Last week, the Election Commission asked the Mizoram government to send a panel of candidates for a new Chief Electoral Officer in the poll-bound state. The move comes amid demands by the state government as well as civil society groups for the removal of the incumbent CEO, S B Shashank. What led to this crisis, and how has the EC been responding to it so far?
How did the crisis begin?
It stems from Shashank alleging interference by the state government in preparations for the polls, scheduled on November 28. He wrote to the EC in the last week of October, mentioning an “active role” played by the state Home Department in this interference. The department was then headed by Principal Secretary (Home) Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, a 1987-batch Gujarat-cadre IAS officer serving in Mizoram on an inter-cadre deputation. Less than a week after Shashank’s letter, the EC issued orders to the state government to remove Chuaungo with immediate effect. He has been replaced with Lalrinliana Fanai of AGUMT cadre. It is Chuaungo’s transfer that led to the demands for Shashank’s removal.
On what issues did the alleged interference take place?
There were two issues, one involving the deployment of central forces and the other revolving around Reang (Bru) tribals living in Tripura camps, who are voters in the Mizoram polls. While groups representing the Bru tribals want them to vote from the Tripura camps, the state government wants them to travel to Mizoram and vote.
Who are these Bru voters?
Among the 30,000-odd Bru people living in six camps in Tripura, 11,232 Bru are registered as voters in Mizoram. They had fled Mizoram in the wake of ethnic violence in the 1990s. In July, the Home Ministry announced that a repatriation agreement had been signed among the governments of Mizoram and Tripura and the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum. The Mizoram Chief Minister, however, has written to the Home Minister alleging that “vested interests” in Tripura camps have been dissuading people from repatriating. In a state with an average of 19,000 voters per seat, these 11,000 Bru voters — concentrated mostly in 9 seats — could play a key role in the outcome.
What did Chuaungo do that led to the EC transferring him?
The decision to transfer Chuaungo, the EC has said, was taken “after observing in great detail the sequence of events over the past two months”. Two letters by Chuaungo seem to have upset the EC. On September 13, he wrote to District Election Officers of Mamit, Lunglei and Kolasib directing that “the Identification slips issued to Reang (Bru) migrants living in Tripura Transit camps during November, 2016 is to be used solely for the purpose of Repatriation and Rehabilitation of the Reang (Bru) migrants and shall not be used for any other purposes”. A copy of this letter was marked to the CEO. This, the EC felt, showed that the state government is not keen to have new Bru voters enrolled.
On October 15, Chuaungo wrote again, this time directly to the CEO, seeking clarification on the quantum of Central Armed Police Force deployment and why the Home Department was not consulted before deciding the requirement. This was seen as “direct interference” in the poll process since the EC and CEO are under no obligation to consult the incumbent government on such matters.
Who took part in the protests against Shashank?
Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla complained to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, the opposition Mizo National Front too objected to Shashank’s riole, and over 40,000 people took to the streets in Aizawl demanding his removal. Chuaungo told The Indian Express that he did not wish to comment.
Lal Thanhawla wrote to the Prime Minister: “With the complete loss of confidence in him by the people, the only solution for smooth conduct of Assembly elections 2018 now would be removal of Shri S B Shashank, CEO from his office forthwith.” Two days earlier, he had written to the Home Minister: “The Civil Society does not