Why Demand Union Territory? Manipur’s Ceasefire-Linked Kuki Group Explains

Seilen Haokip of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) speaks to reporters

Churachandpur/New Delhi:

The demand for a Union Territory carved out of Manipur by nearly two dozen tribes known as Kukis – a term given by the British in colonial times – who are dominant in some hill areas of Manipur, is due to “necessity” after the Kukis were “ethnically cleansed out of the state capital Imphal”, the spokesperson of the Kuki tribes’ umbrella organisation of insurgent groups that are under a ceasefire with India told reporters in the hill district Churachandpur.

Over two dozen Kuki-Zo insurgent groups come under two umbrella organisations for the purpose of negotiations with India – the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) led by the Kuki National Army, and the United People’s Front (UPF) led by the Zomi Revolutionary Army.

The KNO and the UPF representing all the others have signed the suspension of operations (SoO) agreement, under which the insurgents are to stay at designated camps and their weapons kept in locked storage, to be monitored regularly.

KNO spokesperson Seilen Haokip said the Kuki tribes have changed their demand from an autonomous territorial council within Manipur to a Union Territory after their people were “ethnically cleansed” from Imphal. He said the Kuki tribes had been asking for upgrading the autonomous district councils to an autonomous territorial council within Manipur. But that has changed now.

“A Union Territory is basically a necessity now. We have been in dialogue with the government since 2008. Our demand had been a form of self-governance expressed as an autonomous territorial council within the state of Manipur,” Mr Haokip told reporters.

Thousands of people from the Meitei community have also fled from their homes in hill areas after attacks by Kuki armed groups, civil society organisations in the valley say.

“Violence Derailed Talks”

“Before the demand could be concluded by the government during the talks with us, unfortunately on May 3, 2023, as we all know, there was widespread disruption starting from the state capital Imphal, which amounted to ethnic cleansing of our people, where we are a small minority in the valley and living with our neighbours from two other communities in the state. We coexisted and for generations had been living together,” Mr Haokip said.

“Accordingly, of course it was right and proper for us to seek our administrative arrangement within the state to improve quality of life. And it’s constitutionally appropriate to ask for the provisions in the Constitution to be applied, so that we can uplift our people to the benefit of the entire state,” the KNO spokesperson said.

“That was the aim and that was why we asked for the autonomous district council. The provisions of the autonomous district councils under Article 371C [of the Constitution], which has been in place since Manipur gained statehood in 1972… no matter how good they were, they did not filter down or played out in reality to the satisfaction of our people in terms of development and administration,” Mr Haokip said.

He said elections to the autonomous district councils were not held for a long time, and whenever these bodies were working, they were felt to be highly inadequate in meeting the administrative aspirations of the people.

“Although the clause in the constitutional provision was part of the state of manipur’s creation, for 50 years it fell short of people’s expectations. We also found that there can be better provisions under the Constitution within the state of Manipur, and that was by way of our demand for an autonomous territorial council within Manipur,” Mr Haokip said.

Autonomous Territorial Council To Union Territory

“Earlier, it was the autonomous district councils, which we wanted elevated to an autonomous territorial council for better provisions that we were aspiring for. It all happened peacefully and was in due process,” he said.

Mr Haokip blamed the violence that broke out in May 2023 for derailing what he claimed was peaceful tripartite talks between the Centre, the state government, and the Kuki insurgent groups that had signed the SoO agreement.

Meitei civil society groups, however, allege the Kuki tribes under the pretext of protesting against the Meiteis’ demand to be included under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category started burning Meitei homes in the hill district Churachandpur. They say the violence in Imphal at night on May 3 was a retaliation to the attacks on Meitei villages during the day.

“The tripartite dialogue comprising the Centre, state government and the SoO groups was heading towards an amicable conclusion. But as I mentioned earlier, since we could not arrive at the agreement and settlement because of the disruption that broke out in Imphal valley on May 3, 2023, and we were ethnically cleansed out of Imphal, the capital of the state, it was very obvious by the power involved in the ethnic cleansing, we were not wanted in the land we have been part of for generations. So quite naturally we moved towards the hill districts,” the KNO spokesperson alleged.

“If Refugees Were From Valley Community…”

He called the “branding” of refugees from Myanmar as “illegal immigrants” and “narco-terrorists” an attempt to show the Kukis in a bad light.

“It is quite clear they are refugees who have been chased out by the junta and are looking for shelter among their own ethnic groups. Now my question is I don’t know how many valley people who are in Myanmar are affected by the junta-led violence, whether they came across the border or not, I don’t know. See, there might not be any. It appears the VBIGs (valley-based insurgent groups) are siding with the junta, so it may not be a threat for that community to be there,” Mr Haokip said.

The valley-dominant Meiteis have alleged the Kuki insurgent groups that had signed the SoO agreement have been used as “mercenaries” to fight against the VBIGs hiding in Myanmar, which – except for one group, the UNLF(P) – have not agreed to lay down arms.

“But in our case it is a known fact that our people are in the pro-democracy group and they are fighting the junta’s dictatorial rule. And so we are the affected people. And because of our desire for upholding democracy in Myanmar, our people have been tortured, killed, and they have had to flee. They are clearly refugees. But the fact that the people who have come across are not ethnically similar to the ones in the valley, one can say that’s why they are being mistreated and misrepresented,” Mr Haokip said.

“Why is Mizoram receiving them (Myanmar refugees) so favourably? What I am trying to say is to illustrate the point that had it been the valley community who were fleeing from Myanmar, they would have had the same reception as our people who have gone to Mizoram,” Mr Haokip said.

“We are being ridiculed. It seems like intentional, to make us look bad. Illegal immigrants, narco terrorism, poppy cultivation, we are not the only ones who have engaged in this. Only some of our people were engaged in this because they were looking for a livelihood. Clearly, the state government has not given their due, so they have to look for survival… But I am not justifying it,” he said.

“Perpetrators As Victims”

Mr Haokip alleged the media narrative has made the perpetrators of the violence as the victims. “Earlier, when ethnic cleaning began on May 3, the world knew we were the victims and the perpetrators were the others. Now, because of the media, the narrative is changing. The victims have become the perpetrators, and the perpetrators are being projected as victims,” Mr Haokip alleged.

“All these come in the realm of narratives, and narratives are all twisted it seems. In our case we want peace, and therefore we establish, demonstrate that stand very clearly by not going on the offensive. We are not in the wrong. We don’t want war. If people kill us, we have to defend ourselves. And therefore we cannot be labelled as perpetrators. All these are factual evidence. It is clearly there for the world to see. Some narrative may pull wool over the eyes of people who are downright ignorant. But anybody who has eyes to see and ears to hear cannot be swayed by false narratives,” the KNO spokesperson said.

“False narratives cannot bring about any solution, any peaceful coexistence. We respect fellow human beings irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. We hope the same will be reciprocated. And then peace will come,” he added.

The Manipur government has not given any statement on the comments by the KNO spokesperson yet.

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Lawanda Klemp