For the past several years, the Kukis of Manipur in Northeast India have been observing Sept. 13 as "Black Day" (Sahnit Nikho in local Thadou dialect) to remember the death of hundreds of Kukis during the Kuki-Naga clashes in the 1990s.
Sept. 13, 1993 was the highest number of Kukis killed on a single day by the Naga Lim Guard and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM).
Since 1994, the Kuki people across India and abroad have observed the day with mass prayers for peace, love and security. On this day, Kuki households put up a black flag and abstain from participating in entertainment programs.
The Fateful Day
The massacre followed quit notices by the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex civil body of the Nagas of Manipur, to Kuki villages in the hill districts of Manipur, including Zoupi in Tamenglong district and Gelnel in Senapati district.
The reason for quit notices was that the Kukis were settling in Naga territories. Many Kukis vacated their villages. The Zoupi villagers, who were given a deadline of Sept. 15, vacated their village two days before the deadline on Sept. 13.
As the villagers were leaving, they were intercepted by the Naga Lim Guard assisted by NSCN-IM cadres. All men were separated and their hands tied at the back and blindfolded, and as many as 87 were murdered on the spot.
In a separate incident on the fateful day at Gelnel village in Senapati district, 13 Kukis were murdered. Four persons were also killed in Santing village and another three in Nungthut village of Tamenglong district.
Historical in Nature
The tragedy was a brutal point in the simmering tensions between Kukis and Nagas in the hill districts of Manipur. The tensions started as early as the 1950s. Among others, ownership claim of overlapping territories has been a bone of contention between the two ethnic groups.
Historically, Kukis and Nagas have settled in the entire 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.
The competing demands triggered a chain of violence from 1992 to 1997 which resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives, destruction of hundreds of villages and displacement of tens of thousands of people from both communities. Though the precise number of deaths on both communities is unclear, Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the apex Kuki civil body in Manipur, claims that over 900 Kukis were murdered.
After almost two decades, the significance of Black Day now evokes different responses. While some argue that commemorating the historic day is important, others are beginning to voice concerns about rekindling memories past of ethnic violence.
The KIM, 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.
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 for a peaceful settlement of the ethnic conflict.
The two apex bodies met twice on March 29, 1994 and on April 4, 1994. However, the meetings were discontinued without achieving any amicable solution as the NSCN-IM prevented UNC from further participation.
On the other hand, a section of Kuki population including an armed group, the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), has demanded for putting an end to the annual commemoration. In the last few years, the UKLF has publicly stated that the commemoration brings more harm than good to the society.
In its statement released on Sept. 6, the UKLF once again appealed "to the Kuki brethren not to observe the Sept. 13 as Kuki Black Day since the observation of the day will only prolong the remembrance of those ugly days and it can affect permanent peace in the society."
Question of Relevance
The Sept. 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 Indian 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.
Shambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (Home), in-charge of the Union government's talks with the Kuki armed groups, was the District Commissioner of Tamenglong district during the time of Sept. 13 violence; he must be well aware of the complexities of the situation.
Black Day is largely a consequence of overlapping territorial claims. Addressing one group's problem at the expense of another group can exacerbate the conundrum.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum and his research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia. He is the author of "Politics Of Ethnic Conflict In Manipur." A version of this article was first published in The Hindu newspaper, based in India.