In Manipur’s Senapati district, the memory of the December killings is still fresh. The Indian Army had opened fire on Naga civilians, killing 14. The incident happened in Nagaland’s Oting village, but in the Naga-dominated districts of Manipur, such as Senapati, it cut deep.
“Everyone knows about the Oting killings,” said a 27-year-old youth from Senapati’s Katomei village who did not want to be named. “We don’t see the army as our friends. We don’t feel safe when army men come to our village for patrolling as they have the power to arrest and search you without reason, based on suspicion. One does not have to do anything – they have that much power. That’s why AFSPA must go.”
He was referring to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a law which gives the army sweeping executive powers and a degree of immunity for prosecution in civilian courts. Anger against the law had flared up again in the wake of the Oting killings – many believed it had enabled the army’s actions. Protests had swept across North Eastern states, reviving an old demand for the repeal of AFSPA.
The 27-year-old, however, made a curious admission – AFSPA was an issue with deep local resonances but it was not going to be a deciding factor in the Manipur assembly elections scheduled for February 28 and March 5.
“When people are fighting against certain issues, they do it in the heat of the moment, but later on, they forget about it,” he said.
An old wound
The Oting protests had resurfaced the long-standing demand for the repeal of AFSPA. Apart from the Bharatiya Janata Party, every major party in Manipur promises to repeal the law in its election manifesto. That includes parties currently in alliance with the BJP in the state government.
After all, it is a demand with deep historical roots in Manipur, which has seen decades of militancy by various ethnic groups. As armed movements for ethnic homelands burgeoned in the state, so did the military backlash. Manipur has a long history of army shootings and custodial deaths under the cover of AFSPA, imposed in 1958. While many of the militant groups have joined peace talks with the government, the law remains operational across the state, apart from seven assembly constituencies in the capital of Imphal.
Along with the military crackdown, landmark protests against AFSPA are deeply etched into the collective memory of the state. In 2004, Meira Paibis, or Manipur Mothers, stripped naked to protest against the alleged rape and custodial death of Thangjam Manorama.
Civil rights activist Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike from 2000 to 2016 to demand justice for 10 civilians killed in Malom and for the repeal of AFSPA. When she ended her fast after 16 years, she entered the electoral fray, contesting the 2017 assembly elections with a newly formed party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance. Although hugely popular as a civil rights activist, Sharmila and her party failed to make much headway with voters. This time, they have bowed out of the elections.
The current crop of AFSPA promises have been greeted with scepticism in the state, especially by human rights activists. “AFSPA has always been in the manifesto of political parties, but they never take action to repeal it,” said Renu Takhellambam, president of the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur.
Takhellambam lost her husband, Mung Hangzo, to an alleged fake encounter in 2007. She is one of the thousands struggling for justice for their murdered families in court. In 2016, the Supreme Court ordered a probe into 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, acting on a writ petition filed by the EEVFAM.
Babloo Loitongbam, who heads the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert and was the executive director of EEVFAM, pointed out that in 2017, the BJP had also promised to repeal AFSPA and investigate all alleged fake encounter cases within a month of forming government. At the time, the party was trying to dislodge the Congress from a 15-year stint in Manipur.
For parties hoping to make it electorally in Manipur, AFSPA was an “acid test”, an indicator to show whether they were sensitive to the needs and aspirations of local people, Loitongbam explained. “The BJP had promised to remove AFSPA, but after coming to power they have forgotten,” he said.
In the last five years, the EEVFAM pointed out in a statement, the state government had not initiated a single investigation in the alleged fake encounter cases and the Union government had denied sanction to prosecute the cases being investigated by other agencies on the directions of the Supreme Court. Under AFSPA, central government sanction is required for cases involving armed forces to be tried in civilian courts.
BJP and AFSPA
This time, the BJP has sidestepped AFSPA in its election promises – Chief Minister N Biren Singh claimed he wanted the law repealed as well but there were security concerns, especially since Manipur shared an international border with turbulent Myanmar. In December, the state government approved extending “disturbed area” status for most districts of Manipur, which would enable the continuation of AFSPA.
Yet the party campaign boasts of bringing peace to Manipur. According to Loitongbam, the number of extrajudicial killings had gone down from 500 in 2009 to one in 2018. In campaign speeches, the BJP has tried to claim credit for this decline.
Takhellambam was scornful of these claims. “BJP didn’t provide any support to the victims’ families – neither moral nor financially,” she said. “There are three reasons why the encounters have stopped – EEVFAM has organised the victims so that they can speak in one voice, the intervention of the Supreme Court and the cognisance of international bodies. This is the result of three decades of work by civil societies. Now the BJP wants to take credit without doing anything.”
Apart from a decline in extrajudicial killings, the BJP points to surrenders by militant cadres and the petering out of strikes and blockades by civil society groups to make the case that it has brought peace to the region.
Many voters are not convinced, especially in the tribal-majority hill districts of Manipur. Sabestia Rampau, a 37-year-old entrepreneur based in Senapati town, demanded why the BJP had extended AFSPA in the state if law and order had improved so much. “Political parties don’t work for the repeal of the AFSPA,” he said. “They only say they will repeal it but they don’t work towards it.”
So why does AFSPA fail to influence voting decisions in the end? Responses vary from the predominantly Meitei Imphal Valley and the tribal hill districts of Manipur.
In Imphal, voters speak of economic distress outweighing other concerns. A first-time voter, 20-year-old Jonish Lourembam worried about basic supplies becoming unaffordable. “A single litre of petrol now costs over Rs 100 in Manipur,” he said. “The price of every essential commodity has gone up. No doubt AFSPA must go but these are the primary issues.”
