On 13 September this year, almost all roads for the Kuki population of Manipur led to the Tuibong Grounds of Churachandpur. It was the penultimate day of the three day-remembrance for the 1,000-odd Kukis who had perished in the genocidal campaign launched by the followers of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) supremo Thieungaleng Muivah. A traditional gun salute was given to the departed souls but the most important event of the day was the unveiling of three huge stone megaliths on which were inscribed the names of those who had been killed.
It was on 13 September in 1993 that the “Naga Lim Guard”, the proxy front of the NSCN (I-M), had put a non-descript village called Joupi on the border of Senapati and Tamenglong districts, into international limelight. The attack began at first light when Naga marauders fired tracer bullets into the Kuki village huts of Joupi, setting them ablaze.
Then as villagers fled the area on the old Imphal-Tamenglong Road they were waylaid by the Nagas. Altogether 87 villagers comprising old men, women and children were halted at gun point; their hands tied behind their backs and made to kneel by the roadside facing a ravine. The Nagas did not shoot them. Instead they were bludgeoned or hacked with swords.
The culling process was soon over and by the time the news reached the office of then chief secretary H V Goswami, it was already dusk. The Joupi incident was the single largest in Muivah’s ethnic cleansing pogrom of the Kukis to make way for a Nagasonly hill area in Manipur, to pave the path for a greater Naga Lim. Altogether a total of 350 Kuki villages were uprooted, thousands rendered homeless and hundreds orphaned or widowed.
The NSCN (I-M) was quick to note the 25th Shanit Ni (Black Day), for the very next day a communiqué was issued from Camp Hebron in Nagaland where Muivah and his group are quartered. The press statement reiterated that it was the Kukis who started the Naga-Kuki conflict and added that observing the Black Day will never bring forth “any generous and harmonious coexistence but will only increase the enmity /animosity between the Nagas and Kukis”. It went on to add that the Kukis have been observing the “so-called Black Day” to continuously defame the NSCN-Government of India peace talks in collaboration with the adversaries.
One thing the NSCN had knowingly or unknowingly admitted was that it was the control of Moreh, in what they call the “Khurmi” region, which was the root cause of the Naga- Kuki conflict. Moreh is today the gateway to India’s Act East Policy, linking up the Indian economy with those of South-east Asian nations.
But much before the Government of India had announced its grand plans, Moreh had a been a thriving point for entry and exit of the clandestine trade between India and Myanmar and beyond, with transactions running over crores of rupees daily with no import or export duty paid. Moreh, for all that matters, was the hen that lay golden eggs for the NSCN, providing a steadily hefty source of revenue to augment its war efforts against India through its taxes on goods movement.
But the Kuki resentment against the NSCN was building up over time. First it was the notification issued by the United Naga Council with PA Theko as chairman and Francis Ngajokpa as general secretary, both former ministers of Manipur, asking all Kukis to vacate Naga areas where they had settled and established villages for years.
Second, the decision by the NSCN to increase the “hill house tax” on Kuki villages from Rs 100 to Rs 500 per year with retrospective effect for five years. Then around the same time, the Kuki National Army, which had been operating inside Myanmar to demand a Kuki state there, started opening up their base in Moreh. The area was hitherto under NSCN control and the turf war for Moreh began.
It was on a late June afternoon that the NSCN killed a teenaged KNA cadre called Onkholet Haokip. That was the spark required to ignite an already charged atmosphere and the fire soon spread across almost all the hill districts of Manipur with Nagas attacking Kuki villages in areas of their domination and the Kukis attacking Naga villages in areas where they had the upper hand. The KNA’s presence was limited to the Moreh area but elsewhere, they had assembled under the name of Kuki Defence Force.
The response of the state was pathetic, to put it mildly. On 1 May 1993, upon invitation from then Chief Minister RK Dorendra Singh, I had led a peace march from Imphal till Moreh and there were about 500 peace marchers covering the 109 kilometre route, despite a threat from the NSCN making it public that their blockade of NH 39 was still on.
Unfortunately, on 3 May when the peace marchers reached Moreh, mayhem broke out in Imphal resulting in clashes between the Manipuri Meiteis and the Manipuri Muslims or Pangals, which left 130 people dead in three days. Then on 1 October 1993, Dorendra Singh tried to broker peace between the two warring sides when the Kabui Naga Chief of Lamdan, Kabui Maringmei Thaithongnam shook hands with his Kuki counterpart at the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association complex at Lamdan. The peace lasted for about four hours as by dusk, the Kukis had shot dead two Nagas in nearby Tokpa village.
Thereafter, one crore rupees worth of relief material from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund was sent through the Indian Red Cross. Lt General VK Nayar (Retired) was then Governor of Manipur. He summoned me to the Raj Bhawan and asked me to provide 100 volunteers to distribute relief materials to the displaced villagers. Manipur was under President’s Rule by then. This was in 1994.
Although the Kukis had suffered a lot, it has emerged as a more organised force. They have gathered under the umbrella group of the Kuki National Organization, which although has its roots in Myanmar, represents 17 different Kuki and cognate tribal militant groups. It had entered into a suspension of operations with the Government of India and the Manipur government. It should be placed on record here that none of the numerous Kuki groups was ever banned by the Government of India under the Unlawful Organizations Act nor are there records of them having attacked any central forces.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman.