The recent claims of some Kukis people backed by Nehlun faction of Kuki National Front (KNF-N) over Mount Koubru as exclusive ‘ancestral land’ and ‘tribal land’ of the Kukis might unsettle the already fragile inter-ethnic relations in the multi-ethnic state of Manipur.
The KNF-N in a statement on April 7 has warned the Government of Manipur not to conduct any field verification and necessary measurements for the sacred site of Lord Koubru and Lai Pukhri; and to abstain from ‘forceful occupation of tribal lands’ at Koubru Hill range. The KNF-N is a Kuki militant outfit which is not a party to the Kuki militant groups who are under Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Government of India and Government of Manipur.
The outfit alleged that the order of the government disrespects the land rights of the tribal communities and violates human rights as well as Article 371C of the Indian Constitution. The state government is attempting to forcefully impose revenue in the tribal land wherever they prefer which clearly exhibits the intention of an illegal attempt to seize and occupy the tribal land using various laws and acts under pressure from the Meitei community or organisations, added the statement.
The order issued by M Joy Singh, Commissioner of Art and Culture, Government of Manipur on November 26, 2020 declares sacred sites at Mt. Koubru and Mt. Thangjing as protected sites under Sub-Section (1) of Section 4 of the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1976 in public interest. The order’s intention is to declare Ibudhou Thangjing (approx. 4 hectares), the sacred site of Lord Koubru (approx. 2 hectares) located at Thangjing Hill range, and Lai Pukhri (approx. 4 hectares) located at Koubru hill range as protected sites. The order also notified that any interested person may file his/her objection to the declaration of the said sites/monuments as protected historical sites/areas under Sub-Section (2) of Section 4 of the above Act within two months (60 days) from the date of issue of the notification.
According to the cosmogony of the Meiteis, it is believed that the evolution of human settlement in the state of Manipur originated from Koubru peak and later descended downward gradually to the foothills and the valley.
Archaeological evidence also shows that the present Manipur valley was under water during the Quaternary period and part of Tethys Sea; and therefore the earliest human settlements in the hills gradually extended downwards and to the valley over the centuries.
The ancestors of present day Meiteis braved the challenges of water and were successful in draining a water-logged valley through a network of small waterways and their consequent transformation from food-gatherers and hunters to sedentary cultivators eventually gave birth to their rich culture and distinctive way of life in 33 AD. Later a hydraulic civilisation was evolved in Manipur. Archaic texts also have it that Chingjan Naral Pangganba diverted even the course of the Barak River. Therefore, the valley was naturally the core region where a bigger and inclusive Manipuri culture and way of life also took shape later on.
This being the rationale till today, the people of Manipur, particularly the Meiteis, irrespective of religion regard Mt. Koubru as one of the most sacred mountains in the state. Every year, a week after Cheiraoba (Manipur New Year’s Day), on the first Friday, people go on pilgrimage to the Koubru Peak, which is around 2,802 metres high. A special attraction at the peak is the sacred pond Lai Pukhri, a massive rectangular boulder and the cliff of the Koubru. In short, Mt. Koubru is the epicentre of all mythology, tradition and belief of human creation on the Earth in the Manipuri world-view. Hence, the prayer ‘Awang Koubru Asuppa, Yoimayai/Laiyam Khunda Ahanba …’ by the Meiteis continues till date.
However, the KNF-N claims that Mount Koubru is a sacred site for the Kuki community as narrated by their forefathers in beliefs which have come down through the oral tradition.
The KNF-N further claims, “Ever since the Kuki tribe adopted the Christian faith, we could no longer consider the Koubru range as a sacred site anymore,” adding that “it cannot be considered as a sacred site for any other community as well if the land owners do not accept or agree to establish it as a historical sacred site.”
“We do not welcome invisible natural object religion including the Koubru Lai to profess anymore within the premises of our land and we also oppose the revenue act of any government imposed forcefully in favour of one community or organisation,” the statement says.
The KNF-N further stressed that the government should abstain from such intention to breach the peace and tranquillity amongst different communities of the state while adding that the government cannot be inconsiderate towards the genuine tribal rights and especially the Kuki people’s sentiments. The government should stop such illegal seizure of tribal land which can cause communal contention and stop forceful declaration of sacred sites of Lord Koubru and Lai Pukhri at Koubru range as protected sites.
