INDIA: Black Day Marks 25 Years After a Still Controversial Massacre on the Burmese Border

INDIA: Black Day Marks 25 Years After a Still Controversial Massacre on the Burmese Border
Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

What you need to know

The Kuki and Naga people have been locked in conflict for decades. We spoke to Kukis as they commemorated a 1993 massacre and shared their hopes for peace and justice.

Last week, black flags fluttered throughout the hundreds of Kuki tribal villages that dot the lush and undulating hills of Manipur, a Northeast Indian state bordering Myanmar. Inscribed on the flags was a word in the local Thadou-Kuki dialect: Sahnit-Ni.

Sahnit-Ni, or Kuki Black Day, is an annual observation of the Kukis, which commemorates a gruesome massacre of around 115 Kuki people from Joupi-Zanglenphai and other Kuki villages in the Tamenglong district of Manipur on Sept. 13, 1993. It was allegedly committed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muiva (NSCN-IM) guerrillas, a Naga armed group fighting for Naga political rights in India.

This year, thousands of Kuki tribals from Northeast India and Myanmar streamed to Churachandpur, a Kuki-dominated town in Manipur, to observe the 25th Sahnit-Ni and commemorate the dead, where they erected three memorial monoliths that contained the names of over 1,000 Kuki victims who lost their lives in the conflict.

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
The memorial monoliths in remembrance of the lives lost in the Kuki-Naga ethnic conflict of 1992-1997.

The state of Manipur has a population of over 2.7 million and is home to three major communities – Meitei, Kuki and Naga. Manipur shares borders with Myanmar to its east and the majority Naga state of Nagaland to its north, and Mizoram and Assam to south and west, respectively. While the Meiteis, who primarily settle in the valley districts, clamor for territorial integrity of Manipur, the Kuki and the Naga tribal communities are calling for separate administrative arrangements in their hilly habitats.

Ethnic nationalists from both these tribal communities are fighting for their respective ethnic homelands, which territorially overlap. The Kukis, who long demanded statehood, are calling for greater political autonomy in the form of a territorial council. The Nagas – who have significant populations in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as Myanmar, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh – have controversially pressed for greater autonomy, part of the long-cherished Naga goal of uniting all of their historically inhabited lands into a single administrative entity, “Greater Nagalim.”

This scramble for land was a major cause of the bloody ethnic conflict that broke out between the Kukis and the Nagas between 1992 and 1997, leaving over a thousand dead. The 1993 Joupi-Zanglenphai massacre was part of these ethnic killings. The struggle for territorial recognition and identity continues today.

Survivors’ accounts: ‘These memories don’t fade into black’

Haosem Doungel, a 54-year-old Kuki tribesman who is among the five known survivors of the Joupi-Zanglenphai massacre, told The News Lens what he remembers of that day:

I used to live in Zanglenphai Kuki village of Tamenglong district in Manipur. In early September, 1993, the NSCN-IM-backed Naga Lim Guard served the adjacent Kuki villages of Joupi and Zanglenphai a quit notice ordering the villagers to leave the area before Sept. 15, 1993.

Fearing the worst, we abided by the NSCN-IM diktat and on Sept 12 we left the village en masse. En route to a place called Tamei, as dusk descended, we were intercepted by a group of NSCN-IM cadres. They let the women and the children flee and tied the menfolk.

About 50 of us were taken to a cliff by a river, while about another 30 men were taken to another spot not very far. They slit the throats of most of the men with machetes and some were also shot dead. While one of the NSCN cadres held me from behind, another hacked me three times on the back of my neck. And then they pushed me to the river below. They also shot at me twice to make sure that I was dead. But by God’s will, I survived.

Half-dead, I floated on the river and made it to the jungle where I hid myself. The next day I walked to the village called Thengjang. From there the villagers took me to Assam Rifles medical facilities at Chalva station. I was treated there for over a month.

My elder brother was among those butchered on that fateful night. Those violent scenes of bloodletting and wails and screams still haunt me. How can one forget these things?

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Haosem Doungel, one of the five known survivors of the 1993 Joupi-Zanglenphai massacre.

