New Delhi: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was set to finalise a peace accord with the Kuki insurgent groups on May 8, The Wire has learnt. The May 3 violence in the Torbung area of Churachandpur-Bishnupur border in Manipur broke out, just five days before it was due to be formalised, spiralling a cycle of violence which is yet to be controlled in the sensitive border state.
Sources in the MHA have told this correspondent that the leaders of the Suspension of Operations (SoO) groups of the Kuki community were to be invited to visit New Delhi to formalise the accord as an outcome of the peace talks being carried on with the Narendra Modi government through an interlocutor since 2016.
The Wire reached out to some groups that have been under SoO since 2008. A leader, on condition of anonymity, corroborated the information shared by the MHA sources. “Yes, we had almost reached an agreement; the modalities of that accord were to be on the lines of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution which has been our demand. We were given the impression that we will get an autonomous territorial council under the Sixth Schedule, like the Bodos of Assam have, which would have been a significant win for our political movement. With financial independence from the state government in Imphal, it would have been almost like having a separate state,” he told The Wire. The insurgent leader, however, added, “Post May 3 violence though, there is a strong public demand for a separate state, not territorial council, and, therefore, our stand is also changing.”
Biren Singh not in support?
The Union government led by the BJP was in favour of signing a peace treaty with the Kuki SoO groups on May 8, but the Manipur government led by chief minister N Biren Singh was not and he made that amply clear, it is learnt. He “had got a wind of it and was extremely unhappy; he was sending us feelers through various channels not to go ahead with it,” sources confirmed to The Wire.
Several Meitei civil society organisations (CSOs) have been opposed to bringing the Kuki-dominated areas under the Sixth Schedule and thereby granting them a “separate administration” under an autonomous territorial council. They feared that granting a separate financial channel to them directly with Delhi would amount to affecting the “territorial integrity” of the Manipur state.
In the event of the Union government being able to formalise this deal with the Kukis on May 8, it would have had every likelihood of creating widespread disappointment within the Meitei groups with the possibility of sparking protests. Sources say that Singh being on the chief minister’s chair and hailing from the Meitei community, feared being left vulnerable directly to backlash from his ‘own’ and the move directly affecting his political career. Singh has anyway been facing protracted rebellion from within his party, led by other Meitei leaders of the BJP. Batches of party MLAs have been visiting New Delhi till as late as this April, demanding a change in leadership.
The Wire reached out to state BJP leaders for comments; but all of them refused to speak, citing no knowledge of the proposed peace accord with the Kuki SoO groups on May 8.
A senior Congress MLA and a former colleague of Singh that The Wire reached out said he was unaware of the likely proposal. He, however, said, “While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Union government must have been looking at securing the Manipur Outer parliamentary seat for the 2024 general elections by granting the Sixth Schedule to the Kukis, it would have directly affected Biren. It would have meant that it is not just the Meitei public that would have risen against him but the rebellion within his party to remove him would have only got stronger. So trying to stall the Centre’s move would suit his political interests.”
A screengrab from a video purportedly showing violence in Manipur on the night of May 3.
The Congress MLA, who refused to be identified, added, “It then brings up serious questions: As Biren had insider information on the peace accord; did he try to turn the possible tide against him with help from radical groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun who are his supporters? Since those groups are being accused of unleashing violence on the Kukis in Imphal, it is an important question.”
“Additionally,”, he said, “with the Kuki leaders now demanding complete separation from the Manipur state, Biren has been able to bring powerful Meitei CSOs like Meira Paibi and COCOMI closer to him by posing as a Meitei leader who is with them on the issue of Centre needing to maintain the territorial integrity of Manipur.”
With all that the MHA sources have told The Wire about the chief minister’s views on the proposed deal, then the fact that the May 3 violence took place just five days before that accord was to be finalized with the Kuki SoS groups by the Ministry, is significant and an interesting coincidence.
Kuki leaders have been accusing chief minister Biren Singh of supporting violence on their community and have termed it as ‘state-sponsored’.
N Biren Singh has denied charges of any role in the violence. Speaking on resigning, he told the media last month, “There is no question of resignation. But yes, if the central leadership and people of Manipur want it, I would leave the post.” In June there was high drama when he purportedly wanted to resign but hundreds of Meira Paibi women gathered near his residence and formed a human chain, saying that they will not let him quit. A copy of his resignation letter was torn up as two ministers stepped out of his residence with it.
Since the outbreak of the ethnic violence, the chief minister has tried to push the blame on insurgents, and a narrative of Kuki community harbouring “illegal migrants” from a civil war-affected Myanmar and accusing the Kuki SoO groups of indulging in ‘narco terrorism’. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen Anil Chauhan on May 31 has contradicted the chief minister’s claims and said that the violence in Manipur was not linked to “insurgency” but “a conflict involving people from two ethnicities.”
Moreover, on the advice of Biren Singh’s government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also recently termed most unclaimed bodies of Kukis lying at morgues in the state as those of “infiltrators”. The Wire’s ground report found the statement to be unfounded.
The political campaign of the efficacy of a BJP ‘double-engine’ has been hit hard by continual turmoil in the sensitive border state of Manipur, and several quarters within and outside the state have called for the removal of Biren Singh as the chief minister, holding him responsible for the large scale violence and allegations of state police under him aiding mobs, the Modi government is steadfast in supporting him. Home Minister Amit Shah in his long speech to the Lok Sabha during the no-confidence motion defended Singh and termed him “cooperative.”
This is the first part of this article series. The second part will follow.