It's time the Centre made good its promise of talks with Kuki groups
Manipur is once again in the midst of a general strike and a blockade of its national highways by Kuki groups who want their own state in northeast India. It is being spearheaded by the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC), an organization formed in 2010 to work for the political interests of the Kuki people in Manipur.
The agitation is an attempt to influence the Central government to start a political dialogue with the two umbrella organizations of the Kuki armed groups -- the Kuki National Organization (KNO) and the United Peoples' Front (UPF).
The KSDC has launched similar agitations on several occasions in the past. The Indian Army and Kuki armed groups have observed a Suspension of Operations (SoO) since Aug. 1, 2005. A tripartite agreement was formally signed on Aug. 22, 2008. The three parties included the KNO and UPF, the Central government and the Manipur government. The Kuki armed groups agreed to it in response to the Prime Minister's appeal for resolving armed conflicts through dialogue. There was an agreement to hold a political dialogue on all issues within the framework of the Constitution.
Seven years from the start of the SoO, no political dialogue has materialized. Earlier this year, the government had assured the KSDC that such a dialogue with the Kuki outfits would begin at the earliest.
Notably, on January 27, the KSDC suspended its Statewide agitation after the Manipur Chief Minister gave the assurance that he would take the necessary steps to start a political dialogue between the Central government and the Kuki armed groups.
The government also made the assurance that this would begin immediately following the winter session of Parliament. Mr. Shambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (North East), Ministry of Home Affairs, briefed representatives of the KNO and UPF on the modalities.
The UPF's statement on July 3 accuses the government of failing to keep its promises. Its spokesperson said that between December 2012 and February this year, Home Ministry officials assured them as much as three times that an interlocutor would be appointed and a dialogue begin soon.
The UPF also alleges that the government has stopped payment of monthly stipends to its armed cadres since last December. And the joint monitoring group, which is supposed to happen every month, has not met in the past seven months.
In light of the government's indifferent attitude, the UPF has warned that it will not allow the inspection of its designated camps by government officials if no political dialogue begins by Aug. 22. The group has also decided to boycott the ruling Congress party in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.
Even though the government's inability to implement its assurances remains the main reason for the strike and continued imbroglio, the Kuki armed groups must also share some of the blame for the impasse.
Though about 20 Kuki armed groups have come under the conglomerates of the KNO and UPF, the two parties have different visions for a possible solution for the Kuki people. The KNO's political objective is for the creation of an exclusive Kuki state, while the UPF demands an autonomous hill state, or a state within a state under Article 244-A of the Constitution.
Despite the apparent political question that awaits them at the negotiating table, the KNO and the UPF have not been able to reach an agreement on a common political goal.
There is some variation in the constitutionality of their demands, but both could entail a review of the territorial integrity of Manipur, which contradicts the ground rules of the SoO. In the initial tripartite agreement, the Manipur government inserted a clause -- that the territorial integrity of Manipur cannot be disturbed.
Another looming challenge is the issue of competing demands. The Nagas, who constitute another major ethnic group in the State, also claim overlapping geographical areas in four hill districts -- Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul -- as their own territories in their quest for a greater Nagaland.
These competing demands for land have given rise to severe insurgency problems in the hill areas for the past many years.
The Centre has had several rounds of political dialogue with the Nagas, particularly the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM). A similar policy has not been pursued with the Kuki armed groups.
Despite the challenges ahead, the government must keep its past promises and begin a political dialogue with the Kuki armed groups or else the strikes and economic blockades will continue to disrupt the lives of common people and the effective functioning of government machinery.
One must note that a political solution for the Kukis does not entirely depend on the government, but also on the people themselves. The Kuki armed groups must unite and prepare to present a common goal for constructive political discussion with the government.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally. His academic article titled "Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur" was published by Sage from London in February 2013. This article first appeared on July 11, 2013 edition of The Hindu newspaper, based in India.