Irom Sharmila now has a bank account, with the State Bank of India. After 16 years of being jailed and fed through a nasal drip for demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from Manipur, the protest icon has for the past month tried to sort out her post-incarceration life and purpose. The process of creating this identity also includes reaching out to a wide range of people.
For instance, she has visited those, mainly majority Meitei people of the state, who have been displaced in the Loktak lake area to the south of Imphal, the capital. She is visiting non-governmental organizations that stood up for her and against extra-judicial killings in Manipur. Professionals visit her at the retreat she now calls home in the Imphal suburb of Langol. Last week, she visited the mother of Luingamla, a Tangkhul Naga girl who was shot in 1986 by an army lieutenant for resisting rape. Luingamla was 14. She is today a protest icon for Tangkhul women.
Sharmila’s is a significant gesture: a protest icon of the Meitei people who readily embraces a protest icon of the Tangkhul, the state’s largest Naga tribe and long at loggerheads—along with other Naga tribes—against a government in Imphal perceived to be pro-Meitei. Ukhrul district, homeland of the Tangkhul, is under the operational control of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M), which runs a parallel administration here and other Naga-majority areas of Manipur—as it does in neighbouring Nagaland.
The state’s major political parties would pay hugely for Sharmila’s facility and credibility. The current behemoth, Congress, with three-fourths of the 60 seats in Manipur’s assembly, the Trinamool Congress, Naga People’s Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which has already begun attracting defections from the Congress in the Meitei-majority plains areas and tribal-majority hills, and hopes to be a major player in Manipur—are all scrabbling for control.
They will have to deal with a lot more than Sharmila will: She is only a symbol of the political cleansing that many Manipuris hope will galvanize voters, shake up the system and its entrenched political overlords and warlords. If not as a candidate, then as an electoral morale booster that could affect both incumbents and those like the BJP.
Political success will hinge on several distinct bouquets. The Meitei, egged on by Meitei nationalist rebel groups, are sold on a permit system to control the entry, residency and work of non-Manipuris. This is in addition to any improvement of the wretched life in a conflict zone, watching billions of rupees of development funds disappear into the black hole of unaccountable and unrepentant government, a gravy train that runs from New Delhi to Imphal and on to the districts; and on to the parallel economy of rebels. (The Comptroller and Auditor General of India flags this drain, to no remedy.)
The non-Meitei, the Naga and, particularly, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo collective are resolutely against the permit system in the shape it was introduced last year in the assembly (it subsequently did not receive presidential assent). They felt it questioned their position as indigenous residents. A new draft is being eagerly watched. At any rate, it will be a major election issue.
And all communities are keeping a hawk eye on the Naga peace process—more precisely, with NSCN (I-M) that many Meiteis believe could involve a trade-off: ceding administrative control of Naga areas in Manipur. The Kuki-Chin-Mizo trust neither the Meitei nor the Naga.
Already, election diktats are in. On 27 July, the ‘Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim’, or GPRN, the administrative arm of NSCN (I-M), released a bizarre but realpolitik warning in one of its areas of influence, the Khurmi region in Chandel district, “...that until and unless election notification is served by the Indian government, election campaign in the region is strictly prohibited/not allowed". The notice, oddly phrased but clear, was signed by the “C.A.O"—central administrative officer—“and Care taker" of the region, and issued on a letterhead marked with the seal, Nagaland for Christ. “Failing to comply with this general circulation, the culprit (s) shall be awarded arrest order and award stern punishment will be taken to the culprit (s) by the GPRN." The notice ominously added: “No complaints shall be entertaint."
It’s typical. In Manipur, complaints have a history of rarely being entertained.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, will now run on Thursdays.
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