Hill Politics and Political Movements Among the ZO Tribes in North-East India

Dr. H. Thangtungnung

Abstract Political Trends under KNO and UPF
Introduction New Identity Assertion—Lost Tribe Movement
Hill Politics After 1947 Conclusion
Political Movements and Demands  

After India’s independence, political demands like tribe recognition, Union Territory, Sixth Schedule status, Autonomous Hill State and sovereignty came up in North East India among the Hill tribes of the Kuki, Mizo and Zomi/Chin who are collectively known as Zo. Various political bodies like Hill Peoples Conference, Zomi National Council (ZNC), Sixth Scheduled Demand Committee, Manipur (SDCM), Zo Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO), Chin Liberation Army (CLA) and Mizo National Front (MNF) were formed to pursue these demands as well as to re-unify the Zo tribes of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Students’ bodies like the All Tribals Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM) and Churachandpur District Students’ Union (CDSU) also clamoured for Hill autonomy under the leadership of E Vungkholian in Manipur. CLA under Tunkhopum Baite and MNF under Laldenga had failed in the attempt for a sovereign tribal state. Lost tribe (Israel) identity has been asserted by a section like the Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention (CIPC) and converted Jews.

The latest political trend is the demand of Autonomous Hill State by the United Peoples Front (UPF), and that of the Kuki State by the Kuki National Organisation (KNO); UPF and KNO are the two separate umbrella bodies of the conglomerate tribal underground groups currently under the Suspensions of Operations (SoO) with the Central and State Governments. The present study focuses on the politics of South Manipur Hills and Mizoram where the Zos mainly reside. It examines tribal politics since independence.


Northeast India is predominantly occupied by hill tribals. Except Assam, Tripura and Manipur states, the other five states are tribal states where they are in majority. There are many indigenous hill tribes even in the three states though they form minority groups. In Manipur, the hill areas consist of five administrative districts while the plain is divided into four such districts. Churachandpur is the largest district in the State and the second town of Manipur after the State Capital, Imphal. It was previously known as Manipur South District. It is occupied by the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi linguistic groups of tribes commonly known as Zo.[i] These Non-Naga tribes are historically known as the Kukis.[ii] They are found everywhere, not only in Manipur, but also in Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Burma and Bangladesh.

The major tribes within the Zo group are the Paites, Thadous, Lusheis (Mizos), Vaiphei, Zous, Hmars, Simte, Gangte and Kom. Their dialects are closely inter-linked and more or less intelligible to one another. They practice almost the same culture and customs which are passed down from their forefathers. Though they maintain unwritten customary laws, some of the tribes have now introduced them into a written form. The tribes profess Christianity as their religion, which was introduced to them by the Western missionaries after the British occupation. [iii]

The tribes are politically, economically and socially backward when compared to the plain Bengali, Assamese and Meitei communities, because Colonial administration to the tribal areas reached very late.[iv]Only after India’s independence that political forums and demands began to appear among these tribes slowly. A few of them acquired some formal education under the Western missions and subsequently became pioneers in the formations of tribal bodies such as political and social organizations. Political awareness under the British rule had also created a few leaders who became a unifying force within the tribal community.

Hill Politics After 1947

Soon after the British left the country, political organizations like the Kuki National Assembly (KNA), [v] Paite National Council (PNC)[vi] and Hmar National Union (HNU)[vii] were born. They began to play active political roles especially in South Manipur Hills, which gradually became their stronghold. They started making some political demands before the Indian Union. However, these demands were minor in the sense that the initial demands were for inclusion of tribes like Paite, Simte, Vaiphei, Zou and Hmar in the list Scheduled Tribes prepared by Indian Union. While the KNA clamoured for the cause of strengthening the Kuki identity, the other tribal bodies like the PNC began to work for the cause of Chin unification of India, Burma and Bangladesh. The Mizo Union became active in the Lushai Hills and worked for the Mizo cause.

