Afspa to job creation in focus as Manipur votes in Phase 1 today
Elections to 38 of 60 assembly seats in Manipur are scheduled to be held on Monday. The long-standing demand for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) and jobs are among the key issues this time around in the state.
The Afspa debate
The demand for repealing Afspa, which empowers security forces operating in “disturbed areas” to search, seize, to arrest without warrant, and to use firearms on mere suspicion with impunity, has reignited in insurgency-affected Manipur following the December 4-5 violence in Nagaland. 14 civilians were killed by an army unit at Oting in Mon district of Nagaland on December 4 and December 5 in a botched-up operation which the army and Centre maintains happened due to the army unit mistaking the civilians, who were returning from a coal mine, as insurgents.
Manipur has been declared a “disturbed area” since September and Afspa remains operational in the state, except in municipal areas of Imphal. Since 2017, the Supreme Court is hearing a plea on 1528 cases of alleged extra-judicial killings in Manipur. In the the past five years, nearly 200 more such deaths are suspected to have taken place, claims human rights activists. Activist Irom Sharmila Chanu had held a 16-year fast demanding the repeal of the law.
“If Afspa is not a poll issue, nothing is an issue. This is the most talked about of all issues and all parties except BJP have included it in their manifesto. The very fact that BJP hasn’t included it in its manifesto has 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 the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi had promised the repeal of Afspa, but surprisingly, his party is not silent on it. This is true of the 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 stands at 9.5%, according to union labour ministry data tabled in parliament last year. It is the second highest in the northeast after Nagaland. The Covid-19 pandemic further impacted employment in the state with many losing jobs and suffering loss in businesses.
“Unemployment is the most dominant issue this time. Many people are affected across the state. There have been lot of TV debates and also discussions among the public around the issue of jobs,” said senior journalist and columnist Pradip Phanjoubam.
The issue found prominence in manifestoes of political 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 of job-creation.
Other issues which could play a role 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 lot of 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 in 2017 by cobbling a coalition, was busy managing numbers for its entire term, which 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 five 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 lesion by showing it, its rightful place in the election,” he added.
In an interview with HT last month, Chief Minister N Biren Singh had dismissed those allegations and stated that the BJP-led government’s one prominent achievements was ensuring a bandh blockade free Manipur, which had long been impeding development and peace in the state.
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 significant in 40 seats in Imphal Valley and pivotal to the formation of the next government.
The Meitei community, which is mainly Hindu and got other backward caste (OBC) status in 1991, believes that ST status would help them in getting reservation in jobs and also protect their land 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 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.
The BJP government maintains that it wasn’t legally possible to introduce the Bill in the assembly as amendments made on jurisdictions and powers of ADC needs to be approved by parliament first.