Manipur’s divided election

The year-long violence with no political intervention has left the people more concerned about their future than electoral politics. 

Published : Apr 15, 2024 23:12 IST - 7 MINS READ

A Kuki woman looks at an election awareness poster put by election officials on an autorickshaw in violence-affected Churachandpur district of Manipur on April 11.

A Kuki woman looks at an election awareness poster put by election officials on an autorickshaw in violence-affected Churachandpur district of Manipur on April 11. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The ground reality in Manipur right now is intercommunity distrust, unrest, and division. There is no enthusiasm in either the Meitei or Kuki communities about the election. The Manipuri people are more worried about their future than about electoral politics. The Kuki-Zomi, Meitei, and Naga, the three major communities, have been polarised and counter-polarised among political parties and candidates, and all three groups have different political goals. The Meitei want territorial integrity and equal rights across Manipur, the Naga want an integrated “greater Nagalim (Nagaland)” that includes parts of Manipur, while the Kuki-Zo want a separate administration in the hill areas.

In the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, a reserved ST constituency, there is an uneasy peace. The main contest is between the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which is a BJP ally, and the Congress, which has the backing of the Kuki community. The United Naga Council (UNC), the largest civil society organisation of the Naga community in the north-eastern region, is supporting the NPF this time. In Inner Manipur, the main contest is between the BJP and the Congress.

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In the Outer Manipur (Sadar Hill) constituency, all four candidates, including two Independents, are Naga, while in Inner Manipur, all six candidates are Meitei. There is no candidate from the Kuki-Zomi community. The National People’s Party, a member of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and the NDA, and the first recognised national party in the north-eastern region, is not contesting.

Special polling stations have been set up inside the relief camps in Mizoram that house the internally displaced Kuki-Zo community. While neither print nor digital media play an influential role in Outer Manipur, the media are playing a balancing role in Inner Manipur this time.

The State has not seen any positive political initiatives in the past one year, and there is visible apprehension and uncertainty about the future among all the communities. Neither community leaders nor political parties have any agenda of development or a viable plan for an integrated Manipur. Nor do they have answers to the two main questions being raised: about the State’s territorial integrity and about the feasibility of holding a Lok Sabha election in the prevailing atmosphere.

While no organisation, including underground ones, has announced a boycott, there are serious challenges for the Central security forces given the grave violence the State has seen and the lingering hostility. Members of the Central security forces say the situation is not normal and anticipate a serious challenge to security during polling. On April 12, violence broke out between Meitei village volunteers and an unidentified armed group in Thoubal district. One person was injured. The following day, two men, Kamlensat Lunkim (25) and Kamminlal Lupheng (23), were reportedly killed in a gunfight between two armed groups at the boundary of Kangpokpi-Imphal East districts.

The government has refused to allow the Assam Rifles on election duty this time, but the largest number of security forces will be deployed in the State’s history. The discord between communities that has continued for a year, with practically no government attempt at mediation, has resulted even in administrative divisions becoming permanent. Manipur will conduct a divided election this time.

For the first time, the BJP has not sent its star campaigners to the State, with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah conspicuous by their absence so far. There is palpable resentment and anger among people that the Prime Minister has not visited the State since May 3, 2023, when ethnic violence broke out. However, there are reports that Shah is likely to campaign at Imphal in Outer Manipur on April 14 or 15.

Manipuri people say they have no expectations from the Central government, either before or after the election. There is a distinct possibility of a low voter turnout and community organisations have distanced themselves from the BJP.

The armed groups, which not only influence elections each time but also interfere in the politics of the State, are not directly supporting any party or candidate this time. It is they, along with student organisations, who have the most influence among communities. Truly free and fair elections have never been held for the Lok Sabha seat of the hill regions of Manipur, with not only insurgent groups dictating the people’s votes but both the ruling party and government machinery also involved in election code violations. Booth capturing and misuse of money and machinery are common. While this will be the first election when at least the armed groups are staying out, apprehensions remain.

While the BJP has not fielded a candidate for Outer Manipur, it is in talks with Naga organisations (the NPF, the UNC, and the NSCN [Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland]) and Meitei organisations. The Kuki community is remaining neutral and inactive. The Congress has fielded candidates for both seats. In Outer Manipur, it has fielded Alfred Arthur from the Naga community against the NPF’s Kachui Timothy Jimik. Two independent Naga candidates are also contesting. In Inner Manipur, the Congress has fielded Professor Bimal Akoijam, a JNU professor who is reportedly popular among educated voters, while the BJP has fronted Basanta Kumar Singh, the former Manipur Education Minister.

The Congress has one drawback in Outer Manipur in that its former Ibobi Singh government created seven new districts in Outer Manipur, which is now considered an anti-Naga decision. But Ibobi Singh also has influence in the Meitei community of Thoubal district. The NPF, which is the political wing of the NSCN, has Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio campaigning for its candidate.

Disillusioned with the ruling party

The Inner Manipur seat has six candidates, including three Independents. Besides the Congress and the BJP, Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India (Athawale) or RPI(A) is in the fray with Maheshwar Thonaojam, a film actor and local celebrity. The RPI(A) has two MLAs in the Nagaland Assembly, and it plans to split the Meitei vote in Inner Manipur as part of its election strategy with ally BJP. Independent candidates will also split Meitei and Naga votes, which is a concern for the Congress. However, the disillusionment with the ruling party is clearly visible among voters in both seats.

In Outer Manipur, Gaikhangam, a former Congress MLA and an influential leader of the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), an underground Naga organisation, has political influence on the Naga community, another positive for the Congress. However, its victory will depend on how much the Meitei and Naga votes are split. The NPF and the BJP have adopted the strategy of dividing and polarising votes to win Outer Manipur, while in Inner Manipur the BJP has made strategic, albeit indirect, alliances with Meitei community organisations such as the Arambai Tenggol, an armed revivalist Meitei group often accused of executing the worst atrocities against the Kuki during the State’s recent violence. The BJP has strengthened Arambai Tenggol at the grassroots level.

In Outer Manipur, one of the Independent candidates is S. Kho John, a Naga and former president of the Manipur Scheduled Tribes’ Student Union, with a support base among tribal students. The other Independent is Dr Alyson Abonmai, also a Naga and a well-known social worker and activist, who has a Meitei support base. While the results are unpredictable, the Naga and Meitei communities are largely backing BJP and NPF candidates, which gives them an advantage over the Congress candidates in both constituencies, but people believe that regardless of the results, there will be no change in the current state of affairs in the State.

Also Read | Targeting of Kukis the main reason behind Manipur violence

In fact, the election is likely to further complicate the prevailing Manipur issue since, with the BJP’s backing, Naga political parties are also participating, something they did not do in the 1990s.

Whether the NPF or the Congress candidate wins in Outer Manipur, both will do politics in the interest of the Naga community, and any candidate who wins in Inner Manipur will do politics in the interest of the Meitei. The Kuki-Zo community is therefore disheartened and pessimistic, seeing little chance to protect its interests. There is a belief that violence might restart after the election. It is expected that the role of public representatives in State politics will weaken, and the interference of community organisations will increase.

Will this election erase the permanent lines drawn between communities after the May 3 eruption of ethnic violence last year? It seems unlikely.

Suwa Lal Jangu is assistant professor of political science, Mizoram University.

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