Politics

In Manipur’s Churachandpur, Tribal ‘Martyrs’ and a ‘Stolen’ Corpse Will Likely Sway the Elections

The killing of the nine locals in protests in 2015 and the events that followed will almost certainly dictate the election outcome in Churachandpur.

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Symbolic coffins right next to the morgue where the bodies have been placed in cold storage in Churachandpur. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Churachandpur (Manipur): It was not yet 9 am and group of schoolboys were already out, playing football under the strong sun. Pairs of young legs animatedly chased the ball through a cluster of tombstones. Their ground was the colony’s graveyard.

Not far from the boys ­– at one end of the graveyard in the Bijang area of Manipur’s Churachandpur town – was the buried body of Khaizamang Touthang, under a mound of mud circled by a bamboo fence that was decorated with wreaths made of plastic flowers.

Eleven-year-old Khaizamang could well have been among those kicking around the football that morning in early February, had he not fallen to a bullet allegedly fired by a policeman on September 1, 2015, near the town’s police station.

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The site of Khaizamang Touthang’s burial. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Some of these boys might have been among those who rushed out of their homes that violent evening – like Khaizamang did – upon hearing sloganeering by a large crowd of townspeople that had gathered near the police station to protest against the passage of three ‘anti-tribal’ bills a day before by the state assembly in Imphal, situated 80 kms from the town.

The protesters alleged that the bills – the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015, the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2015 – were a “covert attempt” by the majority Meitei community to grab their tribal land.

While many returned home that evening, Khaizamang did not. Just as eight others of the town whose bodies now lie ­inside the morgue of the district hospital, frozen in metal boxes.

On March 4, when the districts of Churachandpur and Pherzawl go to polls – along with two other hill constituencies in Chandel district and one in the Kangpokpi district – these dead are likely to have a strong say in the outcome.

The main street of the town, which saw violence and arson that night, including the torching of properties of two MLAs and a minister in the Okram Ibobi Singh government, is called Tiddim Road. If you continue on it beyond the Indo-Myanmar border, it will lead you to Tiddim in Myanmar.

The road was a common route of passage used by the people of this region to go to Tiddim, a town that shared a common ethnicity and language before the British drew a boundary between what is now India and Myanmar.

A reminder of the region’s pre-independence history, and the 2015 violence, the Tiddim Road lies barely 100 metres away from the Bijang graveyard-cum-playground.

Although President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the Manipur People’s Bill and returned the other two Bills to the assembly for reconsideration, the protesters have refused to bury the dead until their demand for a “separate administration” is met by the state and the Centre.

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Faces painted as mark of protest by tribals, Churachandpur, August 31, 2016. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Over 600 days have passed and the bodies continue to lie in the morgue. Their mothers, accompanied by other women of the town, gather outside the morgue to have a memorial prayer for them on some days .

Till December 23, Khaizamang’s body was there too. The fact hat he belonged to the Kuki tribe – unlike the others who were from other tribes that come under the umbrella nomenclature Zomi – was clearly the reason that he received the burial.

However, how the body was taken out of the locked morgue remains a mystery. Depending on whom you ask, there are two versions of the “truth” and no official authority to consult on the details. Some locals even allege that a group of armed militants “was used by the government” to “steal” the body from the morgue post midnight on December 23.

Speaking to The Wire, H. Manchinkhup, chief convener of the joint action committee (JAC) formed to spearhead the agitation against the three Bills, also accused the state government of “stealing” the body, saying, “The state government instead of finding a viable solution to the anti-tribal Bills, is playing communal politics.”

In the election season, this development has a strong political significance.

The government, the Kuki elders and leaders, have, however, denied any involvement. However, representatives of various Kuki organisations and some organisations from Imphal had gathered at the funeral procession of the young boy on December 23.

A little ways away from the Bijang graveyard, as one walks towards Khaizamang’s house at the end of the road, one spots his younger brother – bleary eyed, hair unruly – brushing his teeth amid the shouts of the playful boys running after the ball.

A few steps up a creaky wooden ladder would take you to the house – a one-room tenement standing on wooden stilts – attached to a small verandah, one corner of which serves as the family’s washing – and brushing – area. A framed photo of Khaizamang has been hung on one of the walls.

