On Wednesday, the Kukis, the second largest tribal group in Manipur, broke what has been a tradition for 30 years.

They did not hoist black flags or wear black clothes to mark the “Kuki black day”. Instead, every Kuki church held prayers for peace.

For three decades now, Kukis have observed September 13 as a “black day” to mourn the 115 Kuki civilians killed in 1993 by Naga militants allegedly belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah).

The exception this year is being seen as a conciliatory gesture to the Nagas, the largest tribal group in Manipur, in the backdrop of the current ethnic conflict which has pitted the minority Kukis against the majority Meitei group and killed over 200 since May.

“We marked it as a day of prayer. It is an attempt to bring peace among different communities,” said Ajang Khongsai, who heads Kuki Inpi, the apex Kuki body in the state.

‘Kukis take tribal solidarity very seriously’

On September 5, the Kuki chiefs and civil society groups of Kangpokpi district first decided to skip the display of black flags and black attire. On September 11, the Kuki Peoples’ Alliance, a new Kuki political party, supported the decision of the Kuki groups, saying it is a “conciliatory gesture to bury the hatchet and to bury the past” which is a “positive” move for future peace and development.

“It is a message for the Nagas,” said Thangminlen Kipgen, the vice-president of the Kangpokpi unit of Kuki Inpi, the apex Kuki body in Manipur. “The Nagas have acted as peacekeepers and not taken sides in the conflict. So this is our way to show that Kukis take tribal solidarity very seriously.”

The Kuki Peoples’ Alliance also appealed to the Nagas of Manipur, and called for an “all-Manipur tribal unity towards the call for a separate administration”.

The conflict in Manipur has led to an unofficial ethnic partition in the state, with the Meiteis in the Imphal Valley and the Kuki-Zo groups confined to the hills. The Kuki community has thrown its weight behind the demand for a separate administrative unit, comprising the hill districts, to be carved out of Manipur.

“The [decision not to mark ‘black day’] is a way of reaching out to the Naga community,” said Sominthang Doungel, secretary of the Kuki Peoples’ Alliance. “They have been helpful during the ongoing Meitei assault on the Kuki, [and we want to send] a clear message that we can build our future together in mutual respect, mutual trust and cooperation.”

Thangminlen Kipgen pointed out that the current conflict in Manipur started out “because of a tribal movement.” “We don’t wish to act strongly against our fellow tribals during this conflict.”

He was referring to the fact that the Nagas had also taken part in a protest rally on May 3 to oppose the demand of the state’s majority Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribe category. The violence that has gone on to engulf Manipur began soon after.

The Naga response

A member of the United Naga Council, the apex civil organisation of the Nagas, welcomed the development.

“They should have taken this stand long before,” said the Ukhrul-based Naga leader who did not wish to be identified.

The 1993 killings were part of a fierce five-year conflict between the Nagas and Kukis in the Manipur hills. The Nagas have long contested that Kukis were the only victims, pointing to the violence perpetrated by the Kukis. For years after, too, the relationship between the two groups remained hostile, especially over the question of land. The claim of a Greater Nagaland, an imagined homeland for the Nagas, overlaps with areas which Kukis claim as their own.

The Ukhrul-based Naga leader pointed out that as “a symbolic gesture”, not marking ‘black day’ “is not enough”. “They also should demolish all the monoliths erected in Kangpokpi areas,” he said.

The Nagas had raised objections against memorial stones that had come up in Kuki areas in 2019, with the inscription: “In defence of our ancestral land and freedom”.

The Naga leader added: “They need to give confidence to us. If Kukis want our support, they should not distort history and grab our land.”

Also read: Are the Nagas of Manipur finally taking a stand in the Meitei-Kuki conflict?