COFPAI: THE PATHFINDER

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By Aheibam Koireng Singh

I

The North-Eastern Region of India has been engulfed with a myriad of problems both in terms of variety and volume, which needs serious attentions from the researchers, policy makers and planners. One problem which has been in prominence in most of the states in the region, is the rise of sectarianism and the growth of micro-nationalism characterized by the agenda of exclusivist identities. Such negative ethnic assertion considerably affects inter-group as well as intra-group relations at both the Inter-state and intra state level among its various ethnos. Manipur also is no exception to it. The tribal population in Manipur comprises thirty-three tribes in the Scheduled list and many other smaller sub-tribes who are Included in the category of unspecified tribes in the list. Nine-tenth of the states’ area has more or less been an exclusive domain of the tribes as the existing land laws curb the non tribes from settling there. An overwhelming majority of the tribal population in Manipur are Christians with some traces of Purum, Rongmei and few other tribes practicing their traditional religions.

The last decade of the passing twentieth century is best remembered in Manipur for the violent ethnic clashes w hick occurred in its soil. At seeing such never- ending ethnic clashes, a watchful commentator once described Manipur as ‘India’s Bosnia’. The first in the fray was the Kuki-Naga clashes which started in 1992 and continued unabated till the year end of 1998. It was followed by the clashes between the Meiteis and the Muslims in May 1993. In June 1995, there was a sudden eruption of Kuki-Tamil clashes in Moreh . The latest in the chain of events was the Kuki-Paite clashes in 1997-1998. In Assam also, the Kuki-Karbi clashes and the Hmar-Dimasa clashes occurred in the year 2003. These two clashes have generated great anxiety and concern in Manipur and many of the Kukis and the Hmars got displaced by it from their habitual residence (in Assam) and came to seek refuge in Manipur. In Nagaland also, during 1995-96 the Chakhesangs were in collision course with the Tangkhuls in Phek district over the alleged elimination of other prominent non Tangkhul Nagas to establish the hegemony of the later. The Meitei-Muslim riot was contained within a week, as it was not a communal clash. The Kuki-Tamil clashes, which occurred in Moreh at the early part of June 1995, also got subsided within no time. The Kuki- Paite clashes also got resolved in a year’s time because of the strong political will and pro-active role shown by the Nipamacha headed coalition Ministry in 1998. In this case, at least a surface calm has been won with the signing of a peace accord between the apex bodies of the tribes involved who were given authorization by the respective armed groups and organizations. Even though, it still cannot be said that their rivalry has become a thing of the past.

In 1996 and 1997, at two separate instances, the Nagas bought peace with the Non-Thadou Kukis, viz . Hmar, Paite, Vaiphei, Simte and Tedim Chin when civilians belonging to these communities fell prey to the bullets of the Naga ethnic armies. In both the cases the Nagas represented by United Naga Council (UNC), Manipur successfully arrived at an amicable solution with the respective apex organizations of the ethnic groups to which the victims belonged, by paying adequate compensation to the victims’ family. Whereas, in the case of their conflict with the Thadou Kukis , the Nagas represented by UNC or otherwise show no such urgency of sorting out their conflict with the Thadou Kukis. The vulnerability of resurfacing the Kuki-Naga clashes continues to stay alive though the casualties of the clashes show a major decline since 1997, and, is no longer heard afterwards by the end of 1998. Despite the speculations that the Nagas and the Kuki outfits involved in the clashes agreed to have a ceasefire in 2000, peace agreement, i.e. formal understanding which is an inevitable necessity in any of the peace process is still eluding them. The potential spark, which invites the revisiting of the clashes, continues to occur at frequent intervals in the recent years.

II

All the peace initiatives and concerted efforts towards the reconciliation of the clashes have proved to be failed missions. The initiatives and efforts by the church leadership to sort out the differences started as early as 1992. But it all proved futile and ineffective having no significance as tribal loyalty has a stronger hold than Christian fraternity amongst both the waning groups. In fact, the collateral damage during the clashes includes a significant number of churches (in the villages), which were burned down by the protagonist of both the involved parties despite their flaunting allegiance to Christianity. The Kukis even found their antagonism with the Naga reason enough for not taking part in the William Pettigrew or Christian Centenary celebration in Manipur. Initiatives for restoring peace and normalcy by the government and the politicians also could not make much headway and bring no tangible change towards harmonizing inter-ethnic relations of the warring groups. The ethnic armies of both the groups involved also do suggest the prospective solution of the clashes. But each point of such suggestions appears more like a clause contained in the agreement of capitulation than in the peace agreement and hence unacceptable to each other. They also discourage the village chief and members of their ethnic groups concerned from participating in any of the meetings and organizations aimed at restoring peace. The violation of it invites punishment even to the extent of death. Committee for Restoration of Normalcy (CRN), which is formed by coming together of the apex bodies of both the Nagas and Kukis, never had a smooth sailing since its inception. In fact it came to an abrupt end as Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) withdrew unilaterally from the CRN following the passing of resolution by the UNC for demanding inclusion of Manipur in the Indo-Naga Cease-Fire in the later part of 1997. This demand of the UNC was termed by the KIM as the second Quit Notice for the disintegration of Manipur territory. It also speculated that civil war will be inevitable consequences if the Government of India’s Naga appeasement policy affects the whole of North eastern region.[ The Freedom, Popular English Daily, 3 September 1997.]

Civil societies also have found their wings clipped in dealing with the clashes engineered by the ethnic armies. The ethnic armies, though they are micro-level actors, have shown their capacity to influence macro level phenomena as their actions continue to determine certain collective praxis. Ethnic based civil organizations more or less echo the same voice of their ethnic armies. The process of militarizing civil society by the ethnic army is still an ongoing phenomenon. Even the human rights groups active in the hills took wings on ethnic lines.
A feature commonly shared in all the peace initiatives and efforts (mentioned above) is that the potential peacemakers are never in peace with one another. Among the initiatives taken up by the valley- based organizations of Manipur towards reconciling the Kuki-Naga clashes, mention may be made of Committee for Peace and Integrity (COFPAI). Despite its brief spell, the movement launched by COFPAI is a significant endeavor towards the right direction of pacifying the conflict. This essay attempts to explore the initiatives taken up by COFPAI to harmonize inter-ethnic relations in Manipur during the Kuki-Naga clashes.

III

COFPAI was formed at Manipur University Campus by coming together 48 voluntary organizations of Manipur including UNC and KIM under the initiative of National Research Centre (NRC), Canchipur . Other prominent organizations include All Manipur Ethnical Social and Cultural Organization (AMESCO), All Manipur United Clubs’ Organization (AMUCO), All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU), All Manipur Women Voluntary Association (AMAWOVA ), Fraternal Green Cross (FGC), Friends in Need Society (FINS), People’s Democratic Movement ( PDM ), and Chanura Lamjinglen KangleiPak (CLK), etc . It is to the credit of NRC that they were able to convince the apex bodies of both the Kukis and the Nagas to jointly share a common platform as member organizations of COFPAI, even if it was for a brief stint. This is indeed a significant achievement as it took place amidst the speculation that the ethnic armies of both the groups involved warned their fellow tribes to abstain from participating in any of the meetings organised by the government or any organisation aimed at restoring normalcy and peace.[Earlier, there were reports that the Kukis as well as the Nagas were warned by their respective Ethnic armies belonging to their group for not participating in any of the peace meeting for restoring peace and normally. See, The Freedom, Popular English Daily, Imphal, 3June 1995; also see KIM Souvenir, 2001. 3. AMUCO, Souvenir Seventh Manipur Integrity Day, 2004, Imphal, P. l.]

COFPAI successfully executed its operational objectives of exploring the ways and means of restoring normalcy by interacting with political leaders, apex body organisations and other leaders of the groups involved. The inevitability of interacting with people of different shades and backgrounds necessitated COFPAI to maintain confidentiality. COFPAI itself christened this policy of maintaining confidentiality as “Preventive Diplomacy”. COFPAI started its movement with the motto of Peace, Integrity and Development of Manipur. During the peak of the Kuki-Naga clashes, there was a famine like situation in the hills as all the able-bodied men remained in the barrack for protecting their villages.

The perpetual fear of coming under attack at any point of time prevented them
from working for their source of livelihood. They were afraid even to gather and collect vegetables grown in their own yards. At such juncture AMUCO , a constituent organisation of COFPAI organise and open relief camps and rendered assistance by providing rice, food grains, pulses, clothing materials etc to the affected people in the hills. It is also noteworthy to mention that volunteers of AMUCO carried out cultivation works in many acres of agricultural land at Ichum Kom village of Bishnupur District in Southern Manipur. The rice reaped from it was distributed to the tribal villages of the area.[AMUCO, Souvenir Seventh Manipur Integrity Day, 2004, Imphal, P. 1.]

For the successful reconciliation of conflict, it is necessary to have as its stepping stone, concepts and tools for the analysis of conflict, and also to identify the contentious issue of the conflicting parties. For four months, with stationing of the deputed members of its member organisations representing various brethren communities, at Heijigang Keithel. COFPAI surveyed all the hill areas and other places of Manipur to understand people’s aspirations. In this survey, COFPAI volunteers visited 1500 villages and 915 camera meetings were held at different places during that period emphasising communal harmony and fraternal ties of brotherhood.[Ibid.]  The movement launched by COFPAI caught the imagination of both the younger and older generations of Manipur . COFPAI, in its endeavor to achieve their declared objective, was able to receive the goodwill and generous support of the prominent personalities of Manipur, like, M.K . Priyobrata (the first CM of Manipur ), Prof. Gangmumei Kamei (Eminent Historian), Pu Gangte (Eminent educationist and social worker), Holkhomang Haokip ( Kuki leader), and Md. Islaudin (social worker), etc . They readily lend their services and expertise to the COFPAI.[ The Freedom, 31 May 1996.] Throughout the process, COFPAI reiterated the optimism that the different aspirations of the various communities in the hills and valley of Manipur would be reconciled. Some of the slogans of COFPAI are – the people of Manipur are descendants of the same ancestor; let there be no difference on ethnic lines; let us safeguard our identity by ourselves; let us not harbour any partisan feeling: let us live together as one; and unity is strength.[ COFPAI Pamphlet, Date not cited) 7. COFPAI office file, Unpublished]  In addition to it, COFPAI also reiterated that they would fight against the various divisive forces operative in Manipur with the moral support of all communities in Manipur . COFPAI, after concluding their campaign came out with a set of observations on 3 May 1996.’ In its survey report, COFPAI highlighted their findings of the different aspirations of the people inhabiting in Manipur namely, the Meities , the Kagas , the Kukis and the other intermediary tribes. The aspirations of the Meiteis highlighted in the survey report of the COFPAI are as follows:

  1. The Meiteis have no objection to any of the demands raised by their fellow tribal brethren, but they could never agree with the demand which threatened to dismember Manipur’s territory.
  2. Whether Naga or Kuki, a large-scale confrontation is necessary to draw a borderline of their limits once and for all.
  3. All the hilly areas, where there is uneven level of development shall be made developed.
  4. Meitei government service employees posted at hills areas, viz . doctors, teachers, officer, etc but received their salaries by remaining at homes also create distrust and ill will among the hill brethrens.
  5. As practiced by the valley outfits, the situation will improve if the hill based outfits also treated all the co-existing ethnic groups and communities in Manipur in a cordial manner and did not play ethnic cards and engage in a fratricidal war.
  6. Demand for the extension of sixth schedule (of the Indian constitution) can be granted. But the apprehension shall first be cleared by declaring the so-called sixteen point agreement of 1960 as null and void.
  7. Demand for Sadar-Hills and Sixth Schedule is not desirable; as in other states, it is not granted to major share of state’s territory. If it has to be granted, it shall be granted only to extremely backward areas like Tamenglong and Chandel .
  8. Meiteis have no objection in the upgradation of Sadar Hills as a full-fledged revenue district. But it shall be on the condition that, a considerable portion of land from the existing district of Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur be included in it. Jiribam also can be created as a full-fledged revenue district by including some portions of land from Churachandpur .
  9. Meiteis should accept that they have neglected their fellow brethrens of the hill for quite a long time.
  10. The Government of India has a deliberate ploy to make a rift between the hills and the plain.
  11. The state government and the Union government can permanently end the conflict, if they so desire. But they want the clashes to continue.
  12. It will be better if we identify ourselves as Manipuri.
  13. There exist a hidden agenda of implanting outsider’s populations in the state by facilitating mass immigration and infiltration after the indigenous population is marginalized by driving a wedge of ethnic hatred and antagonistic feeling between different groups through underhand and non principle tactics.
  14. It will be better if all the communities living in Manipur identify themselves as Manipuri first and their ethnic identity later.
  15. No community shall demand “Homeland” which will threaten the territorial integrity of the state.
  16. Manipuri Muslims shall use their Manipuri surname as done in earlier times.

