In Manipur, a Battle Between Ethnic Identity and the Dream of Development

Manipur faces a tough choice between the BJP, a party that has a track record of dividing people on religious lines, and the Congress, whose 15-year rule in the state has been marred by corruption and misgovernance.

In Manipur, the fight between BJP and Congress is continuing to gain momentum. Credit: PTI

In Manipur, the fight between BJP and Congress is continuing to gain momentum. Credit: PTI

Imphal (Manipur): A dusty, decrepit concrete bridge divides the Imphal West district in Manipur from the Thoubal district – a geographically distinctive patch of land in the state and one that shares its border with as many as five other districts.

However, during election season, Thoubal should be referred to by its appropriate identity – the stronghold of chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh.

In the run-up to the assembly elections – slated for March 4 and March 8 – the general whiff in the air in Imphal is that Ibobi is invincible in Thoubal – often meaning both the constituency and the rest of the eight seats in the district.

After 15 years of ruling Manipur with an iron hand – the longest in continuum and the most dubious in terms of rights violation in the state’s post-independent history – certain things seem to be carved in stone when it concerns Ibobi.

“Almost every household there has got a job from Ibobi; they have all the basic facilities like drinking water, power supply, etc. that even parts of Imphal don’t have. The state police, otherwise known for its brutality on the common people, handles a person with care if he says he is from Thoubal. So Ibobi doesn’t even need to campaign there,” is the popular impression across the state, which a Manipur University student related to this correspondent on knowing about the impending trip to the VIP district to gauge the mood of the electorate.


Residents of Okram Ibobi Singh’s constituency Thoubal say they are likely to vote Congress, “Mahatma Gandhi’s party”. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Lilong, the first of the nine constituencies of the district when approached from Imphal West, however, welcomes you with orange flags fluttering from bamboo posts reading ‘Vote for BJP’. Lilong is the largest Muslim majority constituency of the state where the BJP’s only Muslim candidate, Mohammad Anwar Hussain, is taking on Congress’ sitting MLA and a minister in the Ibobi cabinet, Abdul Nasir.

If looked at from a broader canvas, these flags are a testimony to the huge challenge – the first ever – that Ibobi and the Congress are facing, not just in the chief minister’s home district, but also across Manipur, from the BJP.

Anti-AFSPA activist Irom Chanu Sharmila may be contesting against him from Thoubal constituency, but that is the least of his worries.

The fact that he is going to win Thoubal is virtually a foregone conclusion. His problem lies with the rest of the 39 seats spread across the five valley districts, occupied mainly by his community, the Meiteis – the state’s largest ethnic bloc that can sway the election results.

Irom Sharmila outside the PJRA office in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Irom Sharmila outside the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance office in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Pocketing as many of these valley seats is, therefore, crucial for the Congress in these elections in order to reclaim power in the 60-member assembly.

In order to bag the magic number of 31, the party, like never before, has played the ethnic card with the majority community and with the Kukis – yet another important bloc of people that have considerable hold in ten to 12 assembly seats in the 12 hill districts.

In total, these districts have 20 seats. In the earlier elections, Congress followed the traditional pattern of reaping electoral hay from the majority of the 29 tribes that fill the state’s hill areas, including the Nagas.

Ibobi’s deputy, Gaikhangam, is a Naga. Phungzathang Tonsing, a senior minister in the Ibobi cabinet till recently and the former president of the state Pradesh Congress Committee, is a Zomi.

This shift from the Congress’ traditional pattern of campaigning in the state, put into action by Ibobi in early 2015, is aimed at warding off BJP’s increased foray into the state.

After claiming Assam and grabbing power from the back door in Arunachal Pradesh, the next on the BJP’s list in the Northeast, openly declared by its national leaders, is Manipur.

To begin with, this objective of the party, to be carried forward by the North East Development Alliance (NEDA), might have looked easy. After all, all the eight states in the region have had a one-party rule for long.

Still, post the Bihar debacle, in order to pocket Assam, BJP had to play with the deep anxieties of the indigenous people vis-a-vis the “outsiders” along with dangling the dream that only Narendra Modi can deliver development.

After its Assam win, it hoped to ride on the strong voter fatigue of the Congress in Manipur as well by adding the ‘D’ word that Modi spelt out during the May campaign in Assam – “development, development, development.”

When this correspondent visited the valley districts of Manipur in September, BJP was halfway into creating “a wave” for the party for the impending elections with a two-pronged strategy. One was development. The other was fuelling the strong feeling of domination by the Meitei community in the hill districts that had sprung out of the unfortunate deaths of eight young people in Churachandpur town a day after the state government passed three controversial bills on August 31, 2015. The Ibobi government was increasingly being seen in the hills as a “Meitei government”.


A poster in Churchandpur depicting the nine young people who were killed during protests a day after the state government passed three controversial bills on August 31, 2015. Credit: Amanat Khullar

According to a BJP state source at the time, “We are looking at the Churachandpur developments as an opportunity to electorally enter the Christian-majority districts, which otherwise will be very difficult.”

