Dated Manmasi, 10th August 2016, Ref No. ZG/KU 01-01/16'
Dated: 21st September, 2016

Respected Pu PS Haokip, President, Kuki National Organisation (KNO)

It is with immense interest and curiosity that we read your detailed chronological account of the meetings that led to the decision towards a joint-objective concerning the political demands of both KNO and UPF. Of our many tribe leaders, you are undoubtedly one of the most articulate. Your continual engagements with the public have been much appreciated, and most admirable to say the least. As concerned members of the younger generation, whose unending prayers are for the realization of durable peace and development in our land and for our people, it is with a sense of elation that we welcome this consensus. Based on your public statement released on the 10th of August, 2016, we wondered if we could bring to your kind attention a few points regarding the manner in which our political future as a people is to be decided or pursued. This, we believe, will only be a small contribution towards the already running debates and conversations on this matter.

In our reading of your account, we find two important themes that we, in all sincerity and humility, would like to explore together with you. It is with a heart of openness and a posture of learning that we seek to engage on these very important issues. These two themes, that are explicated from your account, includes (a) the sequence of meetings that led to the eventual adoption of the KNO demand for statehood (which makes up the first 10 paragraphs in your account), and (b) the rationale upon which this demand is ultimately founded (which makes up the last 5 paragraphs).

With regard to the first theme, from the details of the series of meetings that you have highlighted, we see that the common objective of fighting for statehood is premised largely on the inadequacy or irrelevance of UPF's proposal that was affirmed by two important meetings that occurred in Delhi. The proposal we refer to is the demand for a 'tribal state' by UPF, and the meeting we refer to is KNO-UPF's meeting with NSCN(IM), which as you have mentioned, was also substantiated by MTFD's meeting with NSCN(IM).

By way of clarification, first, with regard to the proposal, we wondered whether the equating of UPF's demand for 'state within a state' as per Article 244(A) of the Indian Constitution with a demand for 'tribal state' may be running the risk of both oversimplifying the demand and of being unappreciative of the complicated political realities within which our demands today have to be contextualized. As we understand it, the uniqueness of UPF's demand or its claim for 'a special solution for a special problem' is precisely in its openness and capability to encompass all arrangements (solutions) for all groups. 'State within a state' as a provision is not only able to respectfully encompass different groups without imposing oneness on them, but is able to accommodate solutions that enables them to feel addressed in their own unique ways. The example of present day Meghalaya, which was divided into the three district councils of Jaintia, Khasi, and Garo under the provisions of Article 244(A) when it was under the Assam government, is a helpful example of what the model can accommodate, whereby the Government of India has set a precedent in dealing with tribal issues or politics in North-east India.

In the context of present Manipur hill areas, while the three main armed groups which have been engaged in talks with the government (NSCN-IM, KNO, UPF) may pursue different trajectories in search for solutions to their problems, the reality of their shared [modern] history of being 'Hill tribes' in Manipur cannot be discounted. It is in this context that the significance of the specific employment of the terminology 'Hill State' as opposed to a 'Tribal State' has to be located and appreciated. Despite our differences and unfortunate events that, at times, has caused deep grievances amongst us, we share a longer history of living together as neighbours and as brothers. Our shared experiences as hill-people under the rule of Imphal also binds us in more ways than we are often willing to acknowledge. Our cultures and past are so enmeshed with one another that creating neat human boundaries and categories along straight-jacket lines would amount to going against the very nature of who we are as a people.

Second, with regard to the meeting with NSCN(IM), while we remain unaware of the details of the nature and tone of the meeting between them and KNO-UPF, we are privy to state that the nature of the conversation between NSCN(IM) and MTFD did not include the language of oppositions between 'Naga', 'Tribal' or 'Mizo' 'buses', either metaphorically or literally, although MTFD's fight for justice for the tribals of Manipur is well appreciated. In MTFD's understanding, the problems of the Hill tribes are not merely of the three bills but a political problem and therefore, MTFD was primarily seeking to hear the stand of each of the three armed groups dominant in Manipur.

Taking the two points as discussed above together, we feel that the side-lining of the UPF's demand for a 'state within a state' may be premature, and needs a more critical deliberation not only in the way in which it seeks to understand the problem of the tribals in Manipur, but also in terms of the possibilities of their proposal for our immediate and long-term solutions. At the same time, we do not believe that UPF's demand for a 'state with a state' is the only possible political solution for our people. Nor is it the only viable option. We would like to suggest that the finalizing of our political goals be based on the combination of our people's aspirations and a nuanced understanding of our political predicament. We would like to request you, in the most appropriate and respectful manner, to consider a more accommodating option, not only in its goal, content, nomenclature, but also in the very process of arriving at such an option.

With regard to the second theme, the rationale for the demand for statehood is premised on the understanding that the nomenclature 'Kuki' is a terminology whose authority, and more importantly, political relevance, comes from its being recognized by others (outsiders), particularly Bengalees, British and others. It is on this premise that 'alternative nomenclatures' such as Zomi are dismissed by you not only as an attempt to 'form a separate community represented by a section of people', and therefore reduced to 'divisive schemes', but also as 'tantamount to political suicide'.

