Malom, Manipur: For the widows and the mothers, this was the sixteenth time that they were gathering at the stone enclosure by the side of the highway. The ring of hills in the distance was pale blue and the fields were yellow. As every year, the Vaishnava priests said memorial prayers for the ten lost ones, who had been shot dead here by men of the Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000.
That same year, a young woman named Irom Sharmila had been moved by the Malom massacre to begin a hunger-strike – one that lasted nearly sixteen years, and only ended this summer. She had matched each year of their grief with her own heroic protest, and now – freed from arrest and feeding tubes – she could join the families at the Malom memorial stone for the first time.
Later that afternoon, in a community hall up the highway, Sharmila spoke to the gathering about her new effort for justice: not through protest but political leadership and a new party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). With her were the convenor and another co-convenor of PRJA – 33-year-old Erendro Leichombam and Najma Phundreimayum, who will be the first Muslim woman candidate in Manipur’s electoral history.
“Sharmila ended her speech and said, I have a donation box and I want everybody to contribute in support of our party,” Erendro recalled to The Wire. “And then people just –,” he blew out his cheeks, “just clamouring to put money in. The whole donation box was filled up in no time.”
For Erendro – an education entrepreneur only recently returned to Imphal after time at Tokyo, the Kennedy School at Harvard University and the World Bank – it was a test of a crucial element in PRJA’s radical strategy. “Usually in elections in Manipur, what happens is, each candidate will get five crores of black money, to distribute to voters in every constituency.” The first time PRJA announced that they would reverse this system – seeking funds from supporters, rather than paying off voters – he said the audience at the Imphal Press Club just laughed.
“But today, the second of November, was the first day we officially kicked off this campaign,” he said. “And it was proof that normal people want something clean. Even if they have to pay ten rupees, or 500 rupees, out of their pocket for it.”
PRJA, with its agenda for a renewed political and justice system in Manipur, has so far recruited ten candidates (the state assembly has 60 seats) and will soon announce more. They mean to outflank a three-term incumbent Congress, led by Okram Ibobi, as well as a confident BJP. In his first interview as a party convenor, Erendro told the Wire about seeking ways to offer an inclusive platform to a state carved up by ethnic rivalries, and brutally twisted between armed rebellion and state reprisals.
Can you describe PRJA’s core concerns for us, in five words?
Unemployment. Corruption. AFSPA. Divisive politics.
Why is corruption a central issue in a state still failing to protect basic human rights?
See, yesterday night, my neighbour – her house caught fire. I ran out, the whole place was in commotion, everybody was trying to save the house.
You wouldn’t believe it. We called for the fire brigade and police stations just did not pick up their phones. Finally the fire brigade shows up, but guess what? They did not have a drop of water inside the tanker.
These guys take the hoses, but all that’s coming out is hot air – so it blows up the fire even more. So everybody’s like, ‘Shut that thing, get another tanker! One with water.’ By that time, some of us were running to the leikai (community) pond, fetching water literally with buckets. By the time the second tanker arrived, the house was just burning up, turning to ashes.
The funny thing is, even when the second tanker comes, they don’t know how to spray the fire – these guys aren’t trained, they’re incompetent, they’re careless.
Because it starts with the recruitment process. You know how many government agencies in Manipur are hiring right now? Just before the election? Every department. It’s an open secret: tens of thousands of youth will apply, and they will be asked to pay up to be hired. That cash will be used to lubricate the election process.
This was just yesterday. The system is so broken. It’s so broken, and fixing this cycle of corruption is the second thing we want to do as the party.
So Manipur is like a burning house that the current political system can’t put out?
Exactly, Manipur is a burning house, and people think they can’t do anything to stop it. I was so angry. I restrained myself – but the youth in my locality couldn’t be restrained, and they were like, ‘Let’s burn this damn fire engine.’ Some of them ended up breaking the headlights.
It was truly scary. I’ve never seen them so angry. And they should be enraged – but the solution is not to be violent. It’s to take this election very seriously. That is our best weapon.
What else contributes to the anger and disillusionment in the state?
The second thing is unemployment. When you have youth unable to contribute to their society, you can’t move forward. We have seven lakhs unemployed youth [out of a population of 27 lakh].
PRJA isn’t just a party for better governance, however – it’s also coming together around Irom Sharmila, who is a world-wide icon of the struggle for human rights. What’s your approach to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act?
AFSPA is a law, yes, and it has been exploited by security forces, yes, but how I see it is, AFSPA psychologically makes Manipur even more oppressive. A society of fear. A society of mistrust. And when people are scared, they close their windows, they close their doors. They start receding to more narrow identities because that’s how they feel safer.
We need to repeal AFSPA. It has been there since 1958, and it’s not even about armed conflict. India is using Manipur as a buffer zone, and all these troops here are because if China attacks, we will be the first to face the bullets. But the Indian government needs to come up with a better policy to protect its border without dehumanising the people who live here.
How do you practically propose to do that?
Our take is that AFSPA was instituted by an act of parliament, and it needs to be repealed by an act of Parliament. This thing is going to be done in Delhi.
Can’t it be lifted by an act of the state legislature?
It can be, but then the third clause of AFSPA empowers the governor – who’s basically an agent of the union government – to simply say, this area is disturbed, let’s put it back. Nagaland actually took the resolution to withdraw AFSPA – but then the central government clamped it.
In 1992, though, I remember Manipuris – Kukis, Meiteis, Tangkhuls, Pangans, Muslims – everyone came together to fight for an amendment in the parliament. You know what that is? To include the Manipuri language [in the Eight Schedule] as an official language of India. It was pushed by every ethnic group in Manipur.
