‘How can we vote in absence of peace?’

21 April,2024 03:48 AM IST |  Manipur  |  Makepeace Sitlhou

Internally Displaced Persons in Churachandpur are unsure of whether to vote and whom to trust amid continuing violence for those living in Manipur despite EC arranging 94 special polling stations

Lamvah Touthang crafts a stool while her 11-month-old daughter takes a nap. She was born in the forest where Touthang says she was hiding for almost a month after

Nengchin, 62, and her husband, Paokam, 68, have moved three relief camps since they first arrived in Churachandpur in May last year. Their home in Monglham village of Saikul Sub Division, Kangpokpi district, was burned down allegedly by Meitei miscreants shortly after clashes broke out with Kuki Zo tribes on May 3. Both communities have lost scores of lives, and the surviving have been forced to move away.

The couple's new home is the Sangai University building, still under construction. The walls are missing in unfinished portions of the structure. Tarpaulin sheets are used to demarcate spaces between families that are living off donations from individuals and non-profits. The building has no bathroom; a tin shed built outside by Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) for the 100-odd Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) makes up for it.

Nengchin and Paokam with their daughter live in a the under-construction Sangai University building. They have moved between three relief camps since their home was burned down last May

But Paokam and Nengchin, who say they had to hide in the forests for days with their teenage daughter before the Army rescued and ferried them across the valley to the safety of the hill district, are glad they made it out alive. They are among more than 20,000 displaced persons in Churachandpur district, who have been moved to multiple locations in the last 11 months. Those whom this writer spoke to said that they feel like a liability forgotten by authorities.

Ethnic violence has kept Manipur on the boil since the most recent clashes broke out in the hilly state in May of 2023. The conflict between the Kukis (mostly Christian, and hill dwellers) and Meitis (largely Hindu, or Sanamahi, based in Imphal valley) broke out over a High Court order recommending scheduled tribe status to Meiteis, which was later quashed by the Supreme Court. Now, ST status for the Meiteis has become a major poll plank this season.

In view of the recent conflict that has already taken more than 200 lives and displaced over 60,000 residents both within the state and outside, the Election Commission has arranged for 94 special polling stations for the displaced living in 438 relief camps. So far, 18,620 IDPs have registered to vote in the first phase, starting with April 19 and on April 26 in the second phase.

Tarpaulin and bedsheets demarcate spaces between families off donations. A tin shed is their bathroom and they must cut and use logs to cook their meals. PICS/MAKEPEACE SITLHOU

The IDPs who mid-day met in Churachandpur in the run-up to the outer seat elections said that the polls were of little consequence to them. "We don't really know whom to vote for," said Paokam, unsure if his vote will make a difference to his living conditions. Let down by both, the State and the Centre, many IDPs like Paokam have little hope from political alternatives like the Congress, which has fielded Alfred Kanngam S Arthur from the outer seat. He's a former assembly representative from the Tangkhul Naga dominated Ukhrul seat. The camp residents said that though Arthur had recently visited Churachandpur, he left after meeting only the leaders.

Paokam said he is still waiting for directions from the tribal leaders on whom to vote for; it has long been a tradition for tribals to follow the diktat of the village chief or Inpi (tribal parent body). Paokam, however, said, that he would not vote for the ruling party. The resentment may have heightened after two Kuki Zo village volunteers were killed in shelling by Central Security Forces after a gunfight ensued between the communities on April 14 in Tengnoupal district. The bodies of the volunteers were mutilated and displayed via videos that have since gone viral, reminiscent of another volunteer whose head was put on a spike after a village raid by the armed Meitei militia, Arambai Tenggol. The incident led to widespread protests in Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts, raising doubt over the impartiality of the central government against the state which is perceived to be Meitei-favouring.

"Central Security Forces are deployed to maintain peace and remain neutral, but their actions are raising questions ahead of the election," the Indigenous Tribal Leaders' Forum [ITLF], a conglomerate representative body of the Kuki Zomi Hmar tribes, said in a statement. On April 15, Home Minister Amit Shah had made a quick visit when he promised that the BJP would not allow Manipur to be divided. This has further aggravated the Kuki Zo tribes who ahave been demanding separate administration since the clashes.

Lamvah Touthang, a 34-year-old mother of two young daughters who spent almost a month hiding in the jungles near her village in Chandel district, said that it was not possible for them in good conscience to cast their vote under these circumstances. "Since there is no peace, how can we vote? The government has to settle this conflict; only then can we trust a government and vote for it," she said. Touthang explained that she found it difficult to support Naga People's Front candidate Kachin Timothy Zimik, who had the support of the BJP, because she felt that the party has failed to deliver on its promise and minorities have had to bear the brunt. A church was burned down in her own village. "I cannot support a group that doesn't support my religion."

IDPs have registered to vote from the relief camps

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