The leaders of the two Kuki armed groups — the United Peoples' Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) — are again heading to New Delhi with the hope of materializing a political dialogue with representatives of the central government.
A meeting with officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is likely to take place within the next few days. The meeting will be the first high-level engagement between the two sides under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.
The issue of holding political talk has been dragging on for years. The Indian Army and the Kuki armed groups have observed Suspension of Operations (SoO) since Aug. 1, 2005. A tripartite agreement, involving the UPF and KNO, the central government and the Manipur state government, was formally signed on Aug. 22, 2008. The current one-year-term ends on Aug. 22.
The SoO was possible after the Kuki armed groups accepted former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's appeal for resolving armed conflicts through dialogue. The Congress government agreed, in principle, to initiate political dialogue within the framework of the Indian constitution.
Last year, the Indian government made the assurance that political talk would begin immediately following the winter session of the national parliament. Mr. Shambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (North East), MHA, briefed representatives of the UPF and KNO on the modalities of holding dialogue. However, eight years have lapsed since the start of the SoO, but no political dialogue has materialized yet.
Because of the government's alleged indifferent attitude, the UPF had last year warned not to allow the inspection of its designated camps by government officials if no political dialogue began by Aug. 22. The group also threatened to boycott the Congress party in the 16th Lok Sabha election.
How is the situation of the armed groups and the political atmosphere in New Delhi different from the previous years? Is there any sight of solution to the Kukis political demand under the new administration?
In anticipation of political dialogue with the central government, the armed groups discussed among themselves with the hope of finding a common strategy. However, it appears that they have not been able to reach a consensus on presenting one single political demand.
The UPF and KNO, constituted by over 20 armed groups, have two different political objectives. The UPF demands an autonomous hill state, or a state within a state under Article 244-A of the Indian constitution. The KNO demands the creation of a separate Kuki state.
Another challenge to the solution of Kukis political demand is on the question of competing demands. The Nagas, who form another major ethnic group in Manipur state, also claim the same geographical areas in four hill districts. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) claims Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul as their own territories in their quest for greater or southern Nagaland.
New Delhi has had several rounds of political dialogue with the Nagas, particularly the NSCN-IM. These competing demands of overlapping areas have given rise to severe insurgency problems for the past many years.
Knowing the potential consequences of political dialogue between the Kuki armed groups and the central government, the Manipur state government inserted a clause in the initial tripartite agreement, that is, the territorial integrity of Manipur cannot be disturbed.
In light of the recent creation of Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh despite a strong opposition from the state government, many begin to think that it is not an impossible task to carve out a Kuki state from Manipur.
However, it is important to understand that the Kukis and the Nagas have to reach some sort of understanding, if not agreement, on the question of competing demands in overlapping territories.
Whatever the outcome it might be, it is important that the central government keeps its earlier promises and begin political dialogue with the Kuki armed groups. There has been enough frustration of extending SoO for the past eight years, without achieving any substantive result.
A leader of the UPF in a recent statement said, “There is no point keeping on extending the Suspension of Operation (SoO) every year without engaging in political dialogue...the cadres will get frustrated if this thing continues for longer.”
There is a general feeling among the people of Manipur, including the Kuki armed groups, that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance coalition government would take a pro-active approach to address insurgency problems through political means.
The demand for a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur was first submitted to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on March 24, 1960 by the Kuki National Assembly, a political body formed in 1946.
However, history would not do justice unless the present leaders of the Kuki armed groups formulate a practical strategy by setting aside personal and ideological differences.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist whose works have been widely published in five continents — Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He is the author of “Politics Of Ethnic Conflict In Manipur” published by SAGE from the United Kingdom.