Lalam Hangshing Speaks His Mind
Updated: Dec 15, 2023
(June 1, 2023) WL Hangshing, known to everyone as Lalam, wears two hats: the elected chairman, as many of our readers know, of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council, he is also the general secretary of the Kuki People’s Alliance, the only all-Kuki party in Manipur’s state legislature. Our Newsletter interviewed him this week about the recent violence in the state. Here are our questions and his answers.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born in New Delhi, where my father, Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing, who later became one of the founding members of the B’nei Menashe community in Manipur, was serving in an administrative capacity in the Indian ministry of defense. Career-wise, I followed in his footsteps by entering the Indian Civil Service. I worked for 35 years in the Indian Revenue Service, including as a Commissioner of the Mumbai port and Chief Commissioner of Taxes and Revenue for Northeast India, a position from which I retired a few years ago. After my retirement, I settled in Manipur, from which my family came, and became active in both the local B’nei Menashe community and the wider Kuki one, of which the B’nei Menashe are an integral part. In November 2020 I was elected Chairman of the B’nei Menashe Council, and more recently, I was chosen to be General Secretary of the newly formed Kuki People's Alliance, which made its debut in the state assembly elections of 2022. The party won two seats.
The recent ethnic conflict between the Kukis and the Meiteis erupted in early May this year. How did it begin?
It’s unfortunate that the conflict escalated as it did, but it was building up for many years. While it’s true that the Tribal Solidarity March of May 3, which was a Kuki and Naga protest against the Meitei-controlled state government, may have been the spark that lit the tinderbox, the tinder was already there. During the Solidarity March, Meitei provocateurs had set fire in Imphal to a gateway commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1917-19 Kuki rebellion against the British. Basically, it is and always has been a conflict over land. The Meitei majority has traditionally lived in and around Imphal, in Manipur’s Central Valley, while the Kukis have inhabited the hills surrounding it. In the last few months, the Meitei government tried to invoke various administrative clauses that would have resulted in the expropriation of Kuki lands and their transfer to state authority. Once it was the state’s, the Meiteis could have done what they wanted with it. You might call it a campaign for “Meitei Lebensraum.” Naturally, the Kukis couldn’t accept this. This led to the May 3 march.
What happened next?
The evening after the March, which was peaceful, Meiteis went on rampages in Imphal and several largely Kuki villages bordering the Central Valley, fed by rumors of violence shared on social media platrforms. In all these places, they target only Kuki homes and churches, plus the B’nei Menashe synagogue in Sajal. There were pro-Meiteis who tried to claim that the attackers were no more than rioting mobs that got out of control, but how do you account for the fact that, in neighborhoods and villages in which both groups lived side by sides, Kuki homes alone were targeted with great precision? The whole thing was clearly planned in advance before the Solidarity March took place. I don't see any other explanation. It was premeditated ethnic cleansing.
Why did it take so long for the government to intervene?
The government had no desire to intervene. The police were in cahoots with the rioters. They let the mobs loot police armories and gave them free rein. Videos were freely allowed to circulate on the social media calling for killing Kukis and raping their women. Kuki houses were looted and ransacked even as their residents were fleeing. This is still going on. It’s happening even now as we speak. It’s just happened to a house of mine in Imphal. There are no Kukis left there. The official figures, which are almost certainly on the low side, are of 70 dead, over 200 injured and 2,000 houses destroyed to date. It’s been a complete failure of law and order.
There has been a Kuki demand for permanent separation from the Meiteis. Is there any other solution to the problem?
Separation is already a reality, emotionally and geographically. All it needs to make it final is to have an administrative stamp put on it. There are no more Kukis in Imphal or the Valley, and I don't imagine that
any of those who have fled will be returning. And by the same token, Meiteis living in the hills and in the hill towns -- Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Moreh -- have all left. There’s no chance of reconciliation in the foreseeable future. All trust is gone.
What would administrative separation mean?
The Kuki areas of Manipur are too small to justify the creation of a Kuki state within the Indian federal structure. This leaves two possibilities. The first would be the implementation of what is known in India as the 6th Schedule. That’s a constitutional provision that allows for regional autonomy, something like a state within a state in which an area has political, administrative, and financial autonomy. Actually, this should have been done in Manipur long ago. North East India is an ethnically fragmented area, and there are 6th Schedule districts in every North Eastern state with the exception of Manipur and Nagaland, where such arrangement was deemed unnecessary.
A second possibility would be the creation of a Union Territory. That’s an arrangement, also provided for by the Indian constitution, whereby a region permanently put under the direct rule of the federal government in New Delhi, which in return respects its ethnic distinctiveness. A Union Territory can have its own legislature and other governmental mechanisms, and would in effect remove the Kukis from the state structure of Manipur entirely.
And then there are talks of a Greater Mizoram. The Mizos are close ethnic cousins of the Kukis and identify with them in their struggle, and it would be far easier for the Kukis to live together with the Mizos than with the Meiteis.
How realistic are these options?
No Indian federal government likes to encourage fragmentation, but the current situation can’t just be swept under a carpet. The hatred now existing between Meiteis and Kukis makes this impossible. Some kind of creative solution will have to be found. .
What happens if it isn’t?
As I’ve said, what’s been smashed can’t be put back together. Even though the Meiteis say they’ll never agree to the dismemberment of Manipur, the Kukis are not going to accept living together after the treatment meted out to them. Let's keep in mind that the hills, in which the Meiteis never lived, were never a part of the erstwhile Manipuri kingdom that the Meitei nationalists long for. They were incorporated by the British into the princely state of Manipur for administrative convenience -- and even under the British Raj, the valley was administered
by the Maharaja of Manipur and the hills by a British political appointee. Many Kukis don’t even speak Meitei. We have our own language and use it among ourselves. We already fought for our independence against the British in 1917-19. There is no way we can return to the homes we have been driven from. Either we are allowed to our own way peacefully or we will have to fight for it.
How does all this affect the B’nei Menashe?
The B’nei Menashe, by virtue of being Kukis, have been targeted by the Meiteis too, even though none of the violence has been aimed specifically against them. Whatever happens, the region is going to remain volatile. This is going to be a long and protracted conflict that can explode again and again. The B’nei Menashe community will continue to be in danger, not just of losing its homes, but of chronic shortages of food, medical care, and security. Look at me: I can’t even reveal where I am right now because that might put my life in jeopardy! Degel Menashe, which has been the only organization extending aid to the B’nei Menashe in recent weeks, is doing a commendable job of providing food relief, but how long can it do on doing this? The only real solution is the Aliyah of all of us to Israel. There were good reasons for expediting it even before the recent violence broke out. Now there are more of them.