How Does the Delimitation of Constituencies Influence Elections in Manipur?

Manipur has two parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha, out of which the Outer Manipur constituency is reserved for a tribal candidate. However, in 1954, the Delimitation Commission of India clubbed the electorates of the erstwhile Thoubal subdivision (excluding Bishenpur tehsil) with the Outer Manipur constituency to "balance" the number of voters in the two constituencies, thereby increasing the number of non-tribal voters in Outer Manipur. This arrangement denies non-tribal people the right to contest elections and makes ST candidates dependent on non-tribal votes for electoral success.

Issues related to the delimitation of territorial constituencies are fraught and complex. Most recently, this was exemplified in Jammu and Kashmir, where rumours of a fresh delimitation exercise created a political storm (Sandhu 2019). In Manipur too, there is one peculiar issue related to delimitation that surfaces during every parliamentary election, and the 2019 parliamentary election was no exception (Imphal Free Press 2019). In Manipur, the concern is not only about the need to balance the relationship between the sizes of population and territorial constituencies. It is also about the violation of the right to contest in parliamentary elections for a large group of people.

Manipur has two parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha. While the Inner Manipur constituency is an unreserved seat covering the non-tribal plains people, the Outer Manipur constituency is reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, since India’s first election in 1951–52 and for the purpose of Lok Sabha elections, the electorates of the erstwhile Thoubal subdivision (excluding Bishenpur tehsil) in the Manipur plains were clubbed with the Outer Manipur constituency. At that time, the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency consisted of what was then Sadar subdivision (excluding the area which formerly constituted the Mao subdivision), and Bishenpur tehsil of the Thoubal subdivision. The Outer Manipur constituency consists of the tribal areas of Jiribam, Ukhrul, Churachandpur, and Tamenglong subdivisions, and the area which formerly constituted the Mao subdivision, along with the non-tribal areas in the Thoubal subdivision (excluding Bishenpur tehsil) (Subramanian 1954b: 390). 

Original Arrangement

The original purpose of this arrangement was to balance the population size of the two constituencies. What is meant by “balance” here is that while the Delimitation Commission found it necessary to give two seats to Manipur to ensure the STs have their own representative in Parliament, they also found it important to supplement the smaller population size of the tribal people in the state with the non-tribal population from Thoubal subdivision  (excluding Bishenpur tehsil) so that the two constituencies would have an approximately equal number of voters. In addition, the government had apparently recognised, even at that time, that various Naga and Kuki-Zomi-Chin tribal groups residing in the hill areas of Manipur were different in various ways[1] from the Meitei people residing in the Manipur valley and therefore needed a separate parliamentary seat. However, the population strength of the hill tribals was found to be inadequate to get a parliamentary seat. Hence, for the Lok Sabha elections, a compromise and arrangement was reached by which a segment of the Meitei people living in the Thoubal subdivision were included in the Outer Manipur constituency. At that time, the number of eligible tribal voters in the Outer Manipur constituency was only 1,80,641. When the 1,20,185 non-tribal voters in the Thoubal subdivision were added to it, the voter strength in Outer Manipur constituency came to 3,00,826 (Subramanian 1954b: 391). 

The problem is that the Outer Manipur constituency is a reserved seat for an ST candidate. As a result, the non-tribal people of the Thoubal subdivision can vote but they cannot contest as candidates in their own parliamentary constituency.  Today, the erstwhile Thoubal sub-division (excluding Bishenpur tehsil) comprises eight assembly constituency segments spreading across Thoubal, Kakching and Jiribam districts. The total voter strength has also risen to more than 2,35,000.[2] In a dissent note jointly submitted to the Delimitation Commission in March 1954, L Jogeswar Singh and Rishang Keishing, members of parliament (MPs) from Inner Manipur and Outer Manipur constituencies respectively, argued that the decision to distribute the two seats in this manner was “much-criticised and protested against by all sections of the public of the Manipur State” (Subramanian 1954a: 390). Specifically, they felt that the spirit and objectives of the Peoples Representation Act, 1952—which is to give proper and separate representation to both tribals and non-tribals in Manipur—is more important than the equal distribution of population in the two constituencies.

The Delimitation Commission held a public sitting on the issue at Imphal on 12 April 1954 where objections and suggestions were considered. Nevertheless, the commission, in its final orders issued on 16 June 1954, ignored all pleas and recommended continuing with the existing arrangement without providing any justification (Subramanian 1954b). Apart from its suspect constitutionality, this fateful decision has only succeeded in antagonising all the people involved over time.[3]

For the people in the eight non-tribal assembly constituencies, the issue is not just about the denial of their right to contest the Lok Sabha election. It is about the violation of their constitutional and citizenship rights. In 2003, the Manipur assembly passed a resolution urging that the eight assembly constituency segments be merged with the inner constituency (Samom 2003). Demands were also made by various organisations that the lone Rajya Sabha seat of the state be at least given to people from these eight assembly constituency segments as consolation (Thokchom 2017). 

