Manipur elections: A look at issues that will be on voters’ minds on polling day
The issues that could play a role on how voters cast their vote in Manipur include the AFSPA debate, political instability, security issues, scheduled tribe status for Meitei community etc.
Manipur gears up for the first phase of polling in 38 of the 60 assembly seats on Monday, February 28. With just one day left for polling, here’s a look at a few issues which would be on the minds of voters in the north-eastern state as they get ready to exercise their franchise.
The AFSPA debate
Following the December 4-5 army killings in Nagaland which claimed lives of 14 civilians, the demand for repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which empowers security forces operating in “disturbed areas” to search, seize, arrest without warrant, and use firearms on mere suspicion, with impunity, has reignited in the insurgency-affected Manipur too.
Manipur has been declared a “disturbed area” since September and AFSPA still continues to remain operational in the state except in municipal areas of Imphal. According to various data, nearly 1,700 people have killed in Manipur in alleged fake encounters over the past two decades and the state also witnessed a 16-year-fast demanding its repeal by activist Irom Sharmila Chanu.
“If AFSPA is not a poll issue, nothing is an issue. This is the most talked about of all issues and all parties except the BJP has included it in their manifesto. The very fact that the BJP hasn’t included it in its manifesto has in itself become a big issue,” said Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Rights Alert (HRA).
“AFSPA is important as it deals with lives of voters. Before 2014 general elections, (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi had promised repeal of AFSPA, but surprisingly his party is now silent on it. This is true of Congress as well. They talk of repealing AFSPA when not in power, but forgets about it when in power,” he added.
The unemployment rate in Manipur is 9.5% according to union labour ministry’s data tabled in parliament last year. It is the second highest in the northeast after Nagaland and the Covid-19 pandemic has made it worse with many losing jobs and suffering losses in businesses.
“Unemployment is the most dominant issue this time as many people are affected across the state. There have been a lot of TV debates and also discussions among the public around the issue of jobs,” said senior journalist and columnist Pradip Phanjoubam.
The issue finds prominence in the manifestoes of the parties as well. Opposition Congress promised creation of 50,000 jobs each year and one-third reservation for women in all government jobs. But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party remained silent on job-creation.
The other issues which could play a role on how voters cast their vote include political instability, security issues, scheduled tribe status for Meitei community and the BJP government’s failure to table and pass the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021.
Manipur has witnessed political instability since 2017 with MLAs switching sides, resigning from seats or getting disqualified. The state’s first BJP-led government, which came to power by cobbling a coalition, was busy managing numbers for the entire 5 years, which in turn affected development.
“The people of Manipur have seen through the game of Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was hand in glove with Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh in breaking parties to muster majority in the past 5 years,” said Janata Dal (United) national general secretary Afaque Ahmed Khan.
“The people are seething with anger and a wave of anti-incumbency is sweeping through Imphal Valley and the hills against the ruling party. The people are bent on teaching the ruling party a lesson by showing it, its rightful place in the election,” he added.
ST status for Meiteis
The state’s largest community, Meitei, which comprise 57% of the population, has been demanding scheduled tribe status for many years. The Meitei votes are crucial to swing fortunes in the 40 seats in Imphal Valley and decide formation of the next government.
The Meitei community, which is mainly Hindu and granted other backward caste (OBC) status in 1991, believes that ST status would help them in getting reservation in jobs and also protect their lands in the Imphal Valley, which comprise nearly 8% of the state’s area, where they primarily reside.
“Our basic reason for demanding ST status is reservation of land for the community. With introduction of rail network in Manipur and entry of MNCs, more land belonging to our people will get taken away or sold and it will further affect us,” said Yambem Laba, advisor of the Schedule Tribe Demand Committee, Manipur.
The issue has not found mention in the manifestoes of any of the major committees and is being opposed by the state’s 36 tribes who feel it could affect the interests of these communities residing in the hill areas.
The BJP government’s failure to table and pass the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021 due to pressure from organisations based in Imphal Valley has irked tribal organisations in hill districts of the state. The Bill was drafted by all 20 MLAs from the 10 hill districts in the state and it sought to give more power to the Hill Areas Committee and the 6 existing ADCs in matters governing them.