‘We are not outsiders’: Manipuris who took refuge outside State yearn to vote in LS polls

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

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

“Don’t treat us like outsiders”. Forced to leave their State after clashes broke out last year, that’s the impassioned plea from Manipuris who fled to other parts of the country to escape the violence and long to vote in the Lok Sabha election but can’t because there is no such provision.

Displaced people living in relief camps in conflict-hit Manipur will be able to vote in the coming elections beginning April 19. However, there is no such arrangement for those outside the State unable to return home because they feel it’s still not safe. And officials say getting them to vote is just not feasible.

Manipur has traditionally seen a very high voter turnout with more than 82% polling recorded in the 2019 elections. This time, the ethnic violence has cast a shadow with several civil society groups and displaced people questioning the relevance of holding elections in the current circumstances.

Also read | No voting arrangement for Manipur’s displaced sheltered outside

As leaders of both the Kuki-Zo and Meitei groups take up the issue with the Election Commission, those who took shelter outside the State say they have stakes in the future of Manipur and should be allowed to vote through postal ballots if no other arrangement can be made.

Like Biren Chandam, a Manipuri now living in Delhi.

“I came to Delhi and found a job here while my family moved to neighbouring Mizoram. We long to go back to our house which may or may not be existing right now but we cannot vote for our State. Why?

“The elections should either be postponed or some arrangements should be made for us to vote from wherever we are. We are being made to feel as outsiders in our own home State. Don’t make us feel like outsiders,” Mr. Chandam told PTI.

Kumthai, a tribal from Manipur now living in a relief camp in Mizoram, echoed him.

“We took refuge in a separate State because our State was burning. Eleven months later, the situation is still not conducive to return. Unless we vote for the right person to take the right steps for us, how can we come out of this situation,” he said.

Also read | SC agrees to list plea for voting arrangements for those who fled Manipur due to conflict

Ten Manipur MLAs belonging to the Kuki-Zo community earlier this month asked the Election Commission to let displaced members of the community scattered beyond the state to vote from wherever they have taken shelter across the country.

“If suitable arrangements are not made for our displaced people taking shelter in different parts of the country many of our genuine voters will be deprived of their constitutional rights to exercise their franchise as provided under the Constitution,” the MLAs said.

A Meitei civil society group has also written to the poll panel asking that the postal ballot facility be extended to voters from Manipur living outside the State.

The Meitei Heritage Society said recently that it is impossible for voters living outside the State to take expensive flights and road travel is completely unsafe.

“Many others are also unable to travel to Manipur to vote due to security concerns,” the society wrote, referring to the sharp ethnic divide due to which Meiteis can’t pass through Kuki-Zo-dominated hill areas by road, while members of the Kuki-Zo tribes have stopped taking flights since the airport is in Imphal valley.

According to officials in the State government, it is not possible to extend the vote facility to those outside the State.

“There is no official number of such people who left the State..some left through Imphal, some left through Mizoram… We do not have a count. It does not seem feasible to arrange voting for them due to logistical reasons,” an official said on condition of anonymity.

The Mizoram Home Department estimates that at least 9,196 adults and children from neighbouring Manipur have taken shelter in different parts of the State.

Manipur’s Chief Electoral Officer Pradeep Kumar Jha said more than 24,000 displaced persons living in relief camps in the State have been found eligible to vote in the upcoming polls.

He said no voting arrangement has been made for people who left the State after the violence. He did not comment on demands for the facility being raised from different quarters.

The Supreme Court on Monday said it will hear a plea seeking voting facilities for around 18,000 people displaced internally due to the ethnic strife in Manipur. “I will give you an early date,” Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud told the lawyer.

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

Manipur has two Lok Sabha seats — Inner Manipur and Outer Manipur (reserved for tribals).

Polling would be held in the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency in the first phase of polling on April 19, and Outer Manipur would go to polls in two phases – April 19 and April 26.

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