Manipur’s other ‘Iron Lady’

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Yambem Laba (Courtesy: The Statesman)
In the 2012 Manipur assembly election,when Chief Minister Ibobi Singh decided to contest from two constituencies — his own Khangabok and Thoubal — he was at the pinnacle of his chequered career that began as a petty contractor. His greatest deed of bravery was to successfully prevent NSCN(IM) general-secretary Th Muivah from entering Manipur in 2010 to visit his native village Somdal in Ukhrul district. This despite the fact that the Centre had requested him to arrange security arrangement for Muivah’s visit.

Ibobi’s police force blocked all entry points, even had the gumption to open fire on Muivah’s supporters who had gathered at the Mao Gate, bordering Manipur and Nagaland, to ensure his safe passage. Ibobi even threatened to have Muivah arrested on the strength of the latter still figuring in the state’s wanted list, like other rebel leaders of the United National Liberation Front, the Peoples’ Liberation Army and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak.

Muivah returned to his Hebron base near Dimapur as a defeated soldier while Ibobi was hailed as a “demi-god,” at least among the Manipuri Meiteis of the valley. So much so, Ibobi’s popularity soared and the people were even willing to condone graft charges against him. By then Ibobi had also earned the sobriquet of “10 Ibobi,” referring to the 10 per cent “personal” surcharge he allegedly levied on every financial bill he endorsed as he also holds the finance portfolio. With this soaring confidence he decided to test his popularity by deciding to contest from two constituencies.

While back home at Khangabok, he had his old political foe in the form of L Jatra Singh, who had defeated him once, he thought it would be a walkover in the Thoubal A/C. Suddenly the people of Manipur were taken aback when just before the 2012 polls, a hitherto unknown political personality, and that too a woman, announced that she would contest against Ibobi.The chief minister is no Bhisma Pitamah or a gentleman that can play dirty too to win the woman who was no “Sikhandi”, whom the then very fragile BJP had decided to launch against Ibobi as a plan of Krishna, taking a cue out of the Mahabharata. Ibobi’s challenger was Indira Oinam who also runs an NGO and orphanage.

Born in 1975 she grew up as an outstanding student bagging 253 awards in debates, essay writing competitions and extempore speeches, best student, et al during her school days. While in college also, she shone in the NCC, becoming a senior under-officer and bagged the best cadet award too. She also had undergone two military attachment courses at Shillong and in Tamil Nadu while in the NCC and by that account she had been trained as a professional ready to face any adverse situation that might come her way.

After finishing college, she engaged herself in social activities and during that time met Nat-war Thakkar, noted Indian Gandhian, who works in Nagaland. He arranged for her to be trained as an entrepreneur at the Women Career Development Centre at Ahmedabad between 1997-98. She also received political guidance from stalwarts like the late Laishram Achaw Singh, the firebrand socialist leader and MP from Manipur; noted litterateur and poet, the late Elangbam Nilakanta Singh and Oja Aribam Brajabidhu Sharma, the current chief of the RSS in Manipur. In 2000 she got married to Aribam Bankim Sharma, a Gandhian and their only daughter Augusti was born the next year.

In between, her NGO Women Income Generation Centre, established in 1994, got registered in 1997. It was her idea of empowering women by training them in skills and marketing their produce. Her target groups are orphaned girl children, widows, divorcees and destitutes and later added unemployed males too. The aim was to pave a way for them to become employed.

Speaking to The Statesman, she said that her initial aim was to produce a Nobel Laureate from Manipur. Then in 2012 when she heard that Ibobi was jubilant that he was going to get elected unopposed from the Thoubal A/C, the spark inside her got ignited (her father was once a minister). She then sought permission from her parents who told her not to contest as they feared she could get killed. But later they gave her their blessings. She confided that “Had it not been for Ibobi she might not have joined politics” for she holds Ibobi responsible for the social turmoil — the state having the highest number of bandhs and economic blockades, increasing number of widows as a result of “fake encounters” that took place during his reign earlier and the spiralling and runaway inflation in the “grey market” of bribe-taking for employment. That was when this feisty and gutsy woman decided to take the plunge.

Around the same time she met then national president of the BJP (now Union Minister Nitin Gadkari) who initiated her into the BJP, and gave her his blessings and contested against Ibobi on a BJP ticket. The party then was in a fragile state and was not in power at the Centre. Her election plank was that a “latrine” at Khangabok, Ibobi’s original constituency — she said that it was better off than a house in Thoubal and emphasised that behind the façade of the market complex and the hospital building many in Thoubal A/C still do no have potable water, proper toilet facilities and good roads off National Highway 39.
In 2012, Ibobi was no gentleman, and according to her, he went out of his way to thwart her battle plan. Her relatives were allegedly harassed by the police, some of them being arrested on charges of having a nexus with militants and her car was attacked and bombs were thrown at her “ashram” where she also runs an orphanage. But when an RDX was planted inside her house-cum-NGO centre, her supporters caught two miscreants, who later turned out to be personnel of the state’s security apparatus. The Thoubal police registered an FIR, but since Ibobi also holds the home portfolio, the matter was brushed under the carpet. She lost the elections but not her spirit.
Today, she is fully geared up to meet Ibobi again in the 2017 elections. Her main woe is not only challenging Ibobi, a man who has held the chief ministerial post for the last 15 years, but the intrigues and back-stabbing within the state’s BJP unit that is beginning to look like an extension of the Congress. This, coupled with the fact that the state’s former BJP president Th Chaoba Singh had already announced the name of an unknown face as the party’s candidate for the Thoubal A/C.
Although she is very close to Union minister Prakash Jadavekar and the fact that Maneka Gandhi, another Union minister, had recently visited her “ashram” and that today she is designated as a spokesperson of the state’s BJP, she is not very sure as to how her the state unit will go about when it comes to the question of distributing tickets.
But all said and done, if Ibobi fancies himself as Bhisma Pitamah in the battle of Kurukshetra, then Indira is going to be his Sikhandi and if he fancies himself as a Goliath then Indira might prove to be his David, taking a cue out of the battle.
Indira Oinam has all the potential to emerge as Manipur’s giant killer.
(The writer is the Imphal-based special correspondent of The Statesman)

Source: The Sangai Express

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