On May 13, days after ethnic clashes between Meiteis and Kukis left several dead in Manipur, the Council of Nagalim Churches issued a sharply worded statement. It described the violence as a “premeditated operation committed by an insane mob in collusion with people in power”.
The council is backed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah), the leading Naga insurgent group.
The council was especially critical of the Manipur state government and its alleged partisan attitude to the violence, saying that if Indian paramilitary forces had not intervened, “not a single soul who hails from the hills and lives in the [Imphal] valley would have survived”.
The violence between the majority Meitei community, who live in the valley, and the Kuki tribals who reside in the hill areas of Manipur, has left at least 74 dead, over 200 injured and thousands displaced since May 3.
The church council’s statement was unexpected, given the history of violence between Nagas and Kukis – the two prominent tribal groups in Manipur – and the NSCN(IM)’s alleged role in the conflict that broke out in the 1990s.
But this is not the only voice of support and solidarity to have emerged for Kukis in Manipur’s fraught neighbourhood.
The first to speak out were leaders from neighbouring Mizoram, where thousands of Kukis displaced by the recent violence in Manipur have taken shelter.
The Kukis share close ethnic ties with Mizos – bonds which transcend state boundaries and even international borders – and consider themselves part of a “greater Zo family”.
On May 11, for example, Rajya Sabha MP from Mizoram Vanlalvena had tweeted: “Different tribes of Mizo ethnic community in Manipur may think that they don’t have any Member of Parliament of their own. I want to let them know that I am their MP.”
Both Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and Vanlalvena spoke out against the violence and urged the state government to protect the tribal minorities.
What is the significance of the call for a larger tribal solidarity in the aftermath of the violence in Manipur? How will it be viewed in a state that has been left bitterly divided after the ethnic clashes?
The fault lines
The immediate trigger for the violence in Manipur was a protest march in Churachandpur, in which thousands of tribal residents – both Kukis and Nagas – came out to oppose the demand of the Meitei community for Scheduled Tribe status.
For months now, the Kukis have been at loggerheads with the Bharatiya Janata Party-run state government, and, in particular, Chief Minister N Biren Singh.
They have alleged that the state government’s crackdown on poppy plantations, eviction of villages from forest areas and the hostile stand against the influx of refugees from Myanmar, are partisan policies directed against Kukis.
Such is the breakdown of trust in the aftermath of the violence that all 10 Kuki legislators – including eight from the Bharatiya Janata Party – have asked for a separate administration for the hill areas. “Our people can no longer exist under Manipur as the hatred against our tribal community [has] reached such a height that MLAs, ministers, pastors, police and civil officers, laymen, women and even children were not spared [in the violence], not to mention the destruction of places of worships, homes and properties,” the MLAs said in a statement.
Chief Minister N Biren Singh has dismissed the demand, saying that “the territorial integrity of Manipur” will be protected at all costs.
In this context, statements from Aizawl, where several Kuki legislators and civil society groups have held meetings, are being keenly watched.
“Mizos are closely related to us, so we find more security in Aizawl,” a Kuki leader from the BJP, who did not wish to be named, told Scroll. “We are blood brothers – Chin, Kukis and Mizos. We speak the same dialect and follow the same culture and tradition,” they said.
The demand has led to protests across the Imphal valley, with Hodam Memi Devi, a member of the influential women’s group Meira Paibi, condemning the Kuki legislators for choosing to “run away to Mizoram”. “They should stay and never return because not an inch of land will be given to foreigners,” she said.
According to political scientist Kham Khan Suan Hausing, the support from the Mizos stems from a strong ethnic bond where the Kuki-Mizo-Chin tribes are considered to be an integral part of the Zo hnahthlaks, or descendents.
The hill tribes are spread across the North East, and even parts of Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
“Ethnic solidarity and unity runs deep within the Zo hnahthlaks despite geographical and political separation, a point underscored by the overwhelming support from various Mizo state and non-state actors after the violence in which Kuki people lost their lives, properties and land records,” Hausing said.
