A Report of Discussion on ‘Kuki Nationalism and Political Aspiration’
By CSEAS Staff
November 17, 2020

On November 12, 2020, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University organized a discussion on ‘Kuki Nationalism and Political Aspiration’. The discussion was chaired by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, the Executive Director of CSEAS. The panel consisted of Dr. Jangkhongam Doungel, Professor, Department of Political Science, Mizoram University; Dr. Seilen Haokip, Spokesperson and Negotiator of Kuki National Organization (KNO); Mr. Aaron Kipgen, General Secretary of Kuki National Front (KNF) and Spokesperson of United People’s Front (UPF); Dr. Malem Ningthouja, Independent Research, Editorial Member of Revolutionary Democracy, and Member of International League of Peoples’ Struggle; and Mr. Paojel Chaoba, Investigative Journalist and Executive Editor of the Frontier Manipur, and Former Executive Editor of the Imphal Free Press.  

Sanjana Dhar, Research Assistant at CSEAS, introduced and welcomed all the eminent speakers. She briefly discussed the theme of the panel discussion.


Nationalism and Armed Movement
Dr. Jangkhongam Doungel spoke on the broader perspective of Kuki nationalism and armed movement. He said that nationalism and armed movement are related because every armed movement comes out of a nationalistic consideration and zeal. The people who belong to the same ethnicity and who are related historically, linguistically, culturally, and socially traced common origin to mythological cave known in different names by tribes of the ethnic group as Chhinlung, Sinlung, Khul, Khulpi, Khur, Khurpui, Khutu-bi-jur, Khor, Hurpi, Lungkua and Puk. The same ethnic stock of people during their settlement in the Burmese plains were known as Chin and Chin becomes the official nomenclature in Myanmar. The group who migrated further and settled down in Lushai Hills and Chittagong Hill Tracts were known as Kuki by the Bengalees and Kuki becomes the official nomenclature in India.

Later on, the terminology ‘Lushai’ came to be used for those who settle in Lushai Hills. Therefore, the ethnic group has been identified as Chin-Lushai-Kuki by colonial ruler. After that, the terminology ‘Mizo’ came to be used popularly in Mizoram on the eve of India’s independence and the collective name also came to be known as Chin-Kuki-Mizo. New nomenclatures, such as, Chikim and Zomi have also been popularized, however, the terminology “Zo’ has begun to be used as inclusive nomenclature for the Chin-Kuki-Mizo people with the establishment of Zo Reunification Organization (ZORO) since 1988.

Recently, new terminology ‘Manmasi’ has been propagated by certain group of people which seems to be unscientific, imaginary, unauthentic and unreliable propagation, with no historical root. In fact, the right-thinking intellectual circle and objective scholars cannot understand the reason behind the propagation of the so-called Manmasi propaganda. In the present day, the Kuki-Chin or Zo ethnic group people are found in Myanmar, the entire Northeastern states of India and Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. The Kuki-Chin or Zo ethnic group people had fought eight wars against the British colonial power to maintain their independence, namely: (i) Lushai Expedition, 1871-1872; (ii) Resistance by Raja Goukhothang Guite, 1870-1871; (iii) Declaration of sovereignty by Tonglhu Haokip, Chief of Chahsat, 1877; (iv) Chin-Lushai Expedition, 1889-1890; (v) Sihzang-Sukte Rebellion, 1889-1890; (vi) Rebellion by Khaikam, Chief of Khuasak, 1892-1894.7; (vii) Aisan Rebellion, led by Chengjapao Doungel, Chief of Aisan, 1910; and (viii) Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1919.

After India and Burma got independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively, the Kuki-Chin people continued their armed movement in both countries. Independent Chinland movement was spearheaded by the Chin National Front (CNF) in Burma in 1964 where people of the ethnic group from India and Burma participated. Tunkhopum Baite, Hrangnawl and Lieutenant Sonkhopau were the prominent leaders. The Chindland movement was short-lived but it has been revived again since 1988 and the CNF is now under ceasefire with government of Myanmar.

Mizoram independent movement was also spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF) in 1966 and different tribes of the Kuki-Chin people from Manipur, Assam and Tripura within India participated in the armed movement, which also received good support from the cognate tribes of Burma and Bangladesh. Laldenga was the supreme leader of the MNF movement. Kuki-Chin /Zo ethnic group did not have armed movement after the signing of Mizoram Accord in 1986 and their territory was also peaceful for some time. Yet, armed movement was revived again with the founding of KNF by Nehlun Kipgen in 1987 which was followed by Kuki National Army (KNA) by Thangkholun Haokip. 

