Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 02 April 2023

SoO agreement with Kuki groups

Source: By Tora Agarwala: The Indian Express

In a surprise move, the Manipur government withdrew from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with two hill-based tribal insurgent groups on 10 March 2023, alleging that they were “influencing agitation among forest encroachers”.

This marks the culmination of brewing unrest in the Kuki-dominated hills of Manipur – with an eviction drive to clear forest land of “encroachers”, a call for a “peaceful” protest march in response that turned violent while Section 144 was imposed, and a simmering battle between the Kuki tribal bodies and the state government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh.

An eviction and a protest

Various departments under the Manipur government have been sending out notices since August 2022, claiming that 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest area (in Churachandpur district) are “illegal settlements” and its residents are “encroachers”.

While notices were sent to five villages, the government finally set out on an eviction drive in the K Songjang village on 20 February 2023. It culminated in clashes between the residents and the police authorities. To protest against the police action, the Kuki Inpi, the apex tribal body of the Kukis in Manipur, called for a peaceful rally on 10 March 2023 in the Kuki-dominated districts of the state: Kangpokpi, Churachandpur and Tengnoupal. The government clamped down on the protests by imposing Section 144 but to little avail.

In Kangpokpi, things took a violent turn when the police tried to stop the locals from protesting. At least five protesters and a few policemen were injured before the situation was brought under control.

What the state government alleges

Following the rallies, the state cabinet met on 10 March 2023, alleging that the protests were organised for an “unconstitutional” purpose. “They were challenging the constitutional provisions… The people there were encroaching reserved forestsprotected forests and wildlife sanctuaries for poppy plantation and drugs business. That’s the reason why the rally was organised”, news agency PTI quoted Chief Minister Biren as saying.

Biren alleged that the rallies were influenced by the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) and Kuki National Army (KNA), armed groups with which the Centre and the state first signed a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement in 2008 to initiate political dialogue. It has been periodically renewed.

“Discussed reviewing the Suspension of Operations agreement, particularly with the ZRA and KNA who are allegedly influencing the agitations after the eviction notices were issued to the forest encroachers,” Biren posted on Twitter.

And what are the Kuki groups saying?

The tribal groups have maintained that the protests had nothing to do with the armed groups. Instead, they claimed it was a “peaceful” protest against the dilution of Article 371 C, which confers some administrative autonomy to the tribal-dominated hill areas of Manipur.

Ch Ajang Khongsai, the president of Kuki Inpi, said the peace rally was purely caused by public discontent, over what he said was the state government’s extreme disregard for scheduled Hill Areas and Article 371C of the Indian Constitution. “The peace rally was a result of extreme disrespect and exploitation of tribal land rights in the name of various laws and acts,” added Khongsai.

“They are (not only) clearing land, but are evicting our right to existence and our customs. We tribals are on the brink of extinction,” said Sasang Vaiphei, president of the Kuki Students’ Organisation.

In a memorandum to the Manipur Governor, the Kuki Inpi said that tribes of Manipur have always been the “rightful landholders” since colonial times and that the aggrieved villagers have been settling in those areas pre-Independence, much before the enactment of the Indian Forests Act, 1972Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and other Acts the government has cited to carry out the evictions.

What has been the political fallout?

The recent churn marks Biren’s first major challenge after he was sworn in for the second time barely a year ago. The latest developments threaten to dent Biren’s tribal outreach as a chief minister, as part of which he had launched a popular “Go To Hills” campaign.

The Kuki Inpi, on 12 March 2023, issued a statement calling out Biren for terming rally-goers as “encroacherspoppy cultivators, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants”, saying that it was extremely “affronting and regrettable.” “The chief minister categorically stating that only illegal immigrants are participating in the rally is unpardonable and ill-suited of a chief minister … It is an obtrusive example of the communal prejudice of the chief minister against the tribals and the Kukis in particular,” the statement said, responding to the interview CM Biren gave to a television channel.

Also hitting out at the Biren administration is the Kuki People’s Alliance, a political party formed ahead of the 2022 Assembly election to represent Kuki interests. The party, which won both the seats it contested, later extended support to the BJP government. However, that has not stopped them from criticising Biren’s move as “unethical, unjustifiable and downright illegal”. “The move smacks of ulterior motives without any regard for democratic norms,” said WL Hangshing, general secretary of the party.

What next for the SoO?

This ceasefire agreement was signed with two umbrella groups, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF), comprising 25 groups – 17 under KNO and 8 under the UPF. A tripartite agreement signed by the Centre, state and the groups, this arrangement meant ending violence and hostilities from all sides and initiated a political dialogue.

Union home minister Amit Shah ahead of the 2022 election promised to “solve” the Kuki demand for a separate ethnic state if the BJP was voted to power. The Kuki groups even officially announced their support for the BJP. The revocation of this SoO agreement by Biren’s government has raised questions about this arrangement. Seilen Haokip, the KNO spokesperson, said, “It will be the Centre’s decision as to what happens next.”