Months before the onset of the present ethnic clashes, Nagas and Meiteis had begun working together on the issue of influx of illegal migrants from across the border which had started taking a heavy toll on the demographic balance of Manipur. If one goes back to recent history, one would find Kukis, though small in number, planted near the water-holes of major Naga villages by the British colonialists in a bid to control the ‘wild Naga tribes’ as they were termed. This policy began a harbinger of a number of Kuki villages adjacent to the Naga villages, as their numbers keep increasing.
It was a classic case of land-grabbing as the first settlers brought in more and more of their kith and kin. These Kuki villages and settlements became a thorn in the political aspirations of the Nagas. We need not go further into the Kuki tribes settlement pattern after they were first officially allowed to settle in some of the hill ranges of the state.
The British also made it a point to settle Kukis in the surrounding hill ranges of the valley which is known by the acronym SADAR to create a buffer and divide the hills and the valley. But, the division resulted in driving a wedge in the age-old communal harmony and causing a strain in the holistic cultural mosaic. Why do we need to bring this small but important episode of history into the public discourse again?
In recent times, there has been a lot of discourse and opposing narratives in the social media about the roots of the present unrest and its victims. Well, an outsider’s perspective is always welcome. But, it becomes extremely dangerous and provocative when people begin to put forth views and opinions based on one-sided versions and half-baked truths.
In the early 90s, there was a huge population shift as a result of Naga-Kuki clashes which rocked Manipur for about a year. As the communal conflict between Naga Lim Guard and Kuki Defence Force raged on, thousands of Kukis settled in Naga dominated areas sought shelter in Kuki dominated areas in the vicinity of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Moreh.
Hundreds of innocent villagers on both sides were killed and several villagers laid to waste. Kangpokpi and Moreh became major grouping centres for the Kuki refugees and several new villages sprung up, while Nagas remain in their original habitat. We had mentioned earlier about the settlement pattern of the Kukis which was such that for every major Naga village there was a Kuki village adjacent to it.
However after the Naga-Kuki clash, a massive population shift occurred. In Churachandpur district, the Paites or Zomis were in majority and the newly arrived Kukis had to settle in the outskirts of Churachandpur proper and along the highways leading to Churachandpur town. Ultimately, these new settlements and a struggle for dominance became one of the causes of the Kuki-Paite conflict later on. Churachandpur district is mostly inhabited by a number of tribes from the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group, but the Paites are in majority. On the other hand, Nagas were driven off from the Moreh area while the Kuki population increased in leaps and bounds.
Meiteis were among the first settlers of the two border outposts of Moreh and Jiribam, as there was frequent interactions between Manipur and Cachar in the west and with the Burmese in the east. In fact, these two border outposts served as the gateway to Manipur. The Meitei settlement in Churachandpur is in fact very old and it so happened that the present Churachandpur town and its market grew around this old settlement. History bears testimony to that.
As the present communal conflict unfolded, Meitei settlements in Churachandpur and Moreh had been laid to waste while Jiribam remained largely untouched by the conflict. While the Meiteis fled for their lives as violence and attacks began in these two towns, their houses were burned to cinders and their properties, including land, had since been taken over by the Kukis while the Meitei villages settled in the foothills continue to be under perpetual threat from the Kukis in what is now Kangpokpi district.
So ultimately, one does not need to go to great lengths to see through the grand design and conspiracy by the Kukis for balkanisation of the state on ethnic lines behind the present conflict.