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Electoral Politics In Manipur: The Role Of Ethnicity

A democracy is supposed to treat its citizens equally but in a country like India, is it ever possible to rise above caste, ethnicity, race, and gender politics? Manipur is a melting point of different ethnicities and the recently-held elections has evoked the the need for reforms to make sure representation works for all sections. This article will briefly discuss the issue of ethnicity in Manipur and how each ethnic group is fostering for redistribution of equality and rights through electoral politics.

India inherited the ideas of modern state and democracy from the British colonial power. Political scientist Sudipta Kaviraj has argued that after being colonised by the British, India as a country, arrogated upon itself the power of proposing, directing, and effecting large-scale social change. India became a successful case of democracy outside of Europe. The desirability of democracy is indicated by the uninterrupted electoral system of government. But the success of democracy has not produced the desired democratic consciousness where people would cease to identify themselves through their primordial identities such as caste, ethnicity, language, race, etc. and demand greater economic equality. Rather, these categories were and continue to be used strategically for electoral politics. The state of Manipur is a quintessential example of such electoral politics in India. In what follows I will provide a concise illustration of this politics in Manipur and relate it with recently-concluded state legislative assembly election.

The topography of Manipur consists of a valley which is surrounded by hills. The valley constitutes about 10% and the hills about 90% of the total landmass of the state. The hills and the valley are inhabited by distinct ethnic groups. Tribal groups consisting of the Nagas, Kukis and Zo reside in the hills and the valley is inhabited by the general Meitei community. Going by the 2011 census, the tribals that mostly dwell in the hills constitute about 42.8 % of the total population, and the valley population amounts to 57.2% of the state. Now what is at odds is the electoral representation. Manipur has 60 seats in the state legislative assembly, of which the valley has 40 constituencies, the hills have 19, and 1 seat is reserved for Scheduled Caste. Given this disparity, the popular demand among the various tribes is delimitation. The common cry is that the tribal areas and population are underrepresented, and delimitation is a necessity to ensure proper representation in the assembly.

Topography of Manipur- Valley Surrounded by Hills

Source: Elevation of Manipur (

Although delimitation is a democratic feature, it is problematic in Manipur. Should delimitation come into effect, the hill areas would gain few more constituencies at the cost of the valley. Given the ethnic distribution of the state the implementation of delimitation is contentious. The tribals claim it as a democratic right but on the flip side the general population is apprehensive about losing seats which would affect their dominant position in the state’s electoral system.

Source: (10th March, 2022)

Here it is important to note that the hills and the valley have a history of political opposition against each other. Manipur was an erstwhile independent kingdom but the sovereign power of the monarch was limited to the valley and attempts to subjugate the hills were often defied with hostility. This relationship continued even through the colonial period as ethnicity became more distinct with survey, mapping and census. In the post colonial period, separate administration were introduced for the two separate geographical regions. The colonial state (hills administered by British Political agents, and valley by a state durbar), and the restriction on the accessibility of the tribal areas especially to acquire land by the general population grew more pronounced. Given the divide between the hills and valley, the demand for delimitation has major ethnic underpinning and the implementation or deferral even more. In 2007, the then chief minister Ibobi Singh asked the delimitation committee to defer the exercise because the census was not accurate. The request was accepted by the Union Government. The tribals cried foul whereas the non-tribal community sighed in relief. The next delimitation exercise is due in 2026, what remains to be seen is whether it will really be exercised?

Although modernity and urbanization have in a way blurred the ethnic distinction in daily life especially through intermarriage and social interactions, this is not particularly the same in political life. For most of the electoral history in Manipur, the Congress has sailed smoothly. However, it did not take long for the political discourse to deviate from the national to focus on the regional. Parties like Manipur People's Party was formed in 1968 that emphasised on regionalism. In the current state legislative assembly elections, the Naga People's Front is one of the regional parties that could play a decisive role in the formation of the government. The front currently holds 4 seats in the state assembly and had forged an alliance with the BJP in 2017 to form the government. Some of its aims are to integrate the contiguous Naga inhabited areas under one administrative roof, to bring electoral reforms that suit the Nagas and bring about economic development to the people. Hence, what we see here is that traditional affiliation to primordial identity has not disappeared in the political arena, and an effective coalition is forged with any party that offers a good portfolio and supports the agenda of the party. This is not just limited to one instance. The latest example is the formation of Kuki People Alliance in 2021. The objective of the party is to foster the aspirations of the Kuki tribe. The founders reasoned that in the state dominated by Meiteis, a body that solely represents the interests of the Kukis is a necessity.

The electoral system has also brought about a new usage of the language of rights. As mentioned above, the inhabitants of Manipur consist of the general population and the tribes. The general population of the valley areas are mostly Meitei Hindus. Of late the Meiteis have been demanding scheduled tribe status from the government through public demonstrations and calls for strike. Though no political parties have enlisted the demand as part of the manifesto, the aspirations keep rising. The National People's Party, a party that seeks to give national dimension to regional aspirations, is one such party. In its claims to ensure the rights of the indigenous people, one of the rights includes granting scheduled tribe status to the Meiteis. Though this issue did not make it to the poll this time around, it is a demand that will not die down. The Meitei community argues that if they are not enlisted in the ST category, they would lose their identity, land and legislative rights. On the contrary the hill people argue that the Meiteis are an economically and financially advanced community, and so enlisting them as ST would deprive the existing hill people of land, and quota in education and government jobs. Given the rift that it has already created, it would not be a surprise to see this issue taken up as part of redistribution of rights.

From these trends one can conclude that the success of democracy is ambiguous. The people desire democratic electoral system for governance but democracy has not churned out automated individual subjects or individualism. India’s politics is still dominated by regional differences and aspirations. Subnational consciousness is an important element of the current politics. One cannot be an Indian without first asserting the identity of being a Naga or a Tamil.


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