By Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan and Md. Abdul Ghaffar
“It is high time PRJA, MPP and parties that believe in social justice come together to defeat national parties (Congress and BJP) to work for regional cause.”
After a historic fast unto death for about 16 years (survived for that long because of State’s intervention by way of force-feeding), protesting against imposition of a re(p/g)ressive law AFSPA 1958 in Manipur, rights activist Irom Sharmila decided to break her fast in last August to enter into electoral politics to pursue the same agenda of repealing the draconian law. As the news of forming a political party People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) by her team comes in, it is necessary to take a quick look back at the socio-political scenario of Manipur since statehood to understand what the actual problem of Manipur is: AFSPA 1958 or insurgency? If we know the problem, we are half-way through the solution.
Congress has been ruling Manipur since 70s, except for short term rules of state political parties like Manipur People’s Party (MPP) that produced the first CM of Manipur state, Manipur Hills Union (MHU), and other national parties like Janata Party, and Samata Party. In other words, insurgency in the state, which the Congress government had time and again imagined as “war-like situation” was born out of the Merger Agreement of 1949 and, to put it bluntly, it has grown alongside Congress’ rule. The demand of the armed movement is the universal right to self determination and to remain as independent nation that Manipur was before British occupation and, later, annexation by India. As no plebiscite has been conducted so far, the six decade old insurgency or ‘problem of lawlessness and chaos’ is refusing to give way to usher in an era of law and order and peace. It is becoming the disease of institutional decay and failure of the state. The root cause of the failure is that the state couldn’t understand the nature and purpose of the insurgency. Moreover, state’s successive governments didn’t connect with the insurgents and sentiments associated with the issue. This was largely because of the lack of regional feeling among the congressmen. This prompted some politicians to rebel and form MPP as splinter party of Congress endorsing mostly the local issues of territorial integrity, autonomy, socio-political, identity and ethnicity preservation, migrant influx, communal harmony, etc. As these issues also were at the core of the insurgency movement which got massive public support those days, the party reaped dividends for flagging them and they formed the first government after statehood with Mohammed Alimuddin as chief minister. Even after the statehood, the insurgents’ agenda remained unfulfilled, but with the statehood the movement had lost its sheen. However, as the rate of unemployment increased, more and more youths joined insurgents and took up arms. Around the time, Yangmaiso Shaiza, representing MHU, another state party, gained popularity because of its local character and progressive agendas. It later turned out that his excessive engagements with Hills to empower the highlanders amidst the growing insecurity among the valley-based insurgents led to the birth of more valley-based insurgent groups apparently owing to difference in opinion and leadership crisis. Some divisive forces in the valley, among the armed groups, systematically spread propaganda to disempower minority communities including those who had not taken up arms to join the insurgency because members of minority communities of different ethnic groups did not identify themselves with the brand of nationalism/patriotism they espoused. Thus, ethnic conflict/communalism was born as a consequence of diluted ideals of insurgency and claustrophobia of the insurgents driven by an imagined perception of being confined in the valley. On its part, NSCN (IM), which was also formed around 1980, contributed to furthering the ethnic conflict by increasing the gap between hill and valley dwellers. Communalism led to systematic discrimination, economic weakening, and ethnic strife in hills as well as valley over time. Minor ethnic groups paid the heaviest price. Many scholars have lucidly discussed the origin of communalism in Manipur and how rift among indigenous communities came into being. As no visible improvement in the situation was seen, the then Congress Govt imposed AFSPA 1958 in whole of Manipur. The atrocious law was a kind of favour to all the insurgents as it helped them to channelize local sentiments and garner public support once again but this time the priority was to fight the military rule. Thus, an internal disturbance escalated to a face-off and law and order situation in Manipur worsened.
Under AFSPA, as Supreme Court observed in a recent judgement, human rights violation and use of excessive force took place. Irom Sharmila took to fast demanding revocation of AFSPA 1958 from Manipur and justice for victims of Indian army’s terror spell. Here it is worth mentioning that Indian army being a Govt body can be tried (either by martial or civil law) or criticised, but the casualties and murders carried out by the so-called insurgents have gone unreported or untried. We as young boys and adolescents, like any other Manipuri civilian, lived with insecurity, terror and lawlessness because of the armed conflict. It is not possible for us to forget the retributive murder of five innocent civilians at our village in cold blood one night, few days after one of their comrades was mob-lynched in the village for killing a son of the then MLA of the constituency. There was no case and trial.