Presently, majority of the Kuki armed groups in Manipur which come under the umbrella of KNO and UPF have signed suspension of operation (SoO) with the Manipur state government and the government of India. Over and above that, United Kuki Gam Defense Army (UKDA) and Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) in Karbi Anglong district, Assam are also under SoO with the Assam state government and the government of India.  But some new armed groups have been formed in recent years which have not come under SoO, namely, Kuki National Front (Nehlun) KNF (N), Kuki International Army (KIA) and the Liberation Tiger of Tribal (LTT). It should be noted that the public has high expectation from the newly formed non-SoO groups for protection of their ethnic interest. The non-SoO group of Karbi Anglong in Assam, namely, the United People Revolutionary Army (UPRA) is now ready to come under SoO.

It is important and essential that the different armed groups maintain good relations with their ethnic relatives in Mizoram and Chin states to strengthen their movement, as well as to succeed in their goal of achieving autonomy. The popular opinion amongst the public is that the different Kuki-Chin armed groups should work in the interest of their people, lest they would be dancing in the tune of the Manipur state government.

Statehood to Territorial Council: A Change in Strategy or Goal?
Dr. Seilen Haokip began by stressing that before answering whether the decision taken by KNO and UPF is a change in strategy or goal, there is a need to examine the circumstances around the movement and the nature of proceedings of the dialogue the two umbrella organizations have had with the center and Manipur state government. Thus far, eight rounds of talks have taken place, and during these negotiations, the narrative has positively changed from statehood to territorial council (TC). To understand the reason behind this shift, one has to look back at the origins of the movement. When statehood was put forward as a demand, it was spurred by local geopolitics in the region: the movement took off due to the NSCN-IM’s pogrom during the period 1992-97, which led to several casualties in the region.  

The two organizations were convinced about fighting for their rights within the constitutional framework of the country, and statehood being the best option available made it the obvious choice. Moving forward, it is of the utmost importance to look into recent history in the context of Manipur. There has been communal harmony amongst the three populous ethnic groups, namely Meitei, Kuki, and Naga. The relationship between the Meitei and Kuki has always been extremely cordial due to mutual respect for each other’s identity, culture, politics, and territorial space. However, such peaceful co-existence was affected after the British colonization in the late 19th century. The different ethnic groups were ruled under one administrative system, and that changed the premise of cordial relationship between the communities, which was self-determination and mutual respect for identities that existed before.

Post-independence, the same administrative structure was followed by the successive governments for the purpose of administrative convenience, which went on to affect the relationship amongst the different ethnic groups. Therefore, the call for TC within Manipur is to ensure peaceful co-existence between communities with a structure similar to what prevailed before the British arrived. The term ‘nationalism’ is used by the armed organizations to reflect their political aspirations. Even though KNO and UPF are armed organizations, they have never resorted to arms for their political objectives because they are not secessionists and are engaged only to demand the Kuki people’s constitutional rights. The armed status is primarily owing to the NSCN-IM’s aggression in the region.

Merits of Political Demand
Mr. Aaron Kipgen began by tracing the aged-old historical and political aspirations of the Kukis which includes the KNF’s demand for Kukiland, statehood for the Kukis in India. The present-day Kuki armed movement began in 1987 with the formation of KNF in 1987 by Nehlun Kipgen. The rebels attracted the attention of the government of India and the Manipur state government with its boycott of Independence Day celebrations and attacks on the Indian security forces on many occasions. The Kukis were sovereign and self-ruled under their chieftainship form of government, and therefore, they were put under separate administration from the valley by the colonial ruler.

The Kukis have owned and occupied the hill areas of Manipur since antiquity and they have legitimate rights over their land. The Kukis have not been given their rightful place in independent India till today. Their political demand is absolutely logical and legitimate. There has been a sense of insecurity among the tribal populace over traditional land rights and customary practices being exploited by the dominant community all over India.

The Kukis in Manipur experience the same. Over eight years of negotiation with the government of India and the Manipur state government, the political demand of the Kukis has shifted from statehood to Kukiland Territorial Council within the state of Manipur. There are merits to the political demand of UPF & KNO if one looks into this from the right perspective. Territorial integrity is a very sensitive issue for the dominant community, our Meitei neighbors. The proposed TC will only enhance the existing administrative and financial powers of the district councils under provisions of the sixth schedule and will not affect the territorial Integrity of Manipur, i.e., the structure of Manipur will be intact. It will not only ease the prevailing insecurity among the Kuki people but also improve end-to-end transmission of government packages to ensure equal development in the hills.

Existing rights and privileges of the people of Manipur will not at all be affected, rather the provisions for the protection of the tribal populace and their distinct social practices like laws of inheritance will be extended under the proposed TC. When all the communities are given equal rights and constitutional protection, there will be harmony and peaceful co-existence in the hills and valley of Manipur. This is what the people of Manipur should look forward to.

