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Manipur Assembly election: Territory in focus

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Chief Minister N. Biren Singh is confident of the BJP’s return to power.

Chief Minister N. Biren Singh is confident of the BJP’s return to power.

Territorial integrity is the dominant election issue in Manipur, but in Naga-majority constituencies, ruling and opposition parties speak of development, Naga peace talks, Naga identity and repeal of the AFSPA.

THE issue of “territorial integrity” has become one of the key election issues in Manipur, with the ruling and opposition parties clarifying their stand on the subject in their election manifestos. The spotlight turned on the issue as the Naga People’s Front (NPF), a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government, made the expedition of Naga peace talks and Naga identity its rallying points for seeking electoral support. (Elections to the 60-member Assembly will be held in two phases on February 27 and March 5.)

The BJP’s manifesto, which was released by its national president J.P. Nadda in Imphal on February 17, promised to preserve the territorial integrity of Manipur and the rights and culture of indigenous communities. The Common Agenda proposed by the Congress-led five-party Manipur Progressive Secular Alliance has promised to “secure territorial integrity of Manipur and its historical boundaries”. The National People’s Party (NPP), the BJP’s coalition partner, has promised constitutional safeguards for the territorial integrity of Manipur. The NPP, the BJP and the NPF are contesting against each other after sharing power for five years.

The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the rebel group that is engaged in peace talks with the Centre, has launched a campaign in the election-bound State on the importance of Naga peace talks and the Framework Agreement that the NSCN (I-M) and the government signed in 2015. This will keep the issue of territorial integrity at centre stage in the run-up to the election.

In 2017, political parties made territorial integrity an election plank but at that time the contents of the Framework Agreement were not known to the parties, the candidates and the electorate of the Naga-majority hills and Meitei-majority valley districts. The Naga peace talks reached a deadlock in 2019 over the interpretation of the Framework Agreement by the NSCN(I-M) and the Centre and the NSCN(I-M)’s insistence on a separate flag and constitution for Nagas as an assertion of Naga sovereignty in all Naga-inhabited areas.

The Centre offered to create Naga Regional Territorial Councils (NRTC) in the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution so that territorial integrity of the two States was protected. The NSCN(I-M) has been insisting that the NRTC governments must have “sovereign powers as envisioned in the Framework Agreement”. While releasing a copy of the Framework Agreement, the rebel group claimed that any solution to the Naga political problem must be on the principle of “shared sovereignty” included in the agreement, but the Centre ruled out any solution outside the Indian Constitution.

Autonomous district councils

Manipur has six autonomous district councils (ADCs) constituted under the Manipur Hill Areas District Councils Act, 1971, with the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) comprising all 20 legislators from the hill districts as its members. Under Article 371 (C) of the Constitution, the HAC can make modifications in the rules of business of the government and in the rules of the State Assembly and for any special responsibility of the Governor in order to secure the proper functioning of the committee. The HAC drafted a Bill and sent it to the government for tabling in the Assembly. The Naga and Kuki civil society organisations in the hills supported it and resorted to agitation, while organisations in the Meitei-majority valley districts opposed it, which kept the political pot boiling in the last year of the incumbent government. Chief Minister N. Biren Singh promised that his government was committed to strengthening the ADCs by giving more autonomy to the district councils within the ambit of the Constitution.

I n Naga-majority constituencies in the hill districts, ruling and opposition parties pushed for issues such as development, Naga peace talks, Naga identity and repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

NPF election rally

The NPF’s campaign commenced with a rally in Senapati hill district with Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio calling upon Nagas to unite. Promising his support and that of his Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) to the NPF, Rio said that a solution to the Naga political problem would pave the way for an increase in the number of Assembly and parliamentary constituencies among other things.

Speaking at the rally, T.R. Zeliang, former Nagaland Chief Minister and veteran NPF leader, asserted that the NPF was the only party that was serious about the Naga political issue. He said he was convinced that a solution to the Naga political problem would be “inclusive, honourable and acceptable as aspired by Naga people”. Both leaders urged voters to elect NPF candidates to show their support for a peaceful solution to the vexed Naga political problem.

