Historic Nupi Lan: women’s war. Traditional Mera Paibis: women torchbearers. More women voters than ever. But you would be excused into believing the Manipur election is almost only about men. 

Despite a strong societal presence, Manipur scores extremely low in women representation in electoral politics. The Manipur state assembly never had women legislators beyond single digits (at most two or three). 

This is not the case across all levels of politics, for example. Take the panchayat elections in the municipal areas. 

The plain–valley areas of 40 non-reserved constituencies have 33% reservations for women in the local bodies. However, in the 19 reserved tribal constituencies under the Autonomous District Council ( ADCs), women reservation is yet to materialise. The topic does not even figure in the popular social and political discourse.

The ADCs have been non-functional for over 20 years. In 2010, the district councils were revived, with elections held across the five tribal hill districts. 

After the completion of two five-year terms, the ADCs are back to square one, with no election held since then. The proposed new ADC 2021 Amendment Bill is yet to be tabled in the state assembly. Therefore, women reservation in the said ADC areas is still a distant dream.

As Manipur gears up for the state assembly election 2022, massive preparations are underway. Candidates and their supporters are all out on a war footing across the state.

The 60-seat assembly in Manipur has 19 reserved Schedule Tribe constituencies, one Schedule Caste constituency and 40 general constituencies.

In Manipur, the total voters as of November 2021 published by the Chief Election Officer comes to 19,68,476, of which 10,12,655 are female.

In simple terms, Manipur has more female voters (56,998) than males. The state also has a total of 164 third gender voters. Surprisingly though, the population census has altogether different data. In every census data, the number of females remains less than males. The gender ratio too traditionally has fewer females than males.

Every election, we witness a scene across the valley and hills of Manipur: a long queue of women voters lining up at the polling booths. In every event, women pro-actively participate in campaigns. They are serious party workers during elections.

This probably indicates why during the recent uproar over the candidate list announcement of political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Naga People’s Party. Women party workers and supporters vented their frustration and disappointment, burning flags, posters, calling their lungs out.

In recent years, especially after 2017, when the first BJP-led coalition government came into power in Manipur, a huge leap was observed in terms of women taking an active role in party work and political activities. All the more, when Sarda Devi took over as state president of the BJP party in Manipur: there was hush-hush, applause and excitement from various sections, especially among women.

However, there were only three names among the 60 candidates in the list of the BJP. One candidate is a sitting MLA- Nemcha Kipgen from Kangpokpi constituency removed from a ministerial post in the midterm reshuffle in the outgoing government. She was the lone woman minister in the Biren Singh led government. 56-year-old Kipgen is a veteran politician elected to the house for two consecutive terms to the state assembly.

The Indian National Congress fielded the same number: three. Siting Congress MLA A.K Mirabai has been elected to the state assembly more than twice. A veteran congress member Mirabai is one of the senior women politicians in the state.

In the 2017 last assembly election, 11 women contested the polls. Only Mirabai and Kipgen came out victorious. Both of them scored more than 10,000 votes. The rest could manage fewer than a thousand votes. This number is low, especially since most constituencies have over 20,000-30,000 voters.

In 2017, Irom Sharmila contested the polls. She secured only 90 votes. Najima Bibi got only 33 votes. Both were contesting from the newly-formed political party – PRJA – People’s resurgent and Justice Alliance. 

The party, however, is missing from the scene and electoral politics, as the party did not make any announcement or plans for contesting the upcoming election.

Sharmila, the popular face of resistance in Manipur and elsewhere across the country, faced a major jolt. She left politics and activism. Bibi, a Muslim woman activist, is unlikely to ever come back into electoral politics.

Brinda Thounaijam, Manipur’s super cop, hung her boots to join electoral politics. Her entry into politics has created a stir among public and political parties. She is expected to make some ripples in the upcoming election and, thereafter, in the state political arena.

As it stands now, 11 women are contesting from INC, BJP, NPP, CPI (MSC) and JDU. The figure remains the same as in the previous elections. In the upcoming elections too, the number is likely to go beyond three or five.

One of the usual responses over fielding women candidates in electoral fights is that the woman candidate must have the potential to win.

The key potential for candidates to win elections is the financial resource, support and backing of some powerful persons in the constituencies. 

A BJP party worker said, “Selecting a candidate depends on the winnability of that particular candidate in a particular constituency.”

The candidate must be influential and has the capability of winning voters. The CPI (Manipur state council) have fielded both women candidates, whom they say are dedicated workers. For the party, there is no point in fielding candidates where they have no chance of winning, “It is about resources and energy too,” said a party member.

According to Janata Dal (United) candidate Brinda Thounaojam, the main requisite for winning an election is muscle power and finance. That women do not possess these two very crucial necessities, thus, leaving them at a disadvantage. Thounaojam plunged into the electoral fray to reform such trends. “We are taking steps to change and set an example,” she asserted, “Definitely, women will come out to contest if we can dismantle these trends/practices.”

State women groups and women activists have raised concerns over women representation in decision making.

Priscilla Thiumai, President of Liangmai Pui Naga Ruangdi (Liangmai women union), vocal about women reservation, stated that there is awareness among women and capable ones to contest the election. However, the main reason that hinders them from entering into electoral politics is due to economic and financial reasons. “ Economic independence, financial freedom is crucial,” said Thiumai. “Moreover women, especially in tribal areas, need the support of their husband, family, the whole clan,” said the Liangmai women leader.

ETA, a women network group, sent representation to all leading political parties to ensure at least 30% of the party tickets be given to women candidates. Founder and chairperson of the group Sophia Rajkumari expressed her disappointment; “Our suggestions have fallen on deaf ears,” she said.

The leading parties have allocated just 5% of their tickets to women, despite women being more than 50% of the population.  

Rajkumari appealed that women candidates in the fray from constituencies where the major political parties have failed to field women candidates, voters should consider electing such women candidates to help enhance the inclusion of women representatives in the state assembly.

The group suggest and appeal to opt for NOTA to register their protest at this glaring lack of representation, which is both undemocratic and socially regressive.

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