Intersecting Histories: The Kuki-Chakma Conflict and Colonial Encounters

Share this:


Sarder Ali Haider


In the rich tapestry of South Asia’s history, one thread stands out for its potent mix of cultural clash, colonial influence, and tribal resilience: the Kuki-Chakma conflict. This conflict, most notably exemplified by the ‘Great Kuki Invasion’ of 1859, has left an indelible mark on the historical and sociocultural landscape of the region.

The Kuki-Chakma conflict was a series of events that unfolded in the mid-19th century, primarily in the territories that now constitute Northeast India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The Kukis, a collective of tribes known for their fierce independence, had been living in the hills of Manipur, Assam, and Tripura. Meanwhile, the Chakmas resided mainly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their worlds collided in a series of raids launched by the Kukis onto Chakma villages, leading to a significant tribal conflict that drew the intervention of the reigning colonial power, the British Empire.

Studying the Kuki-Chakma conflict is of considerable importance for multiple reasons. Firstly, it allows us to better understand the dynamics of inter-tribal relationships in the region during a critical historical period. Secondly, it sheds light on how external forces, such as the imposition of British colonial rule, influenced and amplified existing local tensions. Furthermore, examining this conflict helps illuminate the narratives of resistance and survival among tribal communities during the colonial period.

By delving into the nuances of the Kuki-Chakma conflict, we not only explore a significant event in the region’s history but also gain a richer understanding of the broader colonial and post-colonial context. In turn, this understanding provides valuable insights into the enduring legacies of these historical events in shaping contemporary socio-political realities in Northeast India and Bangladesh.

Background Information

The Kuki and Chakma tribes are significant ethnic groups in South Asia, each with distinct cultures, languages, and traditions. The Kukis are a diverse group of tribes residing primarily in the northeastern states of India, mainly Manipur, Assam, and Tripura, with smaller communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Known for their resilience and a strong sense of autonomy, the Kukis have historically been hill dwellers, practicing jhum or slash-and-burn agriculture.

In contrast, the Chakmas are primarily found in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, with significant populations also present in the Indian states of Mizoram, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh. The Chakmas are predominantly Buddhists and are well-known for their rich oral literature and craftsmanship, particularly in weaving.

The geographical territories of the Kuki and Chakma tribes play a significant role in their cultural and socio-economic practices. The Kuki tribes inhabit the hilly terrains of Northeast India, particularly in the states of Manipur, Assam, and Tripura. These rugged terrains, abundant in flora and fauna, have shaped the Kukis’ lifestyle, which primarily revolves around jhum cultivation and hunting.

On the other hand, the Chakma communities largely reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, a region characterized by dense forests, valleys, and rivers. This geographical context has significantly influenced the Chakma lifestyle, which includes river fishing and terrace farming, besides weaving and other crafts.

The Kuki and Chakma tribes, while distinct in their practices, share common features of tribal societies, including close-knit community living, deep respect for nature, and a rich tradition of folklore and oral history. The Kuki social structure is mainly clan-based, with the village chief holding significant authority. They celebrate various festivals like ‘Mim Kut’ and ‘Chavang Kut’, centered around harvest seasons, showcasing their rich cultural traditions and dances.

In contrast, the Chakma community, primarily Buddhists, follow a mix of Theravada Buddhism and traditional animistic beliefs. Their socio-cultural life is marked by various ceremonies and festivals, the most significant being ‘Bizu’, a three-day event that marks the end of the Bengali calendar year. Weaving holds a crucial place in Chakma society, with traditional designs passed down through generations. Understanding the socio-cultural norms and lifestyles of these tribes, coupled with the geographical context of their territories, is critical in appreciating the historical interactions between them, including the conflicts and alliances that shaped their histories.

The Rise of Colonial Influence

The British established their rule in the Indian subcontinent through a combination of trade, diplomacy, and military conquest, beginning in the early 17th century with the formation of the East India Company. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company gained significant territorial control, which continued to expand throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. By the mid-19th century, the British Crown took direct control, marking the beginning of the British Raj, which lasted until India’s independence in 1947.