The perception of the Nagas vis-a-vis the other co existing communities of Manipur and their concerns and aspirations are also highlighted in the report. It includes:

  1. The Meiteis segregated them as impure.
  2. The Meiteis never came and enquired about their wellbeing.
  3. Meiteis shall act as the mediator and the arbitrator in situations of ethnic conflict.
  4. The Nagas have the apprehension that they may not be able to continue their hold over political power because of the rapid increase of Kuki population.
  5. The Nagas will not be able to compete with general candidates if the protective discrimination enjoyed by them in the form of quota or reservation for scheduled Tribes are discontinued.
  6. The Meiteis did nothing to check the exploding increase of Kuki population due to large- scale immigration.
  7. There exist a wide gap in the allocation of seats for assembly constituency between the hills and the plains.
  8. Meiteis and the Kukis have a greater number of government employees.
  9. Most of the Meiteis in their concerns for future did not want to talk with the Nagas , instead, they are not happy with the Nagas as the former had pre-conceived notions and prejudices about the later.
  10. None can claim their rights over the land of the Nagas . The Nagas have the right to self- determination.
  11. The Meiteis are requested to act as a mouthpiece for realising the demand for sixth- schedule.
  12. The Nagas never dream for south Nagaland
  13. Kuki always challenged and stood in the way of the nagas ‘ political aspiration.
  14. They have no objection and they will allow the Kuki to live if they requested so by recognizing that the ownership of the land lies with the Nagas .
  15. If, either thousands Tangkhkul or Kabuis were killed, there will surely be a vacuum, whereas, for the Kukis , it can be filled in by facilitating large scale immigration of Kukis from across the state border.
  16. The Kukis will surely outnumber the Nagas after some decades.

Likewise, COFPAI in its findings has established that the Kukis had their own aspirations and stances. It is given as follows:

  1. The Kukis wanted to live peacefully without engaging in any sort of conflict.
  2. Their Homeland has been granted twice, first in 1852 and another in 1919, but it is still not realized.
  3. The Kukis are not foreigners. Old Kukis are living in Manipur as early as Chothe Thawainu Pakhangba of 200 B.C and New Kukis were as old as Taothinmang of 1562 A.D.
  4. If they are foreigners, they argued, why they were not deported in 1949.
  5. . All the communities in Manipur can peacefully co exist in harmony. But if Meities aspire for Kangleipak (Meitei land), Nagas for Nagaland , then, why shall not the Kukis aspire for their own Homeland.
  6. Meitei shall be the arbitrator since they are the sole owner of the land.

COFPAI also surveyed the aspirations of the smaller tribal groups like Kom , Chiru , Aimol, Kharam , and etcetera . And it was established that they were caught in the dilemma of big fish eating the small fish kind of situation since they receive casualties and atrocities from both the Kukis as wells as the Nagas.They wanted to be protected by the Meiteis . They did not want to be party to the conflict by affiliating or aligning with either the Kuki or the Nagas . COFPAI after concluding their campaign made a careful scrutiny of their findings to understand the problems and crisis towards the successful reconciliation of the clashes. It was found that, unlike their valley counterpart, participation of women in the social issues is very less in the hills. Moreover it also came to light that checking illegal immigration and infiltration is very important for containing ethic turmoil in the hills. In addition to it, COFPAI came out with a set of observations for the holistic improvement of inter-community relationship amongst the people of Manipur. It includes:

  1. Nurturing pluralistic identity by accepting mutually shared spaces;
  2. Shouldering collective responsibility for bringing peace;
  3. Prohibiting illegal immigration and implanting of foreigners for creating vote banks;
  4. To educate the people for cherishing common political aspiration and to undo political socialization which inculcated a denial of shared spaces;
  5. To bridge the information gap between the people of the hills and the valley;
  6. Rationalising even development;
  7. Concerted efforts be made by the hill leaders to end the clashes;
  8. Greater degree of women’s participation is necessary to diffuse ethnic clashes in the hills;
  9. Hill leaders shall do their duty for delivering the goods and for the welfare of the people; and
  10. Capacity building for economic sustainability in all the Hill areas.