The Modi government did what it could to facilitate that entry. It conducted two rounds of formal peace talks with the United People’s Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) in June and October. These two umbrella groups that comprise over 20 insurgent outfits active on the Indo-Myanmar border have been under suspension of operation since 2008 following an agreement with the central and state governments. Even as the locals had hoped that these talks would usher in peace and development in the region, the UPA governments did not open any formal interactions with them.

Both UPF and the KNO have been demanding their own versions of a “separate administration” of the hill areas, which are inhabited by a number of tribes that come under the nomenclature Zomi and those who like to differentiate themselves as Kukis. The Meitei community is considered as being opposed to this demand.

According to a reliable source, the passage of the three Bills in the state assembly was a reaction by the Ibobi government to the “talks,” including a meeting of these groups with former Mizoram chief minister and a BJP ally Zoramthanga in Shillong around the same time. In that meeting, they formally firmed a strategy to demand a “separate administration” in the form of “a state within a state” under Article 244A of the constitution and presented the Mizo National Front leader as their interlocutor with the Centre.

Along with penetrating into the hills, BJP cosied up to the Hindu Meitei voters in the valley through its network of the RSS. It promised “a clean government” as opposed to the Ibobi dispensation, often seen by the community as dictatorial and corrupt and one accused of having the blood of its own people on its hands.

The astute politician that Ibobi is, he was watching the BJP moves rather closely. By the time the year took a turn after the Churachandpur deaths, Ibobi made his first strike. He succeeded in carrying away the Kukis from the agitation against his government. When The Wire visited Churachandpur at the end of August, the Kukis did not take part in the Tribal Unity Day organised by the agitators demanding a “separate administration”.

Also read: Fears Over Land, Identity Fuel Manipur’s Bonfire of Anxieties

“We are opposed to the Bills but the demand for a separate administration is new. We don’t support it,” Kuki Inpi president Thangsei Haokip told The Wire at the time.

According to sources, Ibobi could work on the delicate fissures between the UPF and the KNO over the demand for a “separate administration” (KNO prefers a Kuki state) and “bring KNO to his side in these elections.” However, the UPF is believed to have stuck to the BJP.

If this divide becomes prominent in these elections, then the BJP’s hope of wresting a majority in the hill districts may not be fulfilled.

The Naga vote is crucial for ten to 11 seats. Naga People’s Front (NPF), which has fielded 15 candidates, is a strong contender in some hill districts. Though NPF is an ally of the BJP in Nagaland, it has decided to go alone in Manipur. And so has the NDA partner National People’s Party (NPP).

Losing all hope of winning as a Congress candidate from Churachandpur, Phungzathang resigned from the party last week even after securing a Congress ticket and decided to join the NPP.

Alongside polarising the hill vote, the Ibobi dispensation also worked on the valley districts to stop the march of the BJP. Come November, the BJP’s apple cart was toppled in those areas by – as a local reporter in Imphal told this correspondent – “The surgical strike of Ibobi Singh by creating seven new districts bifurcating the hill districts.”

In one stroke the state government turned the ethnic fissures between the Naga and the Kuki tribes and the Meitei and the rest of the tribes – mainly the Nagas – to its party’s advantage. In the public eye, Ibobi came across as a leader who could take on the Nagas.

More the Nagas expressed their anger through the United Naga Council (UNC) against the state government’s decision by intensifying the economic blockade, the more it helped Ibobi cosy up to the Kukis and the Meitei voters on ethnic lines.

Also read: In Blockade-Hit Imphal, Anger, Helplessness and a Simmering Hope for Normalcy

Towards the end of December, the body of the sole Kuki boy, Khaizamang Touthang – one of the eight being kept in the Churachandpur district hospital morgue since September 2015 to protest against the passage of the three Bills – was “stolen” and “delivered” to the family for burial, seemingly with help from KNO cadres.

Kukis and the Nagas are seen as traditional rivals. The early 1990s saw much bloodshed between the two. The demand for a full-fledged district status to the Sadar Hills (Kangpokpi), which the Ibobi government recently fulfilled, has been a sore point between the two communities for decades.

Besides the Meiteis viewing the UNC blockade as “an attempt to sap the economy of the valley areas,” the Modi government’s “secret” framework agreement with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) to reach a Naga Accord, which might compromise the territorial integrity of Manipur, has further helped Ibobi firm up his electoral strategy.

The Centre’s wait-and-watch policy with the UNC on the economic blockade has proved to be costly for the state BJP. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the party’s most popular face, Kh. Joykishan jumped ship and joined Congress in late December, thus reversing the trend of Congress bigwigs moving over to the BJP till then.

Last week, while travelling through Kakching, a new district sliced out of Thoubal, the results of Ibobi’s “surgical strike” were quite visible. Mounds of rice, vegetables and flowers offered by voters, a local tradition called ‘Athenpot’ to show the community’s support to a contestant, were placed in various parts of the district in support of Congress.


