THE PEOPLE of the country are now aware of many factors of the crisis in Manipur, such as the impacts of illegal migrants, the involvement of militants, narco-terrorists, foreign militants, etc. The article aims to highlight the long-term planning of the present crisis, its connection with the Naga-Kuki clash of 1992-94, and who benefitted at the cost of tremendous human suffering.
Naga-Kuki Clash 1992-94.
In the 18th century, the pressure from the south led to the continued migration of Kuki-Chin tribes from Chin Hill (Myanmar) and Lushai Hill (Mizoram). Many Kukis moved towards the north, some along Manipur’s western and eastern hills up to Naga Hills and Somra Tract. According to the Nagas, Kukis used to obtain the permission of the Nagas and carried out farming in the vast inhabited areas. They used to return the land to Nagas and move to other places, and the problem started when the Kuki started claiming the land as their “ancestor’s land.” However, Kuki stated that Kuki settlements took root in the northern hills of Manipur, as Naga village offered land to Kukis in exchange for protection from rivals.
The Kukis were apprehensive that they would be marginalized if the ‘Nagalim’ demanded by the Naga Movement became a reality. The Kuki sought to assert their power and identity and establish an independent Kukiland in the mid-80s. They circulated literature distorting the history of Manipur and started spreading discontentment, hatred, and ethnic supremacy of Kuki.
The Nagas alleged that the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) submitted a memorandum in 1989 to then Union Home Minister Buta Singh. In the memorandum, KNA requested the Home Minister to train and arm the Kuki youths and promised to subdue the Naga Movement in five years. It is reported that the first batch of Kuki youths were trained in the early 1990s.
Moreh town on the India-Myanmar border was a microcosm of India before 1992. It was a multicultural trading town with a mixed population of Meiteis, Nagas, Kuki, Tamils, Meitei Pangals (Muslims), Marwaris, Gurkhas, Punjabis, Bengalis, Bihari, etc. Tamil festival Pongal and Meitei festival Lai Haraoba were more popular than Christmas in the town. The Naga and the Kuki claimed Moreh as their traditional and ancestor’s land, respectively.
In May 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi registered a landslide victory in Myanmar. However, the military junta refused to recognize it, and there was a large-scale mass protest; the military junta cracked down on the protestors, and thousands of Kuki-Chin tribes migrated to Manipur. The Kuki-Chin tribes of Moreh were emboldened by the numerical superiority due to illegal migrants and refused to pay house tax to NSCN (IM). The Kuki militants started collecting illegal tax and protection money from the other communities.
An ethnic clash broke out between Naga and Kuki in 1992 in Moreh, and it immediately spread out all over the hill districts. Although the physical violence ended in 1994, tension between the Naga and Kuki lasted for many years. The Kukis killed many Nagas and burned down their houses in Moreh. Most Nagas were forced to flee to the Ukhrul district, and their population declined sharply to a few hundred in 1994. Similarly, many Kuki villages in the Naga-dominated areas shifted to Kangpokpi and Churachandpur. Many Naga and Kuki villages of the same name with the prefix Naga or Kuki lived adjacent to each other in Naga and Kuki-dominated districts before 1992. However, during the clash, the Nagas and Kukis fled to their respective dominated areas, and the population transfer based on ethnic group started.
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Meitei remained neutral during the Naga-Kuki clash. However, Meitei provided humanitarian aid to the Kukis, who migrated towards the foothills near the valley to escape from the Nagas. Meitei and other communities at Moreh physically cleared the jungle and helped construct houses for the Kukis who migrated from the Naga-dominated areas. Meitei militant groups extended help to the Kuki Chiefs in Churachandpur in rehabilitating hundreds of Kuki families by providing money, food, and building materials. Kuki Chiefs, in return, allowed them to purchase considerable land where the Meitei militants established their camps (Manipur Blueprint for Counterinsurgency by EN Rammohan).
Events Leading to Meitei-Kuki Clash 2023.
