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Naga Past Returns to Haunt Modi’s ‘Smart City’ In Manipur

In the crossroads of India’s development ambitions, a little known Manipur village stakes claim. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
A view of Thangbung Minou village in Manipur’s Chandel district. (Photo: Maitreyee Handique)
The deserted Thangbung Minou is a few kilomteres south of the border town of Moreh near the India-Myanmar border. (Map: Roshan Tamang)
The deserted Thangbung Minou is a few kilomteres south of the border town of Moreh near the India-Myanmar border. (Map: Roshan Tamang)

They call it Thangbung Minou. Yet, it is not Thangbung Minou.

For the 225 inhabitants of Thangbung Minou village, living in exile for the past two decades has been both painful and disruptive. Since the 1993 ethnic Naga-Kuki riots, these displaced families made a patch of a hillock near Manipur’s Chandel town their ‘home’, calling it so after their ancestral land. They, however, long to return to Thangbung Minou, their original home, on the edge of the India-Myanmar border.

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different versions of how clashes between the two hill communities – Kukis and Nagas – started. Spreading from the borderlands, it engulfed neighbouring states in a brutal conflict that lasted five years. Facing the trauma of dislocation was also this Anal Naga community of T Minou, as the village is called in short.  

If their past has been haunting, T Minou now has another problem: Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to build a ‘smart city’ on the land they left behind.

Last week, Modi formally announced his ambitious plan, saying that the “cities of the 21st century” will adopt a “ground up approach”. Had India realised the advantages of urbanisation 25 years ago, the country could have been “at a par with the developed world.” “Better late than never”, he added, and to catch up with lost time, 100 such cities are expected to be ready in five years from now.

Not a ‘Smart’ Move

Manipur has selected the ramshackle border town of Moreh for this urban makeover – the ‘Gateway to Southeast Asia’. The state, according to reports, has set sights on a 3,000-acre site near this trading outpost.

At the very least, the idea does not appear to be smart. The proposed site for this futuristic city is not just any place, but a wild hilly terrain in the lap of lawlessness, a sort of Golden Triangle in India’s own backyard. Illegal trading of timber, drugs and weapons goes on, and where several underground groups reportedly hold sway, one reason why villagers are unable to return; militants recently killed 18 Indian soldiers, 18 km from the original T Minou.

And, then, Imphal has not shared its plans with the real stakeholders. “It’s unfortunate that nobody has talked to us,” says Tongsin Thurhring, T Minou’s village chief.

Tongsin Thurhring, the Anal Naga  chief of Thangbung Minou village, says the land belongs to the community. (Photo: Courtesy: Maitryee Handique)
Tongsin Thurhring, the Anal Naga chief of Thangbung Minou village, says the land belongs to the community. (Photo: Courtesy: Maitryee Handique)

Since Imphal bared its plan, T Minou has been watching the developments at the border with anguish and quiet anger. Distressed that the government is only talking to the “new settlers” of border village Haollenphai, they lodged complaints. No official was ready to listen.

The community decided to dust out old land records.

Reclaiming Their Land

They discovered that the land in question – between a river called Duta that separates India and Myanmar, and Dunam river in inner Chandel – belongs to T Minou, according to 1933-34 papers. In March this year, they got a court decree to declare the same.

Displacement is never pleasant, and the sufferings faced by the Nagas mirror those of the Kukis, many of whom have faced double eviction – first chased out by the Myanmarese military during the 1967-68 clampdown on minorities, and, later, in the 1990s, when the fleeing human tide began to gather around Haollenphai.

The Kuki people of Haollenphai, too, aren’t entirely at fault; many bought land from T Minou’s offshoot village – Mangkang – whose late chief allegedly struck an all-cash secret deal without informing his community. Apart from the migrants, there are also other Kukis who’ve been living in the region for centuries. As it stands now, the Kukis are protesting against land takeover for this controversial project, while T Minou holds the land pattas. Haollenphai chief, Lalkholun Haokip, could not be reached for comments.

Official Ignorance

Perhaps, the Centre is unaware about the complex nature of community land ownership in India’s northeast, guarded by customary laws. But, surprisingly, Imphal, too, is clueless about its own state, whose reluctance to hand over financial autonomy to the hill areas is proving to be its own undoing.

For most part, government officials rarely visit the border areas, unless they’re especially invited by villagers, who in gratitude to get someone to listen to their problems, often throw lavish feasts. When the T Minou people were in trouble in 1993, there were no mobile phones to send out ‘help’ messages. But there were no officers either to check whether they were safe.

When two militant groups – the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction) and the Kuki National Army – began to squabble over ‘underground’ tax collection, it spilled into villages, each refusing to pay to the underground group of the other tribe. Hundreds died and thousands were displaced, as homes went up in smoke.

Stories of Displacement

Before the pineapples had ripened in her farm, Seltun Thumhring and her five children had to leave on April 22, 1993. They walked for three days: first cutting though Durthang village, then Darchor, before winding up here. Now 73, she says life was hard at the beginning, and they ate whatever was served in the community kitchen. Landless, she worked in other’s jhum land.

Thungno Seltun, who’s 72, looked out for state forestry announcements, planting trees in jungle tracts. His wife, Zultun, started rearing pigs.



Seltun Thungno, and his wife, Jultun. For survival, Thungno planted trees under the government’s watershed development scheme. (Photo: Courtesy: Maitreyee Handique)
Seltun Thungno, and his wife, Jultun. For survival, Thungno planted trees under the government’s watershed development scheme. (Photo: Courtesy: Maitreyee Handique)

Vangmathun Ruwngsel, now 77, decided to strike out on his own; he opened a cycle repair shop.

Their stories will resonate with anyone who’s faced displacement. What’s heartening is to see is how they picked up pieces of their shattered lives, and built a tidy new place, with government help: Free school and midday meals, and neat water drains built with 100 days of guaranteed rural wages for each family a year, on which the village still depends on.

If anyone still wants a piece of their old garden, there’s only one thing to do: “They’ve to talk to my people,” says chief Thurhring. “To sell or not to sell, our community will decide.”

(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s northeast and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues)

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