Motion Passed to Hold Election for New B’nei Menashe Council in Manipur in Early November
(October 26) In a sometimes tumultuous session of the heads of the B’nei Menashe congregations of Manipur at Beit Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur on Sunday, October 25, it was decided by a large majority to hold elections for a new B’nei Menashe Council in early November. The vote was a major defeat for Shavei Israel, the organization that has controlled B’nei Menashe affairs in India and Israel for the past 15 years and that opposed the holding of the elections as a challenge to its power.
The 34 ballots were cast by 17 of Manipur’s 24 B’nei Menashe congregations, each represented by its chairman and secretary. Seven congregations did not take part in the vote. Three from the Churachandpur district, New Bazaar, Mualkoi, and Phalien, failed to attend the session for unclear reasons. Four others – Petach Tikva, Peijang, Phalbung, and Saikul – sent delegations whose right to vote was challenged at Shavei Israel's behest on the grounds that they had been excluded by it from the communal structure that it has administered for the past 15 years. A floor fight ended with a compromise: the four congregations would not vote this time but would be full participants in all B’nei Menashe Council affairs in the future.
The session got off to a stormy start. It was opened by Avihu Singsit, the current BMC chairman, who declared his objection to holding Council elections because, as he put it, “they are opposed by Tsvi Khaute,” Shavei Israel’s coordinator and second-in-command. The floor was then taken by Demsat Haokip, vice-chairman of the Beit-Shalom congregation, who attacked Singsit for defending a “corrupt system” that had not held elections since 2015, even though the BMC’s bylaws call for them every two years. Halfway through his remarks he was interrupted by Singsit with the demand that he step down because he was the vice-chairman, not the chairman, of his congregation. Despite Demsat’s explanation that Beit Shalom’s chairman, Zebulun Haokip, was bedridden and unable to attend, Singsit insisted that he retire over shouted protests from some of the delegates. The matter was finally settled when it was agreed to telephone Zebulun Haokip, who confirmed his illness and formally authorized Demsat to be his replacement.
Demsat was followed by two more pro-election speakers, Degel Menashe activist Ohaliav Haokip and Michael Kipgen of Gangiphai. Both cited chapter and verse from the BMC charter in arguing that not only were elections three years overdue but that other mandated events, such an annual general meeting to review the Council’s activities, had been ignored as well. The BMC Council, they charged, had become a rubber stamp for Shavei Israel and ceased to be the independent body representing the B’nei Menashe community that it was meant to be. It was time, they said, that the community was given the voice that was taken from it when Shavei seized control of the BMC.
Some spoke against holding elections. David Chongloi, chairman of the congregation of Kangpokpi, argued that holding them would jeopardize the Aliyah of the 722 B’nei Menashe now on a Shavei-compiled list of Israeli-approved immigrants to Israel. Tsvi Khaute had requested, Chongloi said, that no elections take place until all 722 had made Aliyah; "disobeying” him might have serious consequences. Yet although Chongloi was backed by speakers from Gangiphai and Keitelmanbi, no other delegates joined them. Not only would an independent BMC not endanger Aliyah, it was argued, it would enable the B’nei Menashe community to take part in the Aliyah process and have a say in it, as it has not had until now.
After three hours of debate, Simeon Hangshing, the chairman of the Tuiliphai congregation, moved to hold a vote. “Let’s have elections!” he declared. “There are rules and we should follow them.” The motion was seconded by Zebulum Satthang Haokip, chairman of Sijang, and passed by a show of hands. The vote on elections then took place, with the chairman of each congregation taking the podium and announcing how he and his secretary were voting. The final tally was 28 to 6 in favor, with only the delegates from Kangpokpi, Gangiphai, and Keitelmanbi voting against.
The session’s last act before adjourning was to appoint a committee of five that will set a date and rules for the elections. Nechemiah Lhouvum was chosen from the Churachanpur or southern district of Manipur; Reuben Chongloi from the Kangpoki or northern district; David Haokip from the Moreh or eastern district; and Michael Haokip from the Imphal or central district. Aharon Vaiphei, secretary of the Beit Shalom congregation, was made committee chairman.
As of the moment, it appears that the elections will be held in the first two weeks of November. The election committee met briefly after the vote and issued the request that all members of Manipur’s 24 B’nei Menashe congregations be informed by their leaders of their right to put forth their candidacy for the B’nei Menashe Council’s elected positions of chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, joint or deputy secretary, and treasurer. Candidates, it was decided, will officially register with the committee on the day of the elections, which will again be held at Beit Shalom synagogue. Now, too,, the chairman and secretary of each B’nei Menashe congregation will each have a vote, this time to be cast by secret ballot.
To date, four candidates have announced that they are running for office: Lalam Hangshing for chairman; Nehemiah Lhunzang Haokip for vice-chairman; Ohaliav Haokip for secretary, and Yoel Paolal Dimngel for treasurer. It is not clear if Shavei Israel will field a list of its own. Although it has been rumored that Shavei supporter Yitzhak Seimang Haokip, who was elected BMC secretary in the last elections in 2015, will run for chairman, he himself has reportedly denied this.
A state of excitement over the upcoming elections is said to exist among Manipur’s estimated 4,000 B’nei Menashe. “There is a general sense of satisfaction in the community,” Ohaliav Haokip told our Newsletter. “We all hope this will be the dawn of democracy for us.”