Manipur Strife: The Sinister Agenda To Deepen The Kuki-Meitei Divide

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 23, 2023, 01:46 PM | Updated 01:46 PM IST

Security forces in New Lambulane where trouble erupted Monday (Credit: EastMojo)
Security forces in New Lambulane where trouble erupted Monday (Credit: EastMojo)
  • Representatives of the Kukis now say that they want a separate state for themselves.
  • To achieve this end, the plan seems to involve creating a permanent and irreconcilable divide between the Kukis and Meiteis.
  • Monday’s violence in a pocket in Imphal Valley was not an isolated incident sparked by the spontaneous act of some individuals as is being touted. 

    Rather, it was part of a diabolic plan to accentuate the divide between Meiteis and Kukis. The aim was to trigger another bout of violence that would have led to more Kuki families fleeing to the Kuki-dominated areas in the hill districts from Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley. 

    The ultimate objective of some radical Kuki organisations that have close links with a section of the Church is to strengthen the demand for a separate state for Kukis carved out of Manipur. 

    Though the timely intervention of the army, Assam Rifles and the CRPF prevented things from spiralling out of control, the incident has led to another round of recriminations between the two communities. 

    Also, given the determination of the radical Kuki organisations to create trouble and keep the ethnic pot boiling, there is every likelihood of fresh strife erupting in pockets of the state with a mixed population of Kukis and Meiteis. 

    After all, the security forces cannot be present in every inch of Manipur to pre-empt trouble. And the security forces also cannot help the civil administration maintain peace in perpetuity. 

    What happened on 22 May

    A few Kukis, armed with country-made weapons, went to the ‘tribal market’ at New Checkon Market in the New Lambulane area of East Imphal district around 11 am Monday (May 22). 

    The Kuki radicals ordered Meitei shopkeepers to down shutters and Meitei stall owners to gather their merchandise and leave. 

    The tribal market is a popular market where all communities--Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas--have shops and put up stalls to sell mostly perishable goods. The market is in an area with a mixed population of Kukis and Meiteis as well as some Nagas. 

    The Kuki hotheads reportedly assaulted a Meitei lady and her daughter who had spread out their produce--vegetables and herbs--for sale.

    The Meiteis shopkeepers and stall-owners resisted, but had to obey the radical Kukis because the latter were armed. 

    As news of the forcible closure of Meitei-owned shops and stalls at the ‘tribal market’ spread, a large crowd of Meiteis gathered and clashed with Kukis. Three houses--two of them were lying abandoned--were torched. 

    Army and Assam Rifles soldiers rushed to the spot and fired a few blanks in the air to drive away the battling groups. 

    Army soldiers then conducted intensive searches and arrested three people (all of them Kukis), including a former legislator, for creating trouble and possession of weapons. 

    That the former MLA of the Kuki-majority Henglep Assembly constituency in Churachandpur district, T Thangzalam Haokip, belongs to the BJP is of no importance. In Manipur, as well as some other states of the Northeast, tribal loyalties triumph over party affiliations. 

    Haokip is reported to have led the group of armed Kukis who forced the Meitei shopkeepers to close their shops and the Meiteis who set up makeshift stalls in the market to leave. They (the Meiteis) were also warned against reopening their shops or returning to the market to set up their stalls.  

    The Demand

    The Kukis now want a separate state for themselves comprising the areas in the hill districts that they inhabit. 

    Ten Kuki MLAs, including seven from the BJP, have already demanded a separate state. This demand is backed by Kuki civil society organisations as well as the powerful Christian Church. 

    The plan--to force the Union Government to concede the demand for a Kuki state--involves creating a permanent and irreconcilable divide between the Kukis and Meiteis and force a transfer of population of Meiteis from the Kuki-dominated areas of the hills and Kukis from the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley. 

    The Kukis demanding a separate state reckon that once such a forced transfer--forced by violence--of population is complete, the demand for a separate state would become justifiable. 

    The Kukis who threatened the Meitei shopkeepers and stall-owners Monday knew that such threats to Meiteis in the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley would trigger outrage among Meiteis, who would then retaliate. 

    This retaliation is exactly what the Kuki miscreants were aiming for. The retaliation by Meiteis would have created more fear and panic among Kukis who are still living in Imphal Valley and forced them to seek safe refuge in Churachandpur and some other hills districts where Kukis are in a majority. 

    Angry Kukis would then drive away the remaining Meiteis from the hills and send them packing to Imphal Valley.

    Repeated attacks on Meiteis, both in the hills and Imphal Valley, would lead to retaliation and counter-retaliation that would bring about a complete transfer of population and perpetuate the divide between Kukis and Meiteis.  

    The ten Kuki MLAs have already said that it is no longer possible for the Kukis to live alongside Meiteis under one administrative entity. Various Kuki organisations as well as Kuki Christian organisations have echoed this. 

    All Kukis are Christians, while most Meiteis are Vaishnavites. Various Kuki organisations have highlighted this difference, and some Kuki Christian organisations have been covertly spreading hatred against the Meiteis for being Hindus. 

    The first stone in furtherance of the game plan was cast by Kuki mobs on May 3 in the Kuki-majority Churachandpur district. 

    That day, the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) had called for rallies and marches to protest the proposed granting of Scheduled Tribe status to Meiteis. 

    It was during one such rally that Kuki mobs attacked houses inhabited by Meitei families and torched those houses. Some reports say that Kuki militants carried out those attacks on Meiteis. 

    Outraged Meiteis attacked and destroyed properties belonging to the Kukis in Imphal Valley. That again triggered more violence against Meiteis in the hills and the peripheries of Imphal Valley with mixed population. 

    By 5 May, more than 70 people (both Kukis and Meiteis) had lost their lives and more than 40,000 people had been displaced. While Kukis living in the Imphal Valley took refuge in the hill districts and even neighbouring Mizoram, Meiteis shifted to the Imphal Valley. 

    How the Kukis came to Manipur

    Kukis belong to the larger Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zo ethnic group that is spread over parts of the hill districts of Manipur and neighbouring Sagaing and Chin provinces of Myanmar, and are in an overwhelming majority in Mizoram. 

    Till the 1970s, the population of Kukis in the hill districts of Manipur was much below what it is now. Kukis now form 25 per cent of Manipur’s population while Meiteis form about 53 per cent of the state’s population. 

    But the Kukis are not really natives of Manipur. Only some areas of the state bordering Myanmar had a meagre presence of Kukis. 

    It was the British who brought Kukis from the provinces of Myanmar and Lushai Hills of Assam (Lushai Hills became Mizoram that was carved out of Assam in February, 1987) and settled them in the hill areas of the erstwhile Manipur kingdom.

    The British did so to create a buffer with the Naga tribes of Manipur Hills who would frequently attack the Imphal Valley and British interests in the Manipur kingdom. 

    Over the decades, more and more Kukis and their people belonging to the larger Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zo ethnic group started settling down in the hills of Manipur. 

    This had led to violent clashes between Kukis and Nagas in the early 1990s that resulted in the deaths of 250 people (mostly Kukis) and displacement of thousands of Kuki families from the hills.

    The Kuki-Naga ethnic strife was sparked by the Kukis laying claim to areas in the hills that the Nagas claim have traditionally belonged to them.

    Even today, tensions between the two tribal communities simmer below the surface. And that is why the Nagas have kept themselves at arm’s length from the ongoing Kuki-Meitei conflict in the hills. The Nagas have also limited themselves to issuing appeals for peace. 

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