Manipur’s Farcical Local Polls Drive Inter-Group Wedge Deeper

In Manipur, people have a different name for ‘free and fair’ elections; it is ‘free and fear’ elections.

4 min read
Voters stand in a queue outside a polling station at Ukhrul in Manipur. (Photo: Reuters) 

Across the world,  a ‘free and fair’ election is the gold standard for any true democracy, in which voters freely vote for the candidates they want, and the winners get to keep their jobs for a full term.

Not so in Manipur. Here, they’ve a different name for it: “Free and fear” elections.

A member of the security forces stands guard along a roadside in Imphal. (Photo: Reuters) 
A member of the security forces stands guard along a roadside in Imphal. (Photo: Reuters) 

Fair, or Fear Elections?

Last week’s poll results to the state’s six hill Autonomous Development Councils (ADC) were declared amid the usual brazen fanfare of violence and intimidation. Cases of abduction, rigging and forced ‘house arrests’ to prevent candidates from campaigning, were reported, as it happens every electoral season.

Before the polls, reports suggested that an “underground group” was employing pressure tactics to swing the result. That the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) group was sending hurried missives to every Naga village chief to round up people to vote in favour of the Naga People’s Front (NPF). In case anyone failed to comply with these orders, a detailed list of their names had to be sent to them “without fail”.

Re-polls were ordered at many places. At the end, the Congress cornered 46 out of the 144 ADC seats, with the NPF finishing a close second (43), followed by the BJP (21).

The elections were very “successful”, said Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, after the results were announced June 10. It’s a reflection of the “coming to senses” that this lower-most electoral event is indeed important, he said.

Winners or Losers

In one respect, Singh is right. Last time round, in 2010, an election boycott call ordered by the United Naga Council, a radical Manipur Naga organisation, brought the hills to a standstill. The Congress ended up “winning” most of the seats – unopposed.

All this while, since the last elections, ADC members belonging to the Congress have been holed up inside a high-security hostel inside Khuman Lampak stadium at the heart of state capital, Imphal. Some have been staying at a government guest house in Poumai Colony near Sankagpham. Banned from returning to their villages and fearing for their lives, the ADC members and their families, have been living in these self-imposed prison houses for the past five years. A powerful bomb went off in Sangakpham in March this year, just as preparations of ADC polls were underway, killing four civilians.

Violence in Imphal

Manipur has been wracked by violence for decades. A few have secessionist designs. Some are picking arms for the sake of having their area declared a district, but many ordinary folks simply want certain constitutional safeguards enjoyed by citizens of this country.

Much of the current mess is linked to a longstanding demand of Kukis and Nagas who inhabit the hills: greater financial autonomy under ADC, as guaranteed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

For years, valley-ruled Manipur has denied this right on the grounds that these provisions were especially meant for the hills of Assam, not Manipur. Sure, ADCs were created in Manipur hills in 1971, but they are toothless bodies, without the financial wherewithal their peers enjoy in Ladakh or Gorkhaland.

Manipur’s landscape – an elevated valley shaped like a disc at the centre and dominated by Hindu Meiteis, is surrounded by hills, which at 20,089 sq km is bigger than Telangana.

A  Border Security Force soldier  keeps vigil as voters wait in a queue to cast their ballots outside a polling station in Manipur. (Photo: Reuters) 
A Border Security Force soldier keeps vigil as voters wait in a queue to cast their ballots outside a polling station in Manipur. (Photo: Reuters) 

Will Sixth Schedule Disturb “Emotional Integration”?

Many in the valley believe that granting Sixth Schedule status to the hills will disturb “emotional integration”, particularly when the radical among the Nagas want separation from its mainland to create a ‘Greater Nagalim’, as espoused by NSCN leader Thuingaleng Muivah.

S Mangi Singh, head of political science department in Manipur University, says no change of law can benefit the hill people until clean elections and good governance are established. “The people of the valley look at the hills and the plains as one organic whole. There’s already polarisation on ethnic and geographical lines,” Singh said.

Not everyone agrees. “Many of the tribal uprisings can be minimised by granting this status,” says Khaimang Chongloi, general secretary of Kuki Inpi, the authority representing the Kuki tribe.

Last September, a Kuki delegation from Sadar hills and the district of Churachandpur sat in protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. Nobody listened.

Can Imphal Follow Assam?

Imphal could perhaps look at the example of Assam. After years of neglecting minority tribal communities, it finally gave in, creating a total of nine ADCs – the latest in 2005 – when disgruntled tribals demanded separate states. Apart from law and order, the ADCs today run 30-odd departments from education to soil conservation, and many of the former radicals are now leading normal lives. There are administrative defects in ADCs, but that’s another story.

Clamour in Manipur Growing Louder

Rather, the delay in Manipur has hardened postures. The United Naga Council, which called a 48 hour bandh on June 16, is now demanding an ‘Alternative Arrangement’ for Naga areas, a settlement “outside of the Imphal government, but within the Constitution of India”.  The radicalisation within the UNC, which supported the NPF during the elections, is so deep that it no longer has elected representatives on its board.

“So long Imphal is in charge of controlling the finances, we will remain backward. We’ve no roads, many villages have no electricity,” says Bungdon Behring, a former MP and founder UNC member.

Manipur’s troubles will not end soon, and treating its own ethnic people differently from others, will not help. There’s, however, one positive takeway from last week: Despite threats, 36 Independent candidates won, urging peace.

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

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