The arrival of British rule in the Northeast of India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts introduced significant social, economic, and political transformations. The British followed a policy of relative isolation and indirect rule in these regions, characterised by the creation of “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas with limited interference from British administration. However, the encroachment of British administration and its policies disrupted the traditional societal structures and led to the gradual erosion of tribal autonomy.

Simultaneously, colonial policies like the establishment of reserve forests affected tribal communities’ access to their traditional lands, leading to tensions and conflicts. The British also brought in new economic policies, including the introduction of cash crops, which altered traditional agricultural practices and economic systems.

The British policy of indirect rule and non-interference had specific implications for the Kuki and Chakma tribes. The Kukis, known for their fierce independence, resisted British attempts to assert control over their territories, leading to a series of Kuki uprisings against British rule, notably the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919.

Meanwhile, for the Chakmas, British policies led to land alienation and demographic changes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The construction of the Assam Bengal Railway in 1896 facilitated the influx of non-tribal settlers into Chakma territories, leading to increased competition for land and resources and heightened inter-community tensions.

The ‘Great Kuki Invasion’ of 1859 should be viewed against this backdrop of changing dynamics under British colonial rule. The subsequent British intervention in the conflict was not just an isolated military expedition, but part of the broader narrative of colonialism and its impacts on the region’s tribal communities.

The Kuki-Chakma Conflict: The Great Kuki Invasion of 1859

The Great Kuki Invasion of 1859 marks a significant chapter in the history of the Kuki-Chakma conflict. Triggered by a combination of factors including territorial disputes, competition over resources, and the broader impacts of British colonial policies, the invasion saw Kuki tribesmen raiding numerous Chakma villages.

The conflict erupted when a contingent of 400 to 500 Kukis advanced into the plains of Tipperah at Chagulneyah in early January 1860. Fueled by rumors of British support for the Chakmas and grievances over territorial and resource disputes, the Kukis launched a series of raids, burning down villages, killing inhabitants, and taking many captives.

Impact of the Invasion on the Chakma Villages

The Kuki Invasion inflicted substantial harm on the Chakma communities. The Kukis’ scorched-earth approach led to the destruction of numerous villages, causing significant displacement among the Chakma population. The invasion also resulted in a considerable loss of life and the capture of many Chakmas, disrupting the socio-economic life of the communities affected. This traumatic experience had a lasting impact on Chakma oral histories and collective memory, underscoring the deep-seated tensions between the two tribes.

The Role of the British in the Conflict and Their Actions to Protect the Chakma Communities

The British administration, although initially caught off-guard, responded swiftly to the Kuki invasion. Their primary concern was to protect their subjects – the Chakmas, and to prevent the conflict from destabilizing the region. British forces were dispatched to the area, launching a series of military expeditions against the Kukis throughout 1860-61.

The British intervention led to a cessation of the Kuki raids and eventually to some level of pacification. However, the conflict and its resolution set a precedent for the British’s future approach to tribal affairs in the region, reinforcing their strategy of indirect rule and selective intervention.

Aftermath and Legacy of the Conflict

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, both the Kuki and Chakma communities faced considerable hardships. The Chakma villages suffered massive loss and displacement, and the restoration of peace meant a long and arduous process of rebuilding their communities. The Kukis, on the other hand, faced increased surveillance and control by the British authorities.

In the long run, the conflict led to significant changes in the tribal dynamics of the region. It exacerbated mistrust and enmity between the Kuki and Chakma tribes, which had repercussions on their inter-tribal relations that can still be felt today. It also brought about demographic changes in the region as people displaced by the conflict moved to new areas.

Changes in British Policies Post-Conflict

The Kuki-Chakma conflict and the Great Kuki Invasion revealed the vulnerabilities of British control in the region and forced a reassessment of their policies. The British administration took steps to increase their presence and control in the tribal areas, although they continued to follow the overall policy of indirect rule. They also introduced measures to prevent such conflicts in the future, including enhanced border control and improved relations with tribal chiefs. The conflict highlighted the necessity for the British to strike a delicate balance between ensuring security and maintaining the autonomy of tribal societies.

The Legacy of the Conflict in Contemporary Kuki and Chakma Societies

The legacy of the Great Kuki Invasion and the ensuing Kuki-Chakma conflict is deeply ingrained in the collective memory of both tribes. It has shaped their historical narratives and continues to influence their relations today. The conflict is a significant part of the tribes’ oral histories and has been passed down through generations.

