With Manipur’s Kuki groups again in protest mode, it is time to ask why the Centre ignores their calls for a dialogue but talks to Nagas.
Manipur, with a population of over 2.7 million, is home to three major groups: Kuki, Naga, and Meitei. While Meiteis, — primarily settled in the four valley districts — want territorial integrity of the State to be maintained, Kukis and Nagas are calling for separate administrative arrangements in the hill areas — Kukis for a Kukiland and Nagas to join a greater Nagaland.
Identity is a major point of conflict between Kukis and Nagas. In the process of identity formation, a number of tribes, including Anal, Maring, Monsang and Moyon, have been assimilated into the Naga fold either by coercion or by other forms of persuasion. Another major point of conflict is land.
Ethnic violence from 1992 to 1997 between the two ethnic groups resulted in the death of over 1,000 people, destruction of thousands of homes, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. While the physical violence has ceased, tensions still linger. The simmering tension has led to different forms of agitation, claims and counterclaims.
The conflict started between Thadou and Maring tribes, both recognised as Kuki during the British colonial administration. While the casualty on the Naga side is unclear, the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), apex civil body of the Kuki people in Manipur, claims that over 961 Kukis were killed, 360 villages affected, and 100,000 people rendered homeless.
The biggest bone of contention is land. The Kuki National Front (KNF), later joined by the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), is demanding that a Kukiland be carved out of the five hill districts of Manipur: Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.
The demand for Kukiland is a direct challenge to the demand for greater or southern Nagaland by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). The Naga militant outfit wants to form greater Nagaland by merging Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul with neighbouring Nagaland State.
The intention to drive out Kukis from these four hill districts led to “ethnic cleansing” by the NSCN-IM. Though the initial violence was triggered by militant outfits in Chandel district, it spread to other parts of the State, and to Nagaland and Myanmar as well.
To restore peace and normalcy, KIM has put forward two important demands to the Nagas and the Central government.
First, it wants the Nagas, especially the NSCN-IM, to formally apologise for the crimes committed in the 1990s and perform customary Kuki rites such as paying Luongman (corpse price) and Tol-theh (cleaning the house for shedding human blood).
Second, KIM wants the Central government to compensate the loss of life and property and rehabilitate the thousands of displaced.
Naga leaders, particularly the NSCN-IM, have not responded to the demands.
While Meiteis oppose the creation of either a Kuki homeland or a greater Nagaland, the Kukis and Nagas are unable to establish any kind of coordination or cooperation. This is partly due to the simmering tension in the aftermath of the 1992-1997 clashes. The wounds of past miseries are apparently yet to be healed.
The mutual distrust has reached such a point that it is difficult for civil society organisations to initiate any congenial dialogue between the two groups.
It is pertinent to ask whether the government sees the conflict as an internal matter for the ethnic groups concerned to resolve among themselves or as too insignificant an issue to intervene.
While the tension lingers, the Central government is having a political dialogue with the NSCN-IM, ignoring calls by the Kuki armed groups for political dialogue despite their commitment to a Suspension of Operation agreement since 2005. It remains unclear whether this is an institutional problem on the part of the Kuki armed organisations, or another manifestation of bias toward the NSCN-IM.
The Naga demand has been alive for decades. Similarly, the Kuki National Assembly, a political body established in 1946, submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on March 24, 1960 demanding the immediate creation of a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur.
When there are competing demands for the same geographical areas, talking with one group and sidelining the other could engender more problems.
That became apparent with the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC) announcing last month a series of protests including a “Quit Kukiland movement” and a call to boycott any official programme, including Republic Day.
The KSDC is demanding that the Central government begin a political dialogue with Kuki armed groups or withdraw its local authorities from Kuki inhabited areas.
The KSDC has announced a blockade of Manipur from midnight of February 24. It suspended an earlier phase of the blockade in January on an assurance from the Centre that it would begin a political dialogue with the group on their statehood demand. But such talks have not begun.
Though there seems no quick fix to the ongoing problems of the Kukis and the Nagas, it has become an issue that cannot be ignored any longer. However any attempt to achieve amicable political solution entails participation from both ethnic groups and other concerned parties, including the Central and State governments.
(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum.)