd under the alien rulers. Further, in order to prevent a similar Kuki uprising in the future, the government strategically divided the Kuki country, setting up sub-headquarters with movable columns as planned by Lieutenant-General Sir H.D’U Keary mentioned earlier. As the Kuki rule gradually weakened in that process and Manipur fully merged with India in 1949, that administrative arrangement was ended but the division of the territory remained unchanged and later became District Head Quarters, continuing the legacy of the colonial wrath on the people. The significance of this political arrangement, is described by Gangte as follows: “[t]he most permanent and lasting effect of this war of Independence by the Kukis was not only the suppression of the Kukis, but marking of permanent boundaries of Manipur, which still exists till today.”51 The Anglo-Kuki war was a major setback for the Kukis in their sense of identity as a people. At the same time, to the missionaries, it was a defeat of the old way of life, the dawn of the Gospel light as Downs observes.52


The concept of ‘identity’ is a complex one and its nature fluid, however, the impact of the phenomenon is very extensive. For the Kukis, it is crucial for the existence of the people and hence provides a new context of theology and mission.

With the disappearance of the term ‘race’ in sociology, ethnicity or ethnic identity were popularized in the 1960s and remained a central focus for research in the 1990s. The term was introduced in the context of the emergence of new nation states in the post-colonial era and the immigrant situations, referring to a complex social categorization of people in the new setting. In such a situation, a given context produces a distinct image and tone of an ethnicity, making the task of defining the term extremely difficult. The complexity is related to the empirical reality of peoples and the ways in which the phenomenon appears to observers. Ethnicity sometimes appears as pre-existing reality, while at other times it results from a purpose-driven political movement reflecting the underlying fluidity of identity boundary.

Kuki people’s struggle for identity is about preservation of their culture, land and administration. To put it differently, it is a struggle to include a local context and its specific cultural tradition as equally important, both for the understanding and solution of the people’s problems. At the postcolonial national level, assimilative ideologies such as Hindutva ideology and its implication for minority culture pose concerns for peaceful existence. Basic to the ideology of Hindutva, or ‘hinduness’, is that India has one culture, one history and one loyalty. It is about history, belongingness, land, patriotism and loyalty to the land and its religion. This ideology alienates minority cultures like the Kukis who do not share the worldview of the majority Hindu, Indian culture.

At the local level, the introduction of new laws and administration for the minority groups made their ancestor’s land and administration increasingly vulnerable. The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act is one good example. In the 1960s, the government of Manipur introduced the MLR&LR Act which sought to bring the whole of Manipur including the hills under some form of uniformity. The Act, however, was not implemented due to the strong opposition of the tribal chiefs but the matter remained very much alive. The threat also comes in the name of so-called ‘development’. A common experience of the tribal people of India as a whole is the loss of lands for the construction of dams. One clear example is the construction of the Khuga Dam in a Kuki area of Manipur. The dam is a multi-purpose project 38 meters high and 230 meters long. It was started in 1983 and was completed in 2009, displacing many tribals and their rice fields. Moreover, having constructed the dam there, the government has restricted access of the people to the area thus making their search for livelihood in that forest area very difficult. As referred to earlier, villages and village lands are set up traditionally in such a way that they are indicative to clans, where one stands in a upa- naupa relationship order and his responsibility toward others. Losing a village or a village land, in this case, is considered as losing identity and meaning in the society. Land is not merely marketable ‘real estate’, but an instrument for social order, tranquillity and identity.

It was because of such a feeling of threat to their identity, not denying the element of self-interest, that the Kuki people have been demanding the protection of their ancestor’s land and identity since the dawn of India’s independence in 1947, often risking the Christian message of love and peace in the armed struggle. On the part of the church, there has not been any serious theological reflection on and response to the people’s identity issues.


Like other communities in North-East India, the Kukis have undergone changes as a people, including colonial rule, conversion to Christianity and struggle for identity under independent India. What was distinct in the case of Kuki, however, was lack of well-planned and concentrated Christian missionary activities. It was true that the Kukis had the opportunity to hear the Good News of Christ because of a private missionary but at the same time, it was also true that they were disadvantaged of a well-thought out and integral approach to theology because of such mission activities.

Having collaborated with colonial administration in general and the support of the colonial administration during the Anglo-Kuki war (1917-1919) in particular, Christian mission served as agent in suppressing Kuki traditional identity and administration. Kuki converts, in that case, were also part of the ‘enemy’ suppressing their own political and cultural identity which they now struggle to reconstruct.

Possibly more detrimental was the theology of mission practised by the missionaries. The ‘spiritual conversion of the people’ being the sole purpose of their activities, the missionaries were one-sidedly biased to the work of evangelism. Activities such as schools and medical works were all done for the purpose of conversion with a conviction that they were in darkness without the knowledge of God. With due recognition of the importance of spiritual conversion and its transforming impact on the Kuki people, the absence of an integral approach to theology was a significant weakness for the missionaries.

That being the case, the local culture and cultural values were not given due recognition. While the missionaries viewed them as something that need to be converted to Christianity they are familiar with, sections of the majority Hindu India often try to assimilate them in the process of building a stronger nation.

In the absence of cultural resources such as the social relationship system called Jol-le-gol, traditional ways of dealing with issues and the foundation and vision of the society Khankho, the people have nothing to fall back upon in times of extreme crises. The need and the way forward is to discover values in the people’s cultural past in the light of the Christian message and construct a local theology for the foundation of a newly formed Christian society.

This paper was presented at Yale University, New Haven, USA, on the 27th of June 2013.