Against the excitement surrounding the prospect of NSCN-IM — or the Issak-Muivah faction of the Naga Socialist Council of Nagalim — finally concluding its peace deal with the Centre after 21 years of ceasefire and several rounds of talks, the Kukis, the other major tribal group, inhabiting the hills of Manipur are getting anxious. The tribal group is coming up with their own ethnic-based land agenda and is using what it called the ‘Kuki genocide of 1992-1997’ to assert their demand.
The peace pact between NSCN-IM, one of the most potent insurgent group of the North East region and the Centre was on the basis of a framework agreement signed by the group’s chief negotiator and supremo, Thuingaleng Muivah and the Government of India’s interlocutor RN Ravi on 3 August 2015 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
For the very first time in July 2018, some details of the elusive Framework Agreement came out in the form the 213th Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, on the ‘Security Situation in the North Eastern States of India.’ The report confirmed that the Government of India has signed an agreement with the NSCN-IM for a settlement within Indian federation with special status. Nagas who had maintained a ‘no integration, no solution’ holding on to the idea of unification of Naga inhabited areas, have now retracted that demand and are likely to agree to a settlement with special status accorded to the Nagas without touching the boundaries of the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. The Parliamentary Committee was told that the special arrangement would be something similar to Article 371A of the Constitution that is operative in Nagaland. “Article 371A accords special status to the Nagas. Similar kind of status with local variation may be given to the Nagas in the neighbouring States,” the report said. Soon after the Parliamentary Report appeared in public forum, voices of dissent came to the fore in Manipur saying it is akin to the formation of ‘a state within a state’ and relay sit-in-protests are going on against the enforcement of Article 371A in Manipur.
NSCN-IM has been pursuing the creation of a greater Nagaland by expanding the present map of the Nagaland state by including large areas of Assam adjoining Nagaland besides Tirap, Longding and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh and six hill districts of Manipur and parts of Myanmar. Even the Nagaland Assembly has endorsed the Greater Nagaland demand by integrating all Naga-inhabited contiguous areas under one administration, as much as five times of the state.
Kukis, through their militant groups, under two umbrella organisations, the KNO or the Kuki National Organisation and the UPF or the United People Front are also engaged in political dialogue negotiating for a Kuki homeland or territorial council under the Constitution of India after signing a Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the Government of India and the government of Manipur since 2008.
Historically, the Nagas and the Kukis have always fought over land ownership. Recent rivalry over the control of land, specifically of the strategic, Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh, had sparked off the ethnic clash in 1992 and continued till 1997. After losing out Moreh to the Kukis, several Kuki villages and hamlets within the so-called ‘Naga areas’ (as claimed by the NSCN-IM through its frontal organisations) were served quit notice and asked to leave the respective areas in the districts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Chandel and Tamenglong in Manipur.
Many saw in this campaign an ulterior motive to drive out all Kuki settlements out of the ‘Naga areas’. Quit notice or not, barbaric killings of innocent villagers started. Soon casualties were on both sides and villagers voluntarily armed themselves to safeguard their villages. Kukis who were less prepared undoubtedly suffered more with several inhuman stories.
The case of Joupi village may be a pointer to the dynamics of the ethnic conflict allegedly started by the NSCN-IM towards fulfilling its design for a greater Nagalim.
On 13 September 1993, 108 innocent Kuki villagers were killed, mostly beheaded or killed with swords, allegedly by NSCN-IM through their proxy front, the Naga Lim Guards, not sparing women and children. Every year the Kukis mourn the 13 September massacre by commemorating it as the Sahnit Ni or the Black Day. This years the Kukis under the aegis of the Kuki INPI Manipur, the apex body of the Kukis in Manipur and KNO commemorated the Sahnit Ni for three consecutive day from 11 to 13 September at Tuibong ground in Churachandpur, the southernmost district of Manipur, regarded as a Kuki stronghold, mourning over a thousand of Kukis killed during what they called the infamous Kuki genocide of 1992-97.
Unprecedented as it was, besides the usually hoisting of black flags in every Kuki homes in the state of Manipur and mass prayer services for the dead, the homeless and the displaced. This year’s programme included testimonies by survivors and unveiling of three huge stone megaliths with the names of victims of the ‘Kuki genocide’, inscribed on them.
