The clashes have now thrown a spanner in the talks with the groups after having agreed to a political settlement within the state of Manipur now digging their heels in and demanding a separate administration.
The demand officially resurfaced with 10 Kuki-Zomi MLAs in Manipur submitting a memorandum to Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Now, the SOO groups are poised to begin talks with the Centre once again, but with a changed position.
Union government sources said it was understandable that Kukis would harden their stance following the recent violence as they now feel insecure under a Meitei-dominated government.
Sources in Manipur also told The Indian Express that the disproportionate casualties suffered by the Kukis [in comparison to Meiteis] in the violence has exacerbated this insecurity.
“Still we are hopeful of reaching a deal with the Kukis. They have been more accommodating of Centre’s vision for Manipur compared to Nagas. Thankfully, the words used by agitating Kuki leaders are still ‘separate administration’ and not ‘separate state’. We are sure once peace is established in Manipur and Kukis begin to feel more secure, they will come around to accepting the solution. It may take some time now, but it will happen,” a government source said.
The peace talks had settled upon the module of providing ‘territorial councils’ to the tribes of Manipur. The Kuki groups had asked that the 10 hill districts, dominated by Kuki-Zomi and Naga tribes — be divided into two territorial councils — one for the Nagas and the other for the Kuki-Zomi groups. The Biren Singh-led government had proposed that there be 10 territorial councils — one for every district. The Centre had proposed a division of 2-2-1, a proposition that was backed by the Zomi insurgent groups.
“But that is no longer what we are seeking. It is not possible for us to live with the Meiteis any longer, so we want a separate administration,’’ said a KNO leader speaking with The Indian Express.
Pointing out that this is the “first time in two millennia that such an incident has taken place between the Kukis and the Meiteis’’, the leader added, “We hope that the Centre will address the deep fault lines that have existed in Manipur, to the detriment of tribals. A line has to be drawn – and that line is the hill-valley divide, physically and politically. The Kukis who have been driven out of the valley will never go back. When Rajnath Singh was home minister, the Centre had convinced us to drop the demand of a separate state. We obliged, to ensure peace in the region, with the condition that certain safeguards were put into place such as the 6th Schedule, protection of our land etc. But before the settlement has taken place, the Meiteis have made it very clear to us that they don’t want us. We are now saying, never again.’’
The SOO groups have also alleged that the Manipur government has been using state machinery to attack the tribes.
“He (Biren) is exercising his power and carrying out what he wants to do because he is emboldened by his numbers in the second term… He is only targeting the Kuki-Zomis while the Nagas were also doing it,’’ he alleges.
The land that the Kukis occupy, including Churachandpur and Kangkokpi, is being eyed by the Meitei population, contends the KNO. “We are the obvious target. At the time the clashes began, we heard that they were coming to obliterate Churachandpur town,” he says. “It’s a very good thing in one way. If this had not happened and we had a settlement, based on the Memorandum of settlement, we would be a part of Manipur. Now we have been set free…to pursue our own political arrangement.”
The groups claim that the Chief Minister’s office had passed an order for the dismantling of the Anglo-Kuki war memorial which was later rescinded. Incidentally, the clashes which began on May 3, started with the alleged setting on fire of the memorial.
Another flashpoint is that of the sacred Koubru mountain, that the Meiteis believe the community originated from. Meiteis have said that they are barred from visiting Koubru by the SOO groups, the groups have contested this saying that there is no such prohibition. They have alleged that the Biren government has tried to erect a structure on the mountain for the pilgrimage, which the groups opposed.
“We do not agree with the Meitei demand for ST status. We understand, however, their concerns about not being able to buy land in the hills, while tribals can buy land in the valley which is less than 10% of the total land in Manipur. The government should bring in a policy to disallow tribals from buying land in the Imphal valley – we have no problem with that,” he said.