IV

COFPAI’s path finding approach towards improving and understanding the friction and dynamics in inter-community relations in Manipur was noticed by organizations working for resolving socio-political conflicts in Manipur. In the workshop on networking and strategic co- operation planning for the reduction of the level of socio-political conflict in Manipur, the participants expressed their desire of having an advocacy reinforcing and issue-based relationship with COFPAI, considering its experience and expertise.[ Proceedings of the UNM Workshop on Networking and Strategic Planning, 15-18 March, 1996, Imphal, The member organisations include MBC, FGCNIVVD , NRC, IRCOD , RUSA, TVC, RDS ; Tanienglong, AMKDA, MPC, RDTAS , CASA, CSD , UNC/CRN etc.]  Another exploratory session on ‘ethnic violence in Manipur’ organised by FGC/ VVD at Imphal, attended by members of fifteen organizations resolved: “committee may form if and when necessary in order to endeavor continuity in peace initiatives. It further resolved that, COFFAI could spearhead the peace initiatives and also sought the confirmation of the COFPAI leadership about their decision in that regard.[Proceedings of the one-day exploratory session on ethnic violence in Manipur, Imphal 12 June 1996.] In the second CFC meeting of the UPC meeting held at Imphal also, the members unanimously expressed their desire of contacting COFPAI and AMUCO and seeking their experience and expertise for effective mobilization and greater participation in the peace process. It could afterwards be seen in the subsequent peace initiatives that many of it were trodden in the path charted out by COFPAI. Front runner organisations of COFPAI like AMUCO and AMESCO still continues to work for promoting communal amity and ethnic harmony. For instance, AMUCO and AMESCO have been jointly observing the traditional Ningol Chakouba (a one day Manipuri festival offering feast to female kins and siblings) by inviting female members from all the communities of Manipur.  It started off at the backdrop of the Kuki-Naga clashes in 1992 and completed its fourteenth years of observation in 2005. Other festivals of different ethnic communities were also observed by AMESCO. People to people exchanges across ethnic lines initiated by these organizations by hosting and by encouraging mutual participation in each other’s community festival are afterwards replicated by newly borne organisations working for inter- ethnic harmony. The contact hypothesis articulated by G. Alport holds that inter-group bias is largely a result of ignorance and misinformation.[ Magill, International Encyclopaedia of Sociology, eds ., London New York: F D Publishers, 1995, P. 1067.] The inter personal interactions and relations which takes place through the platform made available by these organizations has immense emancipative potential as it can facilitate in unwinding the stereo-type harboured by them about each other. So it is to the credit of COFPAI and its front runner organisations if there is a growing realization of the futility of the clashes among the masses.

The realization of even development and economic sustainability in all hill areas spelled out by COFPAI will help in solving the problem of displacement arising out of non-availability of livelihood options. This will to a large extent, solve the problems of encroachment by each other in their search for livelihood. Tribal wants and needs are no longer primitive. Evidences in the recent past shows that the fear of narrowing their chances for employment at the district level, in the case of recruitment of teachers for district council in Chandel, led to the full flowering of the Kuki-Naga clashes in 1992. The state in this era of post-modernity has become increasingly reluctant to take the responsibility for the welfare of the masses. Ensuring economic-sustainability and even-development cannot be relied solely to the government. It should involve the participation of all the inhabitants of the area. According to Amar Yumnam , the land property rights system in both the communities, the Kuki and the Nagas have a ‘tragedy of commons’ inherent in them.[ This phrase is used by Amar Yumnam to describe the existing land laws of the Tribals in Manipur . See Aggarwal , K.S . Dynamics of Identity and Inter-group Relations in North East India, eds ., Shimla: HAS, 1999.] Among the Nagas, the individuals do not have the incentive to invest in the land for the land belongs to the community. Among the Kukis too, the land suffers from the same fate because it ultimately belongs to the chief. This unfortunate feature is accentuated by the fact that the elites among the tribals do not have the willingness to invest in the hills as it serves their interest better if they invest their resources in the valley where a strong foundation of property rights system has been established. For attracting prime investment in the hills from among the tribal elites and for empowering farmers with land rights an ‘unwritten and non-specific property rights’ needs to be replaced by strong foundation of property rights system.

The legacy of COFPAI lives on as people of Manipur started retrospecting and introspecting their relationship with their co-existing communities for the better. Considering the potential and promise shown by COFPAI during its brief stint, this essay concludes with the suggestion that a movement like the one launched by COFPAI, which is spearheaded by the mass based organization needs to be resurrected. The state should think of encouraging such endeavor by an organization having mass appeal by giving institutional support to it, so that the movement for peace may become a people’s movement.

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