Like all designated camps of banned insurgent groups in Manipur, Camp Salem is difficult to reach. Untarred, dust-laden lanes veer off the main Churachandpur road and run past small hamlets to the middle of nowhere. And like all designated camps, Camp Salem is perched strategically on top of a hill to give cadres of the Kuki National Army (KNA) a clear view of the area they dominate.
On Saturday, for the second time, cadres of this camp cast their vote. The first time was in the 2012 Assembly elections.
A group of election officials arrived early morning carrying postal ballots. However, 44-year-old Robert Thanoudam, who is the assistant deputy commissioner of the area for the KNA, said only 23 of the 104 cadres at the camp could vote.
“You see, inside the camp everyone has an undercover name, like Tiger or Eagle. Or my own name, Robert, which is a nickname. These are the names that the government has on its list. But these names are different from our real names, which are on our Aadhaar cards (that they showed as identity proof). And therefore not everyone could vote,” Thanoudam says.
Kuki groups have traditionally supported the ruling Congress, and ensured that people in the areas they dominate vote for the party. In previous elections, the groups have even carried out “campaigns”, where they travel through villages in a show of strength to convince voters to elect a particular candidate. “How do you say no to a person with arms? Everyone listens,” says a voter in Singhat village.
This time too, the KNA lent its full weight to the Congress and all its candidates. Meetings were held between senior KNA leaders and village elders to exhort them (and the villages they head) to vote for the party. BJP workers in far off Churachandpur town say that no party, other than the Congress, was allowed in this insurgent-dominated area.
While cadre members at Camp Salem say they didn’t campaign for any party, including the Congress, it is clear all votes have gone to the Congress. Lunkhomang Khongsai, who has been living in the camp for 20 years, says, “That’s the only party I am familiar with. We will not vote for the BJP; they are anti-Christian.”
However, that too may be changing. Insiders say that among the banned Kuki armed groups, despite the obvious religious discomfort with the BJP, support for the party is growing. Says a member of another group, “The larger Kuki tribes continue to serve the Congress. But many of the armed groups which represent smaller Kuki tribes, like the Gangtes and the Hmars and Paiteis, are switching over to the BJP because they believe their interests are not looked after by the Congress.”
A BJP party worker says they have gained ground. “We have convinced many of the UPF groups (the UPF is the umbrella organisation of the armed Kuki Groups) to support us. And they have agreed.”
Among those who voted on Saturday was Thanoudam, whose wife and three children live in Churachandpur town. “Very often we don’t even get enough food here. That is when we head towards town. Most of us have homes in Churachandpur town where our families live. We come here when required,” says the 44-year-old.
Khongsai, a father of five who joined the KNA in 1993, explains why, even as governments come and go, people like him and Thanoudam continue to stay at camps such as Salem.
Khongsai joined the KNA when Naga-Kuki riots across the state had caused much devastation, with hundreds of villages burnt on either side and thousands rendered homeless. “I used to live in Chassak in Ukhrul district (dominated by the Tangkhul nagas). But we came here after 1993. My brother was killed by a Naga, and our home was burnt down. I will never leave the armed group, I will continue to be an insurgent till the time our goal of a Kuki homeland is realised — no matter what the hardship,” he says.