The controversy over observing the anniversary of the mass killing of Kukis by Naga militants in Manipur reflects the complexity of identity politics in the State.
For the past several years, the Kukis of Manipur have been observing September 13 as “Black Day” (Sahnit Nikho in the local Thadou dialect) to remember the killings of over a 100 Kukis on that day in 1993.
That was the highest number of Kukis killed in a single day, in a violent stand-off between the Kukis and Nagas of Manipur that had begun the previous year. Since 1994, the Kuki people across India and abroad have observed the day with mass prayers and a raising a black flag in every house.
The massacre followed quit notices by the United Naga Council (UNC) to Kuki villages in the hill districts of Manipur, including Zoupi in Tamenglong district and Gelnel in Senapati district.
The UNC’s stated grievance was that the Kukis had stopped paying house taxes to the Nagas. The Nagas claim the Kukis were nomads who had settled on their land and had to pay up like tenants.
Many Kukis vacated their villages. The Zoupi villagers, who were given a deadline of September 15, vacated their village on September 13.
As they were leaving, a group of around 100 Kukis were intercepted by cadres of the Naga Lim Guard (NLG), a joint Naga village vigilante organization formed at the time, which was suspected to be a proxy of the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). The men were then blindfolded and beheaded.
CLAIMS OVER TERRITORY
The tragedy was a turning point in the simmering tensions between the Kukis and Nagas in the hill districts of Manipur. The tensions started as early as the 1950s. Among others, ethnic claims on overlapping territories have been a bone of contention between the two groups.
Historically, the Kukis and Nagas have settled in the hill areas of the State. However, as Naga nationalism and its secessionist movement grew, the presence of the Kuki population in the hill areas was seen as a hindrance to this political objective.
On the other hand, the Kukis were demanding the creation of a Kuki state comprising all the areas they inhabited in Manipur.
Their competing demands triggered a chain of violence from 1992 to 1997 which resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives on both sides, destruction of hundreds of villages and displacement of tens of thousands of people from both communities. The number of people killed or displaced on either side is itself a contentious issue between the two groups.
Nearly two decades later, the significance of Black Day now evokes different responses. The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the apex Kuki civil body in Manipur, for instance, believes that observing the day is the least that can be done for the victims in the absence of any redress by the Central or State governments.
The KIM is of the view that only after an amicable solution is hammered out can the Kuki people stop observing Black Day. In this regard, KIM had even approached the UNC, the apex civil body of the Nagas of Manipur, for a peaceful settlement.
The two apex bodies met twice on March 29, 1994 and on April 4, 1994. However, the meetings were discontinued without an amicable solution as the NSCN-IM prevented the UNC from further participation.
On the other hand, a section of the Kuki population including an armed group, the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), has demanded that the annual commemoration must stop. In the last few years, the UKLF has publicly stated that the commemoration brings more harm than good to the society.
In a statement released on September 6, the UKLF once again appealed “to the Kuki brethren not to observe September 13 as Kuki Black Day since [this] will only prolong the remembrance of those ugly days and it can affect permanent peace in the society.”
The September 13 anniversary has to be seen in the context of similar commemorations by other ethnic groups in the region. For instance, the Meitieis, the majority ethnic group of Manipur, observe June 18 every year as “The Great June Uprising of 2001,” to remember the death of 18 people at the hands of security forces for the cause of Manipur’s territorial integrity.
Similarly, the Nagas have begun the annual commemoration of the death of two students on May 6, 2010, in a clash with Manipur security forces along the Nagaland border during a protest against the Manipur government’s refusal to permit NSCN-IM leader Thuingaleng Muivah’s plan to visit his home in Somtal village in Ukhrul district.
Though the three incidents are different, the fundamental issue common to all is the question of territory. The Kukis and the Nagas want their own territories carved out of Manipur, which the Meiteis oppose.
The main challenge is to build mutual trust between the communities through dialogue and people-to-people relations. Since the Central government is engaged with both Kuki and Naga armed groups at different levels, it has the leverage and resources to facilitate such dialogue between the two ethnic groups.
Mr. Shambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (North East), Ministry of Home Affairs, and in-charge of the Union government’s talks with the Kuki armed groups, was the District Commissioner of Tamenglong district during the time of the September 13 violence; he must be well aware of the complexities of the situation.
Black Day is largely a consequence of violent and competing identity politics and overlapping ethnic territorial claims. Addressing one group’s problem at the expense of the other’s can only exacerbate the conundrum.
The article was first published in The Hindu newspaper, based in India.