The military junta overthrew the democratically elected Government of Myanmar in February 2021. Intense fighting between the State Administrative Council Forces and the Ethnic Resistance Organisations on the Myanmar border led to the influx of Kuki-Chin refugees to Manipur and Mizoram. United Nations Human Rights Council suggested that as of 01 May 23, an estimated 40150 and 8250 refugees from the Chin State of Myanmar entered Mizoram and Manipur. Mizoram does not face many problems as they belong to the same ethnic group. However, in Manipur, the Kuki-Chin tribes are trying to disintegrate the State.
The tension between the Meitei and Kuki started when the Kuki claimed ownership of Koubru Hill in April 2021, blocking all entry points. The Kukis burnt down a Meitei ancestor’s religion (Sanamahi) temple at Koubru Leikha and sowed the seed for the indiscriminate shameful attack on the religious places during the clash. Again, in May 2022, Kukis prevented tree-plantation drives by the Forest Department and volunteers on Thanging Hill. The Meiteis regard Koubru and Thanging Hills as sacred places where their civilization started when the valley was submerged in the water. Every year, many Meteis go on pilgrimages to the above two hills.
During the Lushai Expedition in January and February 1872, Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh allowed 649 Khongjai rescued from the captivity of Lushai Chiefs and 2112 Kuki refugees to settle on Thangjing Hill and even arranged their food till the harvesting season (Dr R Brown, p-56). On the Koubru Hill, a few native Old Kuki tribe, Koireng, settled to provide firewood to the Manipur palace. However, many Kuki-Chin tribes have settled in the above hills in the last few decades and claimed ownership. This is the first time Meitei experienced this type of land aggression from the Kuki-Chin tribes, which the Nagas have experienced for many decades.
The Government of Manipur has intensified the ‘War Against the Drug’ and the eviction of illegal encroachers in the last two years. All the ethnic communities were affected. However, some Kuki Chiefs and people with vested interests have continuously spread discontent against the State Government’s policies to ensure the survival of the chieftainship. The eviction of each illegal construction and action against any Kuki individual involved in the drug business would be projected by the Kuki Chiefs as an attack on the Kukis by the State Government.
The eviction of K Songjang village in Churachandpur as per the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Manipur Forest Rule 2021 was projected by some Kuki leaders as actions targeted against the interest of Kukis. At the end of April 2023, the All Tribal Student Union of Manipur (ATSUM) protested against the survey of reserve forest/ protected forest by the State Government, and the mob vandalized an open-air gym scheduled for inauguration by the Chief Minister and torched Range forest Office at Torbung.
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The State Government did not forward recommendations for including Meitei in the list of STs despite the directive of the Manipur High Court. However, some people with vested interests whipped up Kukis’ sentiments against the state government and Meitei. ATSUM organized the Tribal Solidary Rally on 03 May 23 to protest against the directive of the Manipur High Court, and the rally ended peacefully in the Naga-dominated areas. However, after the rally, the Kuki-Chin tribes brutally attacked the Meiteis, burned down their homes, and drove them out of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts and Moreh.
The Meitei community was shocked by the inhuman, heinous Act, and many lost their sense of judgment. Meitei fell into the trap of provocation by the Kuki militants, and angry mobs indiscriminately attacked innocent Kukis and burned or destroyed their properties in the valley. Many Kukis with prior inside information about the preplanned attack had taken mass leave and left the valley earlier. The remaining innocent Kukis took shelter in the Army or CRPF camps and were transported to Kuki-dominated areas.
Most Meitei, including me, cannot physically recognize the various tribes of Kukis, and Meitei attacked all the Kukis in the valley indiscriminately. It has alienated some native and Old Kuki tribes who are more interested in progressive activities rather than the exclusive ethnic politics of the Kuki-Chin tribes.
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On 12 May 23, about 68 people were killed and 236 injured, and 48,000 people displaced. KIM stated that Kukis and Meiteis were emotionally, physically, and geographically divided, and Kukis couldn’t live anymore with the Meiteis and demanded a separate state. All the ten Kuki MLAs supported the demand.
The Kukis have projected that the present crisis has compelled them to demand a separate State. However, the Kuki Chiefs Association formed by Thadou Kuki Chiefs demanded the creation of a separate “Kuki State” in 1946, which did not materialize. The association was renamed the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) in 1956. KNA supported the “Greater Mizoram” demand by the “Mizo Union” of the Hmar tribe in the 80s. However, the “Mizoram Peace Accord in 1986” maintained the integrity of the adjoining states. Further, before the present crisis, the GoI was already in talks with the Kuki militants under the Suspension of Operation (SOO) about a suitable administrative arrangement.