I remember that as the most beautiful time – everyone came together for something. AFSPA is evil, and everybody should come together to fight that evil.
I’m finally coming to the question which will be the first question for most voters – what will Irom Sharmila’s leadership bring to a political alternative like PRJA?
I have never met someone like Irom Sharmila in my life. She is a person who is incorruptible. You can’t buy her with money, you can’t buy her with death-threats – she is unafraid of dying. She is the only person who can say to Manipur, I can introduce a new system that is incorruptible. That symbolism that she brings is the greatest strength we have in PRJA.
The other thing is that Sharmila is completely colour-blind. And AFSPA has affected people irrespective of colour. So everyone shows their solidarity with her, they love her and she has that unifying aura.
Some people say, ‘She’s a world iconic figure. For her to come down to the level of politics, that is beneath her.’ And she is aware of that. Also in Manipur, especially the Meiteis have always had this idea of honour: that if you go into battle, you should either win the battle or die in the battle. So some people are saying she should die – she should become a martyr.
What she did instead is truly amazing. She went on hunger-strike for 16 years, then realised it’s not working: the Indian government is too unkind and unmoving. So she said, let me change strategy now. I think that takes more courage – that really shows her commitment to the cause. Her fight continues.
Sharmila may help you build an inclusive support-base, but as the last year’s deadlock over the Inner Line Permit (ILP) bills showed, ethnic interests between the Meiteis and the tribes are usually treated as a zero-sum game. Is PRJA a party that can, for instance, reach out to tribal constituencies?
When Irom Sharmila goes to Ukhrul, everyone showers love and solidarity, and when Ibobi goes to Ukhrul, the whole place goes up in flames. Which is actually a fact.
When I heard about CM Ibobi’s visit to Ukhrul [home to the Tangkhul Nagas], and the ambush there, my response was that CM Ibobi is a very shrewd politician. What happened in the last election? He stopped Mr Muivah, the leader of the NSCN(IM) from entering Ukhrul.
For him to do that and then work up the sentiments of the Meiteis, that was very divisive. If I was the chief minister, I would have allowed Muivah to come. You don’t solve anything by silencing your opponent – you listen to your opponent.
This time around, he went to Ukhrul despite intelligence warnings – then came back and sent proxies to perpetuate this narrative that the Tankhuls hate the Meiteis. Every election cycle Ibobi plays with the sentiments of the Meiteis, of the Tanghkuls and other tribals. Now everyone is saying the whole thing was stage-managed by Ibobi. People are wising up. They see the shenanigans.
We have to be an inclusive party. We already have members in the hills and we have some potential candidates as well.
These divisive politics are something PRJA will try to put in the past?
We need to change the divisive discourse we have in Manipur. The hills of Manipur are protected in certain ways, but there is a very discontented group in the Valley, and often the question they raise is, ‘We can’t go into the hills, but you guys [tribals] can come here. You guys have reservations, we don’t.’ That’s why in the Valley there’s a movement for ILP, a movement for ST [Scheduled Tribe status] and so on.
I support the ILP demand in spirit. But we should be thinking about a piece of legislation so that we protect the Valley, just like the hills are protected, which both the hills and the Valley can support. Like you said, politics has become a zero-sum game – we can make it a win-win situation.
PRJA will need to abide by the vision of the Indian constitution – how will you deal with the demands for self-determination?
I’ll tell you this, PRJA believes in complete economic sovereignty. Right now there’s this narrative that Manipur will starve without New Delhi’s mercy – that we can’t survive without New Delhi. PRJA intends to destroy this narrative.
The underground groups might not be satisfied with that much. Do you feel you face any danger from insurgents?
There’s always the extortionist industry – the armed mafia, I’ll call them. They’re not even insurgents. They’re divorced from any reality or true ideology. I’m not afraid of them – they’re cowards. All they know how to do is extract money from honest people.
The true revolutionaries, who are unhappy with the history of Manipur, who are discontent – I don’t think they will physically harm us. The reason is that we, as a political party, we recognise that Manipur has had a political issue since the merger with India. We are the only political party to recognise that.
The Aam Aadmi Party contested the 2014 general election from Manipur as well. Is there something to learn from their campaign?
I’m not really aware of their operations in Manipur, but what I’ve seen in Delhi was really amazing – I admire the way they ran their campaign. Where their governance and politics is concerned, I’m not as impressed. But they introduced a completely different campaign model. We are open to being in alliance with other regional parties, and I will not rule out the AAP – there are good people with good intentions in the Aam Aadmi Party here in Manipur.
What about the BJP’s challenge in this election. Is it viable? Is it desirable?
Neither. Neither. Because Manipur is very different from Maharashtra or UP. Even the Hindus here have lived with other ethnic groups for centuries – this whole thing about Hindu Rashtra is not going to fly.
In Assam, Hemant Sarma betrayed Tarun Gogoi – that’s a strong word, but I’m using it – and chipped away a large camp and converted them to BJP candidates. So today, it’s old wine in a new bottle there. In Manipur people recognise this, and they’re saying, all these leaders are like frogs jumping from one camp to another. People are not going to be fooled by that.
Anyway, the BJP’s history in Manipur for the last 32 years has been extremely poor. In 2012, they barely had 2% voteshare. Now they’re saying they’re going to jump to 40% – it’s a pipe dream. It’s not going to happen. And we’re going to help them achieve their defeat.