The two beds inside the room were covered with mosquito nets. From under one, Khaizamang’s younger sister peeped at these correspondents, while the youngest of the siblings, a six-year-old girl, stood right next to her mother. One corner of the room was the kitchen.

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Khaizamang Touthang’s mother Nemmeilhing along with her six-year-old daughter. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Nemmeilhing, a mother of six and a widow, related to The Wire her version of how the body of her son landed in the graveyard.

“Early morning the colony elders came to my house with the body. It was then taken to the graveyard for burial after a memorial service.”

On being asked whether she knew that his body would be brought home that morning and whether or not her permission was taken, she nodded her head.

However, according to the popular version of the events, she was as shocked by the news as many others.

“That morning, she called the mother of another young man whose body is in the morgue, to say that they will go together for the memorial prayers. However, she called her a while later to inform her with surprise that Khaizamang’s body was stolen a night before and would be brought home soon,” related Benjamin Vualnam of the JAC, Churachandpur.

“She must be under pressure from the community elders not to relate the truth to you,” he added.

A day after the body was buried, Ibobi, along with all the six party MLAs elected from the Churachandpur district, held a rally in the town, which the agitation leaders termed “a pre-planned move in collusion with Kuki leaders.”

According to local media reports quoting Thangjang Haokip, the president of Kuki Inpi, Churachandpur, the chief minister announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to Khaizamang’s family, another one lakh for his funeral and agreed to award a government job to the next of kin besides setting up a memorial at the cost of Rs 50 lakh.

“With the government accepting the conditions laid down by the civil societies, we have now decided to bury the body and will immediately be discussing the details for the funeral service,” he told The Sangai Express on December 23.

Nemmeilhing seemed a bit apprehensive talking about the compensation. When asked, she reluctantly stated, “We have got one lakh in cash and five lakh has been transferred so far into my eldest son’s bank account. The rest will come.”

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Khaizamang Touthang’s photo has been hung inside his house. Credit: Amanat Khullar

As per the chief minister’s promise, Khaizamang’s eldest brother was given a government job in January.

But Nemmeilhing wasn’t sure what the job entailed. “I think, as a computer operator, not sure, he is not at home now,” she said. With a faint smile, the 43-year-old added, “However, he has not got his first salary yet.”

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In terms of choice of parties, the burial of Khaizamang’s body is said to have firmly drawn a line between the Kuki and other tribes that come under Zomi. Though many common residents and leaders that The Wire spoke to in Churachandpur did not want to openly state it, they did hint that this move confirmed the support of most of the Kukis to the Congress in the elections. Kukis are said to have a say in ten to 12 assembly seats in the state’s 12 hill districts.

“Not just the Kuki leaders but the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) is also supporting the Congress in these elections,” claimed a local church leader who declined to be named.

KNO is an umbrella group of at least 15-16 militant organisations that operate in the Indo-Myanmar border whose main demand is a Kuki state culled out of Manipur. It has been under suspension of operation (SOO) since 2008 after an agreement was signed with the state and the central governments.

United People’s Front (UPF), another umbrella group of at least five militant groups that operate in the same region and fight for political rights of the Zomi people, has also been under SOO since 2008. Both the groups have been engaged in peace talks with the Narendra Modi government since June 2016.

In a disturbed state like Manipur, separatist groups do have some say in the people’s choices during the elections. In Churachandpur district particularly, this has been prominent and this time too, they seem to be active.

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Women and children pay respect to the dead with flower tribute on the symbolic coffins. Credit: Akhil Kumar

If the KNO is believed to be lending support to the Congress, UPF, which is demanding from the central government “a state within a state under Article 244A of the constitution”, is clearly siding with the BJP.

The fact that the Congress stalwart Phungzathang Tonsing quit his party of many years on February 11, even after getting the party’s ticket from Churachandpur town – a UPF stronghold – to now contest the polls as a candidate of BJP ally National People’s Party (NPP), is strongly indicative of it. It also confirmed that the seat, long held by the Congress, would go away from the party this time. The Congress didn’t name any candidate after Tonsing withdrew his candidature.

The BJP candidate for Churachandpur town, V. Hangkhanlian, will likely corner some votes, but not enough to counter a veteran like Tonsing.

Tonsing’s house was torched by protesters in 2015. He was at the time the minister of health and family welfare in the Ibobi government.

In the rest of the five constituencies of the Churachandpur district, it is going to be a keen fight between the two national parties.

