Years ago, travelling from Imphal to the hills of Senapati in Manipur, I had the first taste of Kuki hospitality. We were visiting Haokholet Kipgen’s flower farm, a picturesque expanse of fields of gladioli blossoms and avocado trees. Ravenous after the two-hour drive through an eerily deserted highway, my Meitei companions and I chatted with our amiable host and tinkered with his air gun while lunch, comprising rice and chicken curry, was served.
Kipgen is a legislator today and one of the 10 Kuki signatories to a demand for a separate administrative unit in the wake of the violence that has rocked Manipur this month. All the 10 members of the legislative assembly from Kuki communities in Manipur, including two ministers, said the state had “miserably failed to protect” its Chin-Kuki-Zomi tribals. Living amid the Meiteis after this “is as good as death for our people,” the statement added.
Among these signatories are two ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Letpao Haokip and Nemcha Kipgen, as well as their party legislator, Vungzagin Valte, who was seriously injured when his vehicle was targeted in Imphal on May 4. The other Kuki representatives who have voiced the demand, besides Haokholet Kipgen, are L.M. Khaute, Ngursanglur Sanate, Letzamang Haokip and Paolienlal Haokip from the BJP and Kimneo Haokip Hangshing and Chinlunthang Haokip from the Kuki People’s Alliance, which extended its support to the BJP. The chief minister, N. Biren Singh, who met the Union home minister, Amit Shah, in Delhi on Sunday and was assured that the state’s territorial integrity would be preserved, on Monday rejected the demand of the Kuki delegation. The delegates met Shah on Monday.
The latest spate of violence in Manipur was triggered by its high court asking the state government to decide whether the valley-based Meiteis, who comprise 53% of the population, should be accorded scheduled tribe status. The largely Christian Naga and Kuki tribes, who reside in the 10 hill districts that surround Imphal valley, reacted because they feel that the ST facilities they enjoy will be eroded as a consequence. And although the Supreme Court has said that no high court can grant ST status, emotions are now singed to the point of retributive, not restorative justice.
Over the past fortnight, many lives have been lost in Manipur and the rift’s aftershocks have echoed elsewhere, particularly in Delhi and Shillong, where a large number of Meitei and Kuki students are pursuing their education. Heartwarming stories about the bonding between the Kukis and Meiteis in Calcutta or those of members of the Kuki community saving Meitei lives and vice-versa have surfaced.
But these few stellar selfless acts are not going to resolve a festering divide. It is imperative that there is dialogue. And talks are what the saner voices on either side have been pleading for. As in Track II diplomacy, non-State actors must become stakeholders, because the overriding feeling is that, by political design, the Imphal valley has been developing while the hills wallow in neglect, despite efforts to improve the lives of the indigenous population.
Now with the Kuki political leaders, including those in the ruling party, looking at Union territory or statehood options, the government has to initiate a healing process. The Centre’s support in restoring a semblance of normalcy, so that the thousands who have fled or were evacuated can return home, is urgently required.
Manipur’s much-sought-after Shirui Lily Festival, scheduled to be held from May 17 to 20, had to be postponed indefinitely. The developments of the past fortnight may even keep away those who had made Manipur their home. The need of the hour is to use every mechanism to minimise ethnic tension.
Bridging the trust chasm must be accorded priority, a tall task ahead of a tightrope-walking political dispensation.