Debating India

MANIPUR

Bullets Over Ballots

Bibhu Prasad ROUTRAY

Friday 16 April 2004, by ROUTRAY *Bibhu Prasad

It’s not the time for test of popularity of the politicians in the Northeast, but for militant groups to score brownie points over the administration.

Elections are not only a test of popularity for the politicians in the Northeast, they also serve as occasions for militant groups to score brownie points over the administration. This time around, with Lok Sabha Elections around the corner for the state’s two parliamentary seats, the situation in Manipur appears to be on a dangerous slide, as the list of militant organizations clamping a ban on the electoral process grows with each passing day.

The Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), on March 30, announced that all functionaries and workers of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) should resign from the party or else face a death sentence. The threat was followed up with an attack on the BJP state unit’s vice-president, Dr. Naorem Tombi, on March 31. Tombi, however, managed to escape unhurt.

On April 4, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) told the Congress Party to keep away from the electioneering process and threatened to punish anybody who chose to ignore the dictum of the outfit.

The United National Liberation Front (UNLF) soon followed suit and, on April 5, imposed a ’total ban’ on the electioneering process in the state. In a statement the group announced that all activities connected with the elections, such as holding election meetings, canvassing, campaigning, flag hoisting, etc., should be stopped with immediate effect and threatened all violators with severe punishment.

The People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) too has given an April 10 ultimatum to the Ministers, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Members of Parliament (MPs) in the state to denounce ’excesses and atrocities’ by security force personnel.

On April 6, the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) banned the lone Kuki candidate from the outer Manipur parliamentary constituency from contesting the election. There is very little doubt in the public mind regarding who rules the state of Manipur. Not even the present or would-be lawmakers labour under any illusion, and their first reaction is one of instant capitulation and prayer for reprieve. When the insurgents refuse to pay heed to such pleadings, the only way out appears to be a quick retreat from the filed of politics. Several such instances have occurred in the recent past, and the most prominent among these include:

A number of BJP functionaries, including the party’s state vice-president, Naorem Tombi, and secretary, Khetrimayum Saratkumar, resigned from the primary membership of the party after the KYKL asked BJP functionaries to quit.

A Naga candidate of the Naga National Party (NNP) withdrew from the electoral process pointing to ’you know why’ reasons. The electioneering process in Manipur, such as political rallies and door-to-door canvassing for votes, has been suspended. The roots of this scenario of rising chaos lie in the administrative breakdown in the state, with the growing authority of the militants filling the vacuum. While insurgency in other Northeastern states has shown signs of a slow down over the past years, in Manipur the insurgents have grown from strength to strength. In addition to a very effective extortion regime backed by an equally efficient intelligence network, militants have gradually filled in the vast space left open by the coalition government, which till very recently remained preoccupied with keeping its alliance partners together.

As a result, mobilizing people against ’Indian misrule’ has been a rather easy proposition for the militants. Over the years, their diktats on corruption in the state, and social evils like drunkenness and drug abuse have elicited favourable responses from the people.

No matter which party rules in the state, India continues to be the ultimate loser in Manipur.

A larger insurgent game plan is also manifesting itself in Manipur. In the prevailing confusion over the multiple ban on the political process, groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), with a dominant presence in parts of the state, are playing an important role.

In the Outer Manipur parliamentary constituency, consisting mostly of the hill districts of Manipur, for instance, the Naga group, the NSCN-IM, remains a potent force. In its quest for the integration of the hill districts of Manipur in the proposed Greater Nagaland, it has becomes imperative for the NSCN-IM to make a candidate of its choice win the elections. The group appears to be intent on this goal.

The NNP candidate, Valley Rose, withdrew from the race under obvious pressure. A statement issued by the NNP president (who incidentally is her husband) maintained that the decision had been taken ’after seriously considering the present social and political scenario in the state’. Valley Rose herself maintained that the presence of too many Naga candidates creates unnecessary confusion and it was consequently better that she withdrew.

Prior to this, the nomination papers of another Naga, the Congress candidate Francis Ngajokjpa, who is also a sitting minister, were rejected due to ’technical reasons’. And in the end, a Kuki candidate of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been banned by the UKLF from contesting the elections. That leaves the Naga candidate of the BJP in the fray and he is already being projected as a winner. The NSCN-IM has had an ’understanding’ with the BJP since the Assembly elections in Nagaland in February 2003.

The situation in Manipur remains extremely disturbing not only because of the gradual tightening of the noose by the terrorist outfits, but more because of the comprehensive lack of opposition to such strategies. An Army official, speaking on conditions of anonymity from Imphal, indicating that coordinating conferences between the Army, police and the para-military forces had been held to restore some control over the situation. He also spoke of plans for redeployment of Forces in the state to prevent untoward incidents, but admitted that it would be extremely difficult to convince the people to come to the polling booths on election day.

Dr.Nara Singh, a serving minister in the present state government and candidate of the Communist Party of India (CPI) for the Inner Manipur constituency, speaking to this writer, admitted that, "as a result of the call for boycott, the electioneering process has been severely affected. Public rallies and door-to-door campaigning, an effective practice in smaller constituencies, have been affected as a result. Even though adequate security measures have been taken, the whole process has been disrupted."

There has been a demand for a postponement of the elections by the Manipur People’s Party (MPP) till the electoral process is completed in other states. The Communist Party of India (CPI) has asked its national secretary to pressurize the Election Commission to postpone the elections. On the other hand, the state government has submitted that the 79 companies of para-military forces allocated to the state are inadequate and a provision of at least 200 companies should be made.

In a situation where the militants have made their intentions very clear, a fair poll does not seem to be within the realm of possibility. At the same time, however, a postponement of the electoral process will only serve the cause of the militants further, by underlining their authority. Manipur, today needs to send out a strong signal against the forces of disruption, and such a signal needs to come not only from the political parties, but from the common people as well, who will have to move out of their homes on April 20 and 26 to cast their votes. Perhaps no other state in India needs a fair and free poll than Manipur today.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 16, 2004.

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