In Toloulong, not very far from Joupi-Zanglenphai, Vahthem, now in her sixties, lost her daughter Phalneichong and son Mangtinkai, respectively six and three years old at that time, to the NSCN-IM attackers. She said:

My family was from a village called Jampi, which sheltered 30 Kuki families at that time. As the situation became tense, the Kuki villagers of Jampi and Buning were called by the government authorities to take shelter in Toloulong, where government security forces were deployed. After we stayed for a week in Toloulong, the government security forces advised the men to move to Thengjang Kuki village, which was considered relatively safer, and the women and the children to stay back in the temporary shelters in Toloulong. It was a Saturday in September 1993, I don’t remember the exact date.

At night, the NSCN-IM cadres swooped down on Toloulong, setting ablaze the houses where Kuki villagers from Jampi, Buning, and Toloulong were taking shelter. They also burned down all the houses in Jampi and Buning. Then they locked us, about 40 to 50 women and many children, inside a school building in Toloulong.

After some time, they started to look for the male children, snatching them away from the arms of their mothers. I had a daughter and a son. Phalneichong, my daughter, was hiding behind me and my son, Mangtinkai, was on my lap. I dressed my son in girls’ clothes so that they don’t come after him.

Two of the NSCN-IM men came towards me and tried to snatch my son away. They checked his genitals, and finding him to be a male child, they stabbed him with a knife while he was still on my lap. Then they came for my daughter and killed her too. The 30 or so government security personnel posted in the area couldn’t protect us.

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Vahthem, who lost her daughter and son to alleged NSCN-IM attackers.

The Nagas suffered, too. Tennoson Pheiray, a Naga survivor of a Kuki attack in Henglung Kuki village in Manipur, has described how three of his friends – all Nagas – were pulled down from a bus and hacked to death by the Kukis.

The Kukis, however, deny that they were aggressors and claim to have acted in self-defense – and sometimes in retaliation.

“Had the NSCN-IM not started a pogrom of the Kukis in the first place, we wouldn’t have taken up guns,” said a former Kuki National Front (KNF) militant who left the armed organization once ethnic hostilities declined in 1997. The NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India in that year, after which KNF and other Kuki armed groups' activities largely diminished before the Kuki militants signed a formal suspension of operation (SoO) agreement to halt insurgencies in 2008.

“When I joined the Kuki National Front, I was barely 18. I was a bright student and wanted to study further,” said the former KNF militant, who asked not to be named for this story. “But my father was shot dead by the NSCN-IM cadres invading our village. Angered and compelled by the circumstances, I decided to take up arms. Times were such that it was necessary to arm ourselves.”

Even so, there are arguments that the observation of Sahnit-Ni will only rekindle simmering old tensions between the Kukis and the Nagas – a position often taken by Nagas. The News Lens spoke to several Naga leaders, most of whom declined to comment on the tensions or pointed to the official statement of the NSCN-IM, which sharply opposes the observance of Sahnit-Ni and has accused the Kukis of starting the conflict in 1992.

“The allegations levelled against us by the Kukis in the name of observing Kuki Black Day are false and unfounded. We never acted on aggression,” said, W Zimik, chairman of Tangkhul Naga Long, a coalition of the Tangkhul Nagas in Manipur.

But the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), a Kuki coalition in Manipur, believes remembering the victims is the least the community can do in the absence of any concrete steps on the government’s part to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“If you ask me to erase these memories, what else will I live with?” said Vahthem. “These memories just don’t fade into black.”

Claims and counterclaims

The violent flare-up between the Kukis and the Nagas started in 1992 and lasted until 1997, when the Naga armed group NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India and agreed for peace talks to hammer out a solution to the long and complex Naga issue.

Journalistic and academic accounts of that time claim that the immediate triggers for the Kuki-Naga violence were threefold: NSCN-IM’s attempts to take control of the Kuki-dominated border town of Moreh, which was, and still remains, a hub of lucrative contraband and narcotics trade on the Indo-Myanmar border; imposition of tax on the Kuki residents in Naga territory by the Naga militants and refusal to pay by the Kukis; and refusal to renew the land agreement by the Nagas to the Kukis.

