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Intricacies of Kuki and Naga Ethnocentrism in Manipur

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Renowned social scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, in their article "Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity," assert that ethnic cleavages emerge because of the construction of identities for specific political purposes. This phenomenon partially holds true in the case of Kukis and Nagas in Manipur.

Manipur, a Northeast Indian state with a population of more than 2.7 million, is a home to three major groups -- Kuki, Naga, and Meitei. While the Meiteis, who primarily settle in the four valley districts, clamor for territorial integrity of the state, the Kukis and the Nagas are calling for separate administrative arrangements in the hill areas.

Identity is one major source of conflict between Kukis and Nagas. In the process of identity formation, a number of tribes, including Anal, Maring, Monsang and Moyon, have been assimilated into the Naga fold either by coercion or other forms of persuasion. Another major source of the conflict is land dispute.

Ethnic violence from 1992 to 1997 between the two ethnic groups resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, destruction of thousands of homes, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. While the physical violence has ceased, tensions between the two groups still lingers. The simmering tension has led to different forms of agitation from both sides, claims and counterclaims.

The violent conflict initially started between the Thadou and Maring tribes, both of whom were recognized as Kuki during the British colonial administration. While the casualty of the Nagas is unclear, the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), apex civil body of the Kuki people in Manipur, claims that more than 961 Kukis were killed, 360 villages uprooted, and 100,000 people rendered homeless.

The most significant bone of contention between the two groups is land dispute. The Kuki National Front (KNF), later joined by the Kuki National Organization (KNO), demands Kukiland to be carved out of the five hill districts of Manipur -- Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.

The demand for Kukiland is a direct challenge to a demand for greater or southern Nagaland by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland -- Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). The goal of the Naga militant outfit is to amalgamate the four hill districts of Manipur -- Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul -- and to form greater Nagaland by merging with neighboring Nagaland state.

The intention to drive out Kukis from the four hill districts led to "ethnic cleansing" by the NSCN-IM. Though the initial violence was triggered by militant outfits in Chandel district, it spread over to other parts of the state, and to Nagaland state and Myanmar as well.

To restore peace and normalcy, KIM puts forward two important demands to the Nagas and the Indian government. First, it demands the Nagas, especially the NSCN-IM, to formally apologize for their heinous crimes of the 1990s and perform Kuki customary rites such as paying Luongman (corpse price) and Tol-theh (cleaning the house for shedding human blood). Second, KIM demands the Indian government to rehabilitate the loss of lives and properties and provide adequate compensation to thousands of displaced victims.

Naga leaders, particularly the NSCN-IM, have not responded to the demands of KIM. It is unclear if the Naga leaders, particularly the United Naga Council (UNC), apex civil body of the Nagas in Manipur, and NSCN-IM, have the intention to make similar demands from the Kukis to perform Naga customary rites for their own deaths.

While the Meiteis oppose creation of either Kuki homeland or greater Nagaland, the Kukis and Nagas are evidently unable to establish any kind of coordination or cooperation. This is partly due to the simmering tension remaining in the aftermath of the 1992-1997 clashes. The wounds of past miseries are apparently yet to be healed.

The tension has become deeply communal now and has reached a point of mutual distrust that makes it difficult for civil society organizations to initiate any congenial dialogue between the two groups.

It is pertinent to ask whether the government sees the conflict as an internal matter for the concerned ethnic groups to resolve among themselves or considers this a too-insignificant issue to intervene.

While the tension lingers, the Indian government engages in a political dialogue with the NSCN-IM, ignoring calls by the Kuki armed groups for political dialogue despite maintaining Suspension of Operation since 2005. It remains unclear whether this is an institutional problem on the part of the Kuki armed organizations, or another manifestation of one-sided treatment toward the NSCN-IM.

The Nagas' present demand is a continuation of decades of movement. Similarly, the Kuki National Assembly, a political body established in 1946, submitted a memorandum to the first Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on March 24, 1960, demanding the "immediate" creation of a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur.

When there are competing or overlapping demands in the same geographical areas, it is possible that resolving conflict with one group and sidelining the other could engender more problems.

The danger became more apparent with the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC) on Jan. 21, 2013, announcing a series of agitation including "Quit Kukiland" movement and a boycott call for any official program of India including the Republic Day.

The KSDC demands that the Indian government begins political dialogue with Kuki armed groups or withdraw its local authorities from the Kuki inhabited areas. The KSDC said it would resume statewide public blockade that was withdrawn in December 2012, and initiate a plebiscite in the Kuki areas for political resolution.

Though there seems no quick fix to the ongoing problems of the Kukis and the Nagas, it has become an issue that cannot be ignored for too long. However, in any attempt to achieve amicable political solution, it would entail participation from both ethnic groups and other concerned parties, including the central and state governments.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia. His academic article entitled "Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur" focusing on the Kukis and Nagas will be published in South Asia Research journal by Sage (London) in February 2013.