Ethnic conflict casts a shadow on Manipur polls; Kuki-Zo, Meitei people devise voting strategies

Kuki-Zo people say they feel like they are stuck in between a rock and a hard place; Meiteis being courted by both the Cong. and the BJP using rhetoric that peaked during conflict

Updated - April 06, 2024 07:49 am IST

Published - April 06, 2024 12:37 am IST - New Delhi

A banner stating ‘Meitei products are banned’ put up in a Kuki-dominated area, enroute to Kohima (Nagaland) from Imphal, on Janaury 15, 2024.

A banner stating ‘Meitei products are banned’ put up in a Kuki-dominated area, enroute to Kohima (Nagaland) from Imphal, on Janaury 15, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

As Manipur heads into the first phase of the Lok Sabha election in the shadow of an ethnic conflict, the two communities involved in the conflict — the Kuki-Zo people and the Meitei people — find themselves in a peculiar situation.

In the first phase on April 19, most of the violence-affected parts of the State go to the polls. These include all of the Inner Manipur constituency, which covers Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur, and Thoubal districts having a largely Meitei population, and large parts of the Outer Manipur constituency (ST) covering Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Chandel with a majority Kuki-Zo population.

The ethnic conflict that began on May 3 last year, has so far led to at least 220 deaths (according to official figures), and left thousands injured and displaced tens of thousands, for whom the Election Commission (EC) has arranged 94 special polling booths in relief camps in the State.

The hill districts going to the polls in the first phase had more of a mixed population till the conflict began. But the first few weeks of the violence succeeded in creating a near-complete geographical separation of the two communities.

Editorial | Dangerous status quo: On continuing hostilities in Manipur

The Kuki-Zo dilemma

Now, the Kuki-Zo community finds itself in between a rock and a hard place — over whether to express discontentment with the BJP by either boycotting the polls or voting None of the Above (NOTA) or to participate in the electoral process so as not to antagonise whichever government is formed at the Centre. This dilemma stems from the fact that only the Union government can meet the political demand of the Kuki-Zos for a separate administration, a demand that has grown stronger after the conflict, explained Chinkhanlun Guite of the Manipur Tribals Forum, Delhi.

In addition, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, which emerged as a civil society organisation representing the interests of multiple Kuki-Zo tribal associations during the conflict, has already issued a statement asking that no member of their community contest the upcoming election. But the ITLF has also made sure to stress in the statement that the Kuki-Zo people should go out and exercise their right to vote.

The BJP has fielded State Education Minister T. Basanta Kumar Singh for Inner Manipur and has decided to publicly support the Naga People’s Front’s Kachui Timothy Zimik, from the Naga community, in Outer Manipur.

Meanwhile, the Congress has fielded Alfred Kanngam S. Arthur, also from the Naga community, for the Outer Manipur seat and has nominated Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor A. Bimol Akoijam to contest the Inner Manipur seat.

Mr. Akoijam is looking for ways to capitalise on the Meitei community’s disappointment with the BJP for not having taken a hard enough stance on dealing with Kuki-Zo groups that had signed the Suspension of Operations (soO) agreement, and the Central forces’ alleged failure to protect the Meiteis from attacks during the conflict.

Campaign narratives

At the same time, the Meitei community is finding itself at the receiving end of politics, fuelled by the ethnic tensions, from both the BJP and the Congress.

The BJP’s campaign posters position Meiteis as “indigenous people” to “save” whom the Centre had started fencing the Indo-Myanmar border, removed the Free Movement Regime, started screening illegal immigrants, and taken steps to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Mr. Akoijam, meanwhile, is trying to appeal to the Meitei community along ethno-religious lines, making a visit to the temple in Thangjing Hills in Moirang, a sacred site for the Meitei community, ahead of launching his campaign, during which a common theme has been to “protect Manipur’s integrity” — a phrase that has come to be seen as an opposition to the Kuki-Zo people’s demand for a separate administration.

The hill range, somewhere in the middle of the buffer zone created between Churachandpur and Bishnupur districts, has been contested by Kuki-Zos and Meiteis as having religious and cultural significance to their respective communities.

Disagreements over the right to pray and worship on the hill range have only escalated since the ethnic conflict between the two communities began in the State.

“In such a scenario, the Kuki-Zo people might not be entirely comfortable voting for a Congress candidate in Outer Manipur when that party has fielded someone like Mr. Akoijam in the Valley,” a Kuki-Zo community leader said, wishing not to be named.

Armed Meitei outfits like the Arambai Tenggol have issued diktats restricting campaigning. The Congress has complained to the Election Commission about attacks on their candidates in both constituencies, and civilian Meitei groups, in some places, have called for a postponement of the polls while others have encouraged community members to step out and vote.

A common concern, however, has been over the thousands of weapons and ammunition that were looted from police armouries in the first few weeks of the conflict, and the possible consequence of a large number of civilians being armed in the State as it goes to polls.

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