For three days, starting September 11, thousands of Kukis poured into Churachandpur in Manipur. The Kukis, one of the bigger hill tribes of the region, are spread across the North East, and even parts of Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. They had assembled to mourn 25 years of what the tribe calls a “black day”, or Sahnit-Ni, in its history.

On September 13, 1993, Naga militants allegedly belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) massacred around 115 Kuki civilians in the hills of Manipur. The Kukis refer to the killings as the Joupi massacre after the village which saw the highest number of casualties.

Ever since, the community has been assembling every September to remember their dead. The congregation this year was bigger than usual, and was marked by the erection of three monoliths inscribed with the names of 1,157 people who had allegedly been killed by Naga mercenaries during the ’90s. “25th anniversary of the Kuki genocide by Tangkhul-led NSCN (IM),” read the plaque on the monoliths.

The turbulent Nineties

The killings were not an isolated incident but the culmination of a bitter, five-year-long feud between the Kukis and the Nagas that ravaged the hills of Manipur in the 1990s. Hostility between the Nagas and the Kukis dates back to colonial times, but the conflict of the 1990s was primarily over land: large swathes of what the Kuki claim to be their “homeland” in the Manipur hills overlapped with Greater Nagaland or Nagalim, envisioned by the NSCN (IM) as a sovereign Naga homeland. The proposed map of Nagalim consists of Nagaland and “all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas” of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and, across the international border, Myanmar.

According to the Kukis, NSCN (IM) cadres “uprooted” over 350 Kuki villages from 1992-1997, killing more than 1,000 unarmed people, including women and children, and displacing tens of thousands more. According to oral histories, the Tangkhuls – one of the 16 major Naga tribes – were at the forefront of the clashes with the Kukis. Thuingaleng Muivah – the M in NSCN (IM) – is also a Tangkhul.

Until the Kukis get justice, the Naga issue cannot be solved’

Apart from this being the 25th year of the massacre, the more elaborate memorial service, the organisers said, was also meant to be a message to the Indian government. “The government of India is sitting around a table and doing peace talks with the Nagas,” said Daniel Gangte of the Kuki Impi, the tribe’s apex body, referring to the ongoing negotiations between the NSCN (IM) and the Centre, widely reportedly to be at its last stages. “But the Centre should know that until the Kukis get justice, the Naga issue cannot be solved. They have to do justice according to the law of the land.”

Seilin Haokip, the spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation, an umbrella body of 17 Kuki rebel groups, concurred. “The NSCN-IM killed so many innocent unarmed Indian citizens, but the Indian government has done nothing about it,” said Haokip. “Shouldn’t the killers be made accountable?”

The Kuki National Organisation is also currently engaged in talks with the Union government. During the last rounds of talks with the Centre held in January, the Kuki groups backed down from its statehood demand, instead agreeing on a territorial council along the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Council in Assam.

The Kukis’ bitterness with the Indian state is all-pervasive. “If you can sit around a table with Nagas, why not us Kukis?” asked Gangte. “Why ignore us?”

Gangte claimed that the Kuki Impi had petitioned the Central government over 60 times, requesting some sort of action and resettlement of people displaced during the clashes, but to no avail. “The government has not taken one concrete step,” lamented Haokip. “That is the tragedy of it all.”

‘Main failure was of the Indian law and order system’

The disillusionment with the Centre also stems from the supposed lack of alacritous action on the part of security forces to protect the community in the ‘90s. “Yes, the Nagas killed, but the main failure was of the Indian law and order system,” said Gangte. “The security forces looked on; we can’t help but think that it was a sinister design to eliminate the Kuki community.”

Haokip agreed: “Perhaps the government wanted it to happen as the security forces knew what was happening but did nothing.”

Journalistic accounts from that time seem to back their contention. A report in Indian Today published in October 1993, in the wake of the Joupi massacre, notes:

More than a week before the killings, Naga militants had warned that they would attack a Kuki village. Five days before the incident, the superintendent of police of the neighbouring Senapati district, while on a visit to Celnch village in Tamenglong district, was disarmed and sent packing by the militants. But none of this roused the administration which was caught twiddling its thumbs when the Nagas actually struck and killed the villagers.

Nor did anything much happen after the killings. The local superintendent of police, the district collector and the commanding officer in charge of the Manipur Rifles battalion went on leave within days after the incident despite the simmering tension in the district.

Kuki allegations ‘baseless’

The Nagas, on their part, insist that the Kukis’ retelling of what transpired in the ‘90s is skewed. “The Kukis project themselves as the victims, branding the Nagas as the villains,” claimed Paul Leo, who headed the United Naga Council, the apex civil organisation of the Nagas, in the 90s. “But do they remember how many Nagas were killed, maimed and made homeless by the Kukis?” Kuki groups, he contended, had “concocted” stories of unprovoked violence by Nagas.

Weapon Zimik, chairman of the Tangkhul Naga Long, the apex body of the community in Manipur, said that Kuki claims of the Tangkhul community occupying villages belonging to the former were false. “That is baseless – we Tangkhuls never robbed anyone’s land,” he said.

An elusive reconciliation

Twenty five years since, the two communities are still far from as far as they could be from a reconciliation. Both blame each other for the stalemate. “We picked up arms only because the government did not protect us,” said Gangte. “We are ready to reconcile but e demand it happen according to Kuki customary laws, but the UNC [United Naga Council] has refused.”

Leo claimed that council had offered the olive branch several times but there had been no reciprocation. “As Christians, we are always open reconciliation, whatever the past mistakes, but the Kukis have never reciprocated,” he said. “So enough is enough.”

Zimik also reiterated that the “Tangkhuls will not say sorry”. “Whatever happened was caused by the circumstances,” he said. “They can organise black day; they will not gain, we will not lose from it.”

Haokip, though, maintained that the Kukis wouldn’t budge until the NSCN (IM) took responsibility of the killings and apologised. “In our tribe, the dead body of those who did not die a natural death is not buried until the issue resolved,” he said. “But for the last 25 years, the death of more than 1000 people killed by NSCN-IM-led by Tangkhuls has not been resolved. We will not stop till it is resolved.”