It is 8 pm on a Saturday, and 29-year-old Pithang Haolai and his two friends have stepped out to “enjoy the weekend” in Imphal. Close to the famous Ima Keithel (Women’s Market) of Manipur, Haolai and friends take turns to pose under the canopy of festive, twinkly lights that envelop a street that was dark until recently.
In insurgency-ridden Manipur, where life comes to standstill at sunset, places like “Thangal Lambi”, or Thangal Road, where Haolai is on Saturday, have emerged as a rare bright spot in capital Imphal. As a cold, still February night envelopes the city, the bright lights of Thangal Lambi have more than a few takers: apart from Haolai, young parents stroll their babies and an older couple takes a walk as a lone security guard keeps watch. Nearby, some women sell vegetables.
Just two months ago, the Biren Singh-led BJP government in the state revamped the 500-metre stretch on the side of Ima Keithel, installing strings of lights, several park benches, potted plants, and a sign that declared it as Imphal’s “new mall road”.
“Before, there used to be a few drunk men here but now this is a cool place to come to…rest of Imphal is dark but the lights make this place attractive,” says Haolai, adding that in the rest of Imphal “not even a medicine shop will be open”.
Ankit Jain, a 31-year-old businessman and resident of Imphal, who is out with his wife and newborn, says that they “barely ever stepped out before but now things are changing”.
In poll-bound Manipur, which votes in the first round of a two-part election on Monday, the BJP is banking on this change. “Peace, stability and normalcy” — as opposed to “instability, insurgency and inequality” under the Congress — have been the buzzwords of many a BJP leader, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Home Minister Amit Shah, during campaign.
Ravaged by multiple insurgencies for decades, Manipur has long lived on the edge, with residents navigating bandhs, blockades, and protests year after year. While the insurgency took wings in the 1960s, it was under the Ibobi Singh led-Congress government (2002-2015) that these confrontations came to a head and the state was marked by a rapid rise in extrajudicial killings as well as months-long economic blockades and strikes.
In contrast, there have not been major incidents in the last five years. While people like Jain, who runs a cloth business, entirely credit the BJP for the transition (“where there is development, there is peace,” says Jain), others remain sceptical. Says Haolai, “It’s not about this government, per se. Whichever party is in power — BJP or Congress — would have done this, because the situation has changed over the last few years.”
In recent years, the insurgency has flagged in Manipur. Yet, many observers believe that it is far from over, and the BJP has been able to cash in on a low phase.
Imphal-based human rights activist Babloo Lointongbam agrees that “law and order” was reasonably better now but claims the BJP should not get the credit. “Between 2004 and 2008, there was active confrontation between the state and insurgents. But these have come down, not because of the BJP, but work done by pressure groups and civil society organisations,” he says.
Defending his party’s actions under Ibobi Singh, state Congress spokesperson Devabrata Singh says the “times were bad in the early 2000s”.
“Insurgency was on a high, and the state government had to take action…but things began improving at the end of 2015 during the last term of Ibobi Singh. Now, the BJP swoops in and tries to take credit,” he says, pointing out that all those who make up the current BJP in Manipur, including CM N Biren Singh, were earlier part of the Congress.
Critics of the BJP, especially the Congress, claim that the “law and order” has deteriorated, especially in the last two months. As polls near, the state has witnessed bouts of political violence, including at least four cases of gun-related incidents. The recent attack occurred late on Saturday night, when the Janata Dal (United) candidate in the Kshetrigao constituency in Imphal East, Wanglembam Rohit Singh, was shot at near his home. But a political observer points out that like in other parts of the country, the BJP’s messaging has been “clever”.
Devika Tongbram, a 28-year-old NGO worker in Imphal, says that she can now come back from her coaching class after 6 pm without feeling unsafe, and that is why her vote is with the BJP.
Khuraijam Athouba, the general secretary of the United Committee Manipur, a civil society group that represents Meitei interests, says that while the “timing may have been right for the BJP”, they “had the will too”.
“At one point, state terror was visible on the streets. You were frisked at every nook and corner. But now, you hardly find them…of course, it is because the government has changed its mindset, the order from the top has changed,” he says.
Soon after he became CM, Biren Singh introduced the concept of “Imphal Evenings”, a weekend night market in the heart of the city. While the initiative fizzled out in a couple of months because of “economic reasons”, many in Imphal still remember how the stretch along the city’s Kangla Pat road, from Raj Bhavan to Khoyathong, looked festive every weekend.
Biren tells The Indian Express that it was one of his most unique ideas. “It was my mission to wake up the people…tell them that there can be nightlife. It did not work out but that is okay…but at least people know that they can step out,” he says, adding that it is not just in the valley but in the hills too that the BJP has managed to bring a sense of “normalcy”.
Before 2017, intermittent protests, economic blockades and shutdowns — whether it was related to the creation of new districts, or bringing Bills perceived as anti-tribal — called by various civil society groups used to bring life to a standstill in Manipur, with some strikes lasting as long as 100 days.
An economics teacher in the Naga-dominated hill district of Ukhrul, who did not wish to be named, says that though blockades have not happened in the past five years “we all know peace is temporary”.
Moreover, observers also say that the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which is a partner of the BJP government in Manipur and is believed to have the backing of the NSCN-IM, has helped hold things together, especially in the hill districts.
In Imphal, a professor from Manipur University, says that economic blockades have subsided “not because of great statesmanship but because of promises given to the Naga groups backed by the insurgents.”
To that, Biren says: “Even if I invite people who call bandhs, who agitate…why is that an issue? The point is that I have been able to speak to them face to face, and bring about a change. The public wants a better quality of life, and that is what we are here to bring.”
(With inputs from Jimmy Leivon)