Seven of the ten Kuki MLAs who support the demand for a separate State are Thadou Kukis. The Thadou Kuki overtook the population of Tangkhul Naga and became the second largest community after Meitei, constituting 24.6% of the ST population in Manipur in the 2011 census. The Thadou Kukis constitute more than 50% of the total Kuki-Chin population, and they control most Kuki and tribal civil organizations like Kuki Inpi of Manipur (KIM), Indigenous Tribal Leader’s Forum (ITLF), etc.
The Kuki Chief is also the Commander-in-Chief of the village Army and is responsible for dealing with the militants. The foreign militants involved in the present crisis can’t do so without the knowledge of the Kuki Chiefs. Therefore, the role of the Kuki chiefs in planning the present crisis, along with the local and foreign militants, should be investigated by a competent authority.
Some Factors Indicating Present Crisis is a Part of the Long-Term Plan.
- Both the Naga-Kuki clash of 1992-94 and the present crisis happened sometime after the military junta took over control in Myanmar and a heavy influx of illegal Kuki-Chin immigrants to Manipur.
- The population transfer of the Naga and Kuki to their respective dominated areas was achieved to a large extent by the Naga-Kuki Clash. The Kukis then influenced the State Government to create Kangpokpi and four additional hill districts to consolidate their position.
- KIM claimed that over 961 were killed, 360 villages were affected, and over one lakh people were rendered homeless in the Naga-Kuki Clash 1992-94(Hindu, 23 February 2013). In the Paite-Kuki clash of 1997-98, 352 people were killed, and 15,000 people were displaced. During both the above horrible events, Kukis did not insist on a “solution first and peace later” even though the number of people killed, villages affected, and displaced people was much higher than in the present crisis. However, after completing the population transfer based on ethnic groups and reorganization of hill districts, they now insist on a solution first and peace later.
- Many people from the Kuki-Chin tribe had taken mass leave from the government offices and left the valley before 03 May 23.
- The Kukis had the experience of previous ethnic clashes and population transfer. They were well prepared for the media management before the crisis and immediately flooded the national and international media with false narratives even before the GoI knew about the crisis.
The Manipur crisis is well-planned and well-executed by some Kuki Chiefs, people with vested interests, and local and foreign militants. The ethnic cleansing of the entire Meitei community from Kuki-dominated districts, including Moreh, is complete. However, the majority of the Meitei and Kukis want to live peacefully together, and they are against the inhuman crimes committed against both communities.
Thousands of Kuki men and women are used to the way of life in the valley. Most of the Meiteis miss their Kuki friends in the offices, neighbours in the government quarters, and in the marketplaces.
The peace-loving Meitei and Kukis should take control of the situation from the aggressive people who cannot see the inhuman crimes committed against the other community. When Naga and Kuki or Paite and Kuki can live together after the ethnic clash in the 90s, why can’t the Meiteis and Kukis reconcile and live together peacefully again?
- The security forces should make an all-out effort to disarm people of both ethnic groups simultaneously, and the GoI should initiate decisive actions to end the crisis.
- The Peace Committee should be headed by someone acceptable to both ethnic groups and with an overall view of the peace talk with the Nagas and Kukis and the State’s history. An experienced person like the former Home Secretary, GK Pillai, may be acceptable to both communities. The committee should initiate the process for dialogue, reconciliation, and confidence-building measures.
- The GoI should encourage the Meitei militants to sign a ceasefire agreement by guaranteeing the preservation of the integrity of Manipur.
- Enhance border security measures and expedite the implementation of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).
- All factors of the complex problem should be examined holistically, and the genuine grievances of Meitei, Naga, and Kuki must be addressed simultaneously.
- Action should be initiated to provide constitutional protection to the indigenous Meitei in Manipur and amend Article 371 C of the Constitution.
- The role of the Kuki chiefs in planning the present crisis, along with the local and foreign militants, should be investigated by a competent authority.
L B Singh is a retired Captain of the Indian Navy. Views are personal.
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