On January 10, representatives of Manipur-based armed Kuki groups - the United People's Front and the Kuki National Organization - held the sixth round of political dialogue with the Centre. A couple of important developments emerged from this round of talks. The first is the appointment of a new interlocutor, A.B. Mathur, the former special secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing. Another major development is an apparent shift in the demand of the Kuki armed groups, from statehood to the formation of a 'territorial council'. What are the envisioned provisions in the TC? What entailed the apparent shift in the fundamental demand?
One of the provisions, which the armed groups would like to see being implemented along the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam, include the granting of adequate administrative autonomy on legislative, executive and financial matters. The armed groups also want New Delhi to set up a regional office of the ministry of external affairs in the TC areas to allow free or visa-less movement of its people along the border areas. The envisioned TC would also have separate educational boards for high schools and higher secondary schools as well as the entitlement of one member each in both houses of Parliament.
The question related to the apparent shift in demand can be discussed under two basic points. The first concerns the protracted internal disagreement among the armed groups. Second is direct or indirect pressure from the government of Manipur and the Centre.
It is important to note that it took over 10 years to get the political dialogue started. The Indian army and the Kuki armed groups have observed Suspension of Operation since August 2005. A tripartite agreement, involving the UPF and the KNO, the central government and the Manipur government, was formally signed in August 2008. Even though about 20 armed groups have come under the KNO and the UPF, the two groups have different visions of a possible solution to the crisis.
The KNO's political objective was the creation of an exclusive Kuki state, while the UPF demanded an autonomous hill state, or a state within a state under Article 244A of the Constitution. The differences were also exacerbated because the armed groups engaged in clashes for control over territory. There were also disputes over the collection of funds. Often, the groups were manipulated by politicians for electoral gain.
During the first round of dialogue in 2016, the factions agreed to present a collective political demand under Article 3 of the Constitution - that is, statehood comprising lands in the hills of Manipur for which the chieftains possess legal land titles.
Even though the Manipur government has maintained the SoO with these armed groups and participated in the dialogue process, it is apparently unwilling to compromise on its territorial integrity. In fact, in the initial tripartite agreement, the Manipur government had inserted a clause so that the territorial integrity of Manipur would not be disturbed or altered. The possible creation of a separate state out of Manipur under Article 3 of the Constitution would violate the initial tripartite agreement. It is also possible that because of the overlapping claims by both the Kukis and the Nagas in the hill areas of the state, New Delhi seeks to pursue a balanced approach so as not to antagonize one group in its attempt to address the concerns of another.
The two Kuki armed groups maintain that they have not given up on their demand for autonomy. But they may have also realized the challenges surrounding the issue during the dialogue process. The demand for TC may give more room for negotiation. However, this is not to suggest that this demand will go unopposed. The opposition is likely to come from the Manipur government and the Nagas who are also stakeholders in the dialogue with New Delhi.