8 March 2017

Manipur: The Ceiling Of Democracy

Priya Ravichandran

Questioning the legitimacy of state elections is not to cast doubts on the process itself, but to enquire the exigencies under which the state is being made to play this role in the democratic republic of India.

HIn the Shadow of the Gunmen. Image courtesy of Indian Express

Manipur goes to polls on March 4th and the 8th and the elections are important for the state for two principal reasons.

One, for the first time in more than 15 years, the BJP is putting up a strong opposition in the state.

The second, more importantly, Irom Sharmila in August last year decided to end her 16-year fast and use constitutional methods to achieve her objective of repealing AFSPA from the state. She has started the People Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) to contest elections in the state.

The irony is even as the election process in and of itself becomes more democratic, the election and the legitimacy of the elected government in the state seems to be eroding for two important reasons.

One, how legitimate is an election in which the state is essentially isolated from the rest of the country?

Manipur is in its 115th day of a blockade declared by the United Naga Council, which is backed by the non-state group of NSCN — IM, which has signed a framework accord with the BJP in Nagaland.

The blockade, declared in opposition to the division of the state into seven more districts, has impacted life and economy significantly. The situation is so bad that food, medicine, and fuel are being airlifted into the state or accompanied by armed personnel. The center has sent in over 17,500 para military troops with promise of more.

When the authority of the state and the union has been sidelined, when fundamental rights of citizens in the state are being violated, how legitimate are elections in that state?

Both the Congress-led state government and the NDA in the union have been ineffective in using the monopoly of violence given to them to ensure that an entire state and its citizenry are not held to ransom for the demands of a few.

The blockade is not new, nor is it happening for the first time. Since 2005, Manipur has been subject to more than 500 days of blockades and an almost equal number of bandhs. The inaction of the governments to ensure that elections take place without the albatross of a blockade hanging around the state is a sign of failure on both governments.

Two, how legitimate are elections in a state that has been under the shadow of gunmen for the better part of its identity as a part of India?

A major portion of Manipur has been under AFSPA for almost 60 years now. One report mentions around 15 battalions of the Assam rifles residing in the state. With more than 900 personnel per battalion, the total comes to more than 14,000 in the state.

The center post blockade sent an additional 17,500 paramilitary forces to secure highways to ensure transportation of essential goods to the state. That’s more than 30,000 troops in total in and around the state.

Manipur is also home to around 20 active insurgent groups, with 6 groups in peace talks with the government.

The heavy concentration of armed forces, armed local insurgent groups, armed out of state actors has resulted in a state where violence and encounter killings has become part of the local language. All this in a state where the populace have reconciled to the idea of an Indian nation, and where arguments are about adequate representation and acceptance by the other state, and not about secession or validity of the Indian state.

True, this is not the first time elections are being conducted in the state. However, this is the first time that repealing AFSPA is one of the central issues of one of the parties contesting for elections.

AFSPA, insurgencies, and accommodation of the state for non-state actor groups who use violence are again representative of failure of the state to use its coercive powers properly.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in a column with the Indian Express talks about a conference he went to where the speaker joked that in most countries, elections exist for democracy; in India, democracy exists for elections. Mehta questions whether elections have to be seen as the floor or ceiling of a democracy, and whether our celebration of it is “largely going to be exhausted by the importance of elections.”

Manipur in many ways is a sign that elections have become the ceiling of democracy, and the be all and end all of republican democracy within the state.

To question the legitimacy of elections in the state is not to cast doubts on the process itself, but to enquire the exigencies under which the state is being made to play this role in the democratic republic of India.

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