Tunkhopum Baite[viii] organized an armed group called the Chin Liberation Army (CLA) in 1961. He paid a secret visit to Pakistan twice with the aim of inciting a rebellion against India. He made an arrangement to train a hundred volunteers in arms and warfare under the Pakistan secret service.[ix] But his scheme died down before it became mature. The aim of the CLA was to integrate the various Zo tribes under one umbrella and to secede out of India and Burma by forming a sovereign state. The objects of the CLA clashed with that of the Mizo National Front (MNF), which came into being shortly after. As the MNF demanded independence from India, it could not tolerate any other agency to pursue the same or other demands. Meanwhile, the activities of the CLA gradually became limited to the interest of a single tribe. It was alleged that Tunkhopum started working for the cause of the Baite tribe only. This eventually caused him to lose public support from the other Chin-Kuki tribes, leading to his ultimate failure.

After the merger of Manipur with the Indian Union in 1949, elections for members of Electoral College were held and a form of Advisory Government was installed during 1953-1957. When it came to Parliamentary elections, tribes like the Paites were unable to contest the elections in their tribe name on the ground that they were not a recognized scheduled tribe of India.[x] Under this circumstance, the Paite National Council (PNC) submitted a memorandum, on 18 November 1955, to the home minister of India demanding the inclusion of Paite as a distinct tribe in the list of Scheduled Tribes (Goswami 1979: 67).[xi] As a result, the Government of India (GOI) extended recognition to a number of tribes including Paite through a modification of the Scheduled Tribe list in 1956 (Gougin 1984: 219). [xii]

The General Assembly of the PNC held in 1960 resolved that a memorandum be submitted to the prime minister of India demanding the ‘re-unification of the Chin people’ in India and Burma and it was actually submitted in the same year.[xiii]At the same time, a demand for union territory was growing among the Hill tribes of Manipur to assert and safeguard their separate existence from the plain people. In 1978, the Hill Peoples Conference (HPC) submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister (PM) of India for the creation of Union Territory comprising Churachandpur, Sadar Hills, Chandel and Jiribam sub-divisions of Manipur.[xiv] The HPC raised the same agenda in 1980 through another memorandum. The same year, the All Tribals Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM) submitted a memorandum to the PM of India demanding Hill State for the tribals of Manipur.[xv]

The Zomi National Council (ZNC) was formed as a political body in 1976 under the aegis of T Gougin (Ibid p. 242).The Council propagated the term “Zomi” as a common nomenclature for these tribes in place of the Colonial term like the “Kuki” or “Chin”. It demanded a separate territory called “Zogam” for the Zo tribes of India, Burma and Bangladesh. In 1983, the ZNC submitted a memorandum to the PM of India demanding the creation of Union Territory.[xvi]But the ZNC, which became a strong political force to reckon with in South Manipur and Chin Hills got almost defunct after 1990 due to stiff opposition from the PNC in India and the proscription from the military government in Myanmar.

“The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act 1971” was passed by the Indian Parliament and in accordance with the provisions of the Act, the first District Council election was held in 1973.[xvii]But as the District Councils in Manipur Hills were not within the Sixth Scheduled of the Indian Constitution, the demand for extension of the Sixth Schedule in the Hill areas of Manipur became quite vociferous. For the first time in 1985, all the Autonomous District Councils from the six Hill Districts of Manipur under the aegis of the Sixth Scheduled Demand Committee, Manipur (SDCM) submitted a memorandum to the GOI demanding extension of the provision of Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India.[xviii]In 1990, the SDCM made the same demand by submitting another memorandum to the Government of Manipur (GOM).[xix]

In 1989, ATSUM submitted another memorandum to the Government of India demanding Autonomous Hill State. [xx]In 1999, it again submitted a memorandum to the president of India demanding tribal union territory for Outer Manipur.[xxi]But so far such demands that carry the aspirations of the tribes have not yielded any positive result... The significance of such struggle, however, lies in the manifestation of political awareness and consciousness rather than achieving the results.

