Manipur: Charred pride, burnt voter IDs, ‘internally displaced people’ seek state intervention

For the first time, Manipur has set up special polling stations for displaced people

Manipur Lok Sabha polls Polling officials preparing to conduct first phase of voting on Friday for internally displaced people in Imphal | Salil Bera

“My voter identity card got burnt along with my house last year. I’ll be exercising my voting right as a displaced person for the first time in my own country,” says Poornima Laishram, 38, who fled Moreh on May 3 last year after Manipur simmered in violence and internally displaced persons swelled in numbers. “Can you give me back my dignity?” she demands an answer as the country gets busy with its biggest political event – the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. 

 The first phase of voting begins on April 19 and as Manipur goes to vote what makes these Lok Sabha elections unusual is that for the first time, the country has set up special polling stations for “internally displaced people”, whose hearts and minds have been charred by violence in the last one year. 

Poornima’s loss is bigger than the burning down of her house, voter ID card and other personal documents, her kid’s school books or even her husband’s small shop in Moreh. 

Her pride is hurt and as she prepares to reaffirm her faith in the democratic system by casting her vote, she expects the state to rise to the occasion. “I have lost everything, but I will cast my vote because I am still thinking for my country. My country is my home.” Poornima’s fortitude brings tears to the women surrounding her as she explains her struggle to rise above personal losses to invoke the conscience of the state to give back the dignity she deserves as an Indian citizen. 

Today, her name is slapped on a piece of paper carrying a list of “internally displaced people” stuck on a dirty wall in a ramshackle building that houses 82 such persons, mostly women and children, in the relief camp at Wangkhei in Imphal.

Chatting with women and giving them a pep talk consumes her day, but nights are heavy as she shivers thinking about the future of her family. “Even the poor have dignity. But to be living as a displaced person in your own country is the biggest nightmare,” says Poornima. 

Manipur displaced people Poornima Laishram from Moreh will go to a special polling station to cast her vote, though she lost her voter card during the ethnic conflict | Salil Bera

Poornima is among thousands of internally displaced persons who will be visiting one of the 94 special polling stations (29 in inner Manipur and 65 in outer Manipur) set up across the state by the Election Commission for the first time. 

‘18th Lok Sabha elections-2024, special polling station,’ is written boldly on white papers in community halls, schools, colleges, hostels and shelter homes crisscrossing the state where only the “internally displaced persons” will be casting their votes. 

The reason for this unique arrangement is the complete divide between the Hill districts and Valley where the Kuki-zo and Meitis are unable to travel to either side presently due to security concerns. Therefore, the displaced persons living in relief camps on both sides are unable to cast their votes in their villages. There are nearly 300 relief camps for internally displaced persons across Manipur. 

The school teachers and government employees manning these polling stations admit that they feel for these voters. “I have been doing election duties for the last 7-8 years. But I have not experienced this before. There are 260 voters registered here as internally displaced persons. We have to see whether they will come out to cast their votes or not,” said N. Chasam, 57, at the Khuyathong community hall in Imphal, manning one of the four special polling stations for inner Manipur parliamentary constituency. 

The other half of the community hall is being readied for internally displaced persons who will be casting their vote for the outer Manipur parliamentary constituency. Ramananda, the presiding officer here tells THE WEEK that 154 internally displaced persons are registered at this particular special polling station. 

Most of the special polling stations are within walking distance from the relief camps but the displaced people are not sure how they will reach the booths to cast their votes. 

But clearly, this is the last of their worries. 

On the eve of the biggest dance of democracy, there is no relief on their faces as they sit behind broken doors and windows staring at an uncertain future. 

“I want to go back to my village but I don’t know when that will happen,” says Muktabali from Serou village in Kakching who is living as an internally displaced person in Imphal. Her voter identity card is intact but her records were updated to register as an internally displaced person to allow her to cast her vote. Pre-occupied with her daily struggle with a four-year-old and a jobless husband in the relief camp, she is unsure if she wants to cast her vote. 

“We don’t want mere assurances. Can somebody tell us, will there be peace?” Her question defines the elections this season.

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