In Manipur, campaign void in buffer zone Kwakta as parties find quieter ways to make inroads

Meitei Muslim residents of Kwakta, a town in Manipur’s buffer zone, say all they are thinking about is who can bring back peace; express anger against BJP for failing to protect their town and people  

Published - April 12, 2024 03:15 am IST - Kwakta, Bishnupur, Manipur

Haisat Ali (in middle) and Mohammad Arshad (in right)  at their sweet shop at Kwakta in Bishnupur district of Manipur on April 11, 2024.

Haisat Ali (in middle) and Mohammad Arshad (in right) at their sweet shop at Kwakta in Bishnupur district of Manipur on April 11, 2024. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

This Id-ul-Fitr has been significantly different for the largely Muslim residents of Kwakta in Manipur - a small town bang in the middle of the buffer zone created by security forces to keep the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo communities from fighting each other. In addition to being the first Id-ul-Fitr they are celebrating since the conflict began on May 3 last year, it also falls just ahead of the Lok Sabha election this month.

While it has always been an annual ritual and more so in election years for politicians from across party lines to visit the town and exchange greetings, this Eid has been eerily quiet in Kwakta, residents said. With anger rising in the town over the BJP governments’ handling of the conflict and their failure to protect Kwakta’s interests, the Congress has made the first move to reach out to these voters, forcing the BJP to now play a careful game of catch-up using its ally, the National People’s Party. 

“Usually during an election year, there would be a beeline of politicians from across party lines waiting to send food items for Iftar gatherings during Ramadan. They would come in with their convoys to attend the Eid prayers and exchange greetings. We’ve seen none of that so far,” 42-year-old Haisat Ali tells The Hindu as he sets up the display rack at his Al-Taufeeq Hotel in Kwakta Bazar. 

Haisat Ali, like most residents of the town, is a Meitei Muslim - people who are also known as Meitei Pangals in Manipur. This small community of Muslims, who constitute around 8% of the State’s population, have been caught in the middle of the conflict since it began, both literally and figuratively. 

And as election campaigning heats up all over Inner Manipur, Kwakta, on its edges, is an exception. There are no signs of campaign posters on shop shutters or doors of homes and residents are more concerned about the violence resuming after the election than the contest itself. 

Throughout the conflict, the Meitei Pangals on Kwakta have been facing the brunt of blockades from both communities. Several instances of fighting between the two communities have often reached the town, which has also seen a few instances of Central Security Forces clash with Manipur Police. 

“Our own supply chains have been hit. Each community suspects us of helping the other community out. As a result, everything has become expensive here,” Mr. Ali explained, asking what their fault in all of this was. “As for the election, all we are thinking about is who can help bring an end to this.”  

Pointing to the display racks where other dishes would usually be present, Mohammad Arshad, who runs the Al-Taufeeq Hotel with his brother Mr. Ali, said, “Before the violence started, our daily sales would be around ₹35,000. Now, it has come down to around ₹5,000-Rs 6,000.” 

As Mr. Arshad continued, the anger was palpable against the State government and the Centre as more people joined the conversation. “The BJP is known to be a communal party. I am certain that had the Congress been in power, none of this would have happened. During [former Chief Minister] Ibobi Singh’s time, there was another instance when Kukis and Meiteis came close to a conflict but it was resolved through constant dialogue over a day and nothing happened,” 30-year-old Abdullah, a cook at another hotel a few doors down, quipped.

And taking advantage of this anger, the Congress has made the first move to reach out to the Meitei Pangal voters in Kwakta town. “Right now, all discussions in the town are about Mr. Bimol Akoijam, the Congress candidate. His team members had sent food items for our Iftar gathering which ignited the conversation,” Mr. Arshad said, just as he spotted a couple of Congress posters on the walls of his shop, “I am seeing this for the first time. It was not here yesterday.”

But the absence of outright efforts from the BJP does not mean that a campaign is not under way to sway the Pangal voters towards their candidate Th. Basantakumar Singh. This void in the BJP’s campaign is instead being filled by its alliance partner National People’s Party, whose MLA Thongam Shanti Singh has been aggressively campaigning for Mr. Basantakumar Singh.  

“This morning, Shanti Singh attended the prayers at the Kwakta Bazar Eidgah, paid his respects and exchanged greetings with us,” Mr. Ali said as Mr. Arshad added with a smile, “He made sure he stayed the entire length of the prayers.”

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