Three huge stone megaliths with the names of those killed in the ‘Kuki genocide’ inscribed on them was unveiled in September 2018 at Churachandpur district in Manipur. Image courtesy Bona Meisnam
Nguljahao Hangsing, who is one of the survivors of the Joupi massacre, could have been the 89th person from Joupi village who were all butchered that day including a woman when they were fleeing from their village after a quit notice was served on them on 13 September 1993 in Tamenglong district. Disfigured with a deep sword scar on his neck, Nguljahao recounted the ordeal of Joupi in which 88 innocent villagers were killed, one by one.
“We were fleeing from our village that day as they told us to vacate. While some of us were going towards Tamei, NSCN-IM cadres stopped us. They ordered us to lie down with our face down near a drain. As we lay, they tied our hands behind our back and all of us were again tied together so that no one could escape. Shortly, they started hacking one after another. I was on the other extreme and was hacked the last. I remembered losing consciousness. They left thinking all of us were dead. It was when I regained consciousness. I was bleeding profusely from my neck and was trying to undo my hands when I hear one of our villagers calling out for his elder brother. His brother was among those butchered. I gathered strength and responded to his cry. This was how miraculously I was saved,” said Nguljahao. Joupi saw the worst massacre of the ethnic conflict.
Nguljahao Hangsing. Image courtesy Bona Meisnam
Another survivor of the conflict, Bekhonem who lost 10 of her immediate family members, including her seven-year-old boy on a single day said she was overwhelmed to participate in the
commemoration function and especially by the erection of the three memorial stones with the names of the death, including names of her family members inscribed for eternity.
“I didn’t imagine there will be such a time when we would do commemoration like this. I’m very thankful to the leaders and the organisers for honouring the dead in such a manner,” said Bekhonem.
According to her, around 40 Nagas descended on her village, Nongmeiching Khalong, and hurdled everyone together and hacked to death one after another. Miraculously, in spite of the attackers striking at her neck, her long hair and her left hand saved her.
Bekhonem. Image courtesy Bona Meisnam
“My younger brother was the first to be taken outside. They could have finished him quietly but we heard the sound of him being chopped 2-3 times, my brother cried in pain. His cry still haunts me today. One by one they called my other two brothers, my elder sisters, then my younger sisters. After they had killed four persons, my kid who was sleeping, woke up hearing the commotion. He cried.
“When I tried to get up to go to him, they pushed me down and pointed the gun at me. When I repeatedly requested them to allow me to go and get my son, they went to get him. I thought they would bring him to me. They got him from the bed and hacked him too. All I could hear was my son crying out, “mother, mother, mother” three times. The killing continued and eventually my turn came. They called me out. Despite the darkness, I could make out a dead body lying close by. When I stooped down to see who it was, they shouted and asked me why I was looking at it? They again caught hold of me by my arm. At this hour, I didn’t think I would survive but I was thinking of escaping. They asked me to sit down while still holding me by one of my arms. As I was sitting down I removed my slippers and suddenly pulled out my arm from his grip and ran. I ran for a few yards and felt down. They caught up with me and attacked me with their sword. They struck at my right cheek and also severed my right ear. I was bleeding profusely and I ran blindly. I felt down again at a sloping cliff with one of my legs on the opposite side of the slope and my head on the slopping end. They caught my leg and struck at my buttock and waist with their swords and spears. Somehow I managed to free my leg and rolled down the slope. They continued following me. When I stopped rolling, I was lying on one side with my left hand over my neck. At that time my hair was very long and had covered my neck. So when they struck my neck four-five times trying to hack me to death, my left hand and my hair shielded my neck. That was how my left fingers were all chopped off. They left me thinking I was done,” said Nongmeiching describing the horrific incident.
