The dead cannot vote. But eight bodies awaiting burial for more than 500 days – and a “stolen” corpse – could play a role in deciding the outcome in some tribal assembly constituencies of Manipur.
Churachandpur and the newly-created Pherzawl districts are dominated by the Kuki-Zomi community comprising at least 15 tribes. Six assembly constituencies straddle these districts, all represented by the Congress until Vungzagin Valte resigned from his Thanlon seat to join the Bharatiya Janata Party on Wednesday.
All the MLAs have been ‘banished’ from their constituencies since August 31, 2015 after Okram Ibobi Singh’s Congress government passed three bills that were viewed as anti-tribal. Violent protests opposing the three bills claimed nine lives, six of them allegedly in police firing, within a week.
The violence was concentrated in Churachandpur town, 60 km south of Manipur capital Imphal. It led to an agitation, continuing but with lesser intensity, spearheaded by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the tribes.
The district, in mourning, has not heard church bells toll since. People renew wreaths on symbolic coffins outside the Churachandpur district hospital morgue and Lakma memorial ground. Posters and banners featuring the nine ‘martyrs’ are all over the town, though some have the photo of the youngest – 11-year-old Khaizamang Touthang – cut out.
The JAC blames the government for using militants to steal Khaizamang’s body and bury it in the town’s Bijang cemetery, close to where his family stays.
The state government says the JAC is trying to keep a ‘dead issue’ alive. “The three bills that apparently sparked the fire were buried when President Pranab Mukherjee did not clear them in June (2015),” home minister Gaikhangam said a few days ago.
The three bills were Protection of Manipur People bill, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill. They were passed by the state assembly after non-tribal groups had demanded inner-line permit system to regulate entry of outsiders with 1951 as base year for determining such outsiders.
The tribes, some of whom have relatives across the border in Myanmar, read the bills as an infringement on the identity of the tribal people, their land rights and their economy.
“Why are we continuing with our agitation despite the bills having been scrapped? Because the government came up a substitute bill (The Manipur Regulation of Non-Local People Act, 2016) in August last year. If adopted and implemented, it will have an effect similar to what the three bills were meant for,” JAC chief convener H Hmangchinkhup told Hindustan Times.
The issue of the bills and the martyrs will have a bearing on the polls, JAC’s secretary Sang Lethil said. “The people will decide keeping them in mind.”
The ruling Congress has sniffed a BJP hand behind the ‘dead body politics’.
“The boycott of Congress MLAs leaves nothing to imagination. But playing politics over dead bodies will not benefit any party or candidate because it goes against the law of nature and religious ethics,” said state Congress president TN Haokip, one of the boycotted MLAs representing the Saikot seat.
The Congress, BJP said, is crying foul because it has sensed trouble in the hills. “The party is being punished for failing the tribal people, who want change,” BJP spokesperson S Ranjan Singh, a candidate for the Konthoujam seat, said.
A lot is at stake for the two frontline parties. The bulk of Kuki-Zomi people, almost half of Manipur’s 35.1% tribal population (out of 2.57 million), live in Churachandpur and Pherzawl.
Politics, though, is far from the minds of parents who lost their sons 500 days ago. “We want a decent burial for our boys but only when the government guarantees the rights to our land and life,” said 45-year-old Ngaikhanching, whose son Paulianmang was killed at 22.