By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen
The Indian central government and the Kuki armed groups - the United Peoples' Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) - began their first round of political dialogue at Ashoka hotel in New Delhi on June 15.
Satyendra Garg, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, who led the central delegation, chaired the meeting, which was attended by representatives from the armed groups and the Manipur state government.
The issue of holding political dialogue has dragged on for years. The Indian Army and the Kuki armed groups have observed Suspension of Operation (SoO) since August 1, 2005. A tripartite agreement, involving the UPF and KNO, the central government and the Manipur state government, was formally signed on August 22, 2008.
The SoO was possible after the Kuki armed groups responded former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call for resolving armed conflicts through dialogue. The Congress government agreed, in principle, to initiate political dialogue within the framework of the Indian constitution.
In 2013, the Indian government made the assurance that political talk would begin immediately following the winter session of the national parliament but it did not materialize.
How is the situation of the armed groups and the political atmosphere in New Delhi different from the previous years? Is there any sight of solution to the Kukis political demand under Prime Minister Narendra Modi administration?
One significant development among the armed groups is its ability to present a collective political demand under Article 3 of the Indian Constitution, that is, statehood for the Kuki people, comprising lands in the hills of Manipur for which the chieftains possess legal land titles.
The demand for a Kuki state comprising all the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur was first submitted to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on March 24, 1960 by the Kuki National Assembly, a political body formed in 1946.
Now that the Kuki armed groups have reached a consensus agreement amongst themselves, the dialogue process can move forward quicker provided that there is seriousness on both sides.
Since the demand for a separate state will affect the integrity of the Manipur state, the central government will need to tread judiciously. One immediate challenge will be on the question of competing demands.
The Nagas, who form another major ethnic group in Manipur, also claim overlapping areas in the four hill districts. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) claims a large chunk of Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul districts as their territory in their quest for greater or southern Nagaland.
New Delhi has had several rounds of political dialogue with the Nagas, particularly the NSCN-IM. These competing demands of overlapping areas have given rise to insurgency problems for the past many years.
Another major challenge will come from the Manipur government and the Meiteis, the single-largest populace of the state. Knowing the potential consequences of political dialogue between the Kuki armed groups and the central government, the Manipur state government inserted a clause in the initial tripartite agreement, that is, the territorial integrity of Manipur cannot be violated.
Given the increasing distrust between the Kukis and the Meiteis over the three bills passed last year by the Manipur State Assembly, the political dialogue is even more significant. The Manipur government and the Meiteis are likely to oppose any attempt to disintegrate the state.
Since this is the first concrete political dialogue, the process is expected to take months, if not years, before reaching any possible solution.
Given the competing demands of the three major communities (Kukis for separate state; Nagas for greater Nagaland; and Meities for unhindered or greater access to the hill areas), any amicable solution is easier said than done.
Though the Kukis would want to have a state of their own at the earliest possible, it is unlikely that the central government will give a serious consideration without examining the interests of the two other major communities of the state.
Given the ground realities, there are certain measures the Kuki armed groups and the Modi government should take into account during the political dialogue process.
First, given the deep apprehension among the hill people, particularly the Kukis, the government should consider implementing the Sixth Schedule provisions in the hill areas that would protect and safeguard the history, culture, land and identity of the tribal people.
Second, given the disparity across the state, the state and central governments should take concrete steps to ensure the proper utilization of development funds and schemes. The status quo is that the valley districts are much more developed and advanced than the hill districts.
Third, the government should review the existing political arrangement. Out of the 60-member legislative assembly, 40 are represented by the valley people and 20 by the hill people. This proportion needs to be revised. There must be political accommodation in such a way that the post of the chief minister is also rotationally or periodically given to representatives from the hill areas.
Fourth, in light of the creation of Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh despite a strong opposition from the state government in 2014, it is possible for the central government to carve out a Kuki state from Manipur.
Creation of states along ethno-lingual lines is not unprecedented in the history of the Indian Union, given the examples of Tamil Nadu for the Tamils, Nagaland for the Nagas, and Mizoram for the Mizos.
Whatever the outcome it will be, holding the first round of political dialogue is a step in the right direction.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of 'Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur'. His works have been widely published in more than 30 countries across five continents - Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.