Politics Of Ethnic Conflict In Manipur

This article analyses the conflict between the Kuki and Naga ethnic groups in the state of Manipur in North East India and attempts to understand why tensions arose in the first place and remain today between the two ethnic groups despite the formal cessation of hostilities in 1997. This ethnic conflict is shown to be a consequence of a lingering identity problem, aggravated by land disputes and equivocal responses of the state. It is argued that continued land disputes, the Nagas’ unwillingness to perform Kuki customary rites and the government’s indifference to the problem prevent these two groups from reaching a sustainable solution.

Introduction: Ethnic Difference, Conflict and Violence

In an ethnically sensitive society, problems of ethnic tensions may develop intentionally or unintentionally. Conflict of interests often becomes inevitable when different people who live next to each other enjoy the freedom to pursue their own preferences, but forget to consider and respect the position of others. Conflicts can develop between different ethnic groups, or even within the same group of people and it may result in violence. At the same time, it seems clear that all ethnic conflicts do not necessarily lead to violence.

Ethnicity is ‘the set to which religion, race, language, and sect belong as subsets’ (Varshney, 2001: 365). The existing literature on ethnicity has not clearly defined the difference or boundary between ethnic conflict and ethnic violence. The term ‘violence’ is generally conceptualized as a ‘degree of conflict rather than as a form of conflict, or indeed as a form of social or political action in its own right’ (Brubaker and Laitin, 1998: 425). In a multi-ethnic society, cleavages can emerge from primordial elements such as blood relationship, from culture and language and much else. When exactly conflict turns into violence appears to be a matter of highly subjective assessment.

Relations between the Kukis and Nagas of Manipur were non-violent to begin with, but escalated into violence during the 1990s, more precisely 1992–1997, when these two ethnic groups got embroiled in violent conflicts resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives, destruction of hundreds of villages and displacement of thousands of people. The conflict, fanned by armed groups, caused collateral damage to both communities. Although the physical violence formally ended in 1997, relations between the two groups remain tense (Unnithan and Deka, 2012).

Taking a wider view, we see that there are actually three major ethnic groups in the state of Manipur in North East India: Kuki, Naga and Meitei. In the region as a whole, various tensions of an ethnic nature are simmering. These are not covered here, though they are likely to have some impact.1 The present article focuses only on the Kuki–Naga conflict, first attempting to understand why these two ethnic groups became engaged in violent conflict and then exploring the possibility of a permanent solution to the problem.

The article necessarily also examines the government’s attitude towards the conflict, as such tensions and conflicts cross the public/private divide. Further, it is important to trace the history of the conflict to establish a causal relationship between the violent conflict in the 1990s and the present ongoing tensions between the two ethnic groups. Historical explanatory method is adopted to analyze relevant data from books and journals, Indian Census Reports, the Indian Constitution, newspapers and internet sources. Although some other incidents are cited, the discussion focuses on the state of Manipur.

Three issues are mainly analyzed in this article to understand the causes of ethnic conflict between Kukis and Nagas: identity formation, land disputes and response of the state. Do these issues collectively or individually cause the conflict, or are they intervening factors? Constructivists would argue that ethnic cleavages emerge because of the construction of identities for specific political purposes (Fearon and Laitin, 2000). But it is doubtful that constructivist theory on its own can explain the Kuki–Naga problem.

I chose these specific issues for three reasons. First, I spent years in Manipur when the violent conflict erupted in the 1990s and now follow up on the subject to hopefully shed some light on the complexity of ethnic conflict and resulting difficulties in this part of the world. Second, the killing has officially stopped, but tension between the two ethnic groups remains evident and there is no viable solution as yet. Third, despite strong opposition from the majority Meiteis to the demands for a Kuki homeland and for greater or southern Nagaland to be carved out of Manipur, Kukis and Nagas can neither lend support to such competing demands nor cooperate in their respective movements. The complexities of this stalemate scenario are explored further below.

There are some limitations to this research. First, I have limited access to materials on the Nagas. For example, there are no adequate materials to analyze the specific strategies employed by the United Naga Council (UNC), an apex body of the Naga people in Manipur and an armed organization, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), 2 to assimilate or coerce some of the Kuki tribes into the Naga fold. Second, the number of casualties on both sides during the height of the conflict is presented in approximate figures. I also did not have access to government records, if there are any, nor does the existing literature provide statistics that are mutually accepted by both Kukis and Nagas.

Ethnic Identification, Conflict and Violence in Manipur

In Manipur, the ethnic classifications of Kuki and Naga are complex and confusing. To understand them, it is important to consider the entire population of Manipur. According to the Indian government’s 2001 census, the population of Manipur was 2,166,788, excluding Mao-Maram, Paomata and Purul sub-divisions of Senapati district (Indian Census, 2001a). The Census was conducted in these sub-divisions according to schedule, but the results were cancelled due to ‘administrative and technical reasons’ (Indian Census, 2001b). The estimated population including these sub-divisions was 2,293,896, with 1,161,952 males and 1,131,944 females. The provisional data of the 2011 census, which are still being processed,3 show that the state’s population has reached 2,721,756, an increase of approximately 427,860 from the 2001 census.4 The map below shows the nine districts of Manipur: Bishnupur, Chandel, Churachandpur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Senapati, Tamenglong, Thoubal and Ukhrul (see Figure 1).

The state’s population is divided into four different categories: General, Scheduled Tribes (ST), 5 Scheduled Castes (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC). The general category is primarily constituted by Meiteis, the single largest ethnic group in the state. The President of India, after consultation with the concerned State Governor, specifies the tribe or tribal communities to be included in the ST category in accordance with Article 342 of the Indian Constitution. Both Kukis and Nagas fall under the ST category and together constitute about 34.2 per cent of Manipur’s population according to the 2001 census. The Indian government census of 2001 lists the major Scheduled Tribes of Manipur as follows:

Table 1 Population of Major Scheduled Tribes

Sl No Name of the Scheduled Tribe Total Population Proportion to the Total ST Population
1 All Scheduled Tribes 741,141 100%
2 Thadou 182,594 24.6
3 Tangkhul 146,075 19.7
4 Kabui 82,386 11.1
5 Paite 49,271 6.6
6 Hmar 42,933 5.8
7 Kacha Naga 42,013 5.7
8 Vaiphei 38,267 5.2
9 Maring 23,238 3.1
10 Anal 21,242 2.9
11 Zou 20,567 2.8
12 Any Mizo (Lushai) tribes 15,164 2.0
13 Kom 14,602 2.0
14 Simte 11,065 1.5

Source: Indian Census (2001a).


Figure 1 Map of Manipur

Image Credit: Compare Infobase Ltd


Table 1 list only the major STs of Manipur but does not distinguish between Kuki and Naga tribes. Of the thirteen tribes listed, ten belong to the Kuki ethnic group (Thadou, Paite, Hmar, Vaiphei, Maring, Anal, Zou, Lushai, Kom, Simte) and the other three belong to the Naga ethnic group (Tangkhul, Kabui, Kacha Naga). However, the Maring and Anal tribes have been assimilated into the Naga fold. This critical issue will resurface and be discussed further below.

As indicated before, ethnic conflict can be an explosion of inherent simmering tension or may result from a sudden and unexpected development. Conflicts can erupt ‘among neighbors, among people who live intermingled with one other, forced to share the same resources and institutions’ (Sadowski, 1998: 22). The immediate cause of conflict may vary and may depend upon the historical relationship between different ethnic groups and/or policies adopted by the government towards certain groups. Economic disparity becomes often a major source of ethnic problems. When a state’s resources are distributed disproportionately or unevenly among various citizens, this can cause ethnic cleavage or pave the way for it. In developing or less developed societies, as Fearon (2003: 199) notes:

…poor economic performance could exacerbate distributional struggles, causing people to see and act along lines of ethnic division that were formerly considered unimportant. By contrast, robust economic growth might lead to the downplaying of ethnic divisions and a greater emphasis on national identity.

Although economic problems appear not to be a major source of conflict between Kukis and Nagas, it is known that many youngsters in Manipur have dropped out of schools and joined different militant outfits because of economic hardship. Many uneducated youths appear to see joining militant groups as an easy way of making money and as a means to show power through the barrels of guns (see Unnithan and Deka, 2012). It appears that ongoing ethnic conflicts and poverty have forced many other individuals to leave Manipur in search for better opportunities in metropolitan cities across India. McDuie-Ra (2012) reports that while some continue to pursue education many others have ended up working in hotels, beauty parlors, shopping malls, call centers or as security guards. Such migration has changed the lives of many individuals and families in different ways. Some have been fortunate to find high-paying jobs either in the private or the public sector, while others endure various forms of racial discrimination, directed at people from Manipur and other North East states that belong to mongoloid groups and look different from mainland Indians (McDuie-Ra, 2012).

Such discrimination is clearly a cause of considerable concern for the people of Manipur and neighboring states. One major incident occurred in August 2012 when people from the North East were randomly attacked in different parts of India, especially in some metropolitan cities, as a result of riots between indigenous Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam. Fearing for their own security, over 30,000 people from the North East, including many Manipuris, fled Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka (Zee News, 18 August 2012).

Patterns of Ethnic Conflict and Issues in Identity Formation

Patterns of ethnic conflicts are broadly described by social scientists under three different approaches: primordialism, instrumentalism and constructivism. While the primordialist approach suggests that conflicts between ethnic groups happen because of people’s unchanging essential characteristics, instrumentalists view ethnicity and race as instrumental identities which community or political leaders make use of to serve specific purposes. The constructivists disapprove the primordialist approach and argue that conflicts between two ethnic groups are not an eternal condition and that conflicts shift and mutate over time (Fearon and Laitin, 2000: 849) as identities are constructed and re-constructed.

According to Ross (1995: 524), the most commonly cited social science theories of ethnic conflict are structural, emphasizing how competing interests and overt conflicts arise from the structure of society or relationships between members of societies. One significant variation is that Kukis and Nagas have somewhat different chieftainship systems of village administration and the powers of their chiefs differ. A Naga chief is bound by advice of the village elders and council, which is not always so among Kukis. While a Kuki chief may sometimes exercise his authority arbitrarily against the wishes of village elders, in most cases, the chief seeks the support and advice of village elders (Manipur Planning Department, 2009: 227).

Regarding patterns of identity formation, some ethnic conflict theories argue that people who share the same ethnic origin—by blood, culture or language—have the tendency to either mitigate or escalate tensions between different ethnic groups. People have the power to persuade or influence members within their own ethnic group more than members of other ethnic groups (Blimes, 2006: 538).

The pattern of ethnic formation in Manipur was, however, made more complicated by government directives. Under the Indian Constitution Scheduled Tribes Order 1950, as variously amended, there were at first only umbrella terms for the hill people such as ‘Any Kuki Tribe’, ‘Any Naga Tribe’, ‘Any Lushai Tribe’. This grouping was reclassified along tribal lines in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Lists Modification Order of 1956. Under the modification, the three umbrella terms were subdivided into 29 different named tribes: Aimol, Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Hmar, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Koirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamgang, Mao, Maram, Maring, Lushai tribes, Monsang, Moyon, Paite, Purum, Ralte, Sema, Simte, Sukte, Tangkhul, Thadou, Vaiphei and Zou (Singh, 2004).

The Indian Constitution provides certain benefits to all Scheduled Tribes recognized by the government, including protection, reservation of seats in employment and educational institutions. Such constitutional privileges became an incentive for people to seek recognition under a new tribe. In October 2009, the Indian government approved six new tribes in Manipur: Inpui, Liangmai, Rongmei, Thangal, Zeme and Mate (Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 2009). This reflects an ongoing struggle over identity management by various interested parties.

Kuki Identity Formation

During British rule in India before 1947, the Kuki people were grouped into two categories, old Kuki and new Kuki. Dena (1999: 183–87), a Kuki historian from Manipur, citing the 1931 census, notes that Anal, Kom, Hmar, Gangte and Vaiphei belonged to the old Kuki group, while Paite, Ralte, Simte, Sukte and Thadou belonged to the new Kuki group. Dena (1999: 184) describes the classification of old and new Kuki:

There is no scientific basis for the classification of Kukis into old Kukis and new Kukis. It appears that those Kukis who first came into contact with the Bengalis came to be called old Kukis and the later immigrants new Kukis. The old Kukis might have migrated and settled in Manipur hills and other adjoining areas of North East India in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in Manipur valley, whereas the new Kukis might have come at a later stage.

Shakespear (1912: 148), a British lieutenant colonel posted in Manipur during the colonial administration, described the origin of old Kuki:

The term Old Kukis has long been applied to the clans which suddenly appeared in Cachar about 1800…the Old Kuki clans of Manipur seem to have been the first to move, as records of their appearance there are found in the Manipur chronicle as early as the sixteenth century…there is no regular system of government among the Old Kukis and they have no hereditary chiefs as among the New ones.

Shakespear (1912: 149) identified the old Kuki clans of Manipur as Aimol, Anal, Chawte, Chiru, Kolhen, Kom, Lamgang, Purum, Tikhup. Despite their resemblance in many respects, the clans chose to live in different villages, without much interaction among themselves.

The term ‘Kuki’ is a British creation and the different tribes under this label have much affinity in language, cultures and customs. Their dialects are more or less intelligible across different tribes. Since the 1940s, the Kuki tribes have been unable to find a unified political platform, however. Some attempts were made to unify these tribes, but this did not last long. Subsequently, three major divisions took place: Formation of the Mizo Union, the Kuki National Assembly and the Khulmi National Union. Divisive forces were further exacerbated by the creation of political parties along tribal lines in the 1950s.

The dispersion of Kuki tribes along tribal names was caused among others by the claim that Kuki groups like Chiru, Kom, Gangte, Vaiphei and people of ‘inferior lineage were all under the wing of the Thadous’ (Shaw, 1997: 30).7 The non-Thadous opposed the notion of Thadou ‘supremacy’ and ‘hegemony’ over the other Kuki tribes (Oinam, 2003: 2033). Singh (2004), an anthropologist and a native of Manipur, argues that the primary reason for division within the Kuki society was lack of common ideology among the Kukis themselves. This divisive force led to the creation of further subgroups such as the Hmar National Union, the Paite National Council, the Gangte Tribal Union, the Simte National Council, the Vaiphei National Council and the Mate Tribal Union. Until today, a consensus on collective political identity is difficult to achieve among the Kuki tribes of Manipur.

Naga Identity Formation

According to Kabui (1995: 28), a Naga historian from Manipur, the Naga ancestors migrated from Southwest China to Burma and then to Thailand. After passing through Southeast Asia, they finally settled in North East India and North West Burma. In Manipur in the past, the Naga tribes included Liangmei, Mao, Maram, Rongmei/Kabui, Paomei, Tangkhul, Thangal, Zeme and others. Kabui (1995) believes that the Nagas may have reached their present settlements before the Christian era.

The term ‘Naga’ is also a creation of the British, dating from the 1880s. The nomenclature ‘is an identity projected for better administrative purposes—to club different tribes under one administrative umbrella’ (Oinam, 2003: 2033). The Naga tribes have different cultures and customs and their dialects are quite different from tribe to tribe. Therefore, people from different tribes have difficulty in communicating with each other from village to village. However, the pioneering Naga leader A.Z. Phizo was a politically conscious man and managed to pull his people together. The Naga leaders even declared independence from the British on 14 August, a day before India’s independence on 15 August 1947 (Oinam, 2003: 2033).

During the process of constructing and reconstructing the Naga political identity, some of the old Kuki tribes, as mentioned earlier, were assimilated into the Naga fold. These tribes include Anal, Moyon, Monsang and Maring. This successful assimilation was a milestone for the UNC and the NSCN-IM in their efforts to consolidate Naga nationalism and to expand territorial claims. Oinam (2003: 2033) calls this amalgamation more a matter of ‘political identity rather than cultural’, as the new entries ‘have little in common among them so far as their dialects, customs and traditional world views’ are concerned, compared to other Naga tribes such as Aaos, Angamese, Tangkhul, Zeliangrong and Mao.

So the Nagas expanded their ethno-cultural boundary by bringing other non-Naga groups, either through coercion or cultural pressures or both, to their ethnic fold (Singh, 2004). Kamaroopi (1993: 2172) calls this ethnic conversion a ‘process of acculturation’. I would argue that this ethnic conversion was partly a consequence of the lack of ethnic cohesion and absence of common political identity among the Kuki tribes. Moreover, in the face of rising Naga insurgency and the NSCN-IM’s use of violent tactics to further its cause, some of the old Kuki tribes joined the Naga ethnic group out of fear and for their own security.8 While the NSCN has been operating since 1980, the two foremost Kuki armed groups, the Kuki National Front (KNF)9 and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) and its armed wing, the Kuki National Army (KNA), began activities in 1987 and 1988 respectively (Haokip, 1998).

Land as a Bone of Contention

In a memorandum submitted in 2001 to the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Delhi-based Kuki Students’ Organization (KSO), the apex student body of the Kuki ethnic group in Manipur, which has several branches in different cities across India, presented the percentage of landholdings by Kuki tribes and Naga tribes in the five hill districts of Manipur as provided in the table above (Gangte, 2007).

Table 2 Percentage of Kuki and Naga Landholdings in Manipur

Sl. No Districts Kukis Nagas
1 Churachandpur 100 Nil
2 Chandel 75 25
3 Senapati 50 50
4 Tamenglong 35 65
5 Ukhrul 30 70

Source: Memorandum dated 06-27-2001 submitted by the KSO to the Indian Prime Minister.

Out of the nine districts in Manipur, Kukis and Nagas predominantly live in the five hill districts. The above table clearly shows that the Kukis are a majority in two districts, Churachandpur and Chandel, while the Nagas are a majority in two other districts, Tamenglong and Ukhrul. They have equal percentage of population in Senapati district.

In the early 1990s, the Kuki–Naga conflict initially started between the Maring and the Thadou in Chandel district and then spread out to other parts of Manipur and to the states of Assam and Nagaland. The effects of the conflict spilled over the international border to Burma (now known as Myanmar) in Sagaing Division, where the NSCN-IM militants burnt down a Kuki village called Wet Yu on 13 April 1993. One villager was killed, 21 houses were reduced to ashes and 110 villagers were made homeless (Minorities at Risk Project, 2004). In another incident in Nagaland, 30 Kukis were killed in Dimapur by the NSCN-IM on 10 December 1996.10

Before this ethnic violence erupted, Maring and Thadou people lived together in Moreh town. Oinam (2003: 2032) argues that the conflict between these two tribes was basically over the control of the Indo-Burma border town of Moreh. This town, an international commercial hub, designated by the Indian government as a gateway to Southeast Asia through its ‘Look East’ policy, was a major source of financial income for both the Kuki and the Naga armed groups.