The first flicker of fire came from the barrels of the NSCN-IM when, using a proxy group known as Naga Lim Guard, it attacked and burned down a Kuki village called Molphei, drawing retaliation from Kuki armed groups, according to political scientist Nehginpao Kipgen, an associate professor at O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Atkothong Haokip, 55, points to a photo of his father, who was allegedly killed by NSCN-IM militants in 1994 at Tollen village in the Chandel district of Manipur.

Kukis and Nagas disagree on the actual death and displacement statistics, but both sides agree Kukis were more seriously affected by the conflict.

The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) has documented that, as a result of the conflict, more than 350 Kuki villages were uprooted, over 1,000 Kukis were killed, and tens of thousands of Kukis were displaced.

However, the United Naga Council (UNC) of Manipur, a Naga coalition in Manipur, disagrees on these statistics. According to a UNC report, from 1992-1997, 470 Kukis and 207 Nagas were killed, 205 Kukis and 197 Nagas were wounded, and 2870 Kuki and 2582 Naga houses were set ablaze. Nonetheless, Kipgen asserts, both communities agree that the Kukis were the more seriously affected group in the conflict.

The Nagas, especially the NSCN-IM supporters, view the Kukis as a non-indigenous, migrant group from Myanmar and consider them as intruders on Naga ancestral land in the Northeast Indian hills.

However, according to Thongkholal Haokip, an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, such a notion is based on a selective reading of colonial accounts of the Kukis in Manipur and other Northeast Indian states.

Cheitharol Kumpapa, the court chronicle of the kings of Manipur and the Pooyas, the traditional records of the Meitei people, contains some accounts of Kuki people which date back to 33 AD,” he told The News Lens. “This means that Kukis, too, have been living in Manipur and other Northeastern states since prehistoric times.”

Len Haokip, a student leader with the Kuki Students Organization (KSO) in Churachandpur, says the depiction of the Kukis as a migrant community has been a ploy of the NSCN-IM to legitimize the uprooting of Kuki villages to materialize its goal of Greater Nagalim by taking control of lands possessed by the Kukis. “It was part of the NSCN-IM’s strategy of territorializing the Naga identity,” he said.

There have also been attempts to compare the less intense beatings and humiliations of the Nagas with the rapes and killings of hundreds of Kukis during the conflict, which is inaccurate and unbefitting, according to Thongkholal Haokip.

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Members of the Kuki community sing a homage hymn at Kuki Black Day on Sept. 13, 2018.

Naga leaders deny the involvement of the NSCN-IM in the killings and see the observance of Kuki Black Day as a provocation.

Meanwhile, as the Kukis observed the 25th anniversary of the Joupi-Zanglenphai massacre and demanded a formal apology from the NSCN-IM, the Naga outfit once again denied its role in the killings and blamed the Kukis as provocateurs of the conflagrations. Refuting the allegations levelled against it by the Kukis, the NSCN-IM said it was the Kukis who started the conflict, which compelled the Nagas to form the Naga Lim Guard for self-defense.

Doungel, who survived the Joupi-Zanglenphai massacre, also held the government responsible. “It was the lack of appropriate and alacritous action from the government authorities that allowed for such gruesome massacres to happen,” he said. “There was a complete failure of the law and order system in those days.”

Identity and the scramble for land

Ethnic conflicts, as Mexican sociologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen writes, generally involve a struggle over rights. In the hills of Manipur, the Kuki-Naga feud has roots in struggles over rights to land, territorial autonomy, and the preservation of ethnic identity.

Identities are often fluid, fuzzy, and constructed for specific political purposes. This is more so in the context of multi-ethnic Northeast India, where the British colonial apparatus employed the practice of what social scientist Mahmood Mamdani calls “define and rule,” elucidating how the colonial statecraft created different tribe-based political identities among the natives. When ethnic identities are constructed for specific political purposes, studies show, ethnic cleavages – overlaps and resulting divisions – are more likely to emerge.

Identity and a scramble for land have always defined the Kuki-Naga conflict. Kipgen writes that a number of tribes, including Anal, Maring, Monsang and Moyon – groups once identified as Old Kukis – were assimilated into the Naga fold either by coercion or other forms of persuasion. The Kukis still perceive this as an affront to their identity.

