Ch Punam has been keeping vigil at Imphal West’s Khumbong Bazar since May, monitoring traffic on the National Highway-37 that cuts through the area.

As a Meira Paibi – a woman torchbearer, member of a powerful Meitei civil society movement – Punam has been at the forefront of protests and highway blockades in the ongoing civil war in Manipur that began as an ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and the Kukis on May 3.

For the most part, the object of ire of Punam and her fellow Meira Paibis has been the Assam Rifles. The Meitei community has repeatedly alleged that the paramilitary force is biased against them.

On the afternoon of September 29, though, Punam’s anger was largely directed at Chief Minister N Biren Singh.

“Biren should resign,” she said. “There are many other good, educated and eligible Manipuri people who can run the state.”

Protests and crackdowns

Punam’s indignation was rooted in the latest flashpoint in Manipur over the alleged killing of a 17-year-old girl, Hijam Linthoingambi, and a 20-year-old young man, Phijam Hemjit, by Kuki militants. The duo who had gone missing in July was confirmed to be dead by the Manipur police earlier this month.

The development triggered a fresh wave of protests in the Imphal valley, where the Meiteis are concentrated. In response, security forces launched a brutal crackdown on the protesters, mostly young students, even using pellet guns on occasions. Strikingly, the state police, which has openly sided with the Meiteis in the conflict, have participated in the latest crackdown.

College students Sapam Jennifer Devi and Sonia Devi said Biren Singh had failed them.

‘He is not supporting us’

This has escalated tensions in the Imphal valley. Meitei protesters are now starting to target Biren Singh who till this flashpoint was not only insulated from any significant public anger but also lauded in the community for his purported Meitei majoritarian stance.

As Meitei students hit the streets to protest the alleged killings of Linthoingambi and Hemjit, they burnt his effigies, castigating him for failing to arrest the perpetrators. On social media too, he has been the subject of much angry criticism. On September 27, things reached a head when an irate mob tried to storm the Chief Minister’s ancestral home in Imphal’s Heingang area.

As Punam spelled it out, “He is not supporting us. Why will we keep supporting him?”

Punam accused Biren Singh of inaction and not being able to stand up for the Meitei cause. “Biren does whatever Modi and Amit tell him to do,” Punam said, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah.

She added, “Biren is sleeping and keeping his eyes shut.”

A restive valley

Indeed, in the valley, people’s patience with Biren Singh seems to be running thin. “If he can’t protect us he should quit,” said Sonia Devi, a college student.

Another student from Imphal, Sapam Jennifer Devi, had the same message. “His government has failed us, he should resign,” she told Scroll on Friday, pointing out that the government had not made any arrests in connection to the killings. “Instead they are firing at us.”

On Sunday, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested four persons in Churachandpur district and detained two minors in connection with the deaths of the two students.

In Bishnupur district’s Nambol, too, Boben Singh said the Chief Minister had proved to be ineffective. He said, “He can’t solve the problem. The people really want his resignation.”

The Manipur unit of Bharatiya Janata Party is cognisant of this growing resentment. On Friday, the party’s top office bearers wrote to national president JP Nadda, saying “public’s anger and protest is now slowly turning the tide, putting the sole onus of this prolonged disturbance into the failure of the government in dealing with the situation.”

Pheiroijam Nando Luwang heads the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organization. Credit: Rokibuz Zaman

‘Puppet of the central government’

At the heart of the disaffection seems to be a perception that the Chief Minister is acting on behalf of the Centre – and not standing up to Delhi.

“Biren Singh, despite being a son of the soil, has become the puppet of the central government,” said Sunil Khumdram, in Nambol.

Meitei civil society groups in Imphal, though, appeared to be more sympathetic to Biren Singh

Jeetendra Ningombam, coordinator of the powerful Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, said that the Chief Minister’s powers were limited in the current circumstances as it is the Centre that is calling the shots in the state for all practical purposes.

Pheiroijam Nando Luwang, who heads the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation, another influential group, pointed out that the Chief Minister’s writ was effectively restricted to the valley. “The Manipur government cannot perform its duty properly because the government of India is threatening it,” he said.

Luwang, however, conceded that in the wake of the crackdown on the students, “some sections of the Meitei termed Biren as timid and powerless”.

Imphal-based journalist and author Pradip Phanjoubam said the disturbing visuals of students being injured by pellet guns had changed the public mood. “The tide is turning against Biren,” said Phanjoubam.