On November 15, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum or ITLF, a group representing the Kuki-Zo people in Manipur, served an ultimatum.

If the demand for a separate administration for the Kuki-Zos – delinked from the Meitei-dominated valley areas – was not met by the Centre in two weeks, it said the organisation will establish “self-rule” in the hill districts of Tengnoupal, Kangpokpi and Churachandpur. The deadline was announced by general secretary of the ITLF, Muan Tombing, at a protest rally held in Churachandpur. He did not substantiate what he meant by “self-rule”.

A day after Tombing’s call, the Manipur government said that the ITLF statement has “no legal or constitutional basis”. The Manipur Police filed a case against Tombing.

Since a civil war broke out in Manipur in May between the Meiteis and Kuki-Zo communities, leaving over 200 dead and thousands displaced, the state has been split down ethnic lines, with both communities confined to areas in which they are a majority.

In the days following the fierce violence, the Kuki-Zos have repeatedly demanded a complete separation from the Meitei areas – a call that has been stiffly resisted by the Meiteis.

“A separate administration from the Meitei government has always been our demand since the start of the conflict in May,” said ITLF spokesperson Ginza Vualzong, clarifying that Tombing, too, had called for “a self-governing body under the purview of the Constitution”.

Tombing’s statement was seen as an attempt to up the ante and pressure the Centre into ceding the demand for a formal split from a state machinery that the Kuki-Zos see as partisan.

What stood out, moreover, is that the call came not from the older, more traditional tribal groups but the little-over-a-year-old ITLF, an organisation that has grown to become a voice of the Kuki-Zos in the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur.

How the ITLF was formed

The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum was formed on June 9 last year when several tribal leaders came together to counter what they saw as “anti-tribal” policies of the N Biren Singh government.

One of its primary aims, chairman Pagin Haokip told Scroll, was to “chart a political narrative or political project which would counter the state government narrative that Kuki-Zos were encroachers and not indigenous to Manipur.”

The need for such a pushback was felt, said Haokip, a few months into Biren Singh’s second term as chief minister.

“The Manipur government’s actions included declaring large areas of tribal land as protected forests and reserved forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and proposed forest reserves, all governed by the Forest Act of 1927,” he said.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government’s drive against “encroachment” on forest land and against poppy cultivation in the hill districts was seen as an attempt to cast Kuki-Zos as outsiders in the state and strip them of their land.

“Recognizing the need for a unified front to oppose the government’s land acquisition policy, leaders from all recognized tribes within Churachandpur district convened in June 2022 to form the ITLF,” Haokip said.

One of its first shows of strength came in March this year.

Thousands of people belonging to the Kuki-Zo community defied prohibitory orders to attend the rallies held in the tribal-majority hill districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Jiribam to protest the eviction of villagers accused of encroaching on protected forest land.

ITLF general secretary Muan Tombing. Courtesy: ITLF.

An influential voice

Since the ethnic conflict broke out on May 3, triggered by a Manipur High Court order prodding the state government to grant Meiteis Scheduled Tribe status, the ITLF has come into its own.

“The ITLF has emerged as a very formidable political front, with wide-scale popular support,” a political scientist, belonging to the Kuki-Zo community, told Scroll.

He said the ITLF has been “most organised and the most articulate” in pitching a particular political narrative, mobilising resources and also trying to establish networks beyond Manipur.

“They have played quite an influential role in pushing back against attempts to [label] the Kuki-Zos as non- indigenous.”

The ITLF was quick on the draw when it came to countering misinformation against the community.

In the early days of the violence, said ITLF spokesperson Vualzong, there was a need felt to counter the “false narratives” floated by the Meitei-controlled media in the Imphal valley. “The ITLF media cell asked support from those outside the state to help run our social media handles. Slowly, we could counter the false propaganda against us,” he said.

He added: “Eventually, mediapersons from various national media organisations came to Manipur. We narrated our stories, they talked with victims, and saw for themselves what happened on the ground. That’s how they started to believe us and started to voice our narrative to the world.”

Inclusive, representative

A Kuki-Zo activist from Churachandpur pointed out that the organisation’s growth has been impressive in the last several months. “From a nondescript group intervening in local issues in Churachandpur, it has grown into a fairly large organisation, with different verticals functioning almost full time,” the activist said.

The ITLF has a dedicated staff of about 200 people running its many departments, said Haokip and Vualzong.

“They are not mere volunteers but are reportedly being paid for their work,” the activist added. They also have a department of “united tribal volunteers” who are stationed at the “frontline” – at the buffer zones between the hill districts and the Imphal valley where the two communities have frequently clashed.

However, Vualzong denied that members of the organisation are paid.

The organisation aims to be inclusive of all the tribes that come under the Kuki-Zo umbrella. “It includes members of the Paite, Zou, Hmar, Simte, Vaiphei, Kuki, Mizo, and Gangte tribes,” Vualzong told Scroll.

Each tribe has a representative in the executive committee of the ITLF. But the Kuki-Zo political scientist pointed out that the group mainly draws its strength from a section of the Paite Tribe Council and the Churachandpur unit of the Kuki Inpi, the topmost Kuki body in the state.

The scientist claimed that the ITLF has “a crisis of legitimacy” even in Churachandpur as it has an uneasy equation with the Zomi Council, the most influential body of Zomi community.

An ITLF rally at Churachandpur against alleged atrocities on Kuki-Zo tribals in Manipur. Courtesy: ITLF.

Limited writ

Despite its growing prominence, however, many say that the ITLF’s writ does not run across all Kuki-majority hill districts.

The organisation does not have much of a presence beyond Churachandpur.

In Kangpokpi district, for example, it is the Committee on Tribal Unity or COTU, which was formed on May 4, that is the foremost civil society group. Similarly, the Hill Tribal Council is considered the most influential Kuki-Zo civil society group in Moreh, Tengnoupal district.

“The ITLF doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Kangpokpi,” said chairman of COTU Thanglen Kipgen. “Here, we are spearheading the movement.”

When the ITLF upped the ante to call for “self-rule”, there was some dissatisfaction within groups as they were not consulted before Tombing made the statement.

Ajang Khongsai, who heads the apex Kuki body in the state Kuki Inpi, is one of those who believe that the ITLF jumped the gun. “They are not the authority to take the ultimate call as they don’t have a mandate in other Kuki-Zo inhabited areas,” Khongsai told Scroll. “They cannot represent the entire Kuki-Zo community.”

An advocate from the Kuki-Zo community pointed out that the ITLF had been been similarly hasty in calling for the mass burial of Kuki victims in August in the “buffer zone” between the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and Churachandpur, where the Kuki-Zo people live.

The violence that followed between the communities led to the burial being deferred with the intervention of the Union home ministry. “A lot of people within the community thought that it was premature, ill-timed and unilateral,” the advocate said.

However, Thanglen Kipgen downplayed any disappointment with the ITLF. “We have coordination in every field. [On self-rule], they will consult with us in time,” Kipgen said.

But, for all the criticism, several leaders agreed on the crucial role the ITLF has played in amplifying the voices of the Kuki-Zo community in the face of the attempts by the Biren Singh government to blame the conflict on illegal Kuki-Chin immigrants from Myanmar. “They have made the whole world know what is going on in the state,” said Khongsai, the Kuki Inpi president.