Congress president T.N. Haokip, a senior leader of the Kuki community in the party who enjoys the support of Kuki Inpi, Churachandpur, and is also said to be of the KNO, is contesting from his stronghold Saikot. His former assistant Paokholal Haokip is challenging him as a BJP candidate. As per ground reports, he may be the proverbial David defeating Goliath if the UPF can drum up enough support in his favour.

In Thanlon, Congress candidate Chinkholal Thangsing is going to have a direct fight with BJP’s Vungzagin Valte, a heavyweight. Valte won the seat in 2012 elections as a Congress candidate. In the 2015 violence in Churachandpur, Valte’s house was also burnt down by protesters.

In Henglep, BJP’s T.T. Haokip is likely to give a tough fight to sitting MLA Mangan Vaipei of Congress, whose house was also torched in the 2015 violence.

In Singhat, Ginsuanghau of Congress is facing BJP’s Chinlungthang Zou. A keen contest is likely between sitting Congress MLA Chalon Lien Amo and BJP’s L. Phimate in Tipaimukh constituency.

All these six assembly constituencies of Churachandpur, along with Kangpokpi – a newly created district – and Saitu and Saikul (in Chandel district), will go to polls on March 4. Kangpokpi is sure to be pocketed by the BJP which has fielded former Congress MLA Nemcha Kipgen, who is seen as being close to UPF leadership, which has considerable sway in the area and is supporting BJP in these polls.

Interestingly, a strong trend spotted across Manipur in the run-up to the elections is the appeal of the candidate over that of the party, which is likely to decide some of the results in Churachandpur district as well.

Post the 2015 killings, there also seems to be a comparatively greater assertion from the youth and civil society groups about whom the voters should choose as their representatives, even if an armed group opposes or supports a particular candidate. All the MLAs whose houses were burnt by protesters have been given ticket by the Congress, the BJP, the NPP and the North East India Development Party, a sore point among many local social groups.

An example of this assertion was a rally for a free and fair election brought out by such groups and church organisations on February 27, appealing to the people to refrain from violence, use of force and money power in the elections. Already, incidents of violence have been reported between political parties in rural areas of the district.

However, compared to the poll hullabaloo in the valley districts, electioneering in the Churachandpur district remains low key this time around. Party flags and posters are not displayed as prominently throughout the main town as they are in Imphal and other valley towns. The flags and posters that speak of “nine martyrs’ sacrifice” seen across the town may have faded with time but they still outnumber the electioneering flags and posters – a strong indication of the fact that the cause remains.

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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

However, that most star campaigners chose the valley districts over the hills for poll campaign is a point of gripe among the people in Churachandpur.

“Whether it is Narendra Modi, Amit Shah or Rahul Gandhi, none thought of coming to the hills because they are scared that coming here might be read by the majority Meitei community as siding with us and giving us our political right. They all are wooing the Meitei votes because those 40 seats in the valley areas will only ensure either of them a government. We continue to be ignored,” said a well-known Churachandpur-based evangelist.

He said, “Many people in Churachandpur district want to go for the BJP this time but there is still doubt in their minds; they are not sure whether the BJP will give us what we want, whether it will be a good or bad decision for our people. The senior BJP national leaders don’t even openly admit meeting our leaders.”

However, senior BJP leader and home minister Rajnath Singh did visit Churachandpur to address voters on March 2.

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On being asked whom will she vote for in the March 4 elections, Khaizamang’s mother thought for a moment before saying, “I don’t know, I usually avoid voting.”

Elections would come and go but memories would remain. The memories of that violent September night in 2015 are still pretty fresh among the public in Churachandpur.

When asked what her last memory of her son was, moments of silence passed before she lifted her eyes to say, “I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

Living in a violence-ridden society, the least one can do is move on with their life.

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The site of Khaizamang Touthang’s burial. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Nearby, the boys continued to scream and shout, playing football. A group of colony elders were seen huddled in a conversation right below her house. Shops began to open on Tiddim Road. Women hawkers selling vegetables called out customers. A jeep flaunting a BJP flag rushed by. The local Congress office remained shut.

Yet another day began in Churachandpur.

Only the March 11 results will confirm to what extent the dead – the one in the graveyard and the rest in the morgue – could influence the living as they cast their vote.