Identity crisis in ethnic India

Published on January 25, 2013

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asia Times – January 25, 2013

Renowned social scientists James Fearon and David Laitin in their seminal article “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” assert that ethnic cleavages emerge because of the construction of identities for specific political purposes. This phenomenon partially holds true in the case of the ethnic Kukis and Nagas in Manipur, India’s historically restive northeastern state.

Manipur, a state of 2.7 million people, is home to three major ethnic groups, namely the Kuki, Naga, and Meitei. While the Meiteis, who are primarily settled in four valley districts, clamor for the territorial integrity of the state, the Kukis and the Nagas call for separate administrative arrangements in the hill areas. These competing agendas underlie the state’s continued instability and underdevelopment and threaten to cause new rounds of instability.

Identity is a major source of conflict between the Kukis and Nagas. In the process of identity formation, a number of tribes, including the Anal, Maring, Monsang and Moyon, have been assimilated into the Naga either by coercion or other forms of persuasion. Another major source of the conflict is land disputes.

Ethnic violence from 1992 to 1997 between the two ethnic groups resulted in the death of over 1,000 people, the destruction of thousands of homes, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. While the physical violence has ceased, tensions between the two groups still lingers. The simmering tension has led to different forms of agitation from both sides, with each making competing claims and counterclaims.

The violent conflict initially started between the Thadou and Maring tribes, both of which were recognized as Kuki during the British colonial administration. While the casualty figures of the Nagas are unclear, the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the most prominent civil body of the Kuki people based in Manipur, claims that over 961 Kukis were killed, 360 villages uprooted, and 100,000 people rendered homeless during clashes in the 1990s.

Yet the most significant point of contention between the two groups remains land dispute. The Kuki National Front (KNF), later joined by the Kuki National Organization (KNO), demands that a “Kukiland” be carved out of the five hill districts of Manipur, namely Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.

That demand represents a direct challenge to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) extremist group’s demand for the creation of a greater Nagaland to be comprised of territories in northeast India and neighboring Myanmar. The goal of the militant outfit is to amalgamate the four hill districts of Manipur – Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul – and to form a greater Nagaland by merging with the existing, neighboring Nagaland state.

The attempt to forcibly drive Kukis from the four hill districts led to allegations of “ethnic cleansing” by the NSCN-IM. Though the initial violence was triggered by militant outfits in Chandel district, it eventually spread to other parts of Manipur, to Nagaland state and areas where ethnic Nagas live in neighboring Myanmar as well.

KIM has put forward two important demands to the Nagas and the Indian government to address those past abuses. First, it has demanded that the Nagas, especially the NSCN-IM, formally apologize for their crimes of the 1990s and perform Kuki customary death rites, including paying luongman (corpse price) and tol-theh (cleaning the house for shedding human blood). Second, KIM has demanded that the Indian government provide compensation for the loss of life and property to the thousands of displaced victims.

Naga leaders, particularly the NSCN-IM, have not responded to KIM’s demands. It is unclear if the Naga leaders, particularly the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex civil body of the Nagas in Manipur, and NSCN-IM, an extremist offshoot, have the intention to make similar demands from the Kukis to perform customary rites for the deaths of Nagas.

While the Meiteis oppose the creation of either a Kuki homeland or greater Nagaland, the Kukis and Nagas are unable to establish any kind of coordination or cooperation. This is partly due to the still simmering tensions caused by the 1992-1997 clashes.

The tension has become deeply communal, creating an environment of mutual distrust which makes it difficult for civil society organizations to initiate any congenial dialogue between the two groups. It is unclear, meanwhile, whether the government views the issue as an internal matter for the concerned groups to resolve among themselves or as insufficiently significant to intervene.

While the tension lingers, the government continues to engage in a political dialogue with the NSCN-IM, ignoring calls by Kuki armed groups for similar talks despite their maintaining a suspension of operations since 2005. It remains unclear whether this is an institutional problem with the Kuki armed organizations or instead is a manifestation of New Delhi’s perceived bias toward the NSCN-IM.

The Nagas’ demand for a greater Nagaland is based in a decades-old movement. Similarly, the Kuki National Assembly, a political body established in 1946, submitted a memorandum to the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on March 24, 1960, demanding the “immediate” creation of a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur.

With these competing and overlapping demands for the same geographical areas, any attempt by New Delhi to resolve the conflict with one group while sidelining the other could engender more problems. That danger was apparent with the Kuki State Demand Committee’s (KSDC) announcement on January 21, 2013 that it would launch a campaign of agitation, including a “Quit Kukiland” movement and boycott call of any official Indian programs, including Republic Day celebrations.

The KSDC, which demands a Kuki state, has also called on the Indian government to begin a political dialogue with Kuki armed groups or withdraw its local authorities from Kuki inhabited areas. It also said it would resume a statewide public blockade, a threat it had withdrawn last December, and initiate a plebiscite in Kuki areas for political resolution.

Though there is no quick fix to the ongoing problems of the Kukis and the Nagas, it has become an issue that can no longer be ignored in New Delhi. Any amicable political solution would entail participation from both ethnic groups and other concerned parties, including the central and state governments.

As Fearon and Laitin put it, the assimilation of some of the Kuki tribes into Naga fold augments the intensity and complexity of the conflict. Until it is resolved, the question of ethnic identity will continue to create cleavages.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia. His academic article entitled “Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur” focusing on the Kukis and Nagas will be published in South Asia Research journal by Sage (London) in February 2013.

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