Economic distress has also cast a pall over Imphal’s Ima Keithel, the famous market run wholly by women. For months, the market had been shut because of the Covid lockdown and business was still slow.
Take 67-year-old Kananwala Devi, a retired teacher who sells traditional Manipuri clothes at Ima Keithel. Past noon on a February afternoon, she had still not sold anything and she worried about being able to keep her stall – AFSPA was far from her thoughts. “The price of goods has increased but there are few buyers,” she said. “ We are now more concerned about huge unemployment and price rise. The government did not create jobs and even though we were badly affected by the Covid lockdown, they didn’t provide any help.”
Besides, she said, there had not been any “violence in the name of AFSPA recently”.
Kamala Devi, who has sold Manipuri clothes at Ima Keithel for 30 years, was also relieved that long-running economic blockades had eased. These blockades, usually the result of tensions between the Imphal Valley and Manipur’s hill district, choked off supply lines to Imphal.
“Before Modi’s BJP came to power, there was an economic blockade for three months,” said Kamala Devi, referring to the months-long blockade imposed by the United Naga Council from November 2016 to March 2017. “We suffered a huge economic loss as our raw materials come from outside Manipur. Our supply was stopped.”
She was also pleased by the BJP’s promise of railways. “Modi has planned well for Manipur,” she said.
A Naga issue
In the hill districts, the Naga People’s Front – an ally of the BJP in the current state government – has made the repeal of AFSPA a core election plank. The party is influential in 11 Naga-dominated constituencies, with most of its senior leadership based in Nagaland.
Shurhozelie Liezietsu, former Nagaland chief minister and Naga Peoples’ Front leader, said the “draconian” law was bad for all of the North East. “The Indian government still treats the whole Northeast as a military training ground,” he said. “In Oting, innocent villagers were killed when they were returning from work. Why is such a draconian law still in Operation? Sometimes we fail to understand the intention of the Indian government. They don’t regard the North Eastern people as human beings – we are still second [class] citizens [to] Delhi… We don’t want that status. We are conveying this message to the voters.”
The party has tied the repeal of AFSPA to Naga peace talks between the Centre and armed groups led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction), which have been fighting for a sovereign Naga homeland for decades. In 2015, the BJP-led Centre had signed a framework agreement with the NSCN(IM) for the final settlement of the Naga issue. The euphoria of the 2015 agreement has long evaporated, however, and talks have floundered since then. As election rallies kicked off in Manipur, the NSCM(IM) worked with local civil society groups to launch an “awareness campaign” on the peace talks.
Several Naga leaders, including current Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, have campaigned for the Naga People’s Front in Senapati, urging voters to choose the 10 party candidates in the fray and cast a vote for Naga unity and an early resolution to the Naga issue.
As the party stresses on Naga tribal unity, which cuts across state borders, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh spoke of the state’s “territorial integrity”. “No more division. Manipur’s Territorial integrity will be protected and the interest of all the communities will be protected this is BJP’s motto,” Singh said in an interview to the Economic Times.
Still not a poll issue?
Despite raising the flag on AFSPA, Naga People’s Front leaders admit they are likely to ally with the BJP in future. “We can’t form the government of our own – our association with the BJP still prevails,” said a Naga People’s Front leader, who did not wish to be identified.
Among party leaders as well as civil society organisations the BJP remained popular in Naga-dominated districts because it started the peace talks. Pung Mark, president of the Senapati District Association, said the BJP had also done much to bridge the economic gap between the hills and the relatively affluent Valley. Road connectivity had also improved.
Rampau, the entrepreneur based in Senapati town, echoed this tentative endorsement: “Though nothing significant has been achieved, the BJP-government is still more popular in the hills than the Congress, which ran the state for three straight terms. BJP tried to bridge the gap between hills and valley. [Even though] there is still a huge gap.”
H Mao, associated with the Mao students’ union said, “In this election I don’t foresee, AFSPA [having] a big impact on voters,” said H Mao, associated with the Mao Naga students’ union. “AFSPA has been here since Manipur got the statehood.”
Voting for the candidate
Besides, he pointed out, voting decisions would be determined by the candidate and the clan or tribe loyalties he commanded.
“There are dynamics to how the Nagas vote - clan based, chief based, household based etc but less on individual choice,” explained Richard Kamei, lecturer at Royal Thimphu College. “[What the] community value[s] is played out in electoral politics. This implies that the ideology of a political party matters less.”
In Katomei village, home to Maram Nagas, 45-year-old K Lovejoy speaks of these considerations. “This is a Maram village, we have to do something for Maram unity,” he said. “The politics here is different from the mainland, we are a part of a complex system, we consider the tribe, clan of the candidate before voting.”
Other tribal communities in the hills, such as the Kukis, also vote on collective decisions made at the village level. Village authorities have already declared support for particular candidates in these polls.
There are other factors – a student leader in Senapati, who did not wish to be named, spoke of the influence of underground armed groups on voting decisions. “There is a wave of involvement of groups in choosing and blessing a particular candidate,” he said. “Many candidates in Senapati, after [failing to get a] party ticket from NPF and other parties, are contesting as independents backed by the militant groups. This might hurt NPF.”
Finally, as author and journalist Pradip Phanjoubam observed, AFSPA would not influence an election process warped by money and largesse distributed by candidates. “In Manipur, the real politics doesn’t get reflected in electoral politics,” he said. “It’s like a business. Money is the important factor. AFSPA is real politics, but it doesn’t get any recognition in political campaigns.”