The story so far: Just before the first of the two phases of the Assembly Elections went underway in Manipur on February 28, all insurgent groups associated with the Kuki tribes in Manipur said they will vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This came days after Union Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah said at his rally in Churachandpur district of the State, that his party will end the Kuki insurgency problem in five years, if it is voted to power for the second time. The president of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), P.S. Haokip, cited talks with the BJP leadership, which he said has promised the speedy settlement of Kuki political aspirations.
Who are the Kukis?
The Kukis are an ethnic group including multiple tribes originally inhabiting the North-Eastern states of India such as Manipur, Mizoram and Assam; parts of Burma (now Myanmar), and Sylhet district and Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh. While Kuki is not a term coined by the ethnic group itself, the tribes associated with it came to be generically called Kuki under colonial rule.
In Manipur, the various Kuki tribes, living mainly in the hills, currently make up 30% of the total 28.5 lakh population of the State. While Churachandpur is their main stronghold, they also have a sizable population in Chandel, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Senapati districts.
The rest of the population of Manipur is made up mainly of two other ethnic groups — the Meiteis or non-tribal, Vaishnavite Hindus who live in the valley region of Manipur, and the Naga tribes, historically at loggerheads with the Kukis, also living in the hilly areas of the State. Of the 60 seats in the Manipur Assembly, 40 are held by Meiteis and the rest 20 seats are held by Kukis and Nagas. Both the BJP and Congress are fielding Kuki and Naga candidates this time.
What led to the Kuki insurgencies in Manipur?
The Kuki insurgent groups have been under Suspension of Operation (SoO) since 2005, when they signed an agreement for the same with the Indian Army. Later, in 2008, the groups entered a tripartite agreement with the State government of Manipur and the UPA led Central government under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to temporarily suspend their operations and give political dialogue a chance.
Manipur, formerly a princely state including parts of Burma, made the accession into India after Independence, but was only made a full-fledged State in 1972. The resentment over the “forceful” inclusion into India and delay in granting statehood led to the rise of various insurgent movements. The problem was intensified after Manipur was declared a ‘distubed area’ in 1980, under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives sweeping powers to the military and has led to excesses. Post-independence insurgent movements in Manipur, carried out by valley-based groups or Meiteis, can be traced back to around the 1960s, when various groups demanded self-determination and separate statehood for Manipur, inspired by left ideology.
However, this wasn’t the case with the Kuki insurgency. The roots of Kuki militancy lie in conflicts of ethnic identity. First was the demand for self-determination solely for groups belonging to their ethnic fabric, meaning the dream to form a Kukiland which includes Kuki inhabited regions of Myanmar, Manipur, Assam and Mizoram. The second reason for insurgency lies in the inter-community conflicts between the Kukis and the Nagas in Manipur.
While organisations like Kuki Inpi and Kuki National Assembly had already formed in the years following Independence, insurgent activity at the time was jointly carried out by Kuki outfits based in Myanmar and Mizoram for Kukiland. But the Kuki insurgency in Manipur grew in real terms in the 1980s and after the Kuki-Naga conflicts of the 1990s. This is when the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and its armed wing Kuki National Army (KNA) were formed. Other Kuki outfits like Kuki Commando Force, Kuki Independant army and others were also formed.
The community could not shed internal differences between tribes and take a single line of action. While some militant Kuki outfits demanded Kukiland, including parts which are not in India, some demanded Kukiland within India. At present, the demand has come to the formulation of an independent district—Kukiland Territorial Council within the purview of the Indian constitution, modelling the Bodoland Territorial Council, which was formed under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, after insurgent groups in Assam signed an agreement with their State government.
The Kuki-Naga conflict was started over securing identity and land as some Kuki inhabited areas coincided with Naga inhabited areas. Wanting to dominate trade and cultural activities in those areas the two communities often engaged in violent standoffs, with villages being torched, civilians killed and so on. Between 1992 and 1992, Naga groups led by the National Social Council of Nagaland (IM) clashed with Kukis and close to 1000 Kuki people were killed. Even though clashes have reduced in recent decades, tensions between the two ethnic groups still exist.
Where do the Kukis stand today?
While the SoO was signed in 2005, insurgent activities like explosions, extortion in the form of tax collection, arms and drug trade and economic blockades still continue, often under the radar.
As per the agreement between the Kuki insurgent groups and the Government, a total of 2,266 cadres of Kuki organisations would be put in over 14 designated camps set up by the government, away from the civilian inhabited areas, and their movement would be restricted to the camps. The cadres would get a monthly stipend of ₹3000 per month and their leaders would be given ₹5000. Their arms would be locked away in an area inside the camp, and one set of keys would be with the armed forces personnel, while the other would be with the cadre leader. While these were the terms of the agreement, multiple journalistic reports coming from these camps in the past have shown that militants often roam with their weapons outside the camp boundaries, still recruit young locals into the fold and conduct illegal trade activities.
The temporary SoO agreements were made in order to start political dialogue about giving some form of self-determination to the Kukis, but that has not happened, both under the UPA or NDA governments.
The SoO has been extended by the Government almost every year since 2008, with Kuki outfits threatening to breach the agreement by taking up arms again and boycotting the Government. In 2012, the groups held a nearly eight month long blockade of highways around their area, costing the Government a couple of crores in losses each day. The SoO agreement was last extended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in September last year till February 28 this year. Both BJP and Congress governments have held talks with the representatives of Kuki groups but the Kukis are dissatisfied with the pace of the dialogue and also feel ignored, as the Government has been holding Naga Peace Talks with the main Naga insurgent outfit NSCN (IM), which demands the formation of Greater Nagaland, including parts of Manipur having Kuki inhabited regions.
It has to be seen how the BJP plans to resolve the insurgency and settle Kuki political aspirations as the more than 50% Meitei population of the State, a significant voter base, has always been against Kuki and Naga demands for self-determination, as they fear it would undermine Manipur’s territorial integrity.