June 10 was a slow Saturday in laidback Imphal city – as Saturday usually are in Manipur. In Thangmeiband Assembly constituency life was unusually desultory – it was actually at a standstill. Three months after the first BJP-led government came to power, the state witnessed its first bandh here. It lasted 12 hours and it shut down this constituency. It was also Manipur’s first ever “love bandh”.
So this is how the story unfolded: Thirty-eight- year old Heikham Dingo Singh is a first-time MLA, a bachelor, who contested on a BJP ticket and won. Now Singh had been seeing a local girl from Thangmeiband colony for seven years. In the run up to the elections, he started distancing himself from her. Some say it is because politics replaced her in his affections; others, that she was replaced by another woman.
As the distance between them grew and Singh continued to ignore the girl after allegedly having promised to marry her, she approached the Meira Paibis (the civil society women torch-bearers, often described as Manipur’s social conscience) in her locality. The angered Meira Paibis of Thangmeiband stormed in to Sekmai town, where Singh hails from, with the spurned lover in tow, and stood in front of the MLA’s gates demanding that he accept the girl.
Except they were met by the Meira Paibis of Sekmai, who shooed them away. The women leaders then came back to Thangmeiband and still seething with anger, called a bandh demanding that the two lovers be brought together.
Nothing came of the “love bandh” of course. But while the bandh in itself was unusual, what was even more unusual for a state that has been riddled with bandhs, economic blockades and strikes for over a decade, is that this was the first bandh that has been called since the BJP came to power four months ago.
Bandhs and blockades had, in fact, become a favourite weapon of choice for irate Manipuris over the last decade. In 2011, a 100-day economic blockade was called by the Kuki tribe of the Sadar Hills demanding a separate district for its people. Agitations seeking to end the Inner Line Permit have disrupted life. Counter bandhs have been called by various tribal bodies – most notably the United Naga Council – who former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh says is backed by the Naga insurgent group NSCN-IM.
A myriad other smaller 24-48 hour general strikes are a hallmark of everyday life in the state several times a month and for different reasons. Independence day and Republic Day are two bandh fixtures on Manipur’s calendar.
According to back of the envelope calculations, Manipur lost Rs 5972 crores and Rs 2895 crores in 2014 and 2015 from strikes and bandhs alone, which shut down the economy.
So what exactly has changed in Manipur along with its government? A cabinet resolution in May declared strikes and bandhs illegal. But in a region where insurgent groups hold much more power and say than any administration, it is unlikely that decision will have far-reaching influence.
There are several drivers for Manipur’s newfound bandh-free peace. First, the fatigue factor that has considerably worn down the underlying principle for why a bandh has been called in the first place. Second, is the hope generated by the new government which brought an end to the Churachandpur crisis in which nine people had been killed in police firing and their loved ones had blockaded the National Highway for two years.
Third, the much more approachable new chief minister N.Biren, a former journalist, who unlike his predecessor Ibobi Singh, is far more active in bridging the gap between the tribals and the Meiteis. Development work has already begun – roads have been commissioned, kucha lanes have already been black topped.
The new administration has instituted a public day, where bureaucrats and politicians hold audiences with people who come with their grievances. A grievance cell and a corruption cell have been set up. The feeling that there may be no need to call a bandh anymore is growing; bandh instigators are finding it much more difficult to garner public sympathy.
Clearly, the BJP is learning quickly. However polarising it has been in other parts of the country, in Manipur it realises that it has to speak softly and hide its big stick, if it’s carrying one in the first place. Polls in Meghalaya and Tripura are round the corner. If the BJP has to paint the North-East saffron, like it has done in Assam and Manipur – despite allegations of gubernatorial favoritism – it must learn to think and do as the region does.
As for the “love bandh” in Thangmeiband, it isn’t clear if the lovers have begun to live happily ever after or not. The good news is that there’s no further news to report on this front.