Manipur’s Meitei, Kuki-Zo Groups Call For Attention As Parliament Session Begins

Members of the Kuki-Zo tribes hold a protest to demand a separate administration in Manipur

Imphal/Guwahati/New Delhi:

The first Lok Sabha session of Modi 3.0 today coincided with massive peaceful protests across Manipur by both the valley-dominant Meitei community and the hill-dominant Kuki-Zo tribes, who have been fighting since May 2023.

The general category Meiteis want to be included under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category as they claim to be essentially and historically a tribe.

The Kuki tribes want a separate administration or “Kukiland” carved out of Manipur, a demand towards which the Kukis have been working to achieve for decades, citing the need for a homeland for the scattered tribes who share ethnic ties with tribes in neighbouring Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin State.

A common theme in the protests today by both sides was the call to end violence that has dragged on for over a year.

In the state capital Imphal valley, hundreds of women marched in silence holding placards that asked the Union government to remove some central forces that they alleged have not done enough to check the growing menace of Kuki insurgents, who have signed a controversial ceasefire (Suspension of Operations, or SoO, agreement).

The protesters said the Manipur issue should be discussed in parliament, and resolved as soon as possible before more lives are lost.

In Kuki-dominated areas including Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts, hundreds of people gathered to participate in marches and speeches by Kuki MLAs and civil society leaders. They requested the Centre to create a “separate administration”, or a Union Territory, by merging all Kuki-dominated areas in Manipur. ┬áThere are 10 Kuki MLAs, including some from the ruling BJP, in Manipur’s 60-member assembly.

The two-year-old Churachandpur-based Kuki group Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) in a statement had announced it would lead a nonviolent protest to demand creation of a Union Territory for the Kukis. Other Kuki and Zo tribe groups had endorsed the ITLF’s call.

The ITLF said the rally highlighted the urgent need for a political solution to the Manipur ethnic crisis, which has claimed countless lives.

“If the government wants peace, then it has to come here and find peace. We have been knocking on the central government’s doors in our quest for peace, but it has been elusive,” Manipur BJP MLA from the Kuki tribes Paolienlal Haokip told NDTV.

Mayanglambam Bobby Meetei, president of the influential valley-based civil society group People’s Alliance for Peace and Progress, told NDTV the violence in valley areas began in May 2023 after central and state forces failed to protect Meiteis in Kuki-dominated areas.

“Manipur violence started when the Kuki mobs supported by militants indulged in arson of Meitei houses and properties on May 3. The violence in the valley happened as the central and state forces failed to protect the Meiteis in the Kuki-dominated areas. So the aggressors were the Kuki militants and their supporters…” he said.

“They are not really seeking peace, but provoking further in the name of seeking peace. If they want peace, they should apologise for attacking the Meiteis first, and then Meitei groups will reciprocate. This is the traditional mechanism of settling disputes,” he added.

The ITLF also gave a memorandum to the Churachandpur district commissioner – whose office was vandalised and set on fire on February 15 by a mob – to be passed on to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to at least start the process of creating a Union Territory.

“We thanked your renewed effort to stem the violence in Manipur and restore peace in the state,” the ITLF said. “The SoO groups belonging to the Kuki-Zo tribes have already submitted our political demands asking for a Union Territory with a legislature under Article 239(A) of the Indian Constitution,” it said, referring to the 25-odd Kuki-Zo insurgent groups who have signed the SoO agreement that makes it a must for them to stay in designated camps and keep their weapons in locked storage.

The Manipur government has been asking the Centre to scrap the SoO agreement, alleging the Kuki-Zo insurgents have been violating ground rules, and plotting to divide the state. There has been no official word on what happened to the SoO agreement since it lapsed.

The ITLF said it will oppose elections to the Autonomous District Council (ADC) as the Kuki-Zo tribes suspect the Manipur government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who belongs to the Meitei community, may allegedly use the election to create division among the tribes. The two-year Kuki-Zomi conflict in 1997-98 over friction arising out of a struggle for tribal leadership had claimed over 350 lives.

Retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer RK Nimai, who has vast experience in dealing with Manipur’s complex issues, told NDTV the demand for a separate administration “is a baby step towards Zalen’gam, which will haunt India later.”

Zalen’gam is a theorised nation for the Kukis comprising areas from India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and its armed component Kuki National Army (KNA) are the main backers of the Zalen’gam theory at present.

“Since they started the crisis and ethnic cleansing of Meiteis from Churachandpur, Moreh and other Kuki-Chin dominated areas, they should realise this and start a dialogue through the government of India. Both communities are hurt as the Prime Minister is yet to visit the state. He also hasn’t spoken substantially on the Manipur crisis, and the earlier the visit, the better it will be for this sensitive border state,” Mr Nimai, who lives in Imphal and interacts with civil society groups regularly on the Manipur crisis, told NDTV.

The Kuki body also requested the Centre to create a “buffer zone” in Jiribam district, neighbouring Assam, where clashes broke out between the Meitei community and the Hmar tribe in recent weeks.

Leaders of the Zo United, Kuki Inpi Manipur, Zomi Council, and ITLF spoke to the public before Zomi Council general secretary Pauneihlal Vaiphei flagged off the rally in Churachandpur today.

On the outskirts of Imphal, the police stopped a group of women protesters who had been marching towards the Chief Minister’s official home. The police allowed a few of them to pass on the condition they would submit their memorandum to the authorities peacefully.

Ima Nganbi, a popular woman leader in Manipur’s valley area, said the common people are already suffering a lot, and are apprehensive of possible human rights violations, drawing parallels to the times when Thangjam Manorama was tortured and killed in custody, and Irom Sharmila had to be forced-fed to keep her alive.

Over 220 have died and nearly 50,000 have been internally displaced in the Manipur violence.

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Nancie Mcnaught