Lost in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s triumph in the Manipur elections is a quieter victory. The Kuki People’s Alliance, a small party which was formally recognised just this January, has won both the seats it contested in the state.

Chinlunthang, a 47-year-old lawyer, won from Singhat constituency in Churachandpur district. Kimneo Haokip Hangshing won from Saikul constituency in Kangpokpi district, becoming one of the five women legislators in the state assembly.

“We, the two elected representatives, will be a springboard for the coming political direction for the Kuki people,” said Chinlunthang, who had contested the 2017 Manipur assembly elections on a BJP ticket and lost by a small margin. According to him, Kuki legislators who had won as candidates from other parties had failed to voice the concerns of the community.

Wilson L Hangshing, a retired bureaucrat who became one of the founding members of the Kuki People’s Alliance, called the election victory a “historical event” because, after decades, the Kukis had their own party in the assembly.

Despite the diktat

A Kuki group called the Kuki National Assembly started life as a civil society organisation in the 1940s and eventually contested elections. After the 1990s, however, the party dwindled to nothing. Now, the Kuki People’s Alliance has been formed by two retired bureaucrats and a doctor, apart from Chinlunthang himself. The party agenda is centred on preserving the history and identity of the Kuki people.

In Manipur, it is a fraught history. The Kukis are an ethnic group who live mainly in the hill districts. In the 1980s, the demand for a separate Kuki state carved out of Manipur gave rise to an armed movement. Decades later, most Kuki armed groups have signed suspension of operation agreements with the government and agreed to peace talks.

However, they continue to influence the poll process in various ways. Before most elections, armed groups issue diktats telling people which candidate to vote for. This time was no different. The Kuki National Organisation, an umbrella group of 17 armed outfits, and the United People’s Front, which consists of eight militant groups, had urged Kuki voters to choose the BJP.

Yet, in both Singhat and Saikul, Kuki People’s Alliance had defeated BJP candidates. “All the obstacles and problems caused by the underground players – we were able to overcome them because the people were all behind us. All the Kuki villagers are with us and for us,” said Kuki People’s Alliance president Tongmang Haokip.

Others say that even though the Kuki armed groups had officially backed the BJP, the Kuki National Organisation had tacitly supported the new party. They point out that Hanshing, who won from Saikul, is the wife of a senior leader of the Kuki Revolutionary Army, which is part of the Kuki National Organisation.

A Kuki party

According to Haokip, a Kuki party was badly needed. Apart from the political aspirations of the community, many Kukis say they face discrimination, often called “infiltrators” or “migrants” from Myanmar – an oblique reference to the fact that Kukis had migrated from those regions centuries ago.

Haokip pointed out that the Nagas, the other dominant tribe that lives in the Manipur Hills, were politically well-organised. Like the Kukis, the Nagas have also fought for an ethnic homeland. Since the maps of the imagined homelands overlap, Nagas and Kukis have often been at odds with each other.

“In order to protect our identity and to preserve our culture, land and resources, we thought we needed a political platform to express our own problems,” Haokip said.

He pointed out that Nagas had parties like the Naga People’s Front to represent them while Kukis had to support or join national parties like the Congress and the BJP or more broad-based regional parties like the National People’s Party.

“The Kukis have to follow the ideology, principle and policy of that party,” explained Haokip. “At times, we are sidelined and nobody speaks for us. Nobody takes our problem to the legislative assembly.”

The Kuki People’s Alliance party manifesto demands the introduction of the Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021, which would give greater powers to the tribal council that governs the hills. It also asks for the strengthening of special protections guaranteed to the tribal hill districts under Article 371-C and the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a law which gives security forces sweeping powers to search, arrest and open fire.

Kuki People’s Alliance leaders also speak of the need to bridge the developmental gap between the tribal-dominated hills and the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley. Both Congress and the BJP, Haokip alleged, neglected hill areas and focused on building schools, hospitals and sports complexes in the valley.

Some party leaders admit they had wished for a hung assembly, which would allow them to play “kingmaker”. As it stands, the BJP has the numbers to form the government on its own. “If they ask us to join, we will think about it,” Haokip added.

Meanwhile, many Kuki voters welcomed the party’s success. Lalcha Haokip, a student at the National Law School who is originally from Churachandpur district, said he was happy that they had got two legislators from a Kuki party.

But he had a caveat: “The larger question and challenge for them is whether they will function independently and whether they can speak for the Kukis. If they can do it, KPA may be there for a long time.”