In a rare appearance before the media, ST Thangboi Kipgen, the reclusive chairman of the United People’s Front (UPF), cautioned that patience may finally run out if the Central government does not start the pending peace dialogue for a separate Kuki state in Manipur. The UPF is one of the two major conglomerates of Manipur-based Kuki armed underground outfits that signed a Suspension of Operations agreement with the Central government; the other is the Kuki National Organisation (KNO).
“The Kuki armed movement was started with the mandate of the general public, and until today, it is the people’s movement that we are spearheading along with other like-minded revolutionary groups,” said Thangboi. “If the Government of India is not serious about the peace process, the Kukis will eventually decide what is best for their future on their own. The legitimate rights of the Kukis cannot be denied in any case.”
Of late, there has been growing concern among the Kuki groups and civil society forums such as the Kuki State Demand Committee after the Central and Manipur governments accorded political status to the tripartite talks on the Alternative Arrangement of Nagas, as demanded by the United Naga Council.
Thangboi, who is also the president of the Kuki National Front (KNF), expressed faith and optimism that the newly elected BJP government at the Centre will remove the hurdles standing in the way of the peace talks. Congratulating Narendra Modi on his election victory, the UPF chairman urged the new Union Cabinet to be more considerate and sympathetic towards the prevailing problems of the Kuki community in Manipur.
“I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Narendra Modi and the BJP for their outstanding performance in the Lok Sabha polls on behalf of the UPF,” he said. “We are really looking forward to the day when the grievances and demands of the UPF and the Kuki people would be redressed at the earliest.”
The UPF lamented that the Congress-led UPA government and its officials had used delaying tactics to deliberately stall the peace process. “We signed the tripartite agreement in 2008 when the UPA government was in power at the Centre. Six years have passed since then but there has been no official political dialogue,” said UPF convener Aaron Kipgen. “The UPA government has been dilly-dallying on the dialogue and the Manipur government is yet to show any sincere commitment.”
However, Thangboi assured that the UPF and the KNF will stick to its current policy of not taking up arms for the time being. “The Suspension of Operations agreement was signed in broad daylight with the Government of India,” he said. “It was not a unilateral agreement signed with the Congress or the UPA. So, whether it is the Congress or the BJP at the Centre, the agreement should be honoured. Unless we decide to abrogate the agreement and make a formal announcement, all stakeholders — the Manipur government, the Central government, the UPF and the KNF — should honour the agreement. We still have hope that the Modi government would understand our suffering and give us a solution in the near future.”
It is claimed that the Kuki homeland movement had started even before India gained Independence; in the aftermath of a series of events that violated the traditional land-holding laws of the community. According to Thangboi, the Kuki National Assembly submitted a series of memoranda since 1947 for the creation of a Kuki state. However, due to the “indifferent attitude of the Government of India to the Kukis’ demand”, while new states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram were formed in the Northeast, Nehlun Kipgen gathered volunteers and founded the armed KNF in 1987.
Ever since the Indo-Naga peace process began, the Kuki groups have been pressing hard for their demand of a homeland/state within Manipur because of the fact that a large area of what these Kuki groups are alleging as their ancestral domain, is also included in the Greater Nagaland or Nagalim as proposed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction).
Thangboi also indicated that there might be room for more agreeable terms, which cannot be explored unless the peace talks start. “Our demand is to grant autonomy to the Kuki people and the areas that they inhabit,” he said. “The government should understand that our demand for a Kuki state is entitled under the Constitution of India. We have a unique traditional system in land-holding, which cannot be compromised. But this is what we are witnessing right now. Also, the newly revived Autonomous District Council Act imposed in the hills (of Manipur) is like a toothless tiger; a sham.”
In 2012, the then Union home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, had announced that all documents have been submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and once the PMO gives its clearance and appoints an interlocutor, the talks would start. On 3 January 2013, the then Joint Secretary (Northeast), Shambu Singh, announced that the talks would be initiated within three months.
Thangboi claimed that when UPF representatives protested the further extension of the Suspension of Operations agreement in New Delhi last year due to constant delays in starting the dialogue, the state and Central representatives vowed to initiate it at the earliest. However, nothing has materialised since then.
Meanwhile, Thangboi issued a clarification on the allegation that the Assam Rifles and Manipur Police have been using the weapons of Kuki militant groups while staging fake surrender ceremonies. He claimed that all weapons and ammunition are kept under strict vigilance and even Kuki officials cannot get hold of them.
However, he alleged that the army and paramilitary forces are involved in clandestine incidents mostly aimed at tarnishing the image of the Kuki homeland movement and inciting factional clashes among the militant groups.
Commenting on the recent controversy regarding the allocation of a designated camp of the Kuki National Liberation Front — a rival group of the KNF — at Manipur’s Chandel district, Thangboi alleged that the Assam Rifles had relocated the camp to create friction between the Kuki rebel outfits. “How can the Assam Rifles do such a thing knowing that the area is a stronghold and dominion of the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), which is one of the member groups of the UPF?” asked Thangboi. “This clearly indicates that the army is not sincere about bringing peace to the region.”
It may be noted that all the Kuki outfits that have suspended operations are currently associated with the two umbrella organisations — the UPF and the KNO. Last year, leaders of both the UPF and KNO discussed the possibility of joining hands, largely owing to the increasing influence of the United Naga Council on the Centre and the predominant Meitei pressure groups, who have strong reservations against both the alternative arrangement of the Nagas and the separate Kuki state.
RK Suresh is an Imphal-based freelance journalist