Thounaojam Basanta Kumar Singh, BJPs Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency candidate meets his supporters during a flag hoisting ceremony as part of election campaigning in Bishnupur district of Manipur on April 10, 2024.

Thounaojam Basanta Kumar Singh, BJPs Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency candidate meets his supporters during a flag hoisting ceremony as part of election campaigning in Bishnupur district of Manipur on April 10, 2024.
| Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

In the shadow of the ethnic conflict that has been going on for almost a year now, the Bharatiya Janata Party finds itself in a tight spot as it fights for the Inner Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, which is set to vote on April 19. While the party’s lone candidate in the State, Th. Basantakumar Singh, is promising “restoration of peace” as a first priority, the BJP is also having to find ways to position the State government’s handling of the conflict positively.

Manipur has been in the grips of an ethnic conflict between the largely valley-based Meitei people and the hills-based Kuki-Zo people since May 3 last year. The conflict has led to at least 220 deaths so far, injured thousands of others, and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Also read | Ethnic conflict casts a shadow on Manipur polls; Kuki-Zo, Meitei people devise voting strategies

After performing a Hindu ritual at his residence in the Nambol area of Bishnupur district, Mr. Singh and party workers hoisted a BJP flag in the centre of his courtyard, which transformed into a venue for a small campaign rally. As Sharda Devi, the party’s Manipur unit president, spoke to the small crowd of about 150 people, Mr. Singh told The Hindu about his top priorities: “Bringing peace and the rehabilitation of all displaced persons”.

But when asked why peace had not yet returned, he quickly replied, “This does not imply that. Peace has started to return and it will happen slowly with efforts from all quarters”, echoing what Ms. Devi had said just moments before. BJP MLA Govindas Konthoujam and Moirang MLA Thongam Shanti Singh of the National People’s Party (NPP), which is in alliance with the BJP in Manipur and the Centre, were present.

Watch | A Kuki-Zo dilemma as Outer Manipur goes to polls | Election 360

Ms. Devi’s speech was aimed at striking a chord with the supporters from the constituency. “When Rahul Gandhi was here on his visit to Manipur, he made it his priority to visit the relief camps in Churachandpur. There was so much issue, they were blocked on the road by police, then they took a helicopter and went. If it were up to us, we would have shown them that there were relief camps full of people in Nambol, Oinam, etc. Manipur’s Congress leaders, who had never thought of visiting relief camps before, suddenly wanted to visit with Rahul Gandhi when he was prioritising Churachandpur relief camps,” Ms. Devi said.

Churachandpur is one of the hill districts which has the majority of relief camps housing the Kuki-Zo people who fled the Valley area. Nambol and Oinam are in the Bishnupur district, where the relief camps housing Meitei people who fled parts like Churachandpur and Moreh are located.

In Imphal city about 20 km away, 80-year-old retired government officer, Ibochouba Singh, says, “But none of this should have even happened in the first place had the government been responsible. Had it not been for the BJP, this conflict would not have taken place.”

Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has been holding closed-door meetings in his city residence with civilian groups, including Meira Paibi groups, say party members, to defend his handling of the conflict. Ms. Devi painted a heroic portrait of him for the people listening to her at the Utlow meeting. 

“Normally, a party does not take on its own government. But in a departure from that, the government in Manipur took on the Centre and successfully pressed the point such that the Centre replaced Assam Rifles units with that of the Border Security Forces,” she said.

Throughout the conflict, a feature of it has been for the Meitei people to accuse the Assam Rifles of purportedly siding with the Kuki-Zo side, whereas the Kuki-Zo people have routinely accused arms of the Manipur Police of being complicit in attacks against them.

Speaking to the crowd gathered at the BJP candidate’s Bishnupur home, Ms. Devi said the BJP-led government in Manipur had acted in the “interest of the people” throughout the conflict since it began on May 3 last year but also mentioned how it is not in the BJP’s culture to “talk about the service we do”, taking a dig at Mr. Singh’s opponents — JNU Associate Professor A. Bimol Akoijam (Congress) and Maheshwar Thounaojam (RPI -A) — both of whom have been vocal about the failure of governments to quell the ethnic conflict.

32-year-old Rimzim, who lives in Bishnupur district, was listening to Ms. Devi intently at the campaign event. “Basanta sir has done so much to help us during the conflict. He arranged materials for relief camps,” she said.

But in a relief camp about 30 km away in the very constituency the BJP candidate is fighting for, Priya Thiam is in no mood to vote at all. “They saved us from bullets, yes. But saved us for what? We are living our death now. Just surviving and no sense of existence,” she said, explaining how she lost her business and home in Churachandpur at the beginning of the violence. Ms. Thiam and the women at their relief camp are now operating handlooms and sewing machines provided by an NGO of women professionals with just one goal — that of returning home.