With the violence between the Hill (Kukis) and Valley (Meiteis) in Manipur showing no signs of abetment, the demand for Separate Administration from the Kuki ethnic group is only getting louder.
Any attempt from the State and Centre for peace and dialogue at this point in time seems impractical. The declaration by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) and Committee on Tribal Unity (COTU) of not endorsing any move from the government unless N Biren Singh remains the Chief Minister, and the President’s Rule is invoked in the State, is a clear message that the Kukis have lost all faith in the present regime.
Vesna Pešića, a Professor at the University of Belgrade, observed that “Ethnic conflict is caused by the fear of the future lived through the past.” The majority Valley-Meitei’s fear of their future under the pressure of land, which they claimed would imperil their life, is the primary cause of the present-day violence. But why a specific Tribe was singled out is a question clouded with mystery and must be scrutinised.
The current spate of violence has left 115 or more dead, around 3000 injured and displaced more than 50,000 people. Experts have argued that the present hate campaign and the violence meted out towards the Kukis is akin to ethnic cleansing. All attempts to mediate peace between the warring communities fail to yield any results. For instance, the outright rejection of the constitution of the 51-member Peace Committee by all stakeholders was a tipping point. The persistent violence and the deep ethnic schisms between the two ethnic groups, conjoin with rampant rumours and false allegations testify that the time is pregnant, to part ways and remain good neighbours than stay under one roof with suspicion and kill one other.
Separate administration is not a new demand
The demand for autonomy by the Kukis is not of recent origin. It began in the 1980s through an armed movement under the conglomerate of two Kuki armed groups: the United People’s Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO). The groundwork for a Tripartite Talk with the Centre and State was laid with the signing of the Suspension of Operation (SoO) in 2008 with the laying down of arms by the Kuki Armed Groups. The negotiation, hitherto, revolved around creating an Autonomous Territorial Council within Manipur but the severity of the violence today and the ripple effect of the intense animosity have forced the Kukis to ameliorate their demand for total separation from Manipur.
The Kuki leaders’ unequivocal demand for a Separate Administration should be appreciated and taken seriously. Separation would only serve to strengthen the notion of national cohesion rather than pose a threat to national security as purported by certain people. Furthermore, separation will result in national integration into the larger Indian State rather than the dissolution of the Union of India. A typical example is the separation of the Khasi, Jiantia, and Garo Hills from Assam in 1971. Today, these Tribes are thriving under the Constitution, and stand as a testament to the wisdom of the then government.
How plausible is the demand?
It is the Centre’s discretion under Article 3 of the Constitution to end this issue. Separate Administration is the most plausible way to bring a permanent solution to this perpetual problem and ensure lasting peace. What sort of Separate Administration could possibly be considered: Autonomy under the Sixth Schedule; Autonomous Territorial Council, and Union Territory with Legislature? Of the three, the most appropriate and durable solution is a Union Territory with the legislature, if not a full-fledged state.
Manipur is India’s 25th most populous state (Handbook of Statistics on Indian States). The total population of Manipur, as per the 2011 Census, is 28,55,794. Of this, the rural population is 17, 36,236 and the urban population is 8,34,154. In absolute numbers, out of the total increase of 403,602 added in the last decade, the contribution of rural areas is 1,45,416, and urban areas are 2,58,186. The population growth rate in Manipur in the last decade is 18.6 per cent (Rural 9.1 %; Urban 44.8%). So, the allegations of the exponential growth rate of the Kukis with 22 per cent as claimed by the valley-based Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and others is illogical. Most importantly, the Census for 2021 is on hold as of now. Any statistics cited outside the 2011 Census as a reference point are irrelevant.
With 53 per cent, the Meitei population stands at 15,13,570 lakhs. while the Tribals comprised around 10 lakh which is 35 per cent of the total population as per the 2011 Census. Out of this, the Kukis and its cognate tribes roughly comprise around 6 lakh. With a decadal growth rate of 21.8 per cent for Manipur, the population is expected to rise for all communities. Hence, a decade later (2011-2021), the population of the Kukis would ideally be between 7-8 lakhs.