Further, the imagined ethnic homelands of the Naga and the Kuki nationalists overlap. “Greater Nagalim” aims to incorporate Nagaland and “all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas” of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar under one politico-administrative umbrella, while the Kukis want a declared homeland with sufficient political autonomy which encompasses many of those same areas – with the exception of Churachandpur district, the Nagas claim all of the Manipur hill districts which they co-inhabit with Kukis. That was why many believe the NSCN-IM attempted to purge the Kuki inhabitants of these areas and capture territories.

‘There is no Naga-Kuki ethnic conflict’

PS Haokip is the president of the Kuki National Organization (KNO), an umbrella organization comprising 17 Kuki armed groups which has signed a suspension of operation (SoO) agreement with the Indian security forces to cease insurgent activities and is currently engaged in political dialogue with the Indian government.

He says that “ethnic conflict,” when used to describe the Kuki-Naga conflagrations of the nineties, is a misnomer. He insists on calling the actions of the NSCN-IM as an “ethnic cleansing” of Kukis, or even a “genocidal act.”

The NSCN-IM, on the other hand, slams these allegations of Kuki “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” as nothing more than a child’s “blabbers.”

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

PS Haokip, the president of KNO, delivers a speech in the Kuki Black Day observation in Churachandpur.

When describing the clashes of the 1990s, Haokip prefers the term ‘ethnic cleansing.’ ‘There is no Naga-Kuki ethnic conflict,’ he says.

He also countered the long-standing myth, first spun by 19th century colonial anthropologists and administrators, that Kukis and Nagas are traditional enemies. “There is no enmity between the common Kuki and Naga populace,” he said. “The two communities largely co-existed with each other for centuries. Albeit intermittent raids and counter-raids did occur in the pre-colonial and colonial pasts, that was, however, the way of the pre-human rights, tribal world. But the Kukis and the Nagas have, in essence, lived side by side."

“Only after Thuingaleng Muiva, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul district, took charge of the Naga nationalist movement,” said Haokip, “and the Tangkhul Naga-led NSCN-IM forayed into the scene in the mid-eighties, did they communalize the Naga movement against the Kukis.”

Minlal Gangte, a student leader with Kuki Students Organization (KSO), concurred. His family was forced by the NSCN-IM to leave their ancestral village of Khopum in Manipur in 1994. A decade later, he said, his family’s former Naga neighbors would still send them the produce of the orange farms they had owned in the village as a gesture of kindness and friendship.

“In most cases, the common Naga populace were neutral,” said Gangte. “Only when the NSCN-IM forced them to collaborate, they did for fear of retribution from the militants. The only law that writ large in those days was that of the Naga militants.”

‘Until the Kukis get justice, the Naga issue cannot be solved’

The discourse demanding justice for the Kuki victims of the conflict is based on multiple arguments. While some iterated the Kukis deserve justice just as other Indian citizens do under the Indian judicial system, others clamored for a political reconciliation of the issue through special political protection and “political autonomy to the Kukis in their ancestral land.”

“Over 1,000 Indian citizens were butchered in the most ruthless manner by the NSCN-IM separatists, who've remained a constant threat to the integrity of the Indian state,” said an exasperated Len Haokip. “Even after 25 years of the incident, the Indian government hasn’t taken a single concrete step to book the perpetrators. Where is the security for Indian citizens? Or is it because that we are Kuki tribals, living at the state’s margin, are we being discriminated against and there’s no justice for us?”

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Kuki survivors of the conflict sing a number commemorating their deceased relatives at Sahnit-Ni (Kuki Black Day) on Sept. 13, 2018.

This year’s observation was also used as a message to the Indian government, which Kukis say has not done enough to hold responsible Nagas accountable.

This year’s Sahnit-Ni observation, said KNO spokesperson Seilen Haokip, was also meant to be a message to the Indian government. “The NSCN-IM killed so many innocent unarmed Indian citizens, but the Indian government has done nothing about it. Shouldn’t the killers be made accountable?”

