THERE ARE nuances in the way the government is handling the internally displaced persons in the valley and in the hills. The displaced persons in the valley are camped in educational institutions, government offices and sometimes in “fabricated shelter houses” with the understanding that they will be allowed to return to their original place of stay when the violence abate. While for the tribals, fleeing to the hills, void of infrastructure, the government intends to construct a semi-permanent house with the embedded connotation that they will be made to prolong their stay indefinitely. In the garb of providing shelter, the
government could be systematically maneuvering to remove the tribals, from the valley and shift the tension to the hills if incident of such nature occurs again. When hordes of displaced persons in thousands are transferred to the hills and made to stay indefinitely the demographic ramification and the pressure on land and other resources will be immense. The valley having experienced acute pressure on land may have viewed the incident as an opportune time to execute politics of exclusivity where the valley will be meant only for a homogeneous community and leave the hills in the lurch of tension and conflict.
In Ukhrul District, following the Manipur Government’s order, the Deputy Commissioner of Ukhrul has designated 12 villages, in the foothills of the district, for setting up of semi-permanent camps for the internally displaced persons. The intent of the government, to choose the villages as designated camp sites, is a strategically planned move rather than a random decision. In the name of setting up relief camps, the government may be orchestrating another Kuki-Naga ethnic clash in the near future. The designated villages in Ukhrul Districts are – Litan Sareikhong, Mongkot Chepu, Shangkai, Lamlai Chingphai, Mollen Kamsei, Molnom, Moulsohoi, Mullam, Pashong, Shongphel, Yaolen and Zalengbung. The designated camp sites are Kuki villages huddled around by Tangkhul villages and a small spark can burn the whole region. Though the Kuki-Naga ethnic clash of the 1990s is gradually fading from the collective memory, the wound remains and the situation still precarious. And a slight provocation from either side of the community can escalate the tension to another ethnic clash.
The simmering tension in the region is mostly to do with land. Though, the Kukis paying tax to the Tangkhul chiefs are well recorded in documents, the Kukis has strongly refuted to such claim. Many Tangkhul chiefs regrettably informs that they were shortsighted and naïve not to foresee the impending imbroglio when they nonchalantly open their arms to fellow Kukis decades back.
As they recount, since the region was thickly vegetated, there were many instances of wild animals straying into the villages, creating mayhem. On the pretext that human settlements in and around their villages will prevent such incidents, the Tangkhul chiefs permitted the Kukis to settle temporarily by paying taxes. The amount of the tax was immaterial but was necessary as a way of giving honour to the owner of the land. However, within a short span of time, there was a proliferation of Kuki population at an unprecedented rate and more villages sprang up. Even in the recent times, arrival of new faces in the Kuki villages were reported. Sinakeithei, a Tangkhul village, maintains a daily interaction and transaction with another Kuki village on the other side of the brook. The inhabitants from Sinakeithei narrates how they would often spot new and eager faces without the knowledge of Meitei or Hindi languages. Often, such persons are seen wearing Thanaka.
As the Kukis increased their populations, they became bolder and began to encroach on the land of their neighbouring villages for their sustenance. Starting from procurements of bamboo shoot, firewood, charcoal, and timber for sale in the market to jhum cultivations and other narcotic related plants, the land in the adjacent villages become their source of income. Even a nonobservant eye can observe the impact of such economic activities on the Imphal – Ukhrul highway. Right after the uphill of Gwaltabi, on the eastern flank, the Mapithel mountain range, of Thoyee Tangkhul village, can be seen in full view, akin to a bald and weary head while on the western flank, stands the mountain of Ringui Tangkhul Village,
denuded of its vegetation. The impact of narcotic plantations on the mountains have not only destroyed the vegetations but have also contaminated the streams and rivulet, because of the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, rendering it unfit for drinking.
On many occasions, the Tangkhul chiefs have warned them to stop the encroachment. However, emboldened by the designated Kuki underground camps situated in some of the Kuki villages, the warnings were not taken seriously. Over the years, such disputes have led to series of confrontations, between the two communities, involving human casualties, almost repeating the ethnic clash of the 1990s.
In 2003, a Tangkhul teenage boy while travelling from Sinakeithei towards Thoyee village
was intercepted and killed by Kuki underground. His eyes plugged out and body mutilated his genital was found in one of the pockets of his pants. Again, in the month of June 2004, a confrontation between KNA and NSCN IM took place at Thoyee Village involving heavy exchange of fire and a death of one KNA underground. The corpse was kept lying in the middle of the village, untouched and unclaimed, for days and the whole village reeked of the decomposed body. The state police came and removed the corpse and imposed curfew in the village and its adjoining area to contain the tension. As the backdrop of the incident unfolds, some KNA underground had come and demanded tax to the Jhum cultivators at Thoyee
village. The villagers bluntly responded that they have no right to collect tax on the land that belongs to Thoyee. They left infuriated. However, the following Sunday evening, they walked straight into the village and began to harass the youth while enquiring the whereabouts of the village headman and that was when the exchange of fire took place.
The region has witnessed many such incidents of land dispute for too long and has been barely containing the conflict from escalating to another ethnic clash. The Situation may, however, aggravate further with the pressure on land and other resources becoming more acute over the past decade because a large portion of the foothill areas, including paddy fields and villages, along the Yangwui Kong (Thoubal River) are now submerged in water because of the Nongdam Dam. And when the already overburdened contentious foothill area is thronged with thousands of internally displaced persons from the other district, the level of encroachment on the surrounding villages and the mushrooming of new villages randomly will grow out of proportion. This in consequence will heighten the ethnic tension in the
foothills. The Manipur Government’s decision to set up relief camps in the foothills, even after having fully aware of the precarious scenario of the region, exposes its innate indifference towards the hill communities and sends a message that can be construed- let them fight out, amongst themselves, for their fate without disrupting the valley.
Wungreiyon Moinao teaches literature and loves to watch films in his spare time. Views are personal. email@example.com.