Manipur burns- but is it really Meiti vs Kuki?

Manipur burns- but is it really Meiti vs Kuki?

Manipur is burning. We hope and pray for sense to prevail, and a solution to be worked out. But the smaller tribes of Manipur who are lumped together under the umbrella identity ‘Kuki’ are caught in the middle.
Any long-term solution to the ongoing conflict in Manipur must also take into account the hopes, aspirations and identities of the smaller tribes of Manipur.

The earliest written reference to ‘Kuki ‘is in 1777 from British records when tribesmen attacked British subjects in Chittagong. Shekhar says that the Burmese records have no reference to the term ‘Kuki’ and the ‘ Meitei Chronicles’ available from 33 AD do not mention the term ‘ Kuki.’

The Meiti-Kuki conflict in Manipur has given rise to multiple narratives. One area that needs to be explored is ‘Who exactly is a Kuki?’

So, what are we saying? There is one narrative that is lost in the media coverage. That this conflict is driven by a dominant ‘Thadou’ clan, and that the Meiyti-Kuki confrontation is in fact, a Thadou-Meiti confrontation.

[While laying out these arguments, it must be put on record that there is another viewpoint about this narrative: many within the tribal groups in the region believe that in the ongoing conflict, the Meiti hardliners have the tacit backing by the state government and administration, and that what is going on in Manipur is nothing short of ‘ethnic cleansing’. It must also be noted that the violence has seen the massive destruction of churches and Christian properties across all ethnic groups. -Editor]

Ethnicity is a complex subject. There are multiple tribal groups in the North East, and the tribes and sub-tribe identities are fairly complex.
Senjam Raj Sekhar in an opinion piece in the Northeast section of India Today, writes that the term Kuki itself is fairly new.

So, who or what is a Kuki ?

The 1931 census records two groups – Old Kuki and New Kuki.
The tribes Anal, Kom, Hmar, Gangte and Vaiphei , Maring, Monsang and Moyon,were part of the old Kuki group, while Paite, Ralte, Simte, Sukte and Thadou were classified as New Kuki.
In present times, the Anal tribe identifies itself as Naga and not Kuki. Three more Kuki tribes the Maring, Monsang and Moyon also call themselves Naga.

As recently as 26th May 2023, the NSCN (IM) proclaimed Aimol, Chiru, Chothe, Kharam, Koireng and Kom from Manipur as part of the Naga Tribe.

Even the names of the sub-tribes are fluid. The Paites, a Kuki sub-identity call themselves Zomi in Myanmar (Burma) , while in Mizoram they identify themselves as Mizos. In Manipur, they call themselves Paite.

The Anglo-Kuki war 1917-19, where a small tribe of hillmen confronted the sophisticated might of the British Army for two years!.

The larger ethnic group has been also called by various names. Some use the term Zo people, others prefer to call it Chin-Kuki-Mizo (CKM). The total population of this group is said to be between 9 to 10 million and is spread across Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In Myanmar, Chins are recognised in its 1947 Constitution as among the four founding groups of the Union of Burma, along with Kachin, Shan and Burma. In India, the group has its own state- Mizoram.

In a 1928 book by Civil Services officer William Shaw, four great clans of Kukis are named as Lushei, Suhte, Poi and Thadou, writes Shekhar.
According to the book, the Thadous “claim that the Changsan, Lhangum, Lenthang, Lunkim, Gangte, Waiphei, Kholhang, Chiru and those of inferior lineage were all under the wing of the Thadous and so they were included under that term.”

Also, the use of terms in the past such as Kuki-Siki (Quarter Kuki) and Kuki-Makhai (Half Kuki) by Thadous to refer to the smaller tribes has alienated them.

