AS BOTH the Congress and BJP tried to rustle together numbers on Sunday to form a government in Manipur, a first-time Independent MLA found himself being trailed from his constituency Jiribam in south Manipur, to Silchar and Guwahati in Assam, ending in allegedly a brief detention at Imphal’s Tulihal airport.
BJP and Congress workers surrounded the entrance to the airport, with Congress workers claiming that Ashab Uddin had been kept under illegal detention inside by the CISF.
In Saturday’s results throwing up a hung Assembly in Manipur, the Congress won 28 seats and the BJP 21. Ashab Uddin, 51, a Bengali Muslim, is the sole Independent to have won.
On Saturday, soon after the results were out, Ashab Uddin left for Silchar, where he was met by former Congress minister Abdul Nasir. According to sources, the Congress escorted Ashab Uddin to Guwahati soon after. He spent the night there before leaving for Imphal on Sunday.
Mohd Nasir Khan, a Congress leader who is a friend of Ashab Uddin and his “political advisor”, said what happened at Tulihal airport, when the flight landed at 12 pm, was “unbelievable”. “The CISF was waiting at the tarmac along with BJP leader Bishwajeet. They took him aside and kept him in the holding area,” said Khan.
Soon a large BJP group, along with its Manipur campaign strategist, Rajat Sethi, arrived at the airport, followed by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s nephew Okram Henry with 30-40 odd Congress workers.
Asked by the Express about their presence at the airport, both Henry and Sethi said “nothing is happening”. “I am just wondering what so many Congress workers are doing here,” Sethi said.
Senior Congress leader C P Joshi, deputed from Delhi and present at the party headquarters, accused the BJP of flouting “the norms of democracy”. “We have won 28 seats, the BJP 21. The mandate of the people is clearly with us and this needs to be respected. What is happening with the Independent MLA is not horse-trading, it is the Central government using the State machinery to sabotage democracy. The CISF has illegally detained this MLA at the airport… This is unconstitutional and a threat to democracy. He has a right to choose which party he wants to go with,” said Joshi.
CISF Director General O P Singh “vehemently” denied the Congress charge. “Ashab Uddin had arrived in Imphal from Guwahati. Members of the Congress and BJP had both gathered at the airport to receive him. When he learnt about this, he told airport authorities that he did not want to face them and so did not want to go out of the airport. He said he wanted to be taken somewhere else, and it was on his wish that his travel to Kolkata was arranged,” the DG said.
A first-time candidate, Ashab Uddin got 8,189 votes, defeating Congress candidate T S Devendro from Jiribam.
It was a surprise win as the Congress had been sure of securing this seat as it falls in a new district created by the Ibobi Singh government.
Back in Jiribam, Ashab Uddin’s wife Najima Bibi said her husband had been “kidnapped” briefly.
Speaking with The Indian Express, she said, “He was to be in Imphal today, but as soon as he landed, the Congress started pulling him on one side, and the BJP on the other. When I spoke to him, he was very scared. He told me, ‘What do I do? The Congress is saying join us, the BJP is saying join us’. He was very confused. He kept saying, ‘Where will I go?’; he was very anxious. Of course, before he left for Imphal, we had discussed this with the people in the constituency and we had decided to go with the party that would do more. The consensus was that he should join the BJP, and my husband was leaning towards the BJP more. I heard that Ibobi would come to the airport himself,” she says.
Najima Bibi added that Ashab Uddin was later taken to Kolkata by the BJP, and that from there he would go to Delhi to meet leaders. “He wanted Md Nasir’s advice,” she regretted, “but people didn’t let him meet our friend.”