Moreover, hundreds of people in Kangpokpi district under the Committee on Protection and Preservation of Mt. Koubru (COPPK) held a demonstration at Mt. Koubru range on December 3 last year holding placards which read, “Preserve Mt. Koubru, Preserve Co-existence”, “Mt. Koubru is for all Lords, not just Lord Koubru”, “Maintain religious status quo”, “Lai Pukhri for Hindus is Twitheng for Christians”, “No Hindutva in Secular India” etc.
The COPPK notified the public that the committee would not in any manner allow or agree on any terms and conditions to erect any foundation stone based on church, temple or mosque at Mt. Koubru.
The COPPK further informed all concerned to respect and acknowledge the status quo of Mt. Koubru, stating that it should not become a ‘bone of contention and contestation’ irrespective of caste, creed, language and faith for peace and harmony.
It has also asserted that no platform or forum nor community should try to claim ownership of Mt. Koubru based on a particular religion or faith saying that the Mahousa Kanba Lup should cancel the proposed construction of a shrine.
A joint statement issued by Sadar Hills Chief’s Association (SAHILCA), Saparmeina Area Villages Organisation (SAVO), Saitu-Gamphazol Area Villages Organisation (SGAVO), Khengjang Area Chief’s Association (KACA), Leikot Area Chief’s Association (LACA) and Kuki Inpi, Kangpokpi district also endorsed and supported the stand of COPPK.
The Tujang Area Chiefs’ Organisation (TACO) also apprised the commissioner (Arts & Culture), about its strong objection against the proposed declaration of Mt. Koubru area as a protected site by the government.
Consequently, Federation of Haomee organised a sit-in-protest on December 5 last year near Tangkhul Baptist Church, Chingmeirong, Imphal and went to the extent of stating that Mount Koubru is for indigenous people and not for immigrants. They further asserted that the immigrants who inhabit in and around Mt. Koubru area should leave immediately.
The protesters held placards that read ‘Historic God Koubru, Supreme owner of Koubru Ching’, ‘Lai Ikon: No relation with Christianity’, ‘Koubru for indigenous people not for immigrants’, ‘We want our indigenous heritage’, ‘No Zale’n-gam land in Manipur’, ‘Remove KNFP camp from Koubru’, ‘No SoO with foreign extremist, Modiji’ and others.
Unfortunately, the claim over Mt. Koubru by the Kukis with the involvement of KNF-N, a Kuki militant group threatens the social fabric and ethnic relations of the different communities in the multi-ethnic state of Manipur.
The KNF-N fails to understand that nowhere in the government notification is the intent of constructing a religious structure mentioned and declaration as a protected site under the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1976 is nothing to do with revenue, and there is no religious connotation whatsoever in the move but rather of protecting it for the cause of preservation and conservation.
In this situation, it may be mentioned that concepts and phrases like ‘ancestral land’, ‘tribal land’, ‘forceful occupation of tribal lands’ or ‘encroaching upon tribal lands’ have been used frequently and deliberately by some people to press home politically induced narratives with the dispensation of Indian Constitution in Manipur against the centuries old narrative of a shared historical experience among the different communities of the state.
All the ethnic groups in Manipur should understand that among the Manipuris, the Meiteis form the largest ethnic group and they have traditionally inhabited the fertile valley region after a long and lot of struggle in draining water as explained above. A binding interdependence between the people who settle in the hills and valley has been detected not only by geo-political realities but also by genetic affinity between the Meitei and the surrounding communities. Reports also said that recent findings in DNA mapping among the Meiteis and the communities in the hills have also reaffirmed genetic closeness of the Meiteis with their brethren in the hills.
As long as the existence of the Constitutional provision of Article 371C and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (MLR & LR) Act, 1960 passed by the Indian Parliament and division of people as tribal and non-tribal which are divisive for a multi-ethnic state some politically motivated people will further disturb the coexistence of different ethnic groups of Manipur against the shared historical experiences and genetic relations which are inseparable and indispensable for Manipur.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics