'Right to live before right to vote': Common refrain in Manipur relief camps

Posters by Election Commission in Manipur ahead of Lok Sabha polls. Photo: PTI

Imphal: "Why should I vote to elect a representative of a place which is no longer mine? Elections mean nothing to us," says a distraught Nobi, who lost her home 11 months ago to ethnic violence in Manipur and is living in a relief camp.

The 42-year-old is not alone as "right to live before right to vote" and "peace before polls" were the common refrain of many who have not been able to return home due to recurrent clashes and lingering hostilities between the warring ethnic groups in the northeastern state.

The state has traditionally seen a very high voter turnout with more than 82 per cent polling recorded in the 2019 elections. But the ethnic violence has cast a shadow on the polls this time around with several civil society groups and the affected people questioning the relevance of holding elections in the current circumstances.

"The government hasn't been able to ensure my right to live with dignity and they are going to ensure my right to vote?" Nobi asks. "My house was burnt in front of my eyes. Me and my family left overnight. We do not even know what is left there."

The hill state has witnessed sporadic, sometimes intense, ethnic clashes since May 3 between the majority Meitei community and the Kukis, resulting in the loss of more than 200 lives. While Meiteis have concentrated in Imphal city, the Kukis have shifted to the hills.

The elections for two Lok Sabha seats in Manipur will be held in two phases on April 19 and 26. While Inner Manipur and some segments of Outer Manipur will vote in the first phase on April 19, the remaining segments of Outer Manipur will vote in Phase 2 on April 26.

According to officials, more than 50,000 people are living in camps following the unrest. They question the timing of the Lok Sabha elections and say the idea of organising voting in relief camps is nothing but a gimmick as the real issues remain unaddressed.

PTI visited four relief camps in the Imphal Valley where the displaced people expressed discontent with the poll process. Eighteen-year-old Dima, who finished her schooling under the shadow of the conflict, said she has no idea what she is going to do next.

Dima, a first-time voter living in a relief camp, in Imphal, Manipur. Photo: PTI

"How can I plan to study further in such a situation? And why should I waste my first vote at a time when I feel elections should not be conducted ... I won't," she told PTI.

Living in a relief camp set up in the Government Dance College auditorium in Imphal's Peace Compound, Dima spends her day teaching primary school children who have begun going to a nearby government school.

The Election Commission has announced that the displaced population will have the opportunity to cast their votes from relief camps.

K H Khamba (45), who used to run his transport business in the Kuki-dominated area of Moreh, a town near the Indian-Myanmar border that is 120 kilometres from his relief camp, says, "There had to be some resolution for the current situation before elections were conducted."

"What did the people we voted for in past do for us? Yes, we are being kept in camps, food is being given but is that all that is needed to live?" he says. "We left amid the violence and got to know later that my vehicles as well as my house are no longer there as everything has been burnt."

A relief camp for displaced persons in violence-hit Manipur. Photo: PTI

Asked whether he would cast his vote, Khamba said, "We are still consulting among ourselves but one thing is sure we are not happy about the timing of elections in the state."

Thirty-year-old Melody helps out cooking meals at the camp and also tries to learn incense making to earn a livelihood.

"If the government can conduct elections during such a time, I am sure they can find ways to bring peace and address the concerns of people. Everything that we had built over the years got burnt and now we are supposed to start our lives from scratch and we should also vote?

"Bringing up my two children at a relief camp is not the life I had imagined for myself," she said.

According to Election Commission officials, over 24,000 people living in the relief camps have been found eligible to vote and 94 special polling stations are being set up for the purpose.

Posters of political parties, mega rallies and visible movement of leaders – the traditional elements of campaigning – are conspicuously missing in the strife-torn state.

The only visible hint of elections is the hoardings put up by local election authorities, urging citizens to exercise their franchise. Major party figures have refrained from visiting the conflict-ridden state to canvass for votes or make electoral pledges.

The Election Commission is conducting various activities to sensitise the voters. "Special teams have been formed to deal with these voters with empathy and we have also started voter awareness activities. The activities are being designed keeping in mind the sentiments of the displaced people, who have lost the comfort of being in their homes, and there is some level of frustration and negativity," Chief Electoral Officer Pradeep Kumar Jha told PTI.

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