Churachandpur— In May, after an incident of ethnic violence in the eastern Indian state of Manipur, the Maitei community in the Valley openly asserted that the Kuki community in the hills were outsiders, suggesting they should be sent back to their supposed home country. However, as The Mooknayak's team ventured into Churachandpur district, predominantly inhabited by the Kuki community, they uncovered layers of inconsistencies and falsehoods in these claims.
As we ventured along the main road of Muolvaiphei Village, the stones lining its hillsides stood as silent witnesses to the rich history embedded within this community. While our original purpose was to locate an unfamiliar relief camp, our attention was captivated by three particular stones positioned at the roadside. The Mooknayak team halted and embarked on a curious investigation.
Within the Village of Muolvaiphei, there are presently over 800 households, with a total population exceeding 2,300 residents. Predominantly Christian, they are members of the tribal community. The village primarily comprises Mizos and Hmar tribes, deeply rooted in their Mizo and Hmar heritage. Lalzarlien Darngawn, aged 83, serves as the village's second leader, following in the footsteps of his father, the village's initial head.
Lalzarlien Darngawn, 83, is the second head of Muolvaiphei Village. Before this his father late Lienkhum was the first head of the village.
Lalzarlien shared a captivating piece of history: In 1911, when his father first arrived here, there were merely one or two dwellings on this hill. "My father played an instrumental role in establishing this village. The cultivation of paddy began here under his guidance, and since then, we have called this place our home," remarked Lalzarlien Darngawn to The Mooknayak.
Prior to arriving in Churachandpur, a tribal-dominated region, The Mooknayak team had conducted inspections of relief camps situated in several areas of Manipur predominantly inhabited by the Maitei community. These visits had revealed simmering resentment among the Maitei people towards the Kuki community. Some had even labelled the Kuki residents as outsiders, suggesting they hailed from Verma, Myanmar. Seeking clarity on this matter, we posed the question to Lalzarlien Darngawn, asking him, "To what extent is it true that you are referred to as outsiders?" His response was unequivocal, as he politely asserted, "Completely untrue."
Lalzarlien, seemed somewhat disheartened by our inquiry. However, before delving further, he cordially invited The Mooknayak team to sit down, expressing his desire to share something significant. After a brief wait, he emerged from a room in his house, clutching a large-page album diary and a collection of documents. In that moment, it became apparent that he was about to reveal something he had held onto for years, a piece of history he had chosen not to share until now.
Our amazement grew as we turned the initial pages of the album's diary. Within its pages lay a photograph captured by none other than the former Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. Lalzarlien could be seen presenting a shawl in that picture. Subsequently, Lalzarlien embarked on a journey through his personal history, revealing one significant moment after another through the album's pages. The extraordinary nature of these historical snapshots was evident. One particular photo in the album dated back to 1978 when Lalzarlien attended a presentation in the Tribal Chief Delegation on Republic Day.
Furthermore, Lalzarlien shared a document that held great significance. It was the record of Muolvaiphei attaining the status of a village, as published in the 'Manipur Gazette' by the Government of Manipur on August 16, 1956. This listing placed Muolvaiphei as the 131st village in the Gazette, demonstrating that the village had met all the government criteria for village status in 1956, despite having already been settled there for some time.
However, despite this evidence, incidents of violence in the state have not dissuaded some Maitei individuals from continuing to describe all hill tribal residents as illegal migrants. Lalzarlien Darngawn also provided The Mooknayak with a copy of the order he received, instructing the transfer of the chiefship of Muolvaiphei Village to Lalzarlien Darngawn on January 11, 2013, issued by Lacintha Lazarus, the deputy commissioner of Churachandpur.
Raghu Singh, a 66-year-old retired IRB resident of Khoyol Keithal Camp in the Maitei community located in the Moirang area, approximately 45 km from the capital Imphal, expressed his perspective to The Mooknayak, stating, "The Kuki people have come from Myanmar. No Kuki is Manipuri. They are fighting for possession of the land. You guys should appeal to the honorable Prime Minister to remove them." Raghu Singh holds the belief that all Kukis have originated from outside the region.
It's essential to note that the violence in this region has led to hundreds of casualties on both the Kuki and Maitei sides, with thousands displaced from their homes. Consequently, there is a prevailing sentiment on both sides that the other has committed wrongdoings.
Speaking anonymously, the woman chairperson of a social organization in Churachandpur district emphasized the historical roots of Muolvaiphei village, asserting that it was settled long before the country's independence. She pointed out that the government has not adequately developed this area, despite its longstanding presence, and that institutions and colleges have primarily been established in Imphal, leaving the village with limited resources.
It's crucial to recognize that not all Kukis can be labeled as outsiders. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing both the Central and Manipur governments, addressed the violence in the state before the Supreme Court in August. During a half-day-long hearing on the Manipur violence, he stated, "Most of the unclaimed bodies killed during the violence belong to infiltrators." Following this statement, there was a surge of media coverage, leading to a narrative being disseminated across the country, including in the state, that Churachandpur's tribals are outsiders. However, families like Laljarlin Darrangvan's challenge this perception, as they have their roots in Mizoram and have been settled here long before India's independence.
Following Solicitor General Tushar Mehta's statement, a rumor began to circulate that all residents of Churachandpur district in the hills were Kukis, which is far from the truth. The ground report conducted by The Mooknayak team reveals that a substantial number of tribal communities reside here, but not all tribals belong to the Kuki community. Over the years, Hindu, Bengali, Muslim families, and numerous families from Bihar have also established their homes in Churachandpur district. However, the heavy presence of security forces guarding the borders of the district, especially during the violence between the Kukis and Maitei, has created geographical and ideological divisions among its people.
In response to these divisions, many in the region advocate for a separate administration as a potential solution to the ongoing issues. The tribal communities here are calling for a 'separate administration' from the Manipur government.
S. Dongthin Sang, aged 30, challenges the portrayal of hilly tribes as 'illegal immigrants' in media reports by citing his family's long-standing presence in the region. He points to his maternal grandmother's age and the birth of the state's Chief Minister to emphasize the depth of their roots in the area. He disputes the 'illegal immigrant' label, noting that his grandmother Kopchin (105), was born in 1917, long before the Chief Minister came into the world.
He passionately asserts, "We are Indian citizens. My ancestors were Indian freedom fighters. Many of my family members serve in the Indian Army. We are not illegal immigrants. Prime Minister Modi ji, you are a great leader, and we appreciate you, but you have overlooked this critical issue." He further mentions that after a recent incident of caste violence in the state, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh pledged to find a political solution to the conflict and continue efforts to identify and address illegal immigration issues in the state.
Story Translated by Geetha Sunil Pillai