Bodies of Kukis killed in the massacre on 13 September 1993 and (R) Kuki villagers fleeing their homes following quit notice served by NSCN-IM. Image courtesy Bona Meisnam
The conflict, which went on sporadically till 1997, witnessed over a thousand Kukis losing their lives and more than a lakh rendered homeless and displaced. But it would be wrong to give an impression that Kukis were the only victims. There were casualties on the innocent Nagas too. Kuki armed groups also attacked Naga villages and killed innocent Nagas in retaliation. Attacks and counter-attacks did take place. The response of an elderly Naga villager from Ngariyan who lost three of his immediate family members in an arson attack by an armed Kuki outfit on the village that was entirely burned down indicate the scale of the violence that even the Nagas villagers went through during the ethnic bloodshed. “Seeing the dead, I lost my senses. Three of my dear ones fallen. Everyone was running helter-skelter to find out if their family members were among those killed. Utter confusion prevailed. Whether to be with those who were dying or
to tend to the houses that were burning?” narrated the Naga villager.
As armed Nagas pulled down Kuki passengers for the inter-state buses, travelling on the national highways so did the Kukis. On 12 February 1997, three Tangkhul Nagas were pulled down from a bus they were travelling to Shillong by Kuki villagers and handed over to the Kuki militants. Later their dead bodies were found in the jungle.
Despite these losses, the Government of India, as well as the government of Manipur, haven’t done anything to fix responsibility or address the grievances of the victims, whether Kukis and Nagas. Kukis are insisting that if the Government of India wants a lasting peace in the region, the Kuki issue needs to be solved first.
Seilen Haokip, the KNO spokesperson and one of the negotiators of the Kukis in the political dialogue with the Government of India directly pinpointed the NSCN-IM of carried out the killing.
“KNO’s primary reason for observing the 25th anniversary of the Kuki genocide is to mourn the victims of NSCN-IM, Tangkhul-led genocide. It’s the NSCN-IM, Tangkhul-led cadres, in full army fatigue, killing civilians, not even sparing women and children. It’s a heinous crime and as a human being I wonder, what motivated the leader of the organisation and their cadres to carry out such cowardly activities on their fellow human beings and their fellow Christian brothers and sisters? The scale of the atrocities on the victims is just unimaginable. Now the question is what has the government done to address this issue? Are we not in a country with norms of governance? What has the government done for over a thousand people killed?” he asked.
Kuki National Organisation spokesperson Seilen Haokip. Image courtesy Bona Meisnam
NSCN-IM, which is definitely on the back foot over the Kuki issue as brought forth by the Kuki Black Day commemoration has relied on counter blaming the Kukis for starting the conflict by saying the Kukis militants tried to take control of the strategic border-trading town of Moreh. While denying involvement in the massacre, NSCN-IM claimed the Naga villagers formed the Naga Lim Guards or the volunteer village guards to protect their villages against possible Kuki attacks and this was how the ethnic clashes started.
Significantly the Kukis have chosen to scale up the Black Day observation this year when the Government of India is all set to seal the Naga peace pact based on the Framework Agreement, giving special status to the Nagas and more autonomy for all the Naga inhabited areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur without disturbing the political maps of the states in question.
Despite the ethnic conflict, several areas in the so-called ‘Naga areas’ in Manipur still have Kuki villages in close proximity of the Naga villages. When one party is negotiating for their own homeland or greater autonomy, it is natural for the other party, who is also negotiating for their own territory, that is overlapping, to be apprehensive and try to rake up issues to assert their own agenda before any settlement with the ‘rival’ party is struck.
While the Sahnit Ni or the Kuki Black Day was a tearful event and one hoped that such conflict never surfaced again among any of the ethnic communities inhabiting the multi-ethnic state that is Manipur, the political message of the give and take negotiation is quite clear and loud if one can decipher between the lines of the general secretary of Kuki Inpi Manipur, Robul Pudaite responded to a question on what the Kuki are trying to articulate through the Black Day platform.
“The Government of India is not only talking to NSCN-IM. It is also talking with the KNO and the UPF. While these talks are crucial, we’re also having this three-day commemoration of the Kuki Black Day because we want justice to be delivered to the thousands of victims of the Kuki genocide that we know was perpetrated by a very prominent militant organisation of the region. We want the government to take notice of the fact that there was genocide in Manipur upon the Kukis. This is a cry for justice. Twenty-five years have passed since the genocide but still, the government is silent on our issue. What we’re saying through this programme is that Kukis are not expandable. The government must be answerable why more than a thousand Kukis were massacred in the infamous Kuki genocide of 1992-1997?” Robul asked.