Political Movements and Demands

Another storm centre of the Zo political movement was the Mizo Hills, presently known as Mizoram. The movement in the form of sovereignty demand took a violent turn under the Mizo National Front (MNF) in the 1960s. The MNF movement, which started from the Mizo Hills penetrated as far as South Manipur Hills and had a deep influence among the kindred tribes of Manipur. When an all-party meeting was held in January 1965 at Churachandpur which included representatives of tribe based bodies from Manipur and Mizo Hills, the demand for the unification of all Mizos, Kukis and Chins was raised (Chaube 1999: 180). However, such political unity could not materialise as suspicion and distrust ran high among the non-Lushei tribes as they were apprehensive of Lushai dominance when the term “Mizo” was brought forward by the Mizo Union to be the nomenclature (Ibid 181). Tribes outside the fold of Mizo identity could not accept the imposition of such generic term upon them. Meanwhile, an alternative appeared possible by the existence of Chin National Front (CNF) in the Chin Hills, started under the able leadership of L Chinza (Ibid). However, this forum too, could not chalk out any desirable result as it was mainly operating from Burma and dominated by the Pawis and Lakhers.

The generic name, ‘Kuki’ was also equally rejected by the Paites, Hmars and some other tribes to represent them wholly; it was suspected that the Thadous were trying to impose their dialect upon the non-Thadou speakers.[xxii] While the Paite began to espouse the cause of Chin nationalism, the Hmars tried to maintain their own separate existence. However, the Paites soon distasted the generic term, “Chin” as well with the view that it was, like the “Kuki”, the foreign name given by outsiders (Vum Ko Hau 1990: 20). Instead, the term, ‘Zomi/Zoumi’ was emphasized in place of “Chin” or “Kuki” to be a broader and legitimate term. In this backdrop, the Zomi Revolutionary Organisation (ZRO) was established in April 1993 at Phapyan, Kachin State, Burma with the following objectives— [xxiii]

  1. to ethnically re-unify the Zomis

  2. to territorially re-unify all the Zomi inhabited areas known as ZOGAM

  3. to politically re-unify ZOGAM into one administrative unit.

Earlier, in and around 1987, an over-ground political body had been formed at Aizawl for the re-unification of the Zo tribes scattered in India, Burma and Bangladesh. The body was christened as Zomi Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO). The movement led by the ZORO was a peaceful one unlike the MNF movement. It had its first world convention at Champhai in 1988 with massive attendance. More than forty delegates from Arracan, Chittagong, Chin State, Tripura, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Kachin State, Saigang Division and Magwe Division signed charter of agreement and made declaration for Zomi re-unification within Indian Union by non-violent means.[xxiv] Another ZORO Convention was held at Aizawl in 1991 with huge public response as well, which amended the Champhai Convention Declaration and accordingly, the body was renamed as Zo Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO) and the word, “within Indian Union” was deleted at this Aizawl Convention. [xxv] Since some of the founders of ZORO like Gougin and Thangkhangin were from Churachandpur (Manipur), the organization had a deep impact in the district at least for the time being and left a lasting imprint on Zomi national movement.

Recently, the ZORO has concluded its Convention at Lamka (Churachandpur), Manipur on 14 March 2013 in which representatives from every Zo tribes participated. The Convention asserted that the Zos were dispersed in India, Burma and Bangladesh and in the process, the British and Bengalis had given them various misnomer names but their progenitor was Zo.[xxvi] Though nothing sort of political agenda or referendum was raised and the Convention ended without any resolution adopted, the members however, agreed for mutual co-operation and unity and accorded that the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi tribes are one and inherit the same culture and traditions from times immemorial.

