Manipur sways between bullets and ballots ahead of polling on Friday

It is not certain if PM Modi will campaign in Manipur, where polling for the two Lok Sabha seats is due on 19 and 26 April. Amit Shah, though, may address a rally in Imphal on Monday

Manipur Congress leaders met the CEO and raised concerns about free and fair elections in the violence-torn state
Manipur Congress leaders met the CEO and raised concerns about free and fair elections in the violence-torn state

A.J. Prabal

With just four days to go for the first phase of polling in Manipur, there are renewed doubts about the timing of the election, security preparations and how free, fair and peaceful will be the polling.

A large number of people in the state are disinterested in the polling, asking how it would help or change their plight. They first need to go back home and rebuild their lives and rehabilitate their families, say both Meitei and tribal victims of displacement.

While overt signs of election and campaigning are missing, say reports, with militant groups having called for poll boycott and bans on public meetings, violence has not stopped. Even eleven months after the ethnic clashes began in the small state in May, 2023, illegal arms looted from the state armouries are still being used to strike terror.

Gruesome videos of a dead body of a young man dragged carelessly on a dusty road and of the same or a different body being brutally dismembered have been deleted or taken down from social media. The videos had surfaced on Saturday and they were from Manipur, it was claimed. A report in The Hindu on Sunday claimed that police sources had confirmed the authenticity of the videos.

It is not clear whether the videos were related to the alleged gunfight between two groups on Saturday, in which two young men in their twenties, both believed to be tribals, were killed at the boundary of the Kangpopki and Imphal East districts or to the killing of a young man in Tengnoupal earlier.

The fresh violence comes ahead of union home minister Amit Shah’s scheduled election rally at Imphal on Monday. This will be his first visit to the state after he visited Manipur for three days starting 29 May last year and left after promising that he would be back in a fortnight.

With polling for the two Lok Sabha seats in the state scheduled in two phases, 19 and 26 April, there are also question marks about whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing any election rally at all.

The PM’s failure to visit the state after ethnic violence broke out on 3 May, 2023 has been a sore point with the people in the state, where 200 people have lost their lives and 50,000 displaced.

Polling for the two Lok Sabha seats is due on April 19 and 26; while Inner Manipur and some segments of Outer Manipur will vote in the first phase, the remaining segments of Outer Manipur will go to polls on April 26. This is the first time polling will take place in two phases in the same constituency.

The Outer Manipur constituency, reserved for scheduled tribes, has been represented by six Naga and five Kuki leaders till now. This time, all the candidates in the fray are Nagas, with no Kuki contesting in the election following the boycott call of pressure groups. Of Outer Manipur's eight lakh strong voters, Nagas make up the largest group with 4.61 lakh voters, followed by the Kuki-Zomi (3.21 lakh).

Both the main contestants are finding it tricky to reach out to the Kuki-Zomo tribes because Naga tribes had declared themselves to be neutral when ethnic clashes broke out last May between Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi tribes.

Alfred Kanngam Arthur, the Congress candidate, has been in conversation with apex tribe bodies such as the Kuki Inpi Manipur and the Zomi Council. The Congress is trying to build a “larger tribal solidarity” in Manipur based on land and forest rights and economic neglect of tribal areas. Congress is also highlighting the candidate’s record in the Assembly, where he has been a fierce proponent of increased autonomy for the Autonomous District Councils of the State.

Meanwhile, Bharatiya Janata Party’ backed Naga People’s Front is positioning its candidate, a former IRS officer Kachui Timothy Zimik, as one who can unite the two communities because of long-standing marital and familial relationships between the two tribes.

BJP’s lone candidate in the state, Th. Basantakumar Singh, for the Inner Manipur seat is promising “restoration of peace” as his first priority. However, he is unable to explain why peace has not been restored in the last 11 months despite the BJP in power in both Centre and the state.

He is also having to defend the handling of the situation by the N. Biren Singh government in the state and the union government in Delhi. Echoing the Prime Minister who claimed that timely intervention by the Centre prevented more violence, he claimed, “Peace has started to return and it will happen slowly with efforts from all quarters”.

BJP state president Sharda Devi also lauds the role of the chief minister and tells party supporters, “Normally, a party does not take on its own government. But in a departure from that, the government in Manipur took on the Centre and persuaded the Centre to replace Assam Rifles units with that of the Border Security Forces”.

Meiteis had accused the Assam Rifles, reporting to the Indian Army, of purportedly siding with the Kuki-Zo side, whereas the Kuki-Zo people have routinely accused Manipur Police of being complicit in attacks against them.

The BJP president also says that the BJP-led government in Manipur had acted in the “interest of the people” but adds how it is not in the BJP’s culture to “talk about the service we do”, taking a dig at the Congress candidate, JNU Associate Professor A. Bimol Akoijam, who has been vocal about the failure of the two governments to quell the ethnic conflict.

Prof Akoijam has also elaborated how he had all along been involved in various social and civil service initiatives despite living and working in New Delhi.

Prof Akoijam and Congress leaders have filed several complaints with the Election Commission for ensuring peace and take action against miscreants who have been intimidating people gathering at small election meetings.

Even as the Election Commission plans to set up 94 special polling stations at relief camps for the 24,000 displaced found to be eligible to cast their vote, no arrangements have been made to enable people who have taken shelter in other states to cast their vote.

The Delhi Meitei Coordinating Committee (DMCC), an umbrella body representing Meitei civil society organisations in Delhi, has written to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the Chief Justice of India (CJI) seeking postponement of the Lok Sabha election in Manipur for the time being, citing the ethnic unrest and "abnormal" situation in the state.

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