The centenary commemoration of the Anglo-Kuki War, as the Kuki tribe refers to the community’s rebellion against British colonial forces from 1917-’19, has run into trouble with Tangkhul Naga groups raising objection to Kukis erecting memorial stones that say: “In defence of our ancestral land and freedom.”

The Tangkhul NagaLong, the apex body of the community in Manipur, has said the inscription was “objectionable and unacceptable” as the Kukis were not “indigenous” to Manipur.

A long history of hostility

The Kuki uprising, which took place during World War I, began when Kuki chiefs refused to join the Imperial Army’s Labour Corps, a unit meant to provide logistical support to British soldiers, and instead turned against the empire. In 2017, the community began a three-year-long commemorative programme to mark 100 years of the rebellion. The commemoration is scheduled to conclude on September 17.

The Kukis and the Tangkhuls, one of the 16 major Naga tribes, have long had an antagonistic relationship. Large swathes of what the Kukis claim to be their homeland in the Manipur hills overlap with Greater Nagaland or Nagalim, the Naga homeland as envisioned by Naga nationalist groups. Things reached a head in 1993 when cadres of the Tangkhul-dominated National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) allegedly massacred around 115 Kuki civilians.

While violent conflict has considerably waned since the turn of the century, tensions continue to simmer – and manifest themselves in different forms such as the latest controversy, which has now reached the state’s power corridors in Imphal.

Imphal intervenes

On October 13, Manipur’s chief secretary wrote to the police and the civil administration of the state’s hill districts, where the two communities live, asking for the “objectionable memorials” to be “removed immediately”.

“There is apprehension of breach of peace and possibility of law and order situation,” the official cautioned.

This instruction succeeded a letter by the chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Ukhrul district to Chief Minister N Biren Singh asking for his intervention to “discourage” the Kukis from using “such concocted inscription”.

“If such an event is encouraged, we cannot control the emotions and sentiments of the people,” the letter warned.

In Manipur, six autonomous district councils exercise certain autonomous powers in the functioning of the hill districts.

‘Disturb’ an upcoming festival

In addition, the event, the letter said, could “disturb” the upcoming 3rd state-level Shirui Lily Festival, a three-day government-sponsored extravaganza to help conservation efforts of Manipur’s endangered state flower, the Shirui Lily

Yaronsho Ngalung, the chairman of the Ukhrul Autonomous District Council, said the Tangkhul NagaLong had even threatened to “even go for cancelling the Shirui Lily festival”.

“We have requested the CM to intervene and help maintain a peaceful environment,” said Ngalung.

Defiant Kukis

The Kukis, for their part, have refused to back down. “Why should a commemorative event of our history be objectionable to anybody?” asked Seilin Haokip, the spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation, an umbrella body of 17 Kuki rebel groups currently in talks with the Centre. “The people will resist the government’s order and any eventuality will be the government’s responsibility.”

Haokip added that the community would write to the prime minister, requesting his intervention, and also flag the issue to the interlocutor of the Kuki-Centre talks. “We are in dialogue with the Centre for our own settlement,” he pointed out. “Should we also now interfere in somebody else’s settlement?