‘Any Kuki tribe’

Now things get more complex when we look at the ST List. In the Scheduled Tribe list of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam, 37 tribes are recognised as belonging to the term ‘Any Kuki Tribe”.
Incidentally, under this umbrella of 37 ‘Any Kuki tribe’, there is a sub-tribe called Kuki.
In Manipur, the state has a list of 34 tribes including two that are called ‘Any Mizo (Lushai) tribe’ and ‘Any Kuki tribe’.

There has been steadfast opposition among the tribes themselves in Manipur to the inclusion of the term Kuki as a tribe. In a memorandum, submitted in July 2021, the Thadou apex Body, Thadou Inpi objected to the move of the State Government to recommend the addition of “Kuki” in the list of recognised Scheduled Tribes of Manipur. They said that Kuki is not a tribe, nor the name of a tribe, but a generic term to refer to a number of different tribes.

Thadou “hegemony”

Within Manipur, the Thadou form the largest group among all Kuki tribes.

In fact, the Thadous form almost a quarter of the tribal population of Manipur, followed by the Tangkhul Nagas. The other recognised sub-tribes Paite, Zou, Gangte, Vaiphei, Hmar are much smaller. In fact, some of these smaller tribes prefer to call themselves Zo rather than Kuki.

There has always been an overhang of Thadou “hegemony” and “supremacy” over other Kuki tribes.
Thadous have also historically dominated politics and bureaucracy.

Outer Manipur, the tribal Lok Sabha constituency of Manipur has elected 17 Members of Parliament since 1952 and an overwhelming 14 of these MPs have been either Thadou or Tangkhul Naga.

The Thadou tribe also had a disproportionate share in bureaucracy among the Kukis. The first ever person to ever qualify for the IAS from Manipur is neither a Meitei nor a Naga but a Thadou – K Kipgen in 1956. Similarly, the first tribal IPS officer from Manipur (1965) T Misao is a Thadou. Nengcha Lhouvum, one of the first women from the North East to become an ambassador (IFS 1980) is a Thadou.

Manipur currently has two police officers at the DGP rank (P Doungel and C Doungel) – both are Thadou. Similarly, the senior most local IAS officer in Manipur – K Haokip, Additional Chief Secretary is a Thadou (the four senior-most bureaucrats ahead of Haokip in seniority are all from outside Manipur)

Thadous dominate the intellectual discourse as well. Many scholars quoted in media reports or writing in international publications on the current conflict like T Haokip from JNU, H. Sitlhou from the University of Hyderabad and M Sitlhou are all Thadou.

Thadou – Non-Thadou conflict

Conflict within the ‘Kuki umbrella’ , between Thadou and non-Thadou tribes have turned violent at timest. The Kuki Naga conflict in Manipur between 1992 and 1997 killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Then there were the Thadou- Paite clashes in 1997-98 and the government had to send the army to control the damage.

The aftermath of this conflict was the formation of the insurgent group Zomi Revolutionary army that comprised the minor tribes like Zou, Vaiphei, Gangte, and Simte led by the Paite.
This is distinct from other insurgent groups like Kuki National Front/ Kuki National Army which is led by Thadous.

The Thadou apex body, Thadou Inpi has frequently clashed with Kuki Inpi on several occasions and has even declared that Kuki Inpi has no moral or legal authority to speak for and on behalf of the Thadous.
When Kuki Imti took out a protest rally against the Government’s eviction drive in the Kuki-dominated areas of Manipur on March 10th, 2023, the Thadou Imti was quick to disassociate itself from the rally.

Also stuck in this fight between the bigger communities are smaller tribes. Aimol tribe for example number less than 5,000 and they have asserted multiple times that Aimols are neither Kuki or Naga. Incidentally, Aimol is one of the tribes that the NSCN (IM) have recently declared as Naga.

The May 3rd incident seems to have united all Kuki/ Zo people across Manipur and in other states, however, the underlying fault lines cannot be just brushed away.

Any long-term solution to the ongoing conflict in Manipur should not just involve the Meiteis and Thadou-led Kukis. It must also take into account the hopes, aspirations and identities of the smaller tribes of Manipur.