Hence, in terms of population, the Kukis stand identical to that of Sikkim’s population—a full-fledged state which stands at 6, 10,577 as per the 2011 census. Furthermore, the population of the Kukis is larger than that of the Union territory of Ladakh (3,01,000), Andaman and Nicobar Island (3,80,581), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (3,43,709), Lakshadweep (64,473), Daman and Diu (2,43,247), and even more than the archipelagic state and country in South Asia—the Maldives (3,80,492).
Manipur is the 23rd largest state in India in terms of geographical size, with an area of 22,327 sq. km. Almost 90 per cent of this total geographical area comprises the Hills inhabited by the Hill Tribes—Kukis and Nagas, which constitute around 20,094.3 sq. Km. Of this, the areas inhabited by the Kukis comprise hill districts such as Pherzawl, Churachandpur, Chandel, Tengnoupal, and Kangpokpi districts with a total area of approximately 12,641 sq. Km. The sizable presence of the Naga population in the above-mentioned districts is commensurate with the sizable Kuki population in the Naga-dominated hill districts such as Ukhrul, Kamjong, Senapati, Tamenglong and Jiribam.
The total area inhabited by the Kukis and its cognate tribes is even larger than the total size of states like Tripura (10,491 Sq. Km.), and Sikkim (7,096 Sq. Km.) Goa (3,702 Sq. Km.); and Union Territories of Andaman & Nicobar Island (8,249 sq. Km.), Delhi (1,483 Sq. Km.), Puducherry (479 Sq. Km.), Chandigarh (114 Sq. Km.), Daman & Diu (112 Sq. Km.), and Lakshadweep (32 Sq. Km). Hence, in terms of area size the community in an absolute sense of the term qualifies to be UT, if not a full-fledged State.
Cultural and Ethnic Elements
In India, the establishment of states based on cultural and ethnic considerations is not new. The establishment of Linguistic States represented our nation’s first big democratic political test. In 1953, Andhra Pradesh became the first state to be established on the basis of language. Punjab, Assam, Kerala, Orissa, and Maharashtra are additional states formed on linguistic grounds. In addition, rather than recognising language disparities, certain states such as Nagaland, Uttarakhand, and Jharkhand, were established to recognise cultural, ethnic, or geographic diversity.
Considering the circumstances under which aforementioned states were established, the Kukis and its cognate tribes primarily speak and interact in the same dialect, unlike their neighbour tribal Nagas in Manipur, where a certain Naga dialect is alien to the other. The Kukis also share affinal and consanguineal ties and they belong to the same kindred tribes. They also share the same cultural and traditional practices integral to their way of life—music, folktales, dance, food, dialects, etc. Hence, by any relevant yardstick of measurement, the Kukis qualify all standards for a Separate Administration.
Compensating the Kukis
The contribution made by the Kukis, who battled the British in what is known historically as the Anglo-Kuki War of 1917–1919, has not received enough acknowledgement from India. No community that fought the powerful British for three years in a row to defend their territory is known to exist. Because no son of the soil would be steadfast enough to battle until their last breath for something that doesn’t belong to them; this testament disproves the allegations that the Kukis are “illegal immigrants.” Any doubts about the veracity of the Kukis and the Wars they waged are only based on their scant understanding of their rich history.
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In addition, it is important to acknowledge the Kukis’ role in India’s independence. They made up the largest contingent—159 fighting men out of the 188 freedom fighters—that fought alongside the INA against the colonial British etched in the INA-Memorial Complex at Moirang in Manipur. India owes the Kukis a debt for their supreme sacrifice in India’s independence. It would be an injustice to grant them anything less than Separate Administration. Furthermore, placing them at the mercy of their neighbours is nothing less than criminal conduct that must put an end to it.
Any future attempts by the Centre and State to form any Peace Committee to resolve the current crisis will inevitably fail. In other words, it will be much simpler to permanently divide the two ethnic groups than to convince them to coexist. In essence, Separate Administration is now the only choice the Kukis have, considering the circumstances they have endured. The centre must hasten, but handle this delicate crisis with utmost caution to prevent any spillover effects. At this crucial juncture, the centre must avoid picking short-term remedies over long-term solutions. The Kukis have absolute faith in the wisdom of the centre to right the colonial wrongs once and for all. The best possible tribute the Indian Government could provide would be to grant the Kukis a Separate Administration and cement permanent peace in the region.
The author is a Research Scholar, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India.
The views expressed in this article are that of the writer and do not reflect EastMojo’s position
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