The grouse of the tribal people is more political. The tribals of Manipur broadly belong to two groups: Naga tribes and Kuki-Zomi tribes. A rough estimate puts the number of Naga voters at around 4.2 lakh and the Kuki-Zomi voters at around 3.2 lakh (Rosita 2019). Given the history of conflict between some Naga tribes and some Kuki tribes, the election often turns into a contest between a Naga candidate and a Kuki-Zomi candidate. To be fair, there is considerable diversity of voices within these tribal groups and there has rarely been a consensus on which candidates represent the groups as a whole. But, the trend is towards consolidation based on the tribe of candidates, and major parties accordingly pick their candidates with this trend in mind. 

Elections in 2014 and 2019 

It is in this situation that the role of non-tribal votes, amounting to over 2.3 lakh votes, becomes crucial. For example, in the 2014 general election, Soso Lorho, a Naga candidate on the Naga Peoples Front ticket got about 2.8 lakh votes from the tribal areas while the Congress candidate Thangso Baite, who belongs to the Kuki-Zomi group, obtained about 1.9 lakh votes from the same areas. But, while Soso Lorho managed to get only 5,358 votes from the eight non-tribal constituencies, Thangso Baite got 1,06,120 votes from the same areas (Ngaihte 2012).[4] Thus, votes from non-tribals helped elect Thangso Baite by a slender margin. This way, the non-tribal votes—cast in a solid block—somewhat unfairly decided the winner in the tribal constituency (Ngaihte 2012).

Recently, the 2019 elections presented a more complex picture. The total number of votes cast in Outer Manipur constituency was about 8.5 lakh (excluding postal ballots), out of which 1.8 lakh were from constituencies in non-tribal areas (Rosita 2019). Lorho S Pfoze of the Naga Peoples Front (NPF) received a total of about 3.62 lakh votes and was elected. Interestingly, Pfoze received only 6,450 votes out of 1,81,703 votes from the non-tribal voters (3.54%) (Rosita 2019). The largest number of non-tribal votes was received by Congress candidate K James (87,926), followed by BJP candidate H Shokhopao Mate (63,255) (Rosita 2019). This time around, it was primarily the consolidation of Naga votes that catapulted Lorho S Pfoze to the top. In addition to the non-tribal votes, the Kuki-Zomi votes was also fragmented. As a result, the non-tribal voters failed to determine the winner this time. However, the small number of votes the winner received from non-tribal voters shows, in a way, just how divergent preferences between the tribal voters and non-tribal voters are. 

Tribal Representation and Interests

The divergence between the plains and the hills not only in this instance, but also in terms of political aspirations and readings of political history, colours how people see and interpret situations.  For example, after nine tribal people died in the protests that followed the passage of the so-called “3 anti-tribal bills” in the Manipur assembly on 31 August 2015, many tribal bodies urged the sitting MP, Thangso Baite, to speak up for his constituents (Siddiqui 2016). In fact, the issue was raised in Parliament numerous times and many other MPs indeed spoke up (Business Standard 2015). However, Thangso Baite remained silent throughout. This intriguing—and for the tribal people, enraging—silence, combined with the fact that Baite’s victory in the last election hinged on solid support from the non-tribal voters convinced many people that this was part of an intricate plot to subvert the tribal voice. 

The tribal people of Manipur need an effective voice of their own in Parliament. That is why one seat was allotted to them in the first place.  Yet, by adding a block of valley voters to this reserved constituency, that very intent seemed to have been undermined. Today, Manipur has a total voter population of around 19 lakh. More than half of which—around 10 lakh—belongs to the Outer Constituency. The original justification for the anomaly (inadequate number of voters in the Outer Manipur constituency) no longer exists. And in this particular case, oddly and due to divergent reasons, there is nothing controversial or fraught about the demand; all stakeholders apparently agree that the eight non-tribal assembly constituency segments need to be taken away from the tribal Outer Manipur parliamentary constituency.

The delimitation of electoral constituencies, for both parliamentary and assembly elections, is long overdue in Manipur. However, the issue is now politicised to the extent that governments find it safer to continue with the status quo. The delimitation exercise based on the 2001 census, for example, could not be carried out in Manipur due to objections from the state government and civil society bodies in the Manipur plains over allegations of "unnatural" population growth in some hill districts in the 2001 census.[5] It would have resulted in taking away at least three assembly seats from the plains and adding the same number of seats to the tribal areas (which have 19 seats out of a total of 60). The commission will have to keep concerns about tribal and non-tribal voting and contesting rights when it undertakes the exercise of the delimitation of electoral constituencies after the first census post-2026 (Election Commission of India 2018).

The author would like to acknowledge Joy Tonsing’s help in collecting materials used in this article.

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