THE SEARCH FOR KUKILAND

By Yambem Laba
This article was originally published by the Imphal Free Pres on 16 Dec 2012


The credit for raising the demand for a Kukiland or a Kuki state to be carved out of Manipur, does not belong to the Kukiland State Demand Committee or its armed wing, the Kuki National Organisation. It belongs to an almost unknown Kuki by the name of Hengkhulen Sithlou who had held the nondescript post of headmaster of Motbung High School in the Sadar Hills area of Senapati district. In 1970, he was said to have received the blessings of then Lieutenant-Governor of Manipur D R Kohli.

In the early 1990s, one Nehlun Kipgen trekked to the headquarters of the Kachin Independent Army in Myanmar, armed with a letter signed by the late Dengkhosai Gangte, who had earlier led a contingent of the Mizo National Front to China via Kachin, asking for the arms he had left behind to be handed over to Nelhun.

Nelhun returned to his home in the Kangpokpi area and formed the Kuki National Front. Its primary job then was to meet the threats posed by the NSCN(IM) which had, since June 1992, launched an ethnic-cleansing campaign, wiping out Kukis from their pockets in the Naga areas. But the KNF also had a clear political agenda and that was the creation of a Kukiland, so much so that then chief minister of Manipur R K Dorendra in his last press interview to The Statesman, had reiterated that “there can be no further balkanisation of Manipur and there cannot be a Southern Nagaland or a Kukiland either”.

Nehlun was killed in an encounter with the CRPF in the Kangpokpi area and the KNF splintered into factions, with the KNF (Military Council), said to have been under the control of a prominent Manipuri Kuki politician, coming to the fore. Apart from occasional arms snatching from demoralised Manipur Rifles personnel, nothing much was heard about the KNF till it got involved in the ethnic war with a cognate tribe, the Paites, rechristened Zomis, in Churachandpur district.

Around the time the KNF was formed, the KNO also came into being, not in Manipur but in Myanmar. Founded by a man called Hanglen, its primary political objective was the creation of a Kuki state in Myanmar, and not in Manipur. Around 1990, Hanglen was given sanctuary in Moreh by Kuki politicians in the RK Ranbir Singh ministry. Moreh, the border town, at that time was under NSCN(IM) control, and was a rich source of income. The entry of yet another armed group in the area was bound to create tension as both started vying for a share of the loot.

Then on 3 June 1992, Onkholet Haokip, said to be a KNO cadre, was captured and shot dead by the NSCN(IM) in Moreh. That was the spark that led to a fullscale war between the NSCN(IM) and the KNO and the former was forced to surrender Moreh. The latter, with its Kuki National Army, came to be looked upon by the Kukis of Chandel district as a saviour from the onslaught of the NSCN(IM).

It was also generally believed that the Indian Army was backing the KNO in the fight against the NSCN(IM) and it coincided with the statement by Hanglen that he had been to Delhi and had met General Rodrigues, then Indian Army Chief. The Research and Analysis Wing was also believed to have pumped in a crore or two of rupees to boost the KNO coffers.

Then Hanglen got killed by his cadres in Moreh itself and the KNO shifted its tactical headquarters to Imphal. In 1996, the outfit made a paradigm shift in its political agenda and its leadership was taken over by P S Haokip, who is believed to have been born in Nagaland. In a communiqué to the Indian Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, dated 3 December 1996, Haokip categorically stated that the government of India must not treat the Nagas as the sole owners of the hills of Manipur, the interest of the Kukis must be safeguarded and “the Kuki aspirations and demands for an enclave, be it in whatever form — a statehood or a protectorate country, still stands”. A copy of this communiqué was made available to The Statesman by one T Antone Haokip, director of information and publicity of the KNO on the official letterhead of the Provisional Government of Kukigam (Kukiland) dated 20 August 1997.

It was around this time that one of the most prominent Kuki politicians of Manipur, former minister and member of Parliament, Holkhomang Haokip, had said that “we will achieve Kukiland only in heaven”, ridiculing the idea of a “Kukiland on earth”. The KNF did not take this too kindly and threatened to kill him.

He still has not changed his stance. Speaking to The Statesman recently, he said that “as good Christians we Kukis must know we are all passers-by on earth and our true home is in heaven”. But then he had this to say about Manipur chief minister Ibobi Singh, “The Nagas are angry with him and now the Kukis are also going to get angry with him... what is the harm in talking, as talking does not mean that you are going to give in to the demands”.

The irony of the demand for Kukiland now lies in the fact that the KNF, the original vocal propagator of the idea, is now with the United People’s Front, the other umbrella organisation of the Kuki-Zomi militants, that is now observing a Suspension of Operations with the Centre and the state.The UPF has categorically stated that it does do not back the idea of a separate Kuki state to be carved out of Manipur, while the KNO, which has since emerged as the other umbrella organisation of Kuki militants and which has also signed an SoO, has openly backed the demand for the creation of a state for Kukis, so much so that it recently declined to sign an extension of the SoO agreement, arguing that the Centre must give it in writing that political dialogue would commence soon following which they would be prepared to sign an extension for three months, and not a year, like the UPF.

The latter’s standpoint is for an autonomous Kuki administration within Manipur, somewhat akin to the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam.

But political rhetoric apart, tribe and clan dynamics account for a lot regarding the actions of the Kuki and Zomi revolutionary groups. It is believed that particular clans of the Kuki-Thadou tribe would have an armed group which, in turn, would have a Kuki politician backing it, or vice-versa. Even one group, the United Kuki Liberation Front, is said to have been propped up by their arch enemy, the NSCN(IM). Then there is the great Kuki-Paite divide as witnessed in the fratricidal killings in Churachandpur in 1996-1997, which was also the time when present health minister and Paite leader Phunzathang Tonsing, who was then MPCC-I president, stated “Paites are not Kukis” and the Gangtes identified themselves as a Mizo tribe to distance themselves from both the groups.

Central to the demand for a Kukiland lies the motive of historical revenge on the Nagas, according to social scientist Homen Thangjam. He told The Statesman that the message was that the Nagas could not and should not hope for a political solution to their problem bypassing the Kukis, meaning the reality of Kuki pockets in Naga areas. Observers have, however, said that given the fact that the Kukis have not been able to convert the Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills area into a full-fledged revenue entity in view of the opposition from the Nagas, contending that the Sadar Hills formed an integral part of Senapati district, which is primarily a Naga district. The idea of a Kuki state comprising areas covering Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel districts, which the Nagas are claiming to be part of their Greater Nagalim or land, seems far fetched under the present circumstances, the observer added.

It was also said that at the height of the Naga-Kuki ethnic killings, “both sides were mad but the Nagas have a method in their madness, the Kukis have none”.

Manipur at the moment seems headed for yet another period of uncertainty, with more blockades and bandhs in the offing.

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