Recalling battle for 400 Kuki people in the Indian capital

Published on March 22, 2009

By Luntinsat Kipgen

 

It was a fine day and the Kuki Students’ Organisation, Delhi (KSOD) was waiting for an acceptable assurance from both the Manipur state and the Indian central governments, to their earlier demands during March 5, 2007-rally. The demands were; to sanitize all the landmines planted in Chandel district by the Meitei insurgent group – United National Liberation Front (UNLF) since 2001, to flush the UNLF out of Chandel district, to give compensation to the landmine victims, to set up permanent army outposts at strategic locations prone to attack by UNLF, etc.

 

Before the dilatory governments could take any positive measure to address the above demands, the UNLF took over 400 Kukis at TS Laijang refugee camp into hostage to Lallim, a Kuki village situated near Indo-Burma border on the Burmese territory. These Kukis had earlier fled their homesteads due to heavy armed conflict between Indian army and the UNLF in their areas, and who camped at TS Laijang. The news of abduction, which spread like wild fire provoked the entire Kuki community – young and old, men and women, intellectuals and the ordinary alike. This abduction, it seemed, was an act of vengeance by the UNLF for the 5th March rally.  It was these compound humiliations of the Kuki nation that led to another demonstration.

 

Members of the KSOD with all its fraternal student organizations belonging to Kom, Hmar, Paite, Simte, Vaiphei, Mizo and Zou tribes joined by Naga students and others were busy preparing for the second protest rally at Jantar Mantar – Parliament Street on March 23, 2007. Each of the five buses arranged for transportation began moving into its assigned localities, colonies, residential areas, quarters, apartments, picked up students and then headed towards Jantar Mantar. The first and the last buses reached the site at 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm respectively. At 2:30 pm, all preparation for the rally was finished.

 

The street of Jantar Mantar, including the pavement, had already been thronged with large crowd of other marginalized people, who were also dissatisfied with the government over one or the other issue. They included Action 2007 led by famous anti-dam activist, Medha Patkar, demanding clean water for the Bhopalis who have not been getting clean water since 1984 when the Union Carbide, a fertilizer factory caught fire and has, as consequence, contaminated soil and water body of the region. Also others present were Adivasis/ tribals from the south and central India demanding for land right.

 

Queuing up in two long lines each made up of about 250 students, slogans: ‘Rescue immediately – 400 Kukis,’ ‘UNLF – Down, down,’ ‘Ibobi Singh – Down, down…’ etc. were chanted in rehearsal for a while and then the march began. In the front are two giant banners that read: We Demand Immediate Relief and Justice for Kukis Distressed by the Atrocities of United National Liberation Front (UNLF)

 

The volunteers were watchfully active in rendering best of their assigned job i.e.. to look after the smooth flow of the procession. The traffic and pedestrians trying to intercept the queue were first humbly requested not to do so, and those who stubbornly did not pay heed to the soft request were given zero tolerance; they were forcefully pushed back. Some even got thrashed at the height of nationalist sentiment.

 

Scorching heat of the sun heightened the agitated resentment further. Demolishing the first barricade, preparations were on for breaking the second barricade and for stand off with the police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) that were standing. As wheeled barricade units from the first demolition were arranged along the street length, command to strike the second barricade was awaited. To counter the police batons, iron bars were obtained by dismantling the steel structures of barricade units.

 

Students began to violently shake or kick the steel structures to which act the Indian Police Service officer on duty sternly objected. The police personnel on duty looked sad and disconcerted too as they appeared to have perceived the inevitable scuffle. Even as the officer tried to calm the agitation, the police personnel had got set and were just waiting for the order to strike. Seeing the development, some of us approached the officer and requested him not to begin using brute force. We also assured him that the demonstration would end peacefully if the authority had the will to listen to our demand. The police were momentarily placated without which the clash might have started earlier.

 

In the meantime, Mr. Thangboi, the general secretary of KSOD, was going to the Prime Minister’s (PM) Office to enquire about the progress of the proposed direct talks with PM to brief about landmines in Chandel district and the abduction of 400 Kukis by UNLF. Soon, the KSOD secretary informed the KSOD president by mobile phone that talk was unlikely so storm the second and third barricades, and march towards the Parliament House to hold the protest in front of it. Accordingly, the second barricade was pulled down. The RAF and the police pushing from the other side were unable to poise the stronger force of our boys. Only the third and last barricade was left now. Violence began at this third attempt when the police started canning, using tear gas, detonating stun bombs, etc, to disperse us.

 

The tear gas momentarily blinded us, and this forced those of us in the vanguard to retreat few yards back until we regained our normal sight by applying toothpaste in the affected eyes. The girl students fought no less fight when they supplied fist sized stones to pelt at the armed police who were firing at us non-stop. Unable to withstand the multiple flying stones hitting at them, the police had no option but to retreat into their station. Now, by shouting ‘li li li li li li ….. ha ha ha ha ha ha …..’, the momentary victory was celebrated on the battlefield-street shrouded in tear gas. Meanwhile, a pressman mounted on a height was shooting the scene. But in all of a sudden, a flying stone hit him that he immediately wrapped up his instruments and ran for his safety.

