| A woman offers tribute to Manorama on Wednesday. Picture by Eastern Projections
Imphal/New Delhi, Aug. 11: Wary of antagonising Delhi, Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh risked a rebellion in his own ranks by refusing to resume the cabinet discussion that ended yesterday without taking a decision on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
Ibobi Singh’s turnaround — he had promised to convene a cabinet meeting this morning — coincided with emotion-charged scenes of mourning in the Imphal East locality where Thangjam Manorama grew up. Her death in Assam Rifles’ custody exactly a month ago triggered the mass agitation that has paralysed the state.
In New Delhi, Union home minister Shivraj Patil said he was “open” to the idea of withdrawing the Assam Rifles from Manipur, but said protesters there should not expect the paramilitary force to pull out within the next few days. Patil’s comment came a day after defence minister Pranab Mukherjee denied that Delhi was planning to replace the Assam Rifles with the BSF.
The home minister said the Assam Rifles would have to be withdrawn in a manner that would not affect the troops’ morale.
The defence minister had contended that Patil had been “misunderstood” as “it is not possible to remove this force”. The remark triggered speculation of a split in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance on the issue.
A source in the Ibobi Singh government said Delhi’s stand on the armed forces act and other Manipur-specific issues had compounded the chief minister’s problems. “He fears the Centre might ask him to step down if he succumbs to pressure from within and decides to lift the act.”
Angry over the delay in taking a decision, senior PCC functionaries wrote to the Congress high command, thr-eatening to quit the party if the act was not withdrawn by Sunday. As many as 12 legislators of the coalition and two ministers have threatened to do likewise. The CPI has set the same deadline.
In an unrelated development, the C. Upendra Singh Judicial Commission that is investigating the custody death almost collapsed after lawyers representing five civilian parties pulled out of the probe in protest against “non-cooperation” by the Assam Rifles.
“We are compelled to take this decision reluctantly as we felt that without the participation of the Assam Rifles, the report of the commission will not be meaningful. Cross-examination of Assam Rifles witnesses is a must.”
The commandant of the Assam Rifles’ 17th battalion, Col Jagmohan Singh, and five more personnel summoned by the commission have not attended a single hearing.
The All Tribal Students’ Union and the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur, have called a bandh in the hill districts tomorrow in protest against the armed forces act. The Kuki Students’ Organisation, too, has called a bandh.