“The Indian government should know that until the Kukis get justice, the Naga issue cannot be solved. They have to do justice according to the law of the land,” said Seilen Haokip, referring to the ongoing negotiations between the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government, reportedly to be in their final stages.

The KNO is also currently engaged in talks with the Indian government. During the last rounds of talks with the Indian government, held in June, the Kuki group reportedly backed down from its Kuki statehood demand, instead agreeing on political autonomy along the lines of an autonomous territorial council.

“We have petitioned the Indian government over 60 times, requesting some sort of action and resettlement of the people displaced during the clashes, but to no avail,” said the KIM. “The tragedy is that the government has not taken one concrete step till date.”

Women have suffered the most

The 1995 United Nations Platform for Action points out that, in armed conflicts, women and the girls are most severely affected due to their unequal status in society and their sex. In addition to other forms of damage and loss, they encounter the horrors of sexual slavery, rape, and sexual abuse.

PS Haokip, in his book “The World of the Kuki People,” documents the case of one Tinkhohoi Touthang, aged 20, who was among three women allegedly killed by the NSCN-IM cadres on Oct. 8, 1992, at Moultuh in the Chandel district of Manipur. He cites a post-mortem report conducted by Isack Lamkang, then the district’s medical officer, which revealed that she had been gang raped and sexually tortured before being killed, indicating the extreme suffering women victims had to endure during the conflict.

Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Vahthem, who lost her daughter and son to alleged NSCN-IM attackers in September 1993 at Toloulong in Manipur.

After Vahthem’s husband, Seitinthang Sitlhou, passed away a few years ago, she was thrown out of her in-laws’ house. Today, at the age of over 60, she works as a babysitter for a family in the Kangpokpi district of Manipur for her livelihood and shelter.

‘We are ready to forgive, only if the NSCN-IM asks for it’

The Kuki civil society members and survivors who spoke with The News Lens maintained that they are ready to forgive the perpetrators and bury the hatchet for good – provided the NSCN-IM agrees to formally apologize for their crimes, and performs Kuki customary rites such as paying Luongman (corpse price) and Tol-theh (cleaning the house for shedding human blood).

“In the Kuki custom, the dead bodies of those who did not die a natural death [are] not buried until the issue is resolved,” said Seilen Haokip. “But for the last 25 years, the death of more than 1,000 Kuki people killed by NSCN-IM led by Tangkhul Nagas has not been resolved. We will not stop till it is resolved.”

“We are ready to forgive,” he added, “only if they ask for it and come forward to apologize.”

The NSCN-IM sees this as an unacceptable demand. It says that it was not involved in the killings and, as it was an ethnic conflict in which both sides suffered, there is no need to formally apologize to the Kukis.

The way forward

Hope, says anthropologist Ghassan Hage, is an instrument of envisioning a better future and leaving behind a tormented past. What the Kukis and the Nagas need at this juncture is to ‘co-hope’ – that is, hoping for a mutually inclusive and peaceful future.

For such a reconciliation to kick off, many Kukis think the prerequisites are an acknowledgement of the past, along with a respect towards mutual political-historical rights on both sides.

The president of KNO says: “If the NSCN-IM remains in denial of these heinous past atrocities on the Kukis, as they’ve been ever since the incidents took place, there won’t be any resolution to the issue. We will keep observing the Sahnit-Ni and fight for justice for the victims.”

The NSCN-IM, on the other hand, has lashed out at this sentiment. The News Lens spoke to a NSCN-IM spokesperson who declined to comment and referred to a statement released by the group which reads: “The Kukis, not content with its false accusation against the NSCN, has been observing the so-called Black Day to continuously defame the NSCN and sabotage the NSCN-Government of India peace talk. It is to bear in our hearts that observing the Black day will never bring forth any generous and harmonious coexistence but will only increase the animosity between the Nagas and the Kukis.”

This stalemate seems destined to hold firm in the immediate future. A shared ‘hope’ for the Kukis and the Nagas, sadly, may remain far over the horizon.

Credit: Sumit Das
Read Next: PHOTO ESSAY: The Last Semi-Nomadic Yak Herders of the Himalayas

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.