It happened to one of us (M.I. Khan) in 2010. One cold January night few armed men (Indian army) barged into our house in the dark of the night as there was no current. Every family member was pulled out of the warmth of bed and interrogated, while some men started frantically searching the house without showing any warrant, as it turned out, only to plant a sophisticated weapon in one of the almirahs in which our dresses and valuables were kept. Being a hawk eye, my mother somehow saw that something has been kept in the almirah. Sensing trouble, she shouted on top of her voice, “why are you planting weapon in my almirah? Have you come here in my house tonight to blame my family?”. After this once bitten twice shy moment, they called out my brother to interrogate and then abducted him. My brother alarmed us from the courtyard where he jostled to free himself from the armymen. By this time, all the army men had headed towards gate/street where their vehicle was parked. We all followed, created a commotion and called out names to attract neighbours’ attention. After almost 10-15 minutes of our failed struggle to free my brother, he was abducted and the next day after gheraoing the jurisdictional police station, he was released with clean chit. I was shell-shocked to read in the newspaper next day that he was picked up from Patsoi, a place around 20 km far from my home, on suspicion of being a member of proscribed militant outfit as he was possessing arms (on the contrary, it was the armymen who tried to plant weapon). Such cruel and terrorising techniques are used by Indian Army in the name of AFSPA 1958. And, as for me, in that cold January night after my brother was taken away I along with neighbours took my mother and admitted her to RIMS, Imphal as her head was hit by the butt of an AK47 rifle and needed stitches. It was cold, sleepless, tensed night. Thanks to AFSPA 1958, I contracted allergic bronchitis because of the cold, dust, pleading/shouting for releasing my brother, crying, which worsened the persisting seasonal cold and cough.
The semi-barbaric conduct of army personnel needs no further detailing here as every kid in Manipur knows this. Govt might have recommended the AFSPA to suppress the insurgency and escalating communalism/ethnic conflict at that time, but in the crossfire minority communities that didn’t join the armed insurgency also bore the violent burden. Hill and valley, child and adult, men and women all have suffered under AFSPA 1958.
Supreme Court recently observed that declaring ‘disturbed area’ for six decades is nothing but failure of the Govt. This implies that there has been a consistent lack of political will to engage with the insurgents and normalise law and order problem. Unlike other insurgent groups in the northeast (Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura), Manipuri groups have always desisted from holding talks, apart from now-obsolete demand of plebiscite, for reasons best known to them.
Among the politicians, there is no consensus on the issue of how to control insurgency. We cannot look up to the Centre for our local problems. If other states in northeast have successfully controlled insurgency, why not Manipur? It is important to note here that it was the BJP whose alliance with Naga People’s Front (NPF) tried to break the integrity of the state in 2001 which led to ‘June 18 Uprising’. BJP is going with NPF again and they are planning to integrate all Naga-dominated areas. Moreover, the polarisation and killing in the name of cow’s meat, ‘ghar wapsi’, ongoing uniform civil code episode threaten the tribals’ autonomy and cultural identity of small ethnic communities like Meitei, Pangal, etc clearly hint that the BJP’a agenda is harmful and problematic to Manipur. Govt’s visionless and therefore highly deplorable strategies of job generation by introducing horrible Maxi cabs service (popularly known as TATA Magic/Winger) for public transportation, creation of village defence force (VDF) have not solved the increasing unemployment rate, which is above the national average. Manipur has more than 7 lakh unemployed persons out of about 27 lakh population. Unemployment doubled during the last 10 years of Congress rule. The corruption and rising privatisation (e.g. transport) in the state has deeply affected the society which has widened the income inequalities between rich and poor. The government has continuously failed to address and fix the health and medical concerns of the citizens which leads to medical tourism outside the state for better treatment. In this way, millions of rupees of state’s economy are spent outside the state. No government has so far addressed the decaying of higher education in the state. Why thousands of natives need to go for studying Political Science or History, etc outside the state? Our politicians do not have fixed political mooring: they are known offenders of party hopping. One day in one camp, next day in another camp. How and when will they think of the pressing issues of state’s importance such Citizenship (amendment) bill 2016, AFSPA 1958, insurgency, communalism, mobocracy/lawlessness, mushrooming joint action committees, frequent bandhs (or forced shutdown), reviving Manipur state road transport corporation (MSRTC), ILPS, Trans-Asian highway, natural resource mining, ST status demand, National Sports University, identity politics, etc. Apart from this, there are other issues like police reformation, improvement of health and education (collegiate), implementation of Lokpal act, introduction of a ‘equal opportunity act’ to safeguard minorities, implementation of land reform act, inclusive state tourism policy, and so on.
For all these issues to be addressed, keeping in mind the social fabric of Manipur, in the upcoming 11th Legislative assembly election, the state needs a Manipur centric party which would put the state interests at first and do not submit to the diktats of New Delhi. In other words, it is high time to produce a non-Congress, non-BJP political bloc in the state to build a grand narrative that could encompass all the people of the state. We need a party or leaders who can understand our interests, identity and civic culture. If other north-eastern states can have strong regional parties, why not in Manipur? Although we have our reservations about Ms Sharmila’s utterances in the past, we would like to support the leaders of PRJA as they hold a lot of promise because of the emotional connect they have with the local issues and masses. However, politics in India is a number game and heavily dependent on muscle power and PRJA is not yet capable of garnering enough seats to form a govt on its own or effect policy matters. Hence, we strongly advise PRJA to form an alliance with the only other genuine regional party, MPP, and parties that profess social justice like left parties. Give an alternative to the voters, form a third front to save Manipur.
(Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan teaches at Gauhati University, Assam. Md Abdul Ghaffar is a doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)