New Delhi: A letter written by the president of Zomi Re-Unification Organisation (ZRO) to BJP national president Amit Shah dated February 23, asking him to give the party ticket to H.S. Benjamin Mate for the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, is trending on social media.
ZRO is the political wing and parent body of the armed group Zomi Re-Unification Army (ZRA) of Manipur, engaged in peace talks with the Narendra Modi government since June 2016.
ZRO president Thanglianpau Guite’s letter only highlights the continuing nexus between political parties and several Northeastern armed groups engaged in peace talks with the central government, particularly during the elections.
Days after Thanglianpau’s letter, a copy of which was marked to BJP national secretary in charge of the Northeast, Ram Madhav, and the party’s regional strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma, Benjamin Mate was named the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from the constituency, presently held by Thangso Baite of the Congress.
Further confirming the role these armed groups under suspension of operation (SOO), active in the Churachandpur area of Manipur, play in the elections, a news report on April 7 said that village heads of the region that comes under the constituency were being “threatened by the Kuki National Army (KNA) to ensure that 90% votes cast for the BJP, otherwise, they will be summoned and held responsible, then punished.”
Highlighting the role of these groups during assembly and parliamentary polls in Manipur, veteran CPI leader M. Nara Singh recently told The Wire in an interview, “Elections in Manipur are a festival of throwing money, throwing liquor, bullets and what not. If it would have been a normal voting, I would have won long ago.”
Since the 2004 general elections, Singh, widely known across the state as “an honest politician”, has stood second in the Inner Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, continuously losing to the ruling party (then Congress) by a few thousand votes. This time too, he is contesting the polls from the same seat and is not too hopeful of winning the seat citing related reasons.
For the uninitiated, Kuki National Army (KNA) is the armed wing of Kuki National Organisation (KNO), a conglomeration of about 15 groups along with their armed wings, believed to be operating on either side of the India-Myanmar border. When KNO was formed in the 1980s, its prime demand was a Kuki state comprising parts of India and Myanmar.
ZRO is a part of United People’s Front (UPF), yet another umbrella grouping of six or seven outfits with their armed wings formed in the 1990s, who are seeking more political powers for the Kuki-Chin people.
Together with KNO, UPF is in peace talks with the Modi government. Their common demand now is a territorial council on the lines of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam, which has much more autonomy than the other autonomous councils functioning in the Northeast.
Thanglianpao, who is locally referred to as TLP, is presently a controversial name in the Churachandpur area. His leadership of ZRO/ZRA has fallen into trouble due to a factional fight within the outfit. His deputy, Calvin Hathlang, has instead been recognised by the UPF in a meeting held in Guwahati this past March 13. TLP was expelled from the primary membership of UPF. Calvin has since replaced TLP as the general secretary of UPF. “But he is still clinging on to the post of ZRO/ZRA president,” Calvin told The Wire.
When this correspondent visited Churachandpur in late February, the border town had a tense air about it. “Though TLP has presently more ZRA cadres with him but the people of the town and the leaders are with us,” Calvin, sitting in his heavily guarded house, said then. Some cadres also mentioned that TLP is a Myanmarese citizen and “should have nothing to do with either Indian politics or being part of peace talks with the Centre”.
This aspect is important considering north-eastern groups involved in armed struggle to unite areas of India and Myanmar are increasingly being seen getting split as per their nationalities. KNA (B) and the NSCN (Khaplang) are examples of it.
The ZRO faction, which has been recognised by UPF, has also recently put together a list of as many as 39 local youth allegedly killed at the behest of TLP during his tenure as the ZRO president. It must be underlined that the presidents of the political wings of these groups are almost always the head of their armed wings too.
What is to be pointed out is that the minutes of the Guwahati meeting mentioned that “Thanglianpau and members of KNA/KNO were witnessed meeting political leaders at Guwahati”.
Importantly, the UPF chairman is S.T. Thangboi, a revered figure in the region. His wife Nemcha Kipgen is the only woman minister in the BJP-led N. Biren Singh government. Kipgen had moved from Congress to the BJP before the 2017 assembly elections in Manipur. According to the state’s political observers, her shift to the BJP considerably aided the party to grab a couple of assembly seats in the hill areas.
While touring the region in the run-up to the assembly polls, it was clear that these groups which have been under suspension of operation since 2005 (ZRA) and 2008 (KNO), lost their hope on the Congress to begin the peace talks with the Centre in order to get more political autonomy for the Kuki-Chin people residing close to the Myanmar border.
The then Congress government’s decision to bring three controversial bills in the Manipur assembly close to the polls further eroded their trust in the party. Since the peace talks finally began with the Centre under Modi regime in 2016, the UPF leaders saw hope in the BJP.
Now that the talks are inconclusive, this Lok Sabha polls too, the equation with BJP is stated to be the same. “We are with the BJP,” said Calvin when contacted on April 8.
While the Outer Manipur constituency is going to polls on April 11, voting in the Inner Manipur seat will be on April 18.