In contemporary times, the history of this conflict occasionally resurfaces in the form of tribal tensions and disagreements over land and resources. At the same time, it serves as a stark reminder of the past and underlines the importance of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between different ethnic groups in the region.

The Great Kuki Invasion and the subsequent Kuki-Chakma conflict were not merely isolated incidents but were integral parts of the complex tapestry of colonial history and tribal relations in Northeast India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their legacy endures in the memories and lives of the Kuki and Chakma communities and remains a critical chapter in their shared history.

Reflections on the Kuki-Chakma Conflict

The Kuki-Chakma conflict is a significant event that elucidates several broader themes within colonial and post-colonial histories. The conflict was not an isolated incident, but was deeply entwined with the realities of colonial rule, the struggle for tribal autonomy, and complex inter-tribal relations.

The conflict was significantly shaped by the British colonial policies, which led to territorial disputes, disrupted traditional tribal dynamics, and aggravated the tensions between the Kukis and Chakmas. The British intervention in the conflict also reflects their approach towards tribal autonomy, where they sought to maintain control while minimally interfering in tribal affairs. Moreover, the Kuki-Chakma conflict provides a vivid example of inter-tribal relations in Northeast India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The conflict showcases the challenges and tensions that can arise due to competition over resources and territorial disputes.

An understanding of the Kuki-Chakma conflict can offer valuable insights into present-day issues in the region. It provides historical context to the continued tensions between different tribal groups and underlines the lasting impact of colonial policies on these societies. The issues of territorial rights and tribal autonomy, prominent during the conflict, continue to be relevant today. Contemporary disputes over land rights, resource allocation, and tribal sovereignty can trace their roots back to the colonial period, reminding us that the past significantly shapes the present.

The conflict also underscores the importance of dialogue and peaceful negotiation in resolving inter-tribal tensions. The lessons from this conflict can guide contemporary efforts towards conflict resolution and peace-building in the region. Reflecting on the Kuki-Chakma conflict allows us to better understand the complexities of tribal societies in Northeast India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It offers valuable lessons on the interplay of colonialism, tribal autonomy, and inter-tribal relations – lessons that remain relevant to this day.


This article has explored the historical context of the Kuki-Chakma conflict, specifically focusing on the Great Kuki Invasion of 1859. Beginning with the description of the Kuki and Chakma communities and the establishment of British colonial rule, we delved into the complex interplay of factors that led to the conflict.

The Kuki invasion was marked by violent raids on Chakma villages, leading to a significant loss of life and property. The subsequent intervention of the British aimed at protecting the Chakma communities, and their policies post-conflict aimed to strengthen their control over the region. The conflict had profound immediate and long-term effects on both Kuki and Chakma communities, reshaping tribal dynamics and leaving a lasting legacy that continues to influence relations between these groups today.

The Kuki-Chakma conflict, while a historical event, continues to hold contemporary relevance. It is an integral part of the shared history of the Kuki and Chakma communities and shapes their current realities. Remembering and studying this conflict not only helps in understanding the past, but it also provides valuable insights into the present-day issues in the region. In a broader perspective, the conflict offers important lessons about the impacts of colonialism, the complexities of tribal autonomy, and the challenges of inter-tribal relations. These lessons have wide-ranging implications, providing a framework for understanding similar conflicts and the legacy of colonial rule across different regions.

The Kuki-Chakma conflict and its ensuing lessons underline the importance of historical reflection and understanding, paving the way for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect among different ethnic groups. By studying and remembering this conflict, we acknowledge the past, understand the present, and pave the way for a better future.


Sir Alexander Mackenzie: Memorandum on the North East Frontier of Bengal, Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta 1869, p 53.

Kailas Chandra Sinha, Rajmala, 1895, p 364.

Bengal Judicial Progs, A, November 1860, Nos 207-254. J D Gordon’s report dated 27 September 1860.

Bengal Government to the Commissioner of Chittagong, November 1860.

Bengal Judicial Progs, A, 26 September 1860, Nos. 357-358.

Bengal Judicial Progs, A, March 1861, No 16 Gordons’ report.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *