‘We are defending ourselves’: Meitei leader Kh. Athouba

The COCOMI spokesperson says that the NRC exercise should be conducted in Manipur with 1961 as the base year at the earliest.

Published : Jun 27, 2023 17:42 IST - 9 MINS READ

Kh. Athouba

Kh. Athouba | Photo Credit: SUSHANTA TALUKDAR

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a conglomerate of five major civil society organisations largely representing the Meiteis, alleges that the unabated influx of armed groups and undocumented Kuki-Chin people into Manipur from Myanmar at the behest of narcoterrorists is the root cause of the current conflict. In an interview with Frontline, COCOMI spokesperson Kh. Athouba demands that the National Register of Citizens exercise should be conducted in Manipur with 1961 as the base year at the earliest to identify new Kuki settlers. Excerpts. 

Why is the COCOMI demanding compilation of the NRC?

To distinguish between old Kukis and new Kukis. There are Kuki inhabitants in Manipur who have been living here for ages. The term Kuki is very recent. It evolved during the colonial period. There were Kukis brought in by the British. They have been voluntarily coming into the region and given settlement from time to time. In 1968 and 1984 many of them were granted refugee status. They are all assimilated with local Kukis. Even the very recent Chin-Kuki immigrants who fled Myanmar’s Chin State are becoming part of this Kuki nomenclature.

This has led to serious questions about the Kuki population. In order to sort out the confusion, the COCOMI and the United Naga Council have urged the government to conduct the NRC exercise. The State has fixed the cut-off year as 1961. Accordingly, if we register the citizens, then it will be helpful to identify old Kukis and new Kukis.

So, anyone who came before 1961 will be treated as indigenous after the NRC is compiled?

It is not about being indigenous. It is a question of old Kukis and new Kukis. The definition of indigenous is a different aspect. Conventionally, indigenous means that a community is living in a place from time immemorial and it should not have another second home anywhere in the world. Its roots should be deeply connected and belong to the place where it has settled. So, which community qualifies for that definition is yet to be officially decided. It has to be decided according to the law of the land. It will come later on. It does not make any sense now to try to determine who is indigenous or not. What is required now is that as per the 1961 cut-off year, we can at least identify natives or the original or the permanent settlers and the new settlers.

Also Read | Mayhem in Manipur: The State burns while the Centre looks away

Why is 1961 taken as the cut-off year?

It is supposed to be 1951. In 2015, the State Assembly passed the Manipur People’s Bill proposing 1951 as the cut-off year, and it was accepted by all in the Assembly. Manipur became part of India in 1949. In 1950 the new government abolished the foreigner entry pass system. And then began an uncontrolled influx of people into Manipur. But it seems like the government does not have enough documentation for 1951 to be taken as the cut-off year. In Assam, for instance, 1971 is taken as the base year. The Bill passed by the Assembly has been kept in abeyance by President.

What, according to the COCOMI, is the genesis of the current conflict?

The State government has already begun the exercise of taking biometric and other identification in certain villages. In the first general identification which began this year, a brief identification without checking documents, without verification, and just asking for proof of documents for one’s identity, around 2,107 persons have been identified as illegal immigrants. Several new villages with only illegal immigrants have been set up in Tengnoupal, Chandel and Kangpokpi. In Churanchandpur, this exercise is yet to begin.

So, in this basic exercise itself some 2,000 people have been identified as illegal immigrants. Some people have forged documents, such as Aadhaar cards, and some have even enrolled themselves in electoral lists. The State has identified over 1.2 lakh voters with forged documents. So there is concern that there are people who want to harbour immigrants from across the border. That is how the situation developed.

But is this not primarily a conjecture based on initial screening?

When the NRC exercise is fully done, an overwhelming number of illegal immigrants will be found, we are confident. The State has already identified 996 new villages; out of these, 700 or 800 are Kuki villages that have come up over the last 10 years.

Also Read | ‘We must learn to live peacefully’: Kuki leader Ch. Ajang Khongsai

How did the villages escape detection when they were coming up? And how is it that now suddenly a specific number of new villages is available?

The administration in these hill areas is controlled by armed Kuki militants. The Manipur government has its officials and staff, but who will dare to act against the language of guns?

  • Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI) leader Kh. Athouba says that influx of large numbers of Kuki people from Myanmar and Bangladesh has led to a swelling to the Kuki population of Manipur and the establishment of 700 to 800 villagers inhabited by illegal immigants over the last 10 years.
  • The COCOMI wants compilation of the NRC at the earliest so that old Kukis and new Kukis can be identified.
  • The COCOMI leader says Meiteis are only defending themselves against Kuki attacks and for this reason, are reluctant to give up arms. He insists that the territorial integrity of Manipur should be protected.

But the government signed the Suspension of Operation with Kuki rebel groups.

That was only in 2008..., it started happening much earlier... They don’t have anything to hide from the security forces. They started interfering in civil administration and political affairs. Election in hill areas is a joke because people are not at liberty to choose their representatives, they are influenced one way or the other…. The wife of the chairman of one group covered under the SoO contested and also became an MLA.

Groups under SoO are in ceasefire, the Constitution allows their members to contest.

No problem with their contesting, but the Constitution is not protecting the voters in exercising franchise freely.

Also Read | Targeting of Kukis the main reason behind Manipur violence

What according to you led to the current situation?

According to the wishes of the indigenous people of Manipur, the Nagas and the Meiteis, the government undertook a war on drug menace, and to protect reserved forests, wetlands and wildlife sanctuaries, and detect and identify illegal immigrants from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. This hurt the political aspirations of secessionist Kuki militants and narcoterrorist groups who plan to establish a Kuki-dominated area where they can expand poppy cultivation to produce opium. They want to bring in more Myanmar immigrants who are skilled poppy cultivators. This is why they need a separate administration for Kukis.

In 2008 they signed the Suspension of Operation agreement but an interlocutor was appointed only in 2017-18. This was deliberately done by the Home Ministry in order to appease Kuki militants and use them against insurgent groups.

So the Government of India is to be blamed for the current problem?

These are all products of wrong decision and execution of Home Ministry. I have told this to the Eastern command of the Indian Army, to BJP leaders, to the Chief Minister, to the [National] Security Adviser. The Government of India should be sincere; they should not indulge in a proxy war, using one group against another group. There have been have violations of the SoO agreement; in the agreement it is written that the other party will immediately withdraw if there is any violation.

“We said narcoterrorist groups are initiating attacks and Meitei villages are only defending themselves. So, when the government notified that all arms will be recovered, people said that arms should be first recovered from the aggressors.”Kh. AthoubaSpokesperson, Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity

Why is the COCOMI saying that Meitei volunteers who snatched arms will not return the weapons?

We did not say we will not return the arms. We said narcoterrorist groups are initiating attacks and Meitei villages are only defending themselves. So, when the government notified that all arms will be recovered, people participating in the COCOMI convention said that arms should be first recovered from the aggressors. If you are letting the aggressors run free and collecting arms from defenders, that is not reasonable. The Meitei groups have not taken any offensive action. But the Meitei population is bigger. They number only 4.5 lakh, we are 15 lakh. When we retaliate, the impact is stronger and the casualties are higher on their side.

Initially, surrender of arms was going on. Once the shooting by narcoterrorists from the hillside is stopped, if the Government of India and the Indian Army can keep the situation under control, we can guarantee that no incident will happen in the valley. When Home Minister Amit Shah was here, they intensified the attacks, coordinating the attacks in all direction. There were reports of several incidents of shooting, burning of houses by Kuki militants. There were major encounters between villages. The Home Minister appealed for the surrender of arms that had been snatched by local civilian volunteers. So far at least 1,000 weapons that had been snatched by local volunteers have been returned.

But there was no restraint from the other side. The State government has given an order to the State forces to use force at will to restrain the attacking Kuki militants, and that is how the course of violence again changed. By that time, we wrote to the Union Home Minister saying that the valley people had started complying with his appeal for surrender of arms but there was no restraint on the other side. We gave data of incidents.

After this, we held a public convention on June 7. People who came up on stage and shared opinions demanded that a resolution be passed not to surrender arms.We had to comply with the people’s wish. It’s not that we are part of arms-looting and shooting activities. We never took part in any violence. I have never been to any sensitive zones. We have our local people who have been giving us inputs. We are not part of extremist activities. It is natural that people defend themselves, it’s survival instinct. They [Kuki militants] were using sophisticated weapons.

Also Read | What is really behind the violence in Manipur?

What are the primary threats, according to the COCOMI, to the territorial integrity of Manipur?

Naga militants participating in peace talks are demanding a sovereign Nagaland including certain parts of Manipur. Recently Kuki organisations demanded a separate administration, a separate Kuki land. Manipur has a civilisation of several thousand years and the legacy was continued and defended by Meitei rulers. No doubt, in the making of the civilisation, several communities from the hills also contributed from time to time. When Manipur merged with India as one political entity, Government of India accepted the decree of the last king of Manipur, Maharaj Buddhchandra. Today Naga groups and Kuki groups are demanding a separate State. The territorial integrity of Manipur has to be defended.

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