Mounds of rice and flowers offered by voters, a local tradition called ‘Athenpot,’ to show the community’s support to a contestant. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Ibobi has continued to play his strategy. On February 11, the Congress in a legislative party meeting passed a resolution to ban the UNC and wrote to the Centre in that regard, thus sending out another strong message to the voters opposed to the Naga assertion in the state.

A day later, addressing a sizeable crowd in Sagolband constituency in the Imphal West district, the chief minister again spoke of the “threat” of the NSCN (I-M) on the territorial integrity of the state and accused the BJP of supporting its greater Nagalim dream, which includes integrating the Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

The fact that the NPF is an ally of BJP and there is a likelihood of the party entering into a post-electoral understanding with it in Manipur – if it manages to bag the adequate numbers to form a government – is yet another point that may work in the favour of Congress.

Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh addressing a rally in Imphal West district. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh addressing a rally in Imphal West district. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

If the huge mound of ‘Athenpot’ at the Sagolband rally was any indication of the valley voters’ support to Congress, the BJP then certainly needs to up its game in the Meitei dominated districts.

The party is already suffering dissent in some of the hill and valley constituencies due to its selection of candidates. To make things worse, the party doesn’t have a chief ministerial candidate.

“I know that if I vote for the Congress who will it be who will take on the Nagas. But that’s not the case if I vote for BJP. They have too many leaders, too much infighting. It is not just about the party, it is also about the person,” said a voter in Nambol constituency in Bishnupur district. Former state BJP president Th. Chaoba Singh, who is contesting the Nambol seat, is one of the possible contenders of the CM post.

BJP state party general secretary and the sole MLA Th. Biswajit Singh. Credit: Amanat Khullar

BJP state party general secretary and the sole MLA Th. Biswajit Singh. Credit: Amanat Khullar

“As of now, we are contesting the polls with Modi ji as our face. He is the face of change and development that the state desperately needs,” state party general secretary and the sole MLA Th. Biswajit Singh said.

Biswajit, yet another chief ministerial contender, also claimed, “Our people are stoic enough to take the economic blockade in their stride. They are now going back to questioning the Ibobi government on all the corruption it has done over the years with public money.”

To revive the public’s memory, on February 13, union minister Prakash Javadekar, in charge of the state polls, flagged off 20 vehicles to tour across the 60 constituencies with a 15-minute video on “blockade, bandh, corruption, lack of drinking water supply”. The party is also giving the final touches to a “vision document” aimed at the state’s development. According to a party source, BJP national general secretary and RSS pracharak Ram Lal “is making a ground check to see what more needs to be done.”

The trump card that the party has kept for last, when the poll frenzy is likely to heighten, is a visit by Modi. “We are hoping it will take place in the last week of February,” said state BJP president Bhabananda Singh.

Conversations with the state party leaders clearly indicate that they are waiting for the national leaders, such as Ram Lal and Ram Madhav, and the NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, to “do something” to turn the tables on the Ibobi government.

“The support for the Ibobi government in the valley districts peaked a bit earlier than needed to get the most effect of it in the elections. This will certainly give the BJP time to try its best to direct public attention towards the issues it worked on, such as corruption, extra-judicial killings, misgovernance, etc.” commented a well-known Meitei intellectual in Imphal, who declined to be named.

“After keeping quiet for so long, a team of Central Bureau of Investigation has suddenly arrived in Imphal on February 15 to question and record the statements of Akoijam Jhalajit (the commandant of second India Reserve Battalion) in connection with the killing of C. Sanjit (a former militant killed in Imphal in 2009). In such a scenario, the Congress will have to keep its ethnic strategy going strong,”

He pointed out an interesting dichotomy the BJP is facing in Manipur vis-à-vis the Assam polls. “In Assam, it worked for the BJP because of the ethnicity card, which is now being played by the Congress.”

Congress supporters in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Congress supporters in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Nevertheless, raising issues of corruption and misgovernance by the Ibobi government will certainly deliver BJP some success in the valley areas. However, there exists a strong voter dilemma over whom to choose between the two warring national parties, both in the hills and the valley.

“Ideally, I would not like to vote for the BJP since it religiously divides people. I would like to support the Congress which is Mahatma Gandhi’s party but I seem to have no choice this time because the Congress didn’t listen to us,” said a voter in Churachandpur town.

The same predicament is palpable even in the valley.

“People in my constituency want to support BJP but we are also worried about its closeness to the Nagas. In that case, we will have to go for Ibobi Singh who will stand for us,” stated a voter in Moirang in Bishnupur district.

With electioneering gaining pace, the ground will certainly shift in the coming days, particularly in the valley – either more firmly towards the ethnic sentiments or towards the ‘D’ word, which Modi typically mouths when it comes to executing BJP’s political ambitions in the Northeast.

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