Organisations permanent and temporary are dime a dozen in Manipur. Each has its moment or an extended phase of relevance but very few have been in the news as much as the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) since Manipur started spiralling into chaos after clashes between the Kuki and Meitei people broke out on May 3.
On November 17, the officer in charge of Churachandpur police station lodged an FIR against ITLF general secretary Muan Tombing for “attempting to wage war” against the government of India. This was in reference to his announcement on November 15 that a “separate administration” would soon be formed comprising districts such as Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal, dominated by the Kuki-Zomi people. The FIR was lodged a day after the MLAs of the ruling BJP condemned his statement and sought legal action against him and the ITLF.
The ITLF was formed on June 9, 2022, at the office of the Kuki Inpi Churachandpur (KIC) in Tuibong village by leaders of recognised tribes within the Churachandpur district. Apart from the Kuki Inpi, an apex body of the Kuki people, the constituents of the ITLF are the Paite Tribe Council (PTC), Simte Tribe Council, Vaiphei People’s Council and Mizo People’s Convention. Pagin Haokip, the executive member of the KIC, is the chairman of the ITLF while Mr. Tombing is also the secretary of the PTC. Another key founder-member of the ITLF is its spokesperson Ginza Vualzong.
Almost two years before the ITLF was formed, Mr. Vualzong had launched the Research & Preservation of the Zo Identities (RPZI) that focused on studying issues and correcting the ‘distorted history’ of the communities belonging to the Zo family, which includes the Kuki-Zomi of Manipur, Mizos of Mizoram, Chins of Myanmar and Chin-Kukis of Bangladesh. Soon after its formation, the RPZI petitioned the Chief Minister to “denotify and correct” the Chivu stone inscription at the Chivu-Chandrakirti Park in Churachandpur district’s Tonzang that “wrongly claimed the victory” of (Meitei king) Chandrakirti over four Lushai (Mizo) chiefs and the subjugation of 112 villages during 1871-72.
‘War on drugs’
The Chivu controversy followed the Manipur government’s “war on drugs 2.0” and preceded an eviction drive against encroachers of reserved forests (RFs) and protected forests (PFs), both allegedly targeted at the Kuki-Zomi people who have come to be labelled as “narco-terrorists”. The State government claims both drives have been community-neutral, pointing out that Meitei squatters were uprooted from 16 RFs and PFs compared to Kukis from four.
According to the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, an umbrella body of Meitei organisations, Kuki-Zomi organisations spearheaded by the ITLF have for long nurtured a dream of achieving a separate administration, independent state, or country. This, it said, was evident from the call for a Zo homeland, encompassing the Kuki-Zomi-inhabited areas of Manipur, endorsed by the Mizo National Front that rules the adjoining Mizoram. Ten Kuki-Zomi MLAs of Mizoram, seven of them belonging to the BJP, have also supported the demand for a separate administration for the community.
The ITLF, which formed six departments after the ethnic crisis that unfolded in Manipur on May 3 “to tackle pressing issues and ensure the overall welfare of our Kuki-Zomi-Hmar-Mizo tribal communities”, clarified that Mr. Tombing’s announcement of a “separate administration” was more of a plan for “self-rule” within the framework of the Constitution of India than a threat to secede from Manipur.
“So many of us have been killed. We have been driven out of (the Meitei-dominated) Imphal Valley, called names, and branded illegal immigrants. Meitei organisations have declared war on us and we cannot trust the Biren Singh government. We need self-governance for our welfare instead of waiting for the government to give us a solution,” Mr. Vualzong said.