On the first point, it is true that no nation or people today can claim to be free from external representations (and those representations have been taken to be the standard for articulating self-identity as a nation or a community, particularly in the colonial and post-colonial eras). However, such representations, in every mature people or groups, have always been critically interrogated and negotiated. The self-designation of people/groups in their own terms has been on the ways in which groups claim a sense of authenticity to who they are, and what they want to be. We are no longer in the era of validating our identity based on the representations by the other - be it the colonial archives or popular external representations - but we have the opportunity and privilege to claim a space that was never accorded to us by outsiders. This is the long journey of decolonization that we have all been fighting for - the move away from colonial ethnographic essentialist representations, or worse, the traditional literature of the Meiteis who have never sought to represent us except through an outsider's lens, and generally in patronizing overtones.

This reclaiming is a huge responsibility that entails new productions of old knowledge, and particularly the re-generation of ancient folktales and stories in the written form, and it maybe within this new impetus that we can locate Pu T Gougin's landmark work, and read it not as an attempt to construct what has never been, but as a writing and documenting of what has always been understood. Though even this claim has to be critically interrogated, it is precisely interrogation rather than rejection that will allow it to stand the test of scrutiny.

It is in this spirit that we share your concern and appeal for a Zale'n-gam, a terminology that signifies so much and embodies our long struggle for freedom and self-rule, and it is our fervent belief and hope that this idealized freedom will be ours someday. However, we are inclined to believe that in the face of the present political realities that confronts us, we must prepare ourselves for the imagining of fresh solutions that points to a way forward, not at the cost of surrendering our differences, but one of respecting it and maximizing its creative potential for the kind of world we want to build and develop. From our humble reading of political processes, Kuki State demand seems a little far fetched and unless we are ready for the long haul, would only delay and be a stumbling block in our journey, even denying our people of certain imminent goals that we must gather along the way.

In consideration of the need to nurture a vision for our people, and the complexities with which history has placed us, we firmly believe that there can and should be two dimensions and approaches to our political movement. First, we must continue to cherish the dream of Zale'n-gam/Zogam/Zoland as a distinct political status for our people, and also a part of the larger demand for autonomy from external control amongst our fellow indigenous neighbours and friends in the region. The banner of this dream must, by all means, be kept flying high and upheld at all cost, as you continue to do so tirelessly. Second, in consideration of our present political realities both in the context of Manipur and the power corridors in New Delhi, we must also be able to imagine an outlet where we manoeuvre through the complexities before us in the most astute manner. It is here that we would like to propose the active pursuit of a realisable short term goal. Any attempt to deny and flatten out our internal differences would be detrimental for our purpose. Rather, a proper acknowledgement of our arduous situation and our past should be the very beginning of any project for our collective future. There are reasons why many of our people find it uneasy to accept the name Kuki, apart from the obvious fact that it is a term given to us by outsiders. History is a testimony to our shared past and as such, we must consider the reasons why some of us would find it it uncomfortable with the usage of such a term, especially at this juncture where we are determined to stand on one footing as a people. This is where we realise the need for a larger consensus as against the often imposition of a particular historical experience as the markers to decide our political future. Any political goal must encompass the aspirations of all stakeholders, including the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ones. To what extent can that be actualized on the ground should be the challenge and the ideal that guides us. It is this aspect that calls for wider and genuine consultation and openness, to explore such options as Article 244(A) or Sixth Schedule as contributing to that larger goal, and also on the very umbrella nomenclature that we would fight under. It is unfortunate that even in our age and time we have to grapple with the burden of nomenclature. Yet, it remains an issue we must try to solve it as a one people on our journey forward and not let it remain an obstacle. This urgent need, however, doesn't imply an uncritical imposition of any one solution as you seem to easily make of it.

It is often the muddling up of these two dimensions mentioned above that has caused much confusion and misunderstandings amongst our people – the grandness of our political and cultural aspirations and the complicated political realities and power dynamics within which we seek a hopeful future. Reducing the grand dream of Zale'n-gam or Zogam to a state demand within Manipur is, to say the least, a belittling of the long cherished dreams of our people, and goes against the very spirit of the freedom that we aspire to achieve one day. It limits the possibility of carrying forward that banner of uniting Zo people in the future.

On the one hand, as a movement that continues to faithfully light the torch of freedom and autonomy for all Zo people, we all have that added responsibility of being one of the very few that cherishes and respects that vision today. But on the other hand, we also have the responsibility to usher in peace and development in the face of our contemporary political challenges in Manipur, and it is within this interaction between vision and need that we felt compelled to share our suggestions for a third space of collective dialogue.

The intention of this rejoinder is not to counter your claims or to point out impossibilities in our long quest for a way forward. Far from it, our concern really is to stress both the enormity of the task of thinking collectively together and the benefits and vitality of such an exercise today.

We are thrilled to hear that the first round of the tripartite political dialogue is already underway, and we appreciate all the efforts of our respected leaders in achieving such a historic landmark. We remain hopeful that an honourable political solution would be arrived at in the foreseeable future.

Sam G Ngaihte (University of Oxford)
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Golan Suanzamung Naulak (University of London)
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