(October 22) In a dramatic development, elections for the B’nei Menashe Council, a once representative body that has fallen into abeyance since the last vote for it took place in 2015, are about to be held in Manipur.
At a meeting in Churachandpur on October 18 at the home of Demsat Haokip, vice-chairman of Beit Shalom, northeast India’s largest congregation, it was decided to invite the executive boards of all 24 of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe congregations to convene at the synagogue’s premises on Sunday, October 25. The purpose of this session would be to pass a motion to hold the elections and possibly to conduct them right afterwards. Since the BMC’s bylaws call for the Council’s members to be chosen by a majority vote with each congregational board (traditionally, its chairman and its secretary) casting two ballots, it would be feasible to do both things at once.
Although it may seem undemocratic to choose a body claiming to represent Manipur’s estimated 4,000 B’nei Menashe on the basis of at most 48 votes, this is not the case, says Ohaliav Haokip, who is running for the post of BMC secretary. “The executives of each congregation have been elected by its congregants,” Haokip explains. “Together they’re like a legislature that has been empowered by the people.” Nor is giving each congregation an equal say, from the biggest to the smallest, without democratic precedent. One can point to the United States Senate, in which the biggest and smallest states have two votes apiece so as to allay the latter’s fears of domination by the former.
The movement to hold new BMC elections has been gathering momentum in Manipur for months. Behind it lies the growing resentment of many B’nei Menashe of the role played by Shavei Israel, the organization that has effectively controlled the community since 2003, when it was put in sole charge of the latter’s Aliyah to Israel. Even before the 2015 elections the BMC, whose roots goes back to the pre-Shavei days of the 1990s, was under Shavei’s thumb. Yet after two Shavei functionaries, Avihu Singsit and Yitzhak Seimang Haokip, were put in office as chairman and secretary in 2015, even the pretense of a popularly elected body was done away with.
“The Council has totally violated its own constitution,” says Michael Kipgen of the Gamgiphai congregation. Kipgen has observed repeatedly in recent weeks in the B’nei Menashe social media that the BMC’s bylaws call for elections every two years, whereas none have been held for the past five. These laws also require an annual progress report, an annual finance report, an annual audit, and annual approval of a budget, all of which have been ignored. Shavei Israel, Kipgen charges, has reduced the BMC to an empty shell.
In retaliation, the Shavei-dominated Gamgiphai congregation has expelled Kipgen from its ranks. Initially, indeed, Shavei did all it could to oppose the holding of new elections and warned all 24 Manipur congregations against taking part in them. Spearheading this campaign was Shavei activist Elon Lunjang Haokip, who reportedly told the leaders of several congregations that they would be struck from all Aliyah lists if they lent a hand to a BMC ballot. Four congregations – Monglienphai, Zohar, Moreh, and Kangkopi – heeded the warning and spurned all overtures to join the process.
Similarly, Shavei Israel’s Manipur representative Meital Singson sought to pressure Demsat Haokip into turning Beit Shalom, whose participation is crucial because of its size, against the elections. “Meital actually tried to bribe me,” the Beit Shalom vice-chairman told our Newsletter. “She said that if I blocked the vote, she would see to it that I was put at the top of the next Aliyah list – and that if I refused, I might never get to make Aliyah at all. I told her that there should be no connection between Aliyah and BMC elections and that Shavei should not interfere in them.”
Seeing that it was unable to prevent the elections from taking place, Shavei decided at the last minute to take part in them and has pretended to be the initiator of the planned October 25 session at Beit Shalom, to which it issued an invitation on October 20 signed by Yitzhak Seimang Haokip -- an invitation sent two days after Demsat Haokip’s group had already done the inviting!
Shavei has also put forward Yitzhak Seimang Haokip as its candidate for BMC chairman. This pits him against Lalam Hangshing, who is heading the pro-change list. Hangshing is the former Chief Commissioner of Customs and Excise for the Northeast Region of India. He is joined by candidates for the Council’s additional elected posts of vice-chairman, secretary, deputy secretary, and treasurer by Demsat Haokip; Ohaliav Haokip; Nehemiah Lhunzang Haokip, a respected local politician and head of the Churachandpur branch of the ruling Indian People’s (Bhartiya Janata) Party, and Yoel Paolal Dimngel, a retired sergeant in the Nagaland police.
The first task facing the October 25 session will be the choice of an election committee that will set a date for the vote. The next will be to deal with an expected Shavei challenge to bar
the four congregations of Phalbung, Pejang, Petach Tikvah, and Saikul from the proceedings on the grounds that they have not been part of the B’nei Menashe organizational structure. “This is particularly outrageous,” says Ohaliav Haokip, “because it was Shavei itself that ostracized these congregations for years for standing up for their religious rights and refusing to switch from the Ashkenai to the Sephardi liturgy. I hope that this motion will be defeated and that all 24 congregations will attend and vote. Whether the elections take place on the same day remains to be seen. Even if they’re put off, it won’t be for more than a week or two.”
Meanwhile, he says, “there’s great excitement in the community about these elections. The candidates are out on the campaign trail. Many people realize the need for an independent, democratically elected B’nei Meneashe Council that will represent them in all areas, including Aliyah. They want to have the voice that was stolen from them returned to them.”