Rajnath Singh’s comments came two days before Manipur goes to the polls. But he did not mention his government’s stand on the people’s demand for a “separate administration”.
New Delhi: A year-and-a-half after nine locals in Manipur’s Churachandpur town were killed in an alleged police firing during protests demanding roll-back of three ‘anti-tribal’ bills passed by the Manipur assembly, union home minister and senior BJP leader Rajnath Singh has assured a probe into the incident.
On March 2, Singh, promised an investigation, “if required,” by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). However, with a poll-related caveat, added, “if the party comes to power in the state.”
Addressing an election rally in Churachandpur, Singh said, “The Congress is playing the politics of coffin… by creating division among different communities and by confusion, it always forms the government in Manipur but never gives people good governance… I would like to assure you that we will provide you justice. And if required, we will hand over the entire case to the CBI for investigation.”
As the public cheered, he added, “I would like to assure you that whoever is the culprit will be punished… BJP shall commit itself to bringing about an honourable solution and the burial of the dead bodies.”
During his visit, a delegation of the joint action committee (JAC) spearheading the agitation since the killings took place on September 1, 2015, met the home minister to submit a memorandum demanding a “permanent solution” to the unrest in the area.
The bodies of those killed, barring one, have been kept in the morgue of the district hospital by the JAC. It has refused to bury them unless their “demands are met” by the state and the central government.
Also read: In Manipur’s Churachandpur, Tribal ‘Martyrs’ and a ‘Stolen’ Corpse Will Likely Sway the Elections
Speaking to The Wire from Churachandpur, H. Manchinkhup, the chief convener of the JAC, said, “We met Mr. Singh for a short while and couldn’t explain to him many things in detail due to lack of time but we submitted a memorandum to him seeking a permanent solution to the unrest in the hill areas of Manipur. We mentioned in it our demand for a separate administration.”
However, during the public rally, Singh – whose party is already facing the heat in the politically strategic valley districts on the “territorial integrity of Manipur state,” in relation to the framework agreement the Narendra Modi government signed with the Naga rebel outfit NSCN (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 – didn’t mention his government’s stand on the demand for a “separate administration”.
The demand for “separate administration” was first publicly raised by the JAC at the Tribal Unity Day, held at Churachandpur College grounds on September 1, 2016, to mark a year since the killing. The CBI inquiry into the incident, as promised by Singh on the last day of campaigning for the March 4 elections, was never the demand of the agitators.
Speaking to this correspondent on condition of anonymity, a senior Imphal-based journalist closely following the sequence of events in Churachandpur after the killings, said, “I feel if the BJP comes to power in the state, it will like to buy some time on the issue by using the CBI inquiry to push the JAC to bury the bodies. That would likely weaken the movement a bit and would give both the state and the central government some time to see how to handle the issue better.”
More significantly, in the March 2 speech, Singh mentioned “UPF”, stating, “The central government is committed to solving the political problem of the Kuki-Zomi people. We are seriously engaging with the SOO groups, particularly the UPF.” The senior minister requested the public to choose BJP “so that we can initiate the process of your political problems at the earliest.”
UPF – United People’s Front – an umbrella group of as many as nine armed outfits, has been under suspension of operation (SOO) since 2008 after the organisation signed an agreement to that effect with the Manipur and central government. It is a group which has a significant say in the elections as most locals see it as their representative voice for greater political rights.
However, since 2008, not a single round of peace talks has taken place between the UPF and the home ministry under the UPA I and II. The Modi government officially invited leaders of UPF to New Delhi for two rounds of talks in June and October last year, thereby giving it a much-awaited platform to find a permanent solution to the unrest in the sensitive region that borders Myanmar.
Alongside, the Modi government also began talks with the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), another chief umbrella group of as many as 17 armed outfits that operate in the same region. KNO particularly has a considerable influence among the people belonging to the Kuki tribes, living in parts of Churachandpur and some neighbouring districts.
