Assembly Elections: Manipur

The Naga factor

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh (right) with Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam at an election campaign in Heingang constituency in Imphal on February 15. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Irom Sharmila, candidate of the People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance, leaving the Deputy Comissioner's office after filing her nomination papers. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Suspicions about the contents of the Framework Agreement between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M) rankle the people of Manipur even as the ruling Congress and the BJP try to woo voters.

AS campaigning gained momentum in Manipur for the two-phase Assembly elections scheduled for March 4 and 8, the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were seen trying to outmanoeuvre each other with promises to protect the territorial integrity of the north-eastern State.

The aggressive postures adopted by the two major parties around the issue and over the ongoing blockade of the two National Highways, NH 2 and NH 37, have brought the Framework Agreement signed between the Central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) in 2015 to the centre stage of the electoral battle. The Congress dared the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre to make public the contents of the agreement. The BJP, on the other hand, has accused the Congress of playing “unhealthy” politics around the Naga peace talks.

Altogether, 265 candidates are in the fray for election to the 60-member State Assembly; 167 candidates will contest for 38 seats that will go to the polls in the first phase and 98 candidates for 22 seats in the second phase.

Speaking at the BJP’s “Intellectual Meet and Vision Document Release” in Imphal on February 19, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said: “There is no mention of Manipur in the Framework Agreement with NSCN(I-M). The Congress is not doing healthy politics.”

The promise of “firm commitment to protect Manipur’s territorial integrity, culture and its people” tops the 10 action points listed in the BJP Manipur Pradesh Vision Document 2017, which was released by Rajnath Singh, senior BJP leader Ram Madhav and other party leaders.

The Framework Agreement was signed on August 3, 2015, after 80 rounds of peace talks. Both sides have remained tight-lipped about the contents of the agreement and this has triggered speculations in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh about whether the pact talks about addressing the issue of integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of these States besides Nagaland and, if yes, in what manner. The NSCN(I-M) has been maintaining that any solution that is arrived at should apply to all areas under “Nagalim”. The NSCN(I-M)’s map of “Nagalim” includes large areas of Manipur and parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, besides Nagaland.

The BJP hopes that its Vision Document and the statement made by Rajnath Singh will remove any suspicion among the people of Manipur over the Framework Agreement and the voters will reject the Congress’ campaign around it. However, neither Rajnath Singh nor the BJP has sought to explain the need to keep the contents of the agreement a secret, which has given the Congress an opportunity to fire a fresh salvo against the Centre demanding to know why the details of the agreement have been kept a closely guarded secret if it contains nothing harmful to Manipur.

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh alleged that the verbal assurance given by Rajnath Singh only deepened the people’s suspicions about the agreement.

The Congress, in its election manifesto, has promised to “urge the Centre to enact a constitutional safeguard to protect the integrity and territorial boundary of Manipur”. The party’s spin doctors have articulated this promise hoping that the “constitutional safeguard” will sound more concrete and convincing than a mere promise of “protecting the integrity and territorial boundary of Manipur” as the existing constitutional provisions are no bar to redrawing the State’s boundaries.

Reiterating its demand for making the contents of the agreement public, the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) said that the Home Minister’s assurance that the agreement would not disturb the territorial integrity of Manipur was not enough.

“We would like to study the Framework Agreement to see if it contains anything inimical to the interests of Manipur. We are not looking for any certificates issued by the Union Home Minister or the Prime Minister or any other leader about the Framework Agreement,” a statement issued by AMSU secretary general Manjit Sarangthem, which was quoted by local newspapers, stated. The AMSU has launched its “Campaign for Protection of Historical and Political Identity of Manipur” to press for its demand for a white paper on the Framework Agreement. AMSU supporters took to the streets in different parts of the State to form human chains and take out processions holding banners with the slogan, “Disclose Framework Agreement signed between Government of India and NSCN(I-M)”.

The United Committee of Manipur, the Committee of Civil Societies Kangleipak and the Nongchup Imphal Meira Paibi Apunba Lup have also demanded that the contents of the agreement be made accessible to the people of Manipur. They appealed to political parties and their candidates not to use the agreement for electoral gains.

Rajnath Singh’s clarification on the agreement and the BJP’s decision to make the issue of protection of integrity and territorial boundary of Manipur the top action point in its Vision Document are likely to ease the pressure on Ibobi Singh, who is seeking to script electoral history by being elected for a fourth consecutive term although an anti-incumbency sentiment has crept in after 15 years of Congress rule.

The BJP’s Vision Document has pushed the development plank behind and made the issue of territorial integrity of Manipur the most important political issue. Since the United Naga Council (UNC)-sponsored economic blockade is intricately linked to the aspiration of Nagas for the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas and assertion of their claims that their ancestral land has been appropriated for the creation of new districts, every time the BJP raises the issue of blockade it faces the tough challenge of coming up with a more convincing assurance on the protection of the territorial integrity of Manipur. For the same reason, the BJP is also under pressure to disclose the contents of the Framework Agreement.

In a bid to prevent its supporters in the valley districts as well as in the hills from shifting their loyalty to the BJP, the Congress has raked up the issue of the political alliance between the saffron party and the Naga People’s Front (NPF). The NPF and the BJP are partners in the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland in Nagaland. The NPF is also a constituent of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) formed at the behest of the BJP. Although the NEDA has clarified that the alliance between the NPF and the BJP is limited to Nagaland and that the two parties are contesting against each other in Manipur, the BJP is finding it difficult to convince voters in the valley districts that it will keep its promise to protect Manipur’s territorial integrity as “integration of all Naga-inhabited areas” has been the key plank of the NPF.

Rajnath Singh described the economic blockade as the result of a “political conspiracy to divert the attention from the failures of the Congress government” while his party included establishing “a Highway Protection Force for blockade-free Manipur” as one of the action points of its Vision Document. Rajnath Singh also claimed that the Centre had provided the State adequate Central forces but the State government did not use them to remove the blockade.

The UNC imposed the blockade on November 1 last year to protest against the creation of seven new districts in Manipur. It alleged that the new districts were created by bifurcating the ancestral land of the Naga people without their consent. It decided to continue the blockade until the government rolled back the decision. While the Congress has ruled out a rollback of the decision on the new districts, the BJP has not made any commitment on the UNC’s demand. Its Vision Document has promised to “connect every district with all-weather four-lane roads”. The Congress has demanded that the Centre declare the UNC an unlawful organisation.

The BJP’s action points promised to “investigate fake encounter and corruption cases” but no direct reference has been made to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, although most of the alleged fake encounters are attributed to the controversial Act. The Congress manifesto, on the other hand, has promised to strive for the removal of the AFSPA from the remaining part of the State as had been done in the seven Assembly segments under the Imphal Municipal Corporation.

The issue did figure in the past elections but this time it has got more prominence with the human rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu, who was on a hunger strike that lasted 16 years to press for the repeal of the AFSPA, floating a new political party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) and entering electoral politics. Irom Sharmila is contesting against Ibobi Singh in Thoubal constituency. She ended her fast on August 9, 2016, and decided to float the new party in a bid to take her cause to the floor of the Assembly. The PRJA has fielded three candidates.

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