Public issues and elections
IFP Editorial: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act or simply AFSPA has been out of the public radar for quite some time. Will it become an election issue?
STATE ASSEMBLY elections had never been much about issues or political parties, but mostly about personalities or who doles out more. Yes, there were occasions when state issues took centre-stage in the elections. The 1972 assembly elections was one such occasion when statehood brought the regional party Manipur Peoples Party (MPP) to power. The party is now out of reckoning and rudderless with pretenders fighting over the plot of land in the heart of Imphal city. After a few years, party-hopping came into the scene with MLAs changing party loyalties at the drop of a hat which heralded the era of anti-defection law. Once again, the movement for territorial integrity in the state was instrumental in propelling the present Chief Minister N Biren Singh and former MP Dr Meinya Singh of Democratic Revolutionary Peoples Party (DRPP) into the state assembly in the 2002 elections. Shortly afterwards, the two axe-wielding MLAs merged into the Congress party. In spite of the anti-defection law and its restrictions, defections were quite common. Yet, the law helped former Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in consolidating his hold on the Congress party for 15 years and still today, the party remains in his grip.
In the 2007 state elections, the Congress was successful in projecting itself as a party committed to a gradual lifting of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 as it had withdrawn it from the Greater Imphal area after the 2004 anti-AFSPA movement. On 15 July 2004, 12 Meira Paibi leaders had disrobed in front of the historic Kangla Fort in the heart of Imphal, then the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, carrying banners with messages painted in red. “Indian Army Rape Us”, read one. “Indian Army Take Our Flesh”, said another. The women were protesting against the brutal killing of Manorama Thangjam, a 32-year-old woman who was picked up by Assam Rifles personnel in suspicious circumstances four days prior. Manorama’s bullet-riddled body with gunshot wounds to her private parts and thighs was found near a paddy field hours after she was taken away from her home. Semen stains reportedly found on her clothes in a forensic examination suggested she had been raped. A judicial commission set up to look into the case painted a scathing account of torture that Manorama allegedly suffered in her final hours. The anti-AFSPA movement ignited by the Manorama incident not only led to lifting of the Act from the Greater Imphal area which has seven assembly constituencies, but also the restoration of the Kangla Fort over to the state government by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In 2010, the Okram Ibobi Singh defied the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram in stopping the NSCN (I-M) chief Thuingaleng Muivah from entering Manipur at Mao Gate and the steadfast stand taken by his government perhaps helped him in returning to power once again for the third time in 2012 state assembly elections. But come 2017 elections, the BJP election machinery came in full force on the anti-incumbency factor and the issues of corruption scandals and fake encounters and managed to overturn the tables, though not fully. So, the coalition government led by the BJP seemed like a rag-tag group with its own infighting for leadership consuming most of its time and resources. Sometimes, one wonders how Chief Minister N Biren Singh could manage to remain in the hot seat with so many troubles. Now, the 2022 state assembly elections are just round the corner and this time Congress bashing is certainly not the selling point. Its alliance with NSCN (I-M) powered Naga Peoples Front (NPF) in the government and the recent ultimatum of a proposed ADC bill has all the portents of a hill-valley divide widening and influencing the state elections. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act or simply AFSPA has been out of the public radar for quite some time. Will it become an election issue? It remains to be seen.