 

It must have been, as logically perceived, that the retreating police personnel while being inside their station received order from their superior to immediately move out for do-or-die attack at us. Even as they came out again, we resisted them in the fiercest manner so that they had to retreat for the second time. We now, for a while, have become too confident in our strength and might that the Delhi police and RAF would not stand before us. What an infuriating insult it must have been for armed to the teeth police!

 

After about 5 minutes of their second retreat, in all of a sudden, an RAF man happen to ran into our midst. Our boys contended for the first touch at him which only few lucky ones had due to space congestion. Like a rolling football in a neck and neck match during the extra time within the penalty court, the plundered RAF man was not visible. Only our boys could be seen jumping. To be fair, this constable deserves the Highest Award of Honour for Bravery.

 

Seeing this from their station gate, the police and the RAF rushed, in hundreds, towards us. Their attack indicated ‘do or die’ determination. But, before they could reach us, we had advised the girls to escape the scene, and we followed the same suit a little after them. Hundreds of students fleeing and the police chasing after them caused traffic jam at the Parliament Street . Students who took the other streets were not pursued while those turned right and fled towards Jantar Mantar where we parked our buses were hotly chased. Those who quickly boarded the buses were also attacked with tear gas, beaten up and then taken to the custody. Of course, some of the good physique ones managed to escape.

 

In and around Connaught Place (CP), the police thronged the streets looking for any northeast looking face. Two young Nepali lovers enjoying their good evening at Mc Donald restaurant were also hauled up, and were detained until proven innocence. Buses, auto rickshaws and taxies were stopped and checked, and suspected northeasterners were randomly arrested. KSOD Miss Fresher 2005, Hoineilhing, who tried to evade the police by boarding a DTC bus was pulled down and arrested in such operation. A mobile phone call from her said, ‘U Sat, eiman tauve.’ (brother Sat, I ‘ve been arrested). I was still hiding behind a car at a garage of MTNL head office along with two other friends. We got there because some minutes before, the police van chased us.

 

One of the girls with me at the time was so frightened at the news that she instantly became pale and lost her consciousness. She was a heart patient. We brought her back to normalcy by massaging. As luck would have it, we saw a policeman who could not find us going back. It was 5:30 p.m. and the office hour was over. An MTNL officer who came to take his car for home noticed us. We requested him to give us a lift. He agreed and dropped us at India Gate from where we headed for our respective home by auto-rickshaw.

 

Out of 148 detained, the number of students arrested during the clash at Parliament Street was estimated to be at most ten while the rest were those picked up in the aftermath of the incident from in and around CP and in the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. Those arrested in the hospital were either injured persons there to get treatment or the visiting friends taking foodstuffs for the injured. There were also some who surrendered themselves because their girlfriends or boyfriends had already been arrested. A Bollywood scene came into play in the lives of nationalism that awakened Kuki youngsters.

 

As promised, when the jailed students could not be bailed out on the second day, a silent protest was organized on May 25, 2007 at ITO, an area close to the offices of most of the Indian national newspapers. This time, many student union from the mainland India including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Student Union extended their solidarity and support. Condemning the police brutality and the callousness of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, everyone called for the immediate release of the detained students. After about four hour long protest, the gathering dispersed when the police assured for release in the same evening. It required the same number of people with valid identity card to bail out the jailed students; one person for each imprisoned student.

 

Since the verification could not be completed during the day’s working hour, it was left for the next day, and that meant another tormented night in jail. Meanwhile, expectation had it that food was prepared for some 500 people at JNU campus where a welcome ceremony was to be hosted. When it was learnt nothing sort of such welcome ceremony would take place, people gathered dispersed at 12:00 p.m.. Finally, this plan succeeded in the next late evening. Both the valley and hill MP’s (Member of Parliament) from Manipur state attended the ceremony. An ex-MP, Holkhomang and our lawyer, Sandeep, were also present. The programme was moderated by David Buhril, the assistant editor of the North East Sun magazine. It was a moment of joy and relief.

 

To most of the jailed students, experience in Tihar Jail was a memorable incident of life. Few boys walked out of the Jail with their famous love notes or poems composed during the three day detention. For one like Esther, a research scholar at JNU, having Medha Patker, leader of Narmada Bachao Andolon (NBA), as inmate boosted her morale. Mention may be made that in reel life, though highly educated Kuki women seem to uphold and preach gender equality, in real life situation, they dare not face the challenge as their male counterparts do. A good number of girls feel that what is normal for boys might not be so with the girls. “To cite a good example,” a girl added, “I might not feel shame to be in jail if I were a boy”.

 

When the cases against the bailed out students were kept pending in the court for over a year, rumours of inefficient leadership in the KSO began to spread. Some felt neglected as they thought the sacrifice for the national cause was not reciprocated befittingly. Others blamed the lackadaisical approach for the pending. A student, who does not want to be named said, “that was the last event for me to contribute my time and energy for the nation,” and added, “in future, how can I obey the leaders who would not care for me?” There is another suggestion that in future, any move of such sort should be given a detailed deliberation and discussion, and the same should clearly be informed to all the students beforehand.

 

However, our sacrifice for the Kuki nation did not go vain. The abducted Kukis of Chandel had been rescued. At the same time, God of ages has through wisdom in our leaders worked wonders and all the cases of bailed out students have been heard and closed in our favour in 2008. This display of valour shall remain impressing down our history.

 

The writer is a New Delhi-based democracy activist who participated in that unforgettable rally.