CNN Photos

Kukis of Northeast India fight for identity

As a child growing up in South India, Sami Siva had no idea what was going on in the country’s northeast.

It was only after he left India, became a Canadian citizen and took up photography as a profession that he began to take an interest in this neglected corner of the vast subcontinent where a patchwork of different ethnic groups live, often in conflict with one another or the central government.

Squeezed between China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan, the region is connected to the rest of India by a 20-kilometer-wide sliver of territory known as the “Chicken Neck.”

The narrowness of that link adds to a sense of remoteness for the northeast’s inhabitants, who are caught up in a complex whirl of independence movements, tribal rivalries, geopolitics, poverty and drugs.

For Siva, 37, photographing the people of the region is a way to explore questions like “Who is an Indian?” and “What is a nation?”

One of the groups he has focused on is the Kuki tribe in the lush green hills of the state of Manipur, near the border with Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The Kukis started their armed movement for an independent state within India in the 1980s. Disputes with another tribe in the region, the Nagas, flared into open conflict in the 1990s.

A ceasefire is in place. But low-level clashes with the Nagas still occur, and the Kukis continue to press for their own land.

They remain armed and have control of a key border crossing with Myanmar, through which illegal drugs and weapons are traded.

Little is reported about the Kukis in much of India, let alone the rest of the world, according to Siva.

“It was important for me to see how these people live and what their aspirations are,” he said. “What do they want to achieve?”

The world portrayed in his black-and-white photos is full of tough existences eked out in an underdeveloped region.

“There’s no proper transportation,” he said. “There’s one highway that leads to Burma. Besides that, there are no proper roads.”

Hospitals are also lacking. Siva’s first visits to Manipur were with the aid group Doctors Without Borders to document its work in areas suffering from the spread of heroin abuse and HIV.

“I’ve seen situations where it’s totally bleak,” he said.

A military leader once told him that the choice for young Kuki men was stark. “You either became a drug addict or joined the military,” Siva said.

Guns and uniformed soldiers feature prominently in his images. The struggle for independence is widely supported, he says, and the Kuki military is part of daily life.

But his photography examines other aspects of Kuki identity, too, including their Christian faith.

Converted by missionaries in the 19th century, the Kukis have retained a strong attachment to Anglicanism. “They are very Christian. They are very religious,” Siva said.

Although he was an outsider, he says he felt very welcomed and regularly received food and shelter from local residents.

“They are extremely friendly and helpful with strangers,” he said.

Siva visited the region earlier this year and hopes to return soon. He wants to cover the border area with Myanmar in more depth.

He’s also thinking about exploring the situation from the point of view of the Nagas, the Kukis’ bitter foes.

- Jethro Mullen, CNN