By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On July 22, 2019, the ‘public relations officer (PRO)’ of the Kuki National Front (KNF), Demkhohao Kipgen aka Haobem, was killed in Kangchup Chiru Village under the Moltam Block in Kangpokpi District. KNF blamed the Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) for the killing.
KRA and KNF are part of two separate conglomerations of Kuki militant groups, the Kuki National Organization (KNO), formed in 1988, and the United People’s Front (UPF), formed after Kuki-Paite clashes in 1997-98.
KNO accounts for 14 constituent groups: KRA; Kuki National Army (KNA), the armed wing of KNO; Kuki National Front – Military Council (KNF-MC); Kuki National Front – Zogam (KNF-Z); United Socialist Revolutionary Army (USRA); Hmar National Army (HNA); United Komrem Revolutionary Army (UKRA); United Minorities Liberation Front (UMLF); Zou Defence Volunteers (ZDV); Kuki Liberation Army (KLA); Pakan Reunification Army (PRA); United Old Kuki Liberation Army (UOKLA-Khoipu-Maring); United Tribal Liberation Army (UTLA); and Kuki National Front–Samuel (KNF-S).
Similarly, UPF comprises of eight groups: KNF; Zomi Revolutionary Organisation (ZRO)/Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA); Kuki Revolutionary Army–United (KRA-United); Zomi Defence Force (ZDF), United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), Kuki Revolutionary Front (KRF), Zomi Defence Volunteers (ZoDV); and Hmar People’s Convention-Democratic (HPC-D).
KNO denied its involvement in the July 22, 2019, attack.
On July 13, 2019, suspected KNA militants killed ‘2nd lieutenant’ John Gangte, the United Kuki Liberation Front’s (UKLF’s) ‘commander’ for Moreh [Tegnoupal District], at Ngamkhai Veng in Tegnoupal District. KNA is part of the KNO grouping, while UKLF is under UPF.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 48 militants have been killed in 25 incidents of internecine clashes between Kuki militant groups since August 22, 2008. These include two incidents and two fatalities in 2008, two incidents and two fatalities in 2009, two incidents and two fatalities in 2013, nine incidents and 14 fatalities in 2015, three incidents and four fatalities in 2017, two incidents and two fatalities in 2018 and two incidents and two fatalities in 2019.
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Significantly, on August 22, 2008, KNO and UPF signed a Suspension of Operations SoO agreement with the Union Government, and the Manipur State Government. The agreement included an understanding that all the parties involved would abide by the Constitution of India and commit themselves to the territorial integrity of Manipur.
Prior to the tripartite agreement, there used to be inter and intra group clashes in these two militant conglomerates, in continuous turf wars to establish factional supremacy. According to SATP, there were 23 such clashes, resulting in 64 fatalities, between January 1, 2005, and August 21, 2008.
Though these clashes have relatively declined after the 2008 SoO, intermittent killings persist.
Meanwhile, since the signing of the SoO Agreement on August 22, 2008, it has been periodically extended, most recently on August 17, 2018, with effect till August 31, 2019.
Five rounds of talks have taken place between the two rebel organisations and the Government. The fifth round of talks took place in New Delhi on June 25, 2019. When asked about what transpired during the talks, KNO ‘spokesperson’, Seilen Haokip, stated,
|To be precise we are doing a comparative study of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). Based on the BTC pattern, we are pushing with our demand for Territorial Council (TC) and trying to find a way to improve it (TC).|
Prior to the talks, P.S. Haokip, KNA ‘president’ and ‘commander-in-chief’, observed, on September 13, 2018,
|KNO is in a political dialogue with the central government where we have consistently been saying that Kukis will feel safe only when our right to govern ourselves in our land is given recognition. We cannot settle for any less. The KNO is ready to stand with Kuki people till this right of ours is respected, and no attempt to trample over our land and rights will be tolerated.|
Significantly, during the last (fourth) round of talks on January 10, 2018, UPF spokesperson, Aaron Kipgen, and KNO negotiator, Seilen Haokip, had signed and submitted a draft outline of the political demand for formation of a territorial council before the Government of India’s (GoI’s) interlocutor Avadhesh Behari Mathur, who replaced the previous interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma, on January 2, 2018. Their demands also included “constitutional” safeguards for Kukis in Manipur. The initial demand for a separate State has now been scaled down to that of a territorial council, due to the State Government’s reservations. Nothing much had been achieved during earlier rounds of talks.
Even though the Territorial Council has been discussed and mooted as a possible solution, issues related to implementation of the Bodo Accord have been raised within the Kuki groups. KNO ‘spokesperson’ Seilen Haokip noted, “On paper, the BTC [Bodo Territorial Council] is very good but the issue lies with the non-implementation, which we don’t want to happen. If so the talks will go nowhere.”
Conspicuously, the talks have dragged on without yielding any substantive results, and the groups involved – KNO and UPF – are showing signs of frustration. The latest round of internecine clashes between the Kuki groups may have resulted out of dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of talks, and may adversely impact on future talks.
Indeed, on May 1, 2019, GoI interlocutor A.B. Mathur had cautioned,
|There are three parts of any talks such as the atmosphere for holding the talks, the talks itself and aftermath of the talks and now we are in the first two phases so we need conducive atmosphere here for holding the talks further… Please make the atmosphere here positive and ensure all those participating in the talks are all together because their togetherness is very much important in the talks as even a minor deviation amongst them and creating problems among one another will badly affect the talks.|
Disturbingly, the criminal nexus of Kuki SoO groups came to light with the recovery of missing arms of the Manipuri State Security Forces from the residence of top UKLF and KRA leaders in 2018. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is investigating the arms case.
Given the relative peace that now prevails in Manipur, there is a need to conclude the several ongoing peace processes in a time bound manner. Pro-longed processes lead to mounting violations of the ground rules, and missteps are likely to flare up in violent conflagrations.
Research Associate; Institute for Conflict Management