States too distant to remember?
You can never douse a flame by putting a cloth over it, the cloth itself will burn - Manipuri saying
On October 17, 2008, I received a phone call from Bijoykrishna Aribam, a freelance journalist in Manipur. In a barely audible voice, he told me that 17 people had been killed in a terror attack in Imphal, Manipur's capital. Very few people in the country got to know about this attack.
Over the past five decades, virtually every state in India's Northeast has witnessed the emergence of powerful militias to contest the Indian state's narrative of socio-economic progress and integrating the margins into the "national mainstream." Implementation of measures, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) (1958) which gives security forces the authority to use lethal force and legal immunity from independent investigation of their actions, have done little to improve the situation in states like Manipur.
In this background for many voters in Manipur, a Lok Sabha election for two seats in their state appears to be a mockery of democracy. Even with a state government in place in Manipur, evidently there seems to be no rule of law. The people of the state are almost caught between the devil and the deep sea. There is the Army on the streets of Imphal and there are the militant outfits. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 497 people were killed in violence in Manipur in 2008. In 2007, 408 people were killed in militancy-related fatalities in Manipur. Almost every evening there is an update regarding a death in Manipur. Yet, somehow the rest of India seems to carry on with its concerns for development and concerns for lives that seem more precious than the ones at the margin. Life in Manipur at times almost seems expendable.
Yet there are many in Manipur who keep alive a spirit of civic activism and keep alive their political conscience, even though these brave groups are hardly noticed by "mainstream" India and almost never rewarded.
The group of proud, non-celebrity journalists of Manipur, probably represent the spirit of journalism more than anyone else does, a spirit that the rest of the journalism fraternity seems to have forgotten. Often under threat from the militant outfits and "ruthlessly asphyxiated" these group of brave reporters still take pride in filing uncompromising reports. As rightly put by journalist Patricia Mukhim, "If any other non-Congress ruled state were to have behaved the way Manipur has, it would have seen the imposition of President's rule, if only to bring in some semblance of order".
Manipur's Iron Lady, Irom Sharmila, who has been carrying on with her fasting and silent protest against the AFSPA for the last 8 years is another resolute soul. Yet, her Gandhian way of protest has been seen by the Centre as being unlawful and against the Indian constitution. Bureaucrats and politicians are now trying to save Bapu's belongings from being auctioned in New York, yet they have condemned a genuine example of Gandhian protest as treason.
One should also remember, the brave mothers of Manipur. On July 14, 2004, a shocking protest was witnessed in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal. Twelve strong-willed and determined women stripped bare naked to protest against the atrocities of the Indian Army. Four years later, I met these brave women in Delhi, still carrying on with their protest to repeal AFSPA. The Jeevan Reddy Committee and the Veerappa Moily Administrative Reforms Commission both have recommended a repeal of the act but with completion of 50 years of AFSPA, that bridge it seems will take time to cross.
The stories are endless. And yet one needs to tell them, especially at a time when suddenly Manipur has emerged on the political map of the country. Because it is these stories that will capture the anger of the voters in a neglected state.
Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress knows that he is facing an extremely learned electorate in Manipur. Victory for the Lok Sabha seats will not be an easy task. There was a 67 per cent turnout in 2004. Dr T Meina of the Congress won the Inner Manipur seat last time by securing 37 per cent votes. This time there is a chance that the CPI might win this seat. The Indo-US Nuclear deal, I am told is a factor at play this Lok Sabha elections in Manipur. The Outer Manipur seat is with an Independent candidate.
All these calculations and the poll predictions seem helpless in the face of the situation Manipur is in. Unfortunately for many politicians and bureaucrats in New Delhi, Manipur is not essential to the heart and soul of the Indian dance of democracy. So with their chalta hai attitude the BlackBerry-carrying nation builders and do not really have time for Imphal. There are two seats to be won and the rest can carry on in its inertia.
Two years back in Imphal, my friend, four-time World Boxing Champion M C Marykom summed it up best. "A lot of talented people get into sports as it's their passport to a better life". I was asking her as to what drives a Manipuri to excel in sports day in and day out, despite all the difficulties in the state. Everyday at around 5 am there are hundreds of people who line up for sports practice and a hope that a victory will change things for them.
It is indeed a shame that Manipur with its rich heritage and wonderful people continues to be in a state of anarchy. No prizes for guessing what General Elections 2009 hold for this state.
"For every Naga born in his generation and the subsequent generation, fear, anger, frustration, persecution and the sound of gunfire have been his/her companion for their entire lives" - Nagaland and India: The Blood And The Tears. Kaka D Iralu
60 years after Independence, Nagaland remains shrouded in obscurity, underdevelopment and conflict. It is an open secret that in all these years the Congress has often used the Intelligence Branch to swing votes in Assembly elections. Other political parties are at fault as well. Money is openly used in Nagaland to buy votes. In the race for votes, all parties have also promoted infighting within the different factions of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). So even in 2009, we have Nagas from different tribes killing each other.
Last time I was in Dimapur (2008), I was visiting Camp Hebron of the NSCN(I-M) for a story. The entire area gives the feeling of a big organised university town with facilities of all kinds present for its residents. Because of its facilities, at times, the camp looks a bit unreal and too organised. So outside the camp, the underdevelopment of Dimapur appears more pronounced.
Though, underdevelopment, unemployment and violence are the key issues in Nagaland, it's money power that will possibly elect the winner of the Lok Sabha seat from this state. Do remember, the turnout in Nagaland is always high. It was an astounding 91 per cent in 2004 General Elections. Even in the state elections when Neiphu Rio was sworn in as the Chief Minister, the turnout was again a 90 per cent.
MIZORAM: LALTHANHAWLA ALL THE WAY
Compared to the states of Manipur and Nagaland, Mizoram is a complete study in contrast. Ever since the historic Mizo-Peace Accord was signed in 1986 by the then Rajiv Gandhi government Mizoram continues to be the most peaceful state in Northeast India. In Mizoram, I have met both former CM Mr Zoram Thanga of the Mizo National Front and now present Chief Minister Mr Lalthanhawla of the Congress. Both of them are wonderful to talk to. Both the MNF and the Congress government have been accused of rampant corruption and diversion of funds. This time the Congress has moved in after defeating the MNF in the Assembly elections. And in that Assembly inertia, the Congress might have an edge in the lone Lok Sabha seat. Mizoram stays the jewel in the crown of the 8 states that make Northeast India. The health indicators, the education indicators, environment indicators remain the best among the eight states. Yet, like the rest of the northeastern states the key issue remains bad infrastructure and not enough jobs. When I heard Rahul Gandhi this year at the Vanapa Hall in Aizawl, he sounded very convincing in his promise for better development. Hope the promise translates into action. I am sure my friend Mr L R Sailo, who probably runs the country's most efficient Information and Public Relations Department will know. Though, he sternly refuses to take sides.
SIKKIM: CHAMLING'S BALL
In Sikkim everyone is afraid of the Chief Minister. That's the impression I got in my first visit to Sikkim. This fear factor is so high it seems that democracy is yet to set in in this young state. People in the government are petrified of Pawan Chamling. So by the time I left Gangtok, I was almost sure that Chamling bore a close resemblance to the monster's mask that I picked up in this cool state. Though, to his credit Chamling has pushed the development agenda with a crusader's zeal. For the one Lok Sabha seat in Sikkim, I am told it will be a monster's ball. Most likely Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) will win. Do not forget that Sikkim also will have its Assembly elections at the same time. The SDF will most likely win both.
MEGHALAYA: I THINK I KNOW
Who wins the two seats in Meghalaya? Well, there should have been no prizes for guessing this. But this year the "Shillong seat" that has witnessed a hat-trick from P R Kyndiah of the Congress will see a new face. Mr Kyndiah has opted out of the contest for his fourth victory. And for the other seat of Tura, Agatha Sangma, of the NCP, the youngest Member of Parliament can arrange for the victory celebrations already. Former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma's daughter Agatha appears concerned about her state and is a keen learner. Agatha told me, " I'm very confident of my victory in the coming elections. In this short time I have had the opportunity to represent my people well and also travelled extensively within Garo hills to interact with my electorate".
There are certain other things that Meghalaya will have to look into. Will these other changes come through victories in the two Lok Sabha seats? Unlikely. Meghalaya has been witnessing corruption and a draconian law called the Meghalaya Preventive Detention (Amendment) Act 2003. Under it the government can detain any person in jail up to three years. Democracy in Meghalaya has to be careful with its anti-terror law.
ARUNACHAL PRADESH:NO OPPOSITION
Incredible India has been promoting Arunachal like no one else's business. Beyond tourism, the politics of Arunachal also remains unique. It is probably the most unpredictable state in terms of party politics. Both the Lok Sabha seats of Arunachal are with the BJP. In state politics, the lone BJP member of the legislative assembly R T Khijuju left the party on August 21, 2008 to join the Congress, leaving Arunachal with no opposition party. Other nine members of the BJP had left before. So to drive home the point let me put it in bold letters that there is no opposition party in Arunachal Pradesh Assembly. So is it like one big happy family? Not really. There is infighting within the Congress. Present CM Dorjee Khundur and former CM Gegong Apang are at loggerheads or so I am told. That doesn't help the Congress in Lok Sabha. And BJP MP Khiren Rijuju who is quite popular is most likely to win from Arunachal West constituency.
TRIPURA: COLOUR RED
Red is the colour in Tripura. And until and unless the electorate decides we have to vote for change, the Left Front will win the two seats in Tripura. The Left Front will ride high on the plank of development. Establishment of the rail link in Tripura and the train that has gently chugged in through that track i