High Turnout Despite Violence in Phase One of Manipur Polls
Police personnel stand guard while voters wait in a queue to cast their votes for the first phase of Manipur Assembly elections, at a polling booth, in Kangpokpi on Monday.
It was a slow start to the day in a part of the world that usually starts early. The first couple of hours of voting didn’t even get into double digits, but things picked up pretty quickly from there. By 3 pm, turnout had crossed the 65 percent mark and, by the time polling stations were finally closed after a two-hour extension, almost 80 percent of registered voters turned up.
The battle for the Manipur assembly is tight. The ruling BJP is widely criticised for its sheer lack of performance over the past five years, not just by common people but several supporters and alliance partners such as Conrad Sangma of the National Peoples Party(NPP). Despite this, it retains a loyal voter base, particularly in the Imphal valley aided by its control over money and resources. The Congress was the single largest party in 2017 with 28 seats and has put up a secular, progressive front together with left parties including the CPI, CPI(M), the Forward Bloc and the Republican Socialist Party. In three constituencies, Heingang, Nambol and Thanga, the BJP and Congress are in two-horse races. Heingang is where present chief minister N Biren Singh is contesting from.
But the key to forming the government will be held by the other two major players, the Naga Peoples Front and the NPP. With this context it is hardly surprising that the past few days have gone by in hyperdrive.
The pre-poll violence that marked this election cycle continued on polling day. By noon videos and images of tension, clashes and even blockades of polling stations were doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups. Electronic voting machines (EVMs) were damaged at at least seven polling stations. The Election Commission told NewsClick that the deployment of security personnel requisitioned from outside Manipur, including central police personnel, was significantly higher than previously. In at least three constituencies, 51-Saitu, 57-Henglep and 60-Singhat, security forces resorted to preventative firing in the air. Our reporters also confirmed gunfire at a polling station in Keirao fortunately with no injuries resulting.
A major flashpoint was the New Keithelmanbi polling station under Saitu assembly seat. Situated in the foothills, the seat is hotly contested. Ngamthang Haokip of the BJP won the seat in 2017 by defeating the Congress’ Lamtinthang Haokip by just 12 votes. Clashes broke out after locals alleged rampant proxy voting by BJP supporters and attacked Lamtinthang when he arrived on the spot. Thereafter the police detained Lamtinthang and registered an FIR under multiple sections of the IPC and the Representation of Peoples Act. Saitu is a reserved seat (ST) and the most influential unions in the region reacted immediately to the detention, demanding the immediate release of the candidate. The All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) said it, “...strongly condemns the unwarranted detention of Dr. Lamtinthang Haokip,” while urging the people of the state to shun violence and ensure free and fair elections. The Kuki Students Organisation(KSO) took an even more vocal stance, alleging that security personnel deployed at the polling station threatened to shoot at Lamtinthang and promising storng agitation unless he is released unconditionally. Lamtinthang’s supporters enforced a ‘flash bandh’, blocking the national highway connecting Imphal and Dimapur near Kholep village. Protests were continuing at the time of going to print. Repoll has been ordered in Keithelmanbi and we will update this story as it develops.
One government employee died on the first day of polling. A sergeant with the Manipur Rifles (police), Havildar Naorem Ibochouba Singh, from Kakching, posted at 55/37 Senvon (C) Polling Station, Tipaimukh AC. The EC in the condolence message said, “It is suspected to be accidental firing from his service weapon as per UD Case No.01/2022 PBG-PS u/s 174 CrPC dated 28th February, 2022.” later the same office stated that he died due to a medical condition in Chingmun.
Another key concern in the conduct of the elections is the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic. Manipur’s vaccination numbers are not great, on account of both inequity and vaccine-hesitation. The EC detailed protocols in place. Electors were supposed to go through thermal screening and those with fever to be separated for voting. At the polling stations that NewsClick visited this practice was nowhere close to being followed. On the plus side mandatory masking was followed fairly universally. The same cannot be said for physical distancing of voters while waiting in line. The state also had ambitious plans to couple the electoral process with a public health agenda by setting up vaccination booths at polling centres. As per our sources in the EC, Manipur government and the National Rural Health Mission, no vaccines were provided at polling booths in the first phase.
The remaining 22 assembly seats go to polls on March 5 and results are scheduled to be declared on March 10, 2022.
(With reporting inputs from Grace Jajo and Siddhanth Aney in Imphal)
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