Outbreak of Violent Conflict and Land Disputes

Tensions between the two ethnic groups took a violent turn when members of the NSCN-IM attacked and burnt down Molphei, a Kuki village, on 12 May 1992. Subsequently, members of the KNA collected taxes from Naga villages in Chandel district on 30 May 1992. The NSCN-IM then attacked another Kuki village on 3 June 1992, which led to further retaliation by the KNA attacking Naga villages in Chandel district. The violent conflict rapidly spread to other parts of Manipur. Oinam (2003: 2032) attributes three factors as the immediate cause of this violent conflict: (i) control and occupation of Moreh; (ii) tax on Kuki residents in Naga territory by the Naga militants and refusal to pay by the Kukis; (iii) refusal to renew the land agreement by the Nagas to the Kukis. Oddly, Oinam (2003) seems to suggest that Chandel district was a Naga territory, though both Kukis and Nagas lived together in the district.

According to Kamaroopi (1993), the expulsion of Naga business establishments from Moreh and the Kukis’ refusal to pay tax to Naga militants was the initial cause of the conflict. This violence continued for over a year (1992–93), with over 300 people killed, mainly Kuki, but also some 25 Nagas. The brutally murdered victims included innocent children, women and the elderly. Some women were tortured and raped before being murdered. While the Kuki leaders put the blame solely on the NSCN-IM and the Naga Lim Guards for the killings and destruction of Kuki villages, the NSCN-IM and its supporters accused the Kuki militants as agents of the Indian military sabotaging the Naga movement (Kamaroopi, 1993: 2173). The Indian Army officials rejected such allegations. Videlici (1993: 2422) alleges that the Indian government was playing a divide-and-rule policy between Kuki and Naga ethnic groups.

Land disputes escalated and have led to the killing of over 1,000 people. The accurate number of casualties has been difficult to account for and different authors claim differing figures. According to Tarapot (2003: 201), 900 people were killed, while 480 others (257 Kukis and 223 Nagas) were seriously injured between 1992 and 1999. Altogether 5,724 houses were set on fire (3,110 of Kukis and 2,614 of Nagas). Shimray (2004: 4,640) claims that more than 1,000 lives in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam were lost in the conflict. Both Shimray and Tarapot are natives of Manipur state. An account from the Minorities at Risk Project (2000) also states that over 1,000 people died in the Naga–Kuki conflict since 1992. The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the apex civil body of the Kuki people in Manipur, claims that over 961 Kukis were killed, 360 villages uprooted and 100,000 people rendered homeless.11 My conversations with research scholars from both communities confirmed that all these numbers are approximate figures. Both sides, however, agree that the Kukis were the more seriously affected group.12

Much earlier, the Kuki National Assembly, established in 1946, had submitted a memorandum to the first Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on 24 March 1960, demanding the ‘immediate’ creation of a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas in Manipur.13 This demand for Kukiland by the KNF in the five hill districts of Manipur—Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul—has been countered by the NSCN-IM’s demand for greater Nagaland/southern Nagaland. The goal of the Naga militant outfit is to incorporate the four hill districts of Manipur—Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul—and to form greater Nagaland by merging with the neighboring Nagaland state. This appears to have led to ‘ethnic cleansing’ by Naga militants, the goal being to drive the Kukis away from these hill districts (No Easy Peace, 1995). The conflict is clearly over territory occupied and claimed by both competing groups.

This dispute over territory has meanwhile become a festering problem. The Nagas, under the aegis of the UNC, have intensified their demand for ‘alternative administrative arrangement’ for the Nagas in Manipur outside the state government while dialogue is ongoing between the NSCN-IM and the Indian government for a political settlement. Simultaneously, the Kukis, under the aegis of the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC), have spearheaded demands for creation of a separate Kuki state. Attempting to put pressure on the Indian government to begin dialogue with the Kukis, the KSDC resorted to an indefinite road blockade on 17 November 2012 on all state and national highways passing through Kuki-inhabited areas in the state (Times of India, 18 November 2012). The conflict is thus very much alive and it concerns competing claims of control over land and territory.

Response of the State: Stabilization or Aggravation?

The equivocal response of the Manipur state government is clearly becoming another major issue in this conflict. Quite evidently, the state of Manipur does not find its own break-up acceptable. One telling example of conservative action is the long-standing demand for upgrading the Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council, 14 turning it into a full-fledged revenue district.15 The Sadar Hills district demand has been in existence for four decades since 1972, when Manipur attained statehood. Sadar Hills comprises the three subdivisions of Kangpokpi, Saikul and Saitu-Gamphajol. It falls administratively under Senapati district which, as Table 2 above showed, is shared 50:50 by Kukis and Nagas. Representatives of the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) and the Manipur government, on 31 October 2011, agreed to divide the three subdivisions into six subdivisions (Laithangbam, 2011).16 The foundation stones for these subdivisions were laid by Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and the Revenue Minister in the presence of SHDDC leaders and elected local representatives on 17 December 2011. The Chief Minister stated that the state government has begun steps to upgrade the necessary infrastructure and manpower for a full-fledged district (Imphal Free Press, 17 December 2011).

The Nagas claim, however, that the Sadar Hills area is part of their ancestral land. This issue has led to strikes and counter strikes, blockades and counter blockades on the national highways, in areas inhabited by both Kukis and Nagas. The SHDDC leaders claim that the Manipur government has failed to keep its promises. For example, the then chief minister Wahengbam Nipamacha Singh’s United Front government in 1997 had even announced the date for the Sadar Hills district inauguration. The plan was dropped because of alleged boundary problems (Telegraph, 28 September 2007). However, Nipamacha Singh clarified that the plan was dropped because of differences over the location of the district headquarters. The former chief minister stated that even invitation cards had been printed for the inaugural function.

Giving administrative convenience as the reason, the state government claims that it was prepared to inaugurate the district despite ‘strong objections’ from the Nagas. While the government chose Kangpokpi as the district headquarters because of its adequate infrastructures, tribal development minister Ngamthang Haokip insisted that Gamnom-Sapermaina be made the headquarters. On the other hand, Thangminlen Kipgen, an elected state legislative member from Kangpokpi constituency, was intent on making Kangpokpi its headquarters. Because of sharp differences between these two elected representatives, the state government aborted the inauguration plan (Sangai Express, 2011c). Ngamthang Haokip, however, rejected the notion of differences over the location of district headquarters and stated that the Indian Election Commission had turned down the state government’s request, submitted on 10 January 2000, because the election code of conduct had come into effect (Sangai Express, 2011b).

Similar assurance for upgrading Sadar Hills into a full-fledged revenue district was made by the then Chief Minister Rishang Keishing, who is a Naga himself, already in 1997 when the Imphal district was bifurcated into Imphal East and Imphal West. However, the plan was abandoned again, this time because of strong opposition from Naga bodies that resorted to bandhs and economic blockades on the national highways. The Nagas protested against the ‘Keishing government’s decision to fulfill the Kukis’ demand’ (Telegraph, 2 December 2002).

The latest written assurance to upgrade Sadar Hills into a full-fledged revenue district was given when representatives of Manipur government and SHDDC leaders signed a memorandum of understanding on the night of 31 October 2011 (Times of India, 1 November 2011). In opposition to this, the Naga bodies—UNC and ANSAM—vowed to intensify their campaign against the written assurance of inaugurating Sadar Hills district (Magnier, 2011).

While the question of the Sadar Hills status remains a critical problem between Kukis and Nagas, another major issue in the protraction of this conflict is the government’s indifference. In an open letter to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram on 5 May 2010, the KIM alleged that the Indian government has not been sincere in resolving the Kuki–Naga problem amicably. The Kuki body accused the Indian government of favoring the Nagas, while ignoring the pleas of the Kuki people. To better understand the historical background of the issue, part of the letter is reproduced here from a leading English newspaper (Hueiyen Lanpao, 5 May 2010):

Kuki Inpi initiated for settlement, asked the advice of Mr. Rishang Keishing who directed the Kuki Inpi leaders to talk with the United Naga Council of Manipur. There were two meetings, one on March 29, 1994 and the other on April 4, 1994. In the last meeting the Kuki Inpi placed five points for amicable settlement for restoration of peace and normalcy. But the UNC Manipur leader’s spokesman and its Secretary Mr. K. Prongo declared that NSCN (I-M) leadership strongly warned the UNC (M) not to make any settlement at all with the Kukis. Then the Kuki Inpi approached the Government of India to make amicable settlement of the destructions, violations done to the Kukis by NSCN (I-M) for their fight against India which killed over 961 Kukis, uprooted 360 villages, and rendering 100,000 Kukis homeless.

In another memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 15 January 2011, the Kuki Inpi and the Kuki Movement for Human Rights (KMHR) reiterated the claim that the Indian government has not responded to the different memoranda submitted to successive prime ministers from PV Narasimha Rao to Manmohan Singh. The memo accused the Indian government of holding high-level talks with NSCN-IM, which the Indian government once labeled as a ‘terrorist organization’, while ignoring the KIM leaders’ repeated requests for personal interviews with successive Indian prime ministers. The memo further stated that the government of India had not done enough ‘to stop the massacre which started soon after the United Naga Council of Manipur, the alleged civil wing of NSCN-IM, served quit notice on October 22, 1992’ (Sangai Express, 2011a).

Peace Endeavors or Aggravation of Conflict?

To restore peace and normalcy, the Kuki groups put forward two important demands to the Nagas and the Indian government. First, the Kuki leaders, particularly KIM, want the Nagas, especially the NSCN-IM, to formally apologize for their heinous crimes of the 1990s and perform Kuki customary rites such as paying Luongman (corpse price) and doing Tol-theh (cleaning the house for shedding human blood).17 Second, Kuki leaders demand that the Indian government should rehabilitate the loss of lives and properties and provide adequate compensation to thousands of displaced victims. The KMHR denies the existence of ethnic conflict between Kukis and Nagas and calls the violence from 1992–97 ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the part of the NSCN-IM and its supporters.18

Naga leaders, particularly the NSCN-IM, have simply not responded to the proposals from Kuki leaders. It is unclear if the Naga leaders, particularly the UNC and NSCN-IM, have the intention to make similar demands from the Kukis to perform Naga customary rites for their own deaths. If such tit-for-tat scenario arises, how the Kukis would respond would become another question to ponder.

An important issue of grievance remains that the Kuki leaders reject the notion that the old Kuki tribes that have been assimilated into the Naga fold are genuine Nagas. Apparently, Naga leaders do not want to accept that these assimilated tribes belong(ed) to the Kuki group. In the absence of any agreement or compromise on the issue of continued land dispute, particularly over the Sadar Hills issue, the Nagas’ unwillingness to perform Kuki customary rites for the Kukis killed during the violent conflict and the indifference of the government on the issues that have arisen, the two groups are prevented from reaching a permanent solution to the decades-old conflict.


This article examined mainly three issues, identity formation, land disputes and responses of the state, to determine the causes of ethnic conflict between Kukis and Nagas in Manipur. Empirical evidence suggests that these issues play varying key roles in the conflict over time. Given the similar ethnic composition of the rival groups, constructivist approaches of identity formation can explain the pattern of conflict only to some extent. Identity has been constructed and reconstructed over the years within and between these two ethnic groups. First, ethnic groupings and regroupings led to internal divisions within the Kuki tribes. Either by coercion or by other means of persuasion, the NSCN-IM then assimilated some of the old Kuki tribes into the Naga fold. This ethnic conversion eventually culminated in a violent conflict between the Maring and the Thadou, whom earlier British ethnographers had identified as belonging to the same ethnic group of Kuki.

Second, in the struggle for a Kuki homeland and greater Nagaland, Kukis and Nagas now claim the same geographical areas in four hill districts of Manipur—Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul—as their own territories. These competing demands for land have led to severe insurgency problems in the hill areas. When armed groups began to collect tax from the respective other tribe, this resulted in violent conflict between the two ethnic groups. The competition to control Moreh and National Highway 39 leading to the town was also one important reason for the flaring up of the violent 1992 conflict.

Third, the unequal treatment toward the Kukis by the government is another contributing factor to the ethnic conflict. Since the early 1970s SHDDC leaders, predominantly from the Kuki tribes, have demanded the inauguration of Sadar Hills as a full-fledged revenue district. However, the Manipur state government, dominated by Meiteis, has been reluctant to grant full district status despite several promises. The Indian parliament passed the Manipur Hill Areas District Council Act, 1971 for the creation of the district. Since Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council comes under Senapati district, the headquarters dominated by the Naga tribes, the Manipur state government politicizes the question of an irresolvable boundary dispute between Kukis and Nagas.

While the Meiteis oppose the creation of either a Kuki homeland or Greater Nagaland, the Kukis and Nagas are evidently unable to establish any kind of coordination or cooperation. This is partly due to the simmering tensions remaining in the aftermath of the 1992–97 clashes. Although the physical violence has ceased, the wounds of past miseries are apparently yet to be healed (Unnithan and Deka, 2012).

Given these major unresolved issues, tensions between the two ethnic groups continue. Even if they settle the simmering land dispute and reconcile over other differences among themselves, the Meiteis are likely to oppose any attempt to break up Manipur. The ongoing ethnic tensions between Kukis and Nagas present a historically rooted problem that needs participation from both these ethnic groups and all other concerned parties in a forward looking search for viable solutions. The tension has become deeply communal now and has reached a point of mutual distrust, which makes it difficult for civil society organizations to initiate any congenial dialogue between the two groups. Empirical evidence suggests that neither the state nor the central government has taken concrete steps or made any commitment for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Future research should examine in more depth the policies of both the Manipur state and the Indian central government. It is pertinent to ask whether the government sees the conflict as an internal matter for the concerned ethnic groups to resolve among themselves or considers this as too insignificant an issue to intervene. While the tension lingers, the Indian government engages in a political dialogue with the NSCN-IM, while ignoring calls by the Kuki armed groups for political dialogue despite maintaining Suspension of Operation since 2005. It remains unclear whether this is an institutional problem on the part of the Kuki armed organizations, or another manifestation of one-sided treatment towards the NSCN-IM. The operation of ‘designated camps’ in Manipur and neighboring Nagaland state following ceasefire agreements yields now evidence of continuing dissatisfaction among frustrated insurgents (Unnithan and Deka, 2012: 22), while their leaders appear to have learnt to benefit from the system in an emerging criminal economy. Fresh demands for talks are reported, but the scenario appears as ‘a classic case of the search for an elusive solution that will only lead to more problems’, as Unnithan and Deka (2012: 25) worryingly conclude. Unfortunately, the present article comes up with similar findings.


I am grateful to Danny Unger and Hoineilhing Sitlhou for their comments on the initial version of this article. I am also thankful to the anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions.


*The paper is written by Nehginpao Kipgen.

*The writer is a political scientist and General Secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research interests include political transition, democratization, human rights, ethnic conflict and identity politics. His academic research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia and he has published a number of peer-reviewed articles.

*He can be reached at nehginpao@gmail.com

(Courtesy:  South Asian Research/Sage Journals)

*You can visit the original site here for further readings.



1. For details see Deka and Jolly (2012) on Assam and Mahanta (2012) on Bodoland. See also the article by Haokip (2013) in this same issue of South Asia Research.

2. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) is led by its chairman Isak Chisi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah. The organization primarily consists of members from the Tangkhul tribe.

3. The official 2011 census report for Manipur is still under revision at the time of writing this article. Provisional data are available in the Indian census website at http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2/data_files/manipur/Manipur_Paper_2_Vol_12.pdf (Accessed 19 October 2012).

4. As note 3 above, see Provisional Population Totals of 2011: Manipur.

5. Article 366(25) of the Indian Constitution provides that ‘“Scheduled Tribes” means such tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution’.

6. This Map is taken from the Manipur Government’s website at http://www.manipur.gov.in/census_map_man.htm (Accessed 19 March 2011). The unlabeled small area on the left margin is an extension of Imphal East district. The Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur and Thoubal are valley districts predominantly inhabited by ethnic Meiteis. The Census Map of Manipur (as labeled by the government) shows the administrative boundaries.

7. Shaw’s ‘Notes on the Thadou Kukis’ were first published by the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1929. I am quoting from the reprinted book in Shaw (1997).

8. For details see GlobalSecurity.org (2000).

9. See Kuki National Front (2012).

10. See South Asia Terrorism Portal (2001) website link at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/nagaland/terrorist_outfits/NSCN_IM_tl.htm (Accessed 25 November 2012).

11. This was reported in one of the leading English language newspapers, Hueiyen Lanpao, 5 May 2010. The full quote is given further below.

12. I discussed this with S.R. Tohring, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Tohring, a Naga from Manipur, conducted field research on the Kuki–Naga conflict and published a book (Tohring, 2010). I also spoke with Hoineilhing Sitlhou, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad, a Kuki from Manipur who has done field research on the Kuki society in Manipur.

13. For details, see Gangte (2007) and Singh (2004).

14. An autonomous district council is a sub-administrative unit of a full-fledged revenue district that has to seek the approval of the district administration on all matters concerning executive, legislative, judicial and financial matters.

15. A full-fledged revenue district is an administrative unit headed by a deputy commissioner, a district magistrate and a superintendent of police. With full-fledged district status, the Sadar Hills district headquarters will come under the Kuki-dominated area in Kangpokpi urban town. In addition, Sadar Hills will enjoy all the benefits and privileges of a full-fledged revenue district.

16. The Kangpokpi subdivision will be bifurcated into Champhai and T. Vaichong, the Saikul subdivision will be bifurcated as Saikul and Island and the Saitu-Gamphajol subdivision will be bifurcated as Saitu Gamphazol and Kangchup Geljang.

17. See Shaw (1997: 56–66). The term used here is in Thadou (also spelled as Thado) dialect.

18. E-mail correspondence from TongkhoJang Lunkim on 12 February 2012. Tongkhojang (also known as T. Lunkim), chairman of KMHR, said the NSCN-IM and its supporters launched an ethnic cleansing campaign and the Kukis simply had to defend themselves.



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