Challenges from Within and the Periphery
Dr. Malem Ningthouja began by defining nationalism, as a feeling of love and aspiration for the motherland. Problems arise when the aspirations need to be converted into reality. Conversion to reality requires organization, territorial sense, identity, ideology, polity, economy, culture and so forth. It would also mean consolidating people, construction of identity and overcoming challenges. When it comes to understanding Kuki nationalism, the objective of it is to unify people, call it a nation, consolidate power, and overcome challenges for exercising self-determination. 

In this attempt there is adoption of a binary approach of positing ‘within’ and ‘outside’ as two different blocks. But questions can be raised; what does ‘within’ mean? Does it mean ‘we’ or the core; is it a homogeneous block? Is it organically tangible with a sharp boundary? What are the boundary markers? Can it be geographical or linguistic and ethnic or ideological or administrative or organizational or some historical time? What does the ‘outside mean? These appear to be officially imagined landscapes or boundary. But can there be another block of ‘fuzzy’ either oscillating between or overlapping ‘within’ and ‘outside.’ One thing for certain is that ‘within’ and ‘outside’ are depicted in compartments. These are segments. ‘Outside’ and the ‘periphery’ are part of an overarching system.  

Also, the binary approach is related to agencies of power. Since nationalism has to be converted into reality, so the role of agency cannot be ignored. The idea of ‘within’ can be defined in multiple ways, and in Kuki nationalism, the role of the agency is important. The central Zale’n-gam acts as a center of the issue in the state of Manipur, and it is here that the dominant base of Kuki nationalism has to be built. It is here that the agency or actors will advocate the officially imagined nationhood. This will consolidate patriarchal lineages and linguistics. These are historical courses, and the crystallization of Kuki identity seems to have occurred through changes in demography, participatory roles in governance, development in social communication and mobility, economy and strategic opportunity, etc. But, there are problems within the imagined Kuki nationhood. 

Zale’n-gam is largely composed of economically backward territories which have dispersed into unfavorable hilly terrains that obstruct economic cohesion. There is semi-feudalism fitted into neo-liberal political economy, thereby, perpetuating clan-based kleptocracy by elites. These problems have created grounds for chauvinism, hegemony, sectarianism and resistance, and this is seen in nomenclature trends in various formats and organization trends where some tribes either do not identify themselves as Kuki or give priority to their tribes. 

Challenges from the outside, where different nationalisms are at play include, in this case, the nationalisms of Zale’n-gam, Nagalim, Manipur, India and the all-encompassing imperialist globalization. Diametrical nationalisms are operative. These challenges are a threat to any particular nationalism. Above all, imperialist globalization is a threat to India, Manipur, Nagalim and Zale’n-gam. Among these dialectical nationalist forces, there are contradictions and problems; some contradictions are antagonistic, some are in conflict, but it is a threat to any imagined nationhood. 

Conflicts take place in the Northeast region due to many factors such as population, land, resource, revenue, trade, control, landscapes and strategic dominance, individual opportunism, sectarianism, and communalism, collective memory, historiography and propaganda, which nullify scientific historiography. So, historically, the Kuki national movement is progressing, but it is hampered by internal strife due to economic, social and ideological reasons. Plus the feeling of aspirations to convert Kuki nationalism into an exact territorial and consolidated entity also has gotten inherent internal conflicts within the imagined projections of nationhood, along with coexisting agencies which are working toward different nationalisms that posit against Kuki nationalism.

The Way Forward
Mr. Paojel Chaoba said we should see the situation in the region like different houses (ethnic groups) situated along a road in a locality (state of Manipur) inhabited by different ethnic groups. All the houses have unique economic, political, and geographical aspiration depending on their social and political factors. But being neighbors, one neighbor needs to understand the hopes and aspiration of the other houses. There are both internal and external factors that alter and influence the situation in the locality. While advocating their demands, each ethnic group must think about the needs of others and there should be courteousness to admit one’s faults.

Each group as taking a step forward should be willing to take a step backward if the conditions call for it. If an issue arises within a house, it would be for the benefit of everyone that the issue is discussed with all the other houses and a collective opinion or solution should be formed on the issue in question. The role of civil society organizations is crucial in establishing this balance and collective opinion.  The needs and actions of one house will impact the others and the entire locality, therefore, it is important for all houses to unite.

To maintain peace and prosperity in the state, it is necessary that all ethnic groups unite and have a collective and common position to solve all the issues in the region. We have to focus on being ethno-inclusive rather than exclusivity. In the present situation, it is either all the houses sink or swim together. The only option the houses have today is to unite and take a collective stance to maintain harmony in Manipur.

Vote of Thanks
Dishant Choudhary, Research Intern at CSEAS, thanked the speakers, CSEAS Executive Director and all the participants for making the program a success. He also thanked the university administration for extending all the necessary support to successfully organize the event. 

The report is prepared by CSEAS staff members – Vikas Nagal, Dishant Choudhary, Hariharan C, Sanjana Dhar, Shivangi Dikshit and Harsh Mahaseth – and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen in consultation with the speakers.