Both UPF and KNO submitted a joint charter of demands to Satyendra Garg, the joint secretary in charge of the Northeast in the home ministry, in June 2016 in which they included a separate hill state within the boundary of Manipur. The UPF termed it as “a state within a state”. However, both the umbrella organisations are reportedly not on the same page on the issue of “a separate state”.
While the KNO has been demanding a “Kuki state”, the UPF has been advocating “an autonomous tribal state” within the boundary of Manipur as per the Fifth Schedule. In October, a day before the UPF and KNO leaders left for New Delhi from Churachandpur to take part in the second round of talks, UPF spokesperson Aaron Kipgen asked the national and state media, through a press note, “not to misinterpret the political demand of the UPF/KNO as demanding a Kuki state”. He reportedly said, “The political dialogue of UPF/KNO represents all the kindred tribes and for this reason the political demands of the UPF and KNO have been amalgamated as a ‘separate state’ and it should not be misinterpreted as a ‘Kuki state’ which can represent the feeling and sentiments of only the Kuki tribe.”
However, Singh left out the KNO in his March 2 speech.
Though the KNO, according to local reporters, issued a press note on February 10 stating that it would avoid backing any party in the election, a reliable source told The Wire that “it has offered support to the Congress while the UPF has decided to back the BJP.” This might explain why Singh chose to keep out KNO from his speech.
Former Congress MLA Nemcha Kipgen, who is close to the UPF leadership, is contesting from the Kangpokpi seat as a BJP candidate for the March 4 elections.
Highly placed sources also told The Wire that the BJP entered into a “verbal agreement” with the UPF at a closed-door meeting in Guwahati on February 11, and reaffirmed it on February 20 at a dinner meeting as per which UPF would support the party in its strongholds in lieu of which the Centre would agree to the UPF’s demand for “a state within a state” as per Article 244A of the constitution.
The sources said while on February 11, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav and North East Development Alliance convener Himanta Biswa Sarma and Bodoland People’s Front MP Biswajit Daimary were present in the meeting with the UPF leaders, the February 20 meeting was held with Singh after his visit to Manipur earlier in the day. No home ministry officials were present in the meetings.
The Wire’s attempt to confirm these meetings from the Manipur state BJP met with no response.
In Churachandpur, the public anger against the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in the state for the killings has created a favourable ground for the BJP to make an electoral entry into it for the first time. However, the strong affiliation of the party with religious groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has made the predominately Christian population of the state somewhat apprehensive about it as a natural choice. This has made the BJP seek help from groups like the UPF which have a considerable influence among the people.
As many as 12 major tribes from the Kuki/Zomi origin reside in the Churachandpur and Pherzawl districts alone.
According to sources, UPF lent its support to the Congress in the last three assembly elections in the hope of a “permanent solution”. A week ago, Ibobi reportedly said his government was willing to talk to the UPF.
“Sometime ago, Ibobi Singh called me to say we need to work together. I told him, you put us on a boat and refused to row it. How long could we have waited? We had to look for another boat to reach our destination,” a top UPF leader told this correspondent recently.
Elaborating on the UPF demand for “a state within a state”, he said, “We have demanded a state as per Article 244A (Fifth Schedule) of the constitution according to which there can be two chief ministers and two cabinets within a state.”
According to another UPF leader, “Though the KNO has been insisting on a ‘Kuki state’, one has to be practical at this point.” He stated the demand for Bodoland in Assam as a case in point.
“From the demand for a separate state it had to come down to the Bodo Territorial Council, which if you look closely, is a very good model even for the Kuki/Zomi people of Manipur.”
Since January 2009, the cadres of these SOO groups have been occupying five designated camps situated in Vengai range and Nathajang in Churachandpur district, Chelap in Chandel district and Shamsuang and Sejang in Senapati district.
Although the home ministry is supposed to pay a stipend of Rs 3,000 to each member of these rebel groups, as per a clause in the SOO agreement, the amount remains pending for several months. On being asked about it, a senior Hmar People’s Convention (D) leader told this correspondent last month, “The home ministry recently released money for the cadres with a backlog of six months.”