The Manipur violence has divided people from the Kuki and Meitei community, physically and emotionally. No Meiteis would set foot in the Kuki areas whereas any Kuki setting foot in Imphal faces an impending death. This is a case of two communities that shared the closest political relationship for many years.
When one looks at the history of Manipur, Kukis supported the Meitei kings in times of prosperity and adversity. Several historical accounts mention how Kuki chiefs defended and protected Meitei kings from being slaughtered in the wilderness. However, Kukis are now labelled as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘refugees’ and ‘narco-terrorists’.
The violence completely overturned the relationship between these two communities.
The Kukis, allies of the erstwhile Meitei kings, have become a soft target for the majority Meitei community. More than 150 people have died in the violence and properties worth thousands of crores in the Imphal valley were looted and reduced to ashes. It will take many years, and perhaps generations, to overcome the trauma inflicted by the violent mobs and the state police. Even if peace returns, no Kuki will be willing to move to the Meitei areas and the same with the Meiteis.
The initial days of the conflict did appear like a violent outburst over the demand for the Schedule Tribe (ST) status by the Meitei community. However, over time, it appears to be a pre-meditated and planned conspiracy against the Kuki community.
Unlike previous conflicts, the recent violence has divided the state administration, the police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy deeply across ethnic lines. Under such circumstances, the rule of law and party affiliations appear to have taken a back seat.
Several brutal incidents such as the mob attack on Thanlon MLA Vungzagin Valte; the brutal killing of a woman in the Sawombung area of Manipur’s Imphal East; the killing of a lady officer, an Undersecretary to the Government of Manipur, with her son; the looting and torching of Kuki homes in the presence of police personnel are testimonies to the State’s failure to control the situation.
When politicians, including cabinet ministers and officers of the state and Union government, are so unsafe, it cannot be imagined how risky the life of the common man is in a situation of violence.
State police’s lack of credibility
Under such compelling circumstances, ten Kuki MLAs submitted a representation to the Union government on May 12, demanding a “separate administration” for the Kuki-Zo community in the state. They expressed that they have lost faith in the government and the majority community. Thus, the idea of a separate administration, which earlier was a demand put forth by militant organisations such as the United People’s Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), has become the demand of the Kuki population represented by its lawmakers.
On August 16, the MLAs further demanded that a separate Director General of Police (DGP) and Chief Secretary be appointed immediately for the Kuki-dominated districts of Churachandpur, Pherzawl, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Chandel.
While the plea for the creation of the DGP and Chief Secretary posts is an urgent administrative necessity, it’s intricately linked to the concept of a separate administration.
Interestingly, the Kuki MLAs’ representation to the Centre has also been the longstanding dream of Kuki militants over the last 30 years. There has never been a situation so conducive for the creation of a separate political entity as it is happening now. In their representation, the Kuki lawmakers told the Centre that the two communities living together as one would be impossible.
Thousands of government employees belonging to the Kuki community had to leave Imphal owing to the threat to their lives. Kuki bureaucrats, including senior IAS and IPS officers, posted in Imphal can no longer discharge their duties. They either took leave or relocated to safer places. There have been reported mass transfers of employees working in courts and government schools, as well as clerical staff in all offices. They are unwilling to return to Imphal.
Another equally important area to consider is the loss of faith and trust in law enforcement agencies, including the state’s chief minister and the policemen. The Kuki MLAs believe that the law enforcement agencies failed miserably in safeguarding lives and maintaining law and order, alleging collusion with the violent Meitei mobs. There have been reports that suggest that the state police cooperated with the Meitei mobs when Kuki civilians and villages were being attacked. This could be seen from the accounts of the rape victims who alleged that the policemen – who were on duty – were present during the crime but didn’t help them.
Furthermore, countless atrocities and abuses that happened in the heart of Imphal city fail to get due attention or attract suo moto cognizance, particularly when the victim belonged to the Kuki community.
Such is the credibility the state police have earned over the past three months.
The violence reshaped the principles of coexistence
The Kuki MLAs have called for a separate administration with an independent DGP who can ensure fairness, protect lives, and maintain law and order without bias toward any community. This demand arises from the compelling need to secure the welfare and safety of the Kuki people, who have endured discrimination and hate for seven decades. Now, the violence perpetrated by the majority Meitei community against the Kukis has accelerated the call for separation.
The elites among the Kuki community – who are largely lukewarm to any political settlement – became the first casualty of the violence. They had wielded strong control over Kuki political movements for the past many years. They believe in peaceful coexistence and are therefore opposed to Naga integration movements.
However, the past three months have completely reshaped the principles of coexistence like never before. In an interview with The Wire, hosted by Karan Thapar, a leader of the Kuki People Alliance (KPA), W.L. Hangshing noted that the Manipur violence divided the people from the Kuki and Meitei communities, physically and emotionally. He further pointed out that as separation has already been completed, it is at the hands of the Union government to recognise and give them powers to govern themselves as two separate political entities to avoid further conflicts in the future.
Meanwhile, according to reports, two Kuki insurgent groups – UPF and KNO – are in the final rounds of negotiation with the Government of India. A separate political entity in the form of a Union territory with legislative powers, a Territorial Council or a Special Autonomy under specific provisions of the Constitution of India are the demands put forth by the militant groups.
Whatever it is, the ball is in the Union government’s court. It’s to be seen how serious it is in solving the insurgency in Manipur and the North East.
However, if the Union government is not serious enough in considering the Kuki people’s problem, because it is opposed by a certain community, then it could be seen as a failure of the parliamentary system. It will set a negative precedent for all decision-making matters vested in the Union.
Secondly, it must be prepared for a new wave of insurgency.
The Kukis’ loyalty to the government of India and the constitution should not be tested anymore. They fought the British for almost three years and later joined hands with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in the freedom struggle. Of the total 193 freedom fighters of Manipur listed in the INA Museum at Moirang in Manipur, 159 belonged to the Kuki community.
In Bande Mataram: Freedom Fighters of Manipur, published by the Congress party in 1986, 79 out of the total of 112 are Kukis. No other community in Manipur can match their contribution towards India’s freedom struggle. However, they were denied the rightful place by successive governments for the past seven decades.
Until now, the Kukis strongly believed in the Union of India.
The recent call for a separate entity in Manipur is primarily driven by the Kukis’ urgent need to safeguard their welfare and security in response to a significant existential threat. Unlike the demands of neighbouring communities like the Meiteis and the Nagas, this aspiration does not pose a challenge to the idea of India. The current demand might not have arisen if not for the substantial threats posed by the Meitei community.
In their dealings with the Manipur government, the Kukis seem to have reached a point of no return.
The writer teaches journalism at Royal Global University, Guwahati. He can be contacted at: [email protected]