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Complex ethnic equations in Manipur elections

The lives of Manipuris are marred by armed conflicts, terrorism, corruption and repressive forces Photograph: (Others)

WION Shillong, Meghalaya, India Mar 07, 2017, 06.57 AM (IST) R. K. Satapathy


If Uttar Pradesh is known for caste politics, Manipur has the distinction for ethnic politics. Manipur elections have always been the centre of attraction for political analysts due to its complex socio-political formations. This election has gained unprecedented attention from the national leaders who have frequented the region, holding huge political campaigns. Moreover, this election sees IromSharmilaChanu’s electoral debut. After giving up her sixteen years long fast, Irom entered the electoral fray to politically fight against AFSPA. She intends to do this through democratic means, particularly by forming a new political party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). The economic blockade imposed by the Naga body, the United Naga Council, in the state for more than three months has made the electoral scene warmer.


Manipur, one of the special category states in India’s northeast, has 60 Legislative Assembly seats with a voting population of more than 17,00,000. The demographic composition of the state has its impact on electoral politics. Although there are three major ethnic groups, namely Meitei, Naga and Kuki, others like Muslims and Hmars have a sizeable presence in the state. 


The state of Manipur consists of four valleys and five hill districts. However, approximately sixty per cent of the population lives in the valleys which spread over 10 per cent of the total area of the state. On the other hand, forty per cent people occupy nearly ninety per cent of the land which is predominantly the hill region. The valley has 40 Assembly constituencies and the hill areas only 20. Out of 60 seats, 40 are general constituencies, 1 Scheduled Caste (Sekmai) and remaining 19 Scheduled Tribe constituencies. Meitei is the largest ethnic community in Manipur who inhabit mostly in and around the valley area. Naga and Kuki tribes live mostly in hills. 


Nagas generally do not vote as a bloc as has been observed in the past elections. There are different sub-tribes among Nagas which do not have a very cordial relation between them



National and regional parties are trying their best to extract support from the voters. But Manipur has complex ethnic arithmetic. Traditionally, there has been animosity between the Nagas and the Kukis. Meitei, the largest ethnic composition in the state, puts its weight on either side depending on the issue. 


Nagas, through the United Naga Council (UNC), demanded that all Naga-dominated districts should merge with Nagaland in consonance with NSCN’s idea of ‘Greater Nagalim’. When there was stiff opposition from the non-Naga population and when UNC realised that this goal is unachievable at the moment, they made a fresh demand of administrative autonomy within Manipur. Before the Assembly election, Ibobi Singh government created seven new districts in the state which has been vehemently opposed by the UNC. It responded with an economic blockade that paralysed normal life in the state. In the election campaigns, all parties have raised this issue. BJP, a strong contender this time, assures voters to resolve this issue if voted to power. 


Another issue that polarised the tribes and created intense public debate is the Inner Line Permit (ILP) related bills. These ILP bills, totalling three in numbers, have already been passed by the state Assembly but tribal leaders suspect that these bills are aimed at harming their interest. Meiteis broadly support the bills and always focus on the territorial integrity of Manipur. 


Though officially non-aligned, United Naga Council has tacit support for National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak-Muivah. UNC backed Naga People’s Front (NPF) has fielded fifteen candidates in the Naga dominated areas with the intention of playing a crucial role in government formation. It opposes the Congress party that has ruled the state for last fifteen years and accuse it of not doing anything for the Naga community. However, Nagas generally do not vote as a bloc as has been observed in the past elections. There are different sub-tribes among Nagas which do not have a very cordial relation between them. These things are reflected in poll verdicts. 


The undisclosed Naga Peace Agreement, which was signed by the Central Government and the NSCN(IM) leaders in 2015 has become a contentious issue in this election. Meiteis and Kukis have the apprehension that a part of the state territory may be ceded to the ‘Greater Nagalim’. While BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, assure that the interest of Manipur will not be hurt, Congress leaders press for the Agreement to be made public. The UNC had welcomed the signing of the Peace Accord as a positive sign. The NPF, which is in power along with the BJP as a coalition partner in Nagaland, and has the support of UNC in Manipur, may favour the latter in the government formation. 


Kuki community, comparatively smaller than the Meitei and Naga counterparts, also demands a separate political set up but does not go the extent of creating socio-political chaos like Nagas. It is the traditional vote bank of the Congress party; the present president of the state Congress is from this community too. Kuki National Army (KNA), the armed wing of Kuki National Organisation, although involved in underground activities, has taken part in voting this time like they did in the 2012 elections. Frequent Kuki-Naga conflict in the past not only creates socio-political tension but also impacts electoral verdicts.

All prominent parties have fielded Muslim candidates and tried to woo voters in their favour


Besides these three communities, Muslims also play a crucial role in any election due to their sizeable population. The state has also elected a Muslim Chief Minister Mohammad Alimuddin in the past. Muslims, around 9 per cent of the total population in Manipur, are spread over eighteen constituencies. In this election, nineteen Muslim candidates are there in the fray and, interestingly, one female contestant Najima Bibihas been contesting as a PRJA candidate for the first time in this election in spite of resentment from the community leaders. All prominent parties have fielded Muslim candidates and tried to woo voters in their favour. Outside Muslim leaders, mostly from Assam, have been campaigning in favour of their candidates. In general, the Congress is the biggest beneficiary in electoral terms from this section and the BJP has not so far been able to influence much.  


 Bihari community has also its presence in the state and takes a keen interest in the elections. They inhabit mostly in valley areas. However, it is observed that they prefer a national party to a regional party for their own interest. In this election, their votes are likely to be split between the Congress and the BJP; that way the Congress may lose some vote from this pocket.


Other issues which have been raised by political parties, include corruption, lack of development, worsening law and order situation as well as AFSPA, administrative incompetence, and political scandals. BJP’s aggressive campaign to unseat the Congress government and anti-incumbency will add new flavor to the electoral politics this time. A high percentage of polling in the first phase is an indication that all stakeholders have been able to mobilise awareness among the masses in order to draw them towards the ballot boxes.

R. K. Satapathy

R.K. Satapathy is professor of political science at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. He specialises on electoral politics of northeast India

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