Ratnadip ChoudhuryPhotos: RK Suresh Manipur quietly waits for a crisis to unfold yet again with the 3.5 lakh strong Kuki community demanding a separate Kuki state, a Kukiland, to be curved out of Manipur. The demand is being vehemently opposed by other ethnic groups, making space for another conflict in a state known for its fragile ethnic divide. Ever since Manipur faced an economic blockade last year in demand of a separate district in the Kuki heartland of Sadar Hills, the chasm between the hill and the valley has widened further on lines of ethnicity. The blockade lasted more than hundred days, with the Central and state governments doing almost nothing to end the standoff.
The Nagas, the second largest ethnic group of Manipur after the Meiteis, have been asking for a separate administrative set up, with the United Naga Council (UNC) spearheading the movement. In the Imphal valley, people consider UNC’s agenda as more of a shadow of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) demand of greater Nagaland that will include the Naga villages of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Meiteis, whether intellectual groups, or the from the underground or the common man on streets, all in one voice oppose the idea and Manipur has already seen enough protest warning New Delhi not to compromise with the landlocked state’s territorial integrity.
The Kukis are following the footsteps of the Nagas. The Kuki State Demand Committee (KDSC) feels that it is high time to protect the land of the Kuki tribe. They have sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “We want to sever all ties with the Manipur government which is trying to encroach upon the land of the Kukis by instituting various incriminating laws such as the Manipur Land Regulation Act. Hence the Kuki people want a separate Kuki state and the KSDC is representing the will and wants of the people,” says K Khongsai, spokesperson KSDC. The KSDC also lamented the Manipur Land Revenue Act as an incriminating ‘attack administration’ to undermine the customary institutions and land holding system of the Kuki community.
The Kukis for long have been angry about the Manipur government keeping them deprived. “Thus the Kukis are compelled to seek a separate state to preserve our land, identity and culture. If we peep into history we will find that Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur made for a separate entity outside the kingdom of Manipur, when Manipur was an erstwhile princely state. The Kuki National Assembly which was established in 1960 submitted a memorandum demanding a separate Kuki state to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 24 March 1960,” Khongsai adds.
In a bid to draw attention from the Union home ministry, the KSDC has already called for a 72-hour general strike across the Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur from 12 to 15 May. The renewed demand for a separate state came even as the Union government is reportedly trying to appease the NSCN (IM) with a purported Greater Naga state.
The fact that the fresh impetus to the Kuki land demand comes at a time when nearly 20 Kuki militant groups, who had once waged armed rebellion for a separate state demand, have signed a suspension of operation agreement with the Manipur government and the Centre, and are insisting for a political talk in parallel with the GOI – NSCN (IM) peace parley that had entered its 15thyear, is significant.
Supporting the demand of a Kuki state, some of the Kuki militant groups currently in truce with both the Union government and the government of Manipur have threatened to pull out of the ‘suspension of operation’ agreement while urging New Delhi to acknowledge the demand and establish a meaningful and purposeful dialogue with concerned Kuki groups. If they take up arms once again, violence might flare up in the hills of Manipur. The Kukis are already haunted by memories of fierce ethnic clashes with Nagas on numerous occasions.
Meanwhile, the KSDC has asked the Union government to find a ‘political solution’ for the demand of the Kuki community in the region for self determination within the constitutional framework of the country while warning of intense agitations in the coming days. Khongsai says, “We don’t want any hand or opinion on the issues of other communities but the Indian government must not distinguish or differentiate between the grievances of the Kuki community and other tribal communities.” In a bid to increase its pressure, the KSDC is reportedly mobilising the issue within and outside the civil societies in the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur.
It seems it is high time for the Centre to look into a new strategy of mitigating crisis situations in Manipur. Its effort to lend an ear to one demand of statehood is inviting many other ethnic groups to air their grievances, and push for their demands. The Centre should act before the unique diversity of Manipur suffers another blow.
With inputs from RK Suresh in Imphal
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.firstname.lastname@example.org