On May 18, a state executive meeting of the BJP in Mizoram backed the call for a separate administration for Kukis. Significantly, the meeting was attended by Rituraj Sinha, a national secretary in BJP and the co-convenor of its North East forum.
According to political scientist and author Sanjib Baruah, it is Kuki-Mizo solidarity rather than “tribal solidarity” which is evident from the “significant” actions of the Mizo chief minister and MP Vanlalvena.
“The Mizo struggle, not unlike the Naga conflict, included the demand for integration of Mizo-inhabited areas,” Baruah said, referring to the militant movement for a separate sovereign state of Mizoram that broke out in the late 1960s.
The armed struggle, which was led by the Mizo National Front, ended with the signing of the Mizo Peace Accord of 1986.
The MNF demanded the integration of all areas inhabited by the Mizo-Kuki-Chin people in Tripura, Manipur and Assam with present-day Mizoram. The secessionist organisation later became the state’s leading political party, whose member is the present-day chief minister Zoramthanga.
In the accord, the Centre had acknowledged the MNF’s demand for the “unification of Mizo” inhabited areas into one administrative unit, but it did not accede to it. “Many Kukis of Manipur participated in the struggle and were disappointed that the issue of territorial integration was left out of the final settlement,” said Baruah. “It was the issue over which the talks were deadlocked till the end.”
On May 18, while speaking to the workers of the Mizo National Front, CM Zoramthanga referred to this history. While he said the Mizoram government cannot “interfere in the internal affairs of Manipur”, he reminded his party workers that the “unification of all the contiguous areas inhabited by Zo tribes has been one of the main objectives of the founding leaders of the party.”
The comment ruffled feathers in Manipur. The Janata Dal (United) unit of the state has described his statement as a “direct challenge to the unity and integrity of Manipur”.
The conflict in Myanmar, where the army seized power from a democratically elected government in 2021 and where it is engaged in battle with several resistance groups, has only underlined the solidarity of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people, irrespective of international boundaries.
But while Mizoram has given shelter to the Kuki-Chin refugees from across the border – in the teeth of the Centre’s opposition – the Manipur government has cracked down on Kukis who open their doors to the refugees.
Baruah said: “If you look at the world from the Zo perspective, the fact that today the same refugees are welcomed in Mizoram but not in Manipur – and are instead seen as ‘foreigners’ – is a sign of Kuki marginalisation in the state’s Meitei-dominated political dispensation.”
The Kuki-Naga division
Manipur’s two major tribal communities – Naga and Kuki – live in the sparsely populated hill districts, which account for about 90% of the state’s area.
Though the Nagas took part in the rally against Scheduled Tribe status for Meiteis on May 3, they were not drawn into the violence.
“[In this context] the statement by the churches is an effort to reach out to the Kukis and make common ground against the Meitei, the common foe of both Nagas and Kukis,” said a Shillong-based author and a commentator on issues of North East on the NSCN-IM’s stand. “This is both political positioning on the part of the NSCN-IM leadership and the Nagalim churches,” the author said.
In 2001, when the Centre extended the truce with the NSCN(IM) to the Naga-inhabited areas beyond Nagaland, Manipur exploded. It was seen as a threat to the territorial integrity of Manipur and an endorsement of the demand for a Greater Nagalim region. Miscreants set fire to the state legislative assembly and several other buildings in Imphal city. At least a dozen people were killed when security personnel opened fire.
Journalist and author Pradip Phanjoubam said the NSCN-IM-backed council’s statement could signal a “new alignment”, but was cautious about reading more into it.
“Nagas in Manipur are totally silent and taking a middle path by not aligning with any side. They too have disputes with Kukis,” Phanjoubam said.
The Tangkhul Naga Long, the apex body of the Tangkhul Nagas, one of the major Naga communities in Manipur, has issued a strict advisory asking its members not take sides with either Meiteis or Kukis affected by the violence, without its knowledge and sanction.
An Ukhrul-based leader of the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur, said Nagas have no options but to act as peacemakers.
“On any matter affecting tribals, Kuki-Naga-Chin-Mizos will stand together. But they should not drag us into the current chaos,” he said. “The enmity or the fight is between two communities and we don’t have any enmity with either of them.”