Tunkhopum, who had chalked out an armed rebellion in Manipur, Mizoram and Chin Hills, Burma against the Union of India in the early 1960’s as mentioned earlier, had failed in his bold attempt. Other leaders like Gougin and Thangkhangin[xxvii] strived hard for the Zomi national cause since 1976, and it also shortly met a natural death. In the subsequent period, a young and intelligent leader, Vungkholian emerged as a champion for the cause of Zomi nationalism. Devoting his whole life for the Zo society, he started his humble career as a student leader like President of Churachandpur District Students’ Union (CDSU) and All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM). He advocated a union territory status within the Constitution of India as a safeguard for the tribals in Manipur without which, they could soon be annihilated. He ran from pillar to post, struggled hard to achieve his dream but there was none to enthusiastically support him. It was under his able leadership that the ATSUM submitted memorandums to the government of India demanding the creation of Union Territory in Manipur Hills.

Like Tunkhopum, E Vungkholian also died prematurely and there was none to substitute him. He deserves to be called the iron man of the Zo people. Without any visionary like him, the Zo tribes receded once again to the background in politics and political demands. The ethnic clash, which took place between the Kuki and Zomi tribes within the Zo group in 1997-98 had caused miserable hardships to the common people in terms of settlement, livelihood, education, economic and psychological stability. Though the ethnic violence was due to the ethnic divide and identity crisis, which had been visible since 1980’s, still the divide and crisis did not end there. Such insecurity led to the formation of many armed wing organizations based on tribes and sub-tribes, which eventually led to the formation of groups and alliances. The main underground groups prevalent in the South District are the Kuki National Front, Zomi Revolutionary Army and Kuki National Army.[xxviii]

After 1997 Kuki-Zomi ethnic clash, numerous underground and over ground groups were formed in the tiny Hill districts of North East India, mainly based on communal lines. The Zo tribal groups came to be divided into two main militant organs in Manipur. One is the United Peoples Front (UPF) and the other is the Kuki National Organisation (KNO). The Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), armed wing of the Zomi Revolutionary Organisation (ZRO) was hell bent on protecting the Zomi cause and included within its fold, tribes like the Paite, Simte, Tedim-Chin, Vaiphei, Zou, Thangkhal and Kom. The ZRO/ZRA became the champion of the UPF militant group. It was formed in 1992 with South Manipur as its area of operation. Its existence was the outcome of the formation of Paite Commandos by a few trained Paite youths as a safeguard from the onslaughts of the Kuki militants like the KNF when ethnic tensions ran high between the Thadous (Kuki) and the Paites (Zomi) in 1992. The existence of ZRA therefore, became an eye sore to the Kuki hard cores from the very beginning. The Kuki-Zomi Clash in Manipur during 1997-98 was also due to the results of the Kuki-Naga conflicts in the early 1990s, [xxix] because those Kukis who were pushed away from the Naga dominated areas of Ukhrul and Tamenglong came to the South District and began to assert their dominance over the native inhabitants here.

The Zomi Council was formed in 1998 as an apex body of the Zomi tribes, representing eight major tribes like Paite, Vaiphei, Simte, Zou, Tedim-Chin, Thangkhal, Mate and Kom.[xxx] As the main body espousing the Zomi cause, it submitted a memorandum to the Home Minister of India demanding the creation of Zomi political autonomy in 2001.[xxxi] The Kukis, another Zo sub-group became the main opponent of the Zomi cause for sometime and demanded a full fledged Kuki state to the Indian Government under the Kuki Innpi, the apex body of the Kuki tribal group. It is significant to add that the Kuki Innpi always wanted to retain the term “Kuki” as a legal nomenclature for all the Zo tribes. This caused hatred and mistrust between the two groups, which soon became deep-rooted which burst out in the form of ethnic violent in the late 1990s.

Political Trends under KNO and UPF

The various Zomi and Kuki underground groups, since 2005, entered into cease-fire agreements known as Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the Government of India (GOI) to follow a peace process. These underground organizations pooled together separately under the two umbrella groups—the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United Peoples Front (UPF). The two groups separately signed a cease-fire pact with the government. With the involvement of the State Government, both the groups separately signed a tripartite SoO with the GOI and the State Government of Manipur in 2008 and kept their firearms in double-locking custody. The groups are assigned designated camps where their cadres are stationed within limitation and are restricted to move around freely with arms. The two groups have their own political demands to the Government of India but no political dialogue has been initiated till today. While the KNA demands creation of a Kuki State touching the five hill districts of Manipur, the demand of the UPF is ‘State within a State’ that is Autonomous Hill State within Manipur. One of the basic aims of the UPF through its charter of demands is to empower the autonomous district councils, which are presently functioning through the elected MDC (Member of District Council) under the State government but without any Sixth Schedule status within the Indian constitution. The other details of the provision of the UPF ‘Autonomous Hill State’ cannot be ascertained until political dialogue is held with the government as the terms and meaning of such phrase has not been detailed or elaborated by the said group.

The SoO, which was usually extended after every alternate year, had ended in August 2012, but was granted three months extension.. After the expiry of the three months on December 6, the peace process almost broke down because both the KNO and UPF alleged the Government was not sincere enough to start a peace dialogue with them.[xxxii] Another area of conflict between the Government and the groups was regarding the appointment of interlocutor for future talks as the latter insisted that they should also be consulted in making such appointment. Meanwhile, the militant groups separately insisted on the Government to first give a written assurance to begin a political dialogue with them in the nearest future.[xxxiii] In a press statement, K. Guite, Adviser to the ZRO and leader of UPF has stated that the present SoO will last till August 2013 and the UPF has submitted its charter of demands to the Union Government consistent with the its agenda that is for ‘Autonomous Hill State’.[xxxiv] He claims that the UPF’s demand has a non-communal approach and is within the Indian Constitution which will not only speed up development in the hills but also bring peace in the hill areas and Manipur at large.[xxxv] According to his statement, the proposed Hill State will also empower the existing district councils which is an upgradation of the Hill Areas Committee, a constitutional body of elected tribal members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly (MLA) to look after the affairs of the Hill areas.[xxxvi]

The KNO President, PS Haokip has also presented his political road map to the public as well as its SoO partner, the UPF on the occasion of its 26 th rising day celebrated on the 24 February 2013 at Mata Lambulane, an outskirt village along the Tipaimukh Road, a few distance from Churachandpur town. He has expressed his desire to see both the UPF and KNO sharing a common goal, which according to his political road map is a separate Kuki State. He envisages it to be christened “Zogam”, a term seen to appease those who subscribe to the Zomi nomenclature. [xxxvii] Both the UPF and KNO have met more than thrice somewhere within Lamka (Churachandpur) town to discuss their political goals to see if a common agenda and demand could be drawn.

KNO is a conglomeration of Kuki militant groups like the Kuki National Army (KNA), Kuki National Front (MC), Kuki National Front (Zougam), Kuki National Front (Samuel), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), Hmar National Union (HNA), United Kuki Revolutionary Army (UKRA), United Minority Liberation Army (UMLA), USRA, United Tribal Liberation Army (UTLA) and Pakan Re-Unification Army (PRA). [xxxviii] The constituent members of the UPF are Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), Hmar Peoples Convention (HPC-D), Kuki National Front (P), Kuki Revolutionary Army (U), United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), Zomi Revolutionary Front (ZRF) and Zou Defence Force (ZDF).[xxxix]

New Identity Assertion—Lost Tribe Movement

In the 1990s, the South District, known as Churachandpur (Lamka) began witnessing a new but vibrant identity movement which almost touched each and every household. The movement originated from Aizawl and penetrated the Chin Hills, Bangladesh and Manipur apart from the whole Mizoram. It was spearheaded by the Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention (CIPC)[xl] with its General Headquarter at Aizawl, Mizoram with the contention that the Zo groups of tribes are one of the lost ten tribes of Israel. It was a non-religious and non-denominational movement, which tried to reconstruct and delineate the true identity and origin of the Zo people. However, with the untimely demise of Lalchhanhima Sailo, its founder President around in 2005, the CIPC movement gradually diminished since then and its influence is now almost non-existent. The “lost tribes” or “Manmasi” theory as root of origin is not a recent concept. It started way back in the early 1970s when Judaism as a faith began to be firmly established in this part of Manipur and Mizoram for the first time. Those who were converted into Jews/ claimed their root of origin from Manasseh or ‘Manmasi’ in local term, the elder of the two sons of Joseph as found in the Bible. [xli] They asserted that they were one among the scattered Israelites when the land of Israel, including the Holy City Jerusalem was invaded, way back in BC 722 , and plundered by the Assyrian king (Kunga 2005: 6). They then migrated towards the East passing through the modern Iran-Iraq deserts and the Himalaya mountain ranges of China and Tibet after crossing Afghanistan and finally reached North East India. After their sojourned settlements in China, Tibet and Burma, they entered the Chin Hills, Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh and lastly to Mizoram, Manipur, Assam and other parts of India in different waves of migration (Songtinlam nd: 48-50).

The local Jews in Manipur and Mizoram organized into religious groups like Bnei Manasseh Council and Bnei Israel, which spearheaded not only the ‘lost’ identity issue but also emigration to the ‘Holy Land’. While the CIPC movement was basically a Christian movement, members of the Bnei practically professed and followed the Jewish religion and customs as a distinct community. Since the 1980s, conversion into this religious community was swift and it was witnessed largely from the local tribal Christians, mostly from the Kuki and Mizo communities. As a result, the search for original identity took a new turn among these tribes and was at its height during 1990s when the previously accepted Khul [xlii] origin theory subsided. The existing nomenclatures like the “Kuki”, “Mizo”, “Chin” and “Zomi” are neither rejected nor advocated by the active supporters of this school of thought.

The ‘Jewish’ identity of the tribes in Manipur and Mizoram has also been endorsed by the Israeli Government in 2005 with the approval of the Rabbinate Council and on this basis, many of them have been taken into Israel since the early 1990s on partial basis. [xliii] A new batch has left Manipur for Tel-Aviv during December 2012 and January 2013 and this is the latest instance of such emigration.[xliv] Today, there are around 2000 Kukis and Mizos from the two states who have become citizens in Israel.[xlv]

The Isreal/Jewish identity movement is not just a socio-religious movement, but it is also a political one because it asserted that the Zo tribes are a homogenous political entity through the ages and claimed Palestine as their original home. The CIPC has once stated that its agenda is to establish a Jewish land in the area where the Mizos reside.[xlvi] It has affirmed the Jewish identity of the Mizos by a referendum on the 28 October 1999 at Vanapa Hall, Aizawl in the presence of David R. Ashkenazy of Israel, Hillel Halkin[xlvii] from Jerusalem, UN Observers and Lalthanhawla, the present Chief Minister of Mizoram. [xlviii] Since then, there is no looking back.


While the basic aim of ZORO is to integrate the Zos residing in India, Burma and Bangladesh, the same issue has been the prime object of the ZRO when it was established in 1992. The real foundation has been built by the ZNC during the 1970s through its people’s movement and peaceful campaign without any aggression directed against the Government. Much before this, the CLA, a militant organization set up by Tunkhopum Baite had voiced the same issue to be achieved through armed solution. Had not the MNF movement been born, the CLA under Tunkhopum could have given effect to its scheme of fighting against the Indian Government, it is another matter whether it would have succeeded or not.[xlix] When the above activities could not find immediate solution, the gap has been filled by the ‘Manmasi’ origin movement, which gained a fillip within a short duration mainly because its purpose and means are non-violent and it is merely committed to identity issue without any communal tone. Presently, the only hope for materialization of tribal political aspirations rests on either the ‘Autonomous Hill State’ or ‘Kuki State’ as demanded, respectively, by the UPF and KNO under the SoO agreements.

The Northeast region of India has always been insecure and has been burning since 1947 and the Zos are no exception. These situations arise due to the deep-rooted problems and issues which remain unresolved for decades. The need of the hour is to find out the root causes of these problems and grievances through an in-depth study and analysis in order to ensure permanent solutions in the region. Likewise, the aspirations of the Zo tribes need to be addressed by the central authority as long as the solutions are within reach before things turn to worse.