Northeastern View | In Manipur, what does violence hold out for voters? - Hindustan Times

Northeastern View | In Manipur, what does violence hold out for voters?

Apr 17, 2024 09:22 PM IST

As political violence declined, voter turnout shot up with Manipur seeing a turnout of 85% in the 2017 election. Seven years later, this may not be the case

On April 15, Union home minister Amit Shah flew to Imphal as part of his election campaign trail. Making a pitch for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the presence of chief minister N Biren Singh, he declared the Narendra Modi government would not allow Manipur to break apart.

A poster spreading awareness to vote is pictured on a street ahead of the elections in Imphal, Manipur, India, April 7, 2024. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas(REUTERS) PREMIUM
A poster spreading awareness to vote is pictured on a street ahead of the elections in Imphal, Manipur, India, April 7, 2024. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas(REUTERS)

Shah was speaking just two days after a fresh burst of violence hit the hill district of Kangpokpi, leading to the reported killing and mutilation of two Kuki-Zo village volunteers by members of Meitei armed groups. The air in the state, which has seen intense armed conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities since May 2023, remains thick with tension.

Notably, several Meitei groups took to the streets to protest Shah’s visit. Kuki-Zo organisations have called for a boycott of the upcoming national election. Thousands who have been forced to flee to other states won’t be able to vote. What do these mean for the impending electoral exercise and what do they reveal about the social contract in Manipur?

History of electoral boycotts

Elections are the essence of a democratic social contract between the state and citizens. By exercising franchise the citizenry is able to reassert its political agency and by holding free and fair elections, the state is able to reaffirm its legitimacy. But, in the Northeast, which has historically had a complicated relationship with the Indian state, people have often rejected elections for various reasons.

Perhaps the most famous electoral boycotts in the region took place during the anti-foreigner Assam Movement, which began in 1979 and culminated in 1985. Two major polls were boycotted by large sections of the electorate in Assam – the 1980 national election and the 1983 assembly election. While in the former, votes were registered in only three out of fourteen constituencies, the latter saw a slim turnout of just 31.5%.

Both these boycotts unfolded amid intense ethno-political violence, like in Manipur today. In fact, the 1983 polls took place the same week in February when more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were slaughtered in Nellie. In the following decades, too, various militant groups in the Northeast that opposed the Indian state routinely called for electoral boycotts. While many defied them, others skipped going to the ballot box over fears of violent retribution, resulting in silent voter suppression.

Besides, civil society groups have called for poll boycotts over violence by armed groups, such as in the Inner Manipur constituency during the 2009 general election. In 2017 and 2019, voters boycotted a by-election in Arunachal Pradesh’s Likabali seat and a general election in Assam’s Jorhat constituency, respectively, over the government’s failure to build a road. All political parties in Nagaland called for an electoral boycott before the 2018 assembly polls in the state over slow progress on the Naga peace accord.

Yet, even as political violence declined, voter turnouts have shot up in the last decade across the Northeast. In fact, in the 2017 assembly election, Manipur saw a record turnout of 85%. Ironically, seven years later, it is the same state where electoral democracy appears most fragile in all of the Northeast.

Disillusionment with the electoral process

In Manipur today, it isn’t as much about opposition to a particular party as about a wholesale disillusionment with the electoral process. After months of incessant violence resulting in a shattered social fabric and sense of security, each community feels that the state has betrayed them by either not doing enough to check the other side or deliberately sidelining their social, economic and political concerns.

It is for this reason that groups like the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) and Kuki-Zo Women’s Forum (KZWF) have openly called for electoral boycotts. They see the current situation as an existential crisis that electoral politics cannot fix. Meitei groups, such as the World Meitei Council (WMC), too have rejected the narrative pushed by the BJP governments in New Delhi and Imphal that normalcy has returned to Manipur in the run-up to the polls. There is also little to believe that either of the two sides prefers the Congress because of the BJP’s failures. This cross-party frustration, as per some media reports, could translate into NOTA votes.

Then, there is the grave issue of internal displacement. Distrust in the electoral process is seen in sections of the displaced Meitei population who feel slighted by the state’s lacklustre response to their plight. Some 12,000 Kuki-Zo people from Manipur have fled to neighbouring Mizoram since May. This is in addition to those who fled to other states across the Northeast and the rest of India. While the Election Commission has arranged polling arrangements in relief camps across Manipur, those in Mizoram and other states have no means to register their votes. The Supreme Court on 15 April refused to intervene in this matter.

All of this begs larger questions. Can electoral democracy function normally in a state of exception? Even if the election takes place in Manipur, would it capture a genuine democratic consensus when large chunks of the electorate are either unable or unwilling to vote? And most significantly, what would a truncated electoral exercise mean for politics in the Northeast?

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow with the Centre for Policy Research and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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