Rio’s acceptance of the NPF’s invitation to campaign in Manipur has given rise to the speculation of a likely merger of the NDPP and the NPF ahead of the 2023 Nagaland Assembly election.

An NSCN(I-M) press release issued on February 15 stated that “a discourse on the Naga political dialogue was organised for the 57 Henglep Assembly constituency at the ANSAM (All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur) Conference Hall, Tahamzan (Senapati district) HQ on February 9. It was attended by all the village authorities, civil society organisations, youth wings, and students’ organisations. They extended their fullest support to the ongoing Indo-Naga political talks based on the Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015.” The meeting adopted a four-point declaration through which the Rongmei people of the Loktak project area under the Henglep constituency declared that they would appeal to the NSCN and the Government of India “to expedite the Indo-Naga peace process based on the Framework Agreement inclusive of the Naga national flag and the Naga constitution (Yehzabo)” and insisted that “the solution should be inclusive, honourable and acceptable to the Naga people based on the uniqueness of the Naga history”.

BJP’s promise

The BJP hopes that development issues will overshadow the issue of territorial integrity. The party manifesto has promised to continue the “Go to Hills” and “Go to Villages” missions of the incumbent government if re-elected. The BJP’s election promises include free “Scooty” to all meritorious college-going girls, free laptops to all meritorious students passing class 12 and scholarship to children of small, marginal and landless farmers pursuing technical education, an increase in the monthly pension of senior citizens from Rs.200 to Rs.1,000 and establishment of a skill university to empower women and girl children, youth, farmers, poor and marginalised people.

Biren Singh tweeted after a public meeting in the Ukhrul Assembly constituency that “with such love and support for BJP, my confidence level of sweeping this election has been taken a notch higher”.

While the BJP is confident of securing an absolute majority, an internal survey has boosted the Congress’ confidence of recapturing power. Bhakta Charan Das, All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Manipur election, claimed that the party’s prospects were “very good”. He told Frontline that the survey conducted after the nomination process started had indicated clear victories for its candidate in about 34 seats. He, however, said the Congress kept the post-election alliance option open. Asked if the Congress was planning to ally with the NPP or the NPF, Das said: “I would not like to take any name as no dialogue has taken place so far.”

The Congress is pinning its hopes on the NPP eating into the BJP votes. He said a negative perception had shaped about the BJP-led government as the two parties were fighting each other after sharing power for five years. The Naga-majority seat was among the nine seats in the hills that the Congress won in 2017.

With campaigning intensifying, allegations of violence raised by the Congress and the NPP have a cast shadow over the conduct of the election. The NPP lodged complaints with the Chief Electoral Officer, Manipur, about alleged incidents of attacks and threats to its candidates by a section of insurgent outfits currently under Suspension of Operations (SoO). It alleged that the outfits came out in open support of BJP and NPF candidates and demanded that the Election Commission put all “underground groups under SoO in their respective designated camps and declare all constituencies that have presence of underground outfits as ‘most sensitive’ and deploy additional security”.

A Congress delegation submitted a memorandum to the electoral officer on February 16 alleging that the “BJP was indulging in pre-poll violence”. It brought to his attention 14 incidents of attacks and intimidation in six Assembly constituencies. The opposition demanded deployment of Central paramilitary forces and the Central Reserved Police Force to replace the State Police to ensure a free, democratic, and peaceful election process.

The BJP spokesperson Soubam Nongpoknganba Meitei dismissed as “baseless” allegations made by the Congress and the NPP. He said a clear picture would emerge after the conclusion of investigations in some cases. He said the BJP’s organisational machinery made it possible for the party to connect with the people, and the party’s internal surveys and “our good achievement in the last five years” gave it the confidence that it would get an absolute majority. In response to a question, Nongpoknganba, however, said the “door remains open for a post-election alliance”, keeping alive speculation on the prospects of the election.