Violence is no stranger to human political existence. In fact, there is an intimate relationship between politics and violence. Refrains such as “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” or “war is merely the continuation of politics with other means” are reminders of that intimacy. Some would even insist that violence is an inherent aspect of our political life. Sociologist Max Weber reminds us that state is precisely what it is because of its capacity to claim the monopoly to use physical force. Violence, thus, is always there as something that preserves or institutes the order of our organised life.
It is against this dark backdrop that liberal democracy presents an alternative vision; that our organised political existence can be managed without resorting to such violence. It envisages governance by deliberation as an effective means to manage differences and peaceful change of regimes. The ongoing “dance of democracy” in this country is often celebrated as an exemplar of that alluring vision. But for Manipur, this image has been blemished by a spectre of poll-related violence during this election.
Numerous instances of violence have marked the recently-held 12th assembly elections in the state: from assassination attempts on candidates and their relatives to the killings of political workers and destruction of houses and properties.
W Rojit, a prominent JD(U) candidate from Kshetrigao, was shot at barely 48 hours before the first phase was held on February 28. Days before, Lourembam Shamjai Singh, father of NPP’s Andro candidate L Sanjoy, was targeted by unidentified gunmen on February 19. There were bomb attacks too, including on Chongtham Bijoy, who was expelled as the BJP spokesperson.
Such violence is not new to Manipur’s electoral history. In the early 1980s, former CM and then speaker R K Ranbir was shot at and prominent communist leader Th Bira was assassinated.
But the scale of it is unprecedented this time.
One of the first signals of an impending surge was witnessed in Heirok, which saw a series of pre-poll clashes followed by the first death in election-related violence. After stone-pelting between supporters of Congress candidate Moirangthem Okendro and BJP’s incumbent Th Radhesyam, armed men barged into the house of a student and tried to take away his elder brother over the violence. The student, Ningthoujam Rohit, and his father, were shot in the milieu at their house in the early hours of December 22 last year. The student died while his father was hospitalised; an FIR was filed and six persons were held, including Radhesyam’s younger brother.
Similar confrontations later erupted in other constituencies too, including Singjamei in capital Imphal.
BJP workers Abujam John and Abujam Sashikanta – the cousins were reportedly close to agriculture minister O Lukhoi – were gunned down by unidentified miscreants in Samurou in Wangoi on January 10. And on the eve of the first phase of the poll, a bomb blast claimed two lives, including a six-year-old, and injured five in Churachandpur district on February 27.
The election on February 28 was marred by sporadic violence, clashes amongst political workers, and allegations of booth-capturing attempts and damage to EVMs, etc. At New Keithelmanbi, security forces resorted to blank fire to control the agitated crowd after Congress workers accused the BJP of attempting to capture a booth. The EC ordered repolling in 12 polling stations in three districts as violence continued.
There were similar incidents in the second phase too.
Reports of houses of political workers being burnt down allegedly by the rival camp trickled in from Wangjing-Tentha in Thoubal district on the eve of the election. And just a few hours before polling, a man identified as Leimapokpam Amuba, who was believed to be a BJP worker, was shot dead allegedly by a Congress worker in the area.
At Karong, one person was killed and another injured as security forces opened fire at a group that was trying to snatch an EVM from a booth. Ukhrul district also witnessed two explosions. While no one was injured, incumbent NPF MLA and Phungyar candidate Leishio Keishing reportedly claimed that he was the target of one of the blasts. Besides, there were murmurs about huge sums of money to lure voters.
While this election marks a new phase in the state’s electoral history, its tryst with liberal democracy has always been marred by subversive violence right from the moment of its inception.
We might as well recall that the state was perhaps the first in South Asia or Southeast Asia to have a legislature which was constituted through an election based on universal adult franchise under a constitutional order in 1948. And that the then Manipur assembly was unceremoniously dissolved after the government of the newly created Dominion of India took over the administration in 1949 and installed New Delhi’s bureaucratic rule by dismissing the then elected government. That takeover, preceded by muscle flexing by the then rulers of the newly-emerged postcolonial state, gave birth to protracted and violent disquiet in the state. Consequently, liberal democracy could also become a not-so strange bed-fellow with the undemocratic and violent legalese of the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act.
Arguably, the electoral experience of the state, including the flow of money and violence that we have witnessed this time, has been deeply mediated by the corresponding ethos of these experiences.
This election also marks a perceptible deepening of a three-way crystallisation of politics along ethnic lines. It is instructive that such crystallisation is reflective of the transforming nature of various – ethnic or ethnonationalist – armed mobilisations in the state.
This time, Manipur’s election is the convergence of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” of a hyper-nationalist party with the cry of “Ima Manipur-Na Yaiphare” (“Hail to Mother Manipur”) – of the sons and daughters of the “soil”. Incidentally, PM Narendra Modi also gave the same call in his election meeting in Imphal. That such a convergence is marked by the unprecedented violence and flow of money is instructive.
The widespread violence is not merely a product of, as Mahatma Gandhi would say, “wealth without work...politics without principles”. It is also indicative of a larger churning, perhaps an epochal shift, in not merely electoral politics but the historical trajectory of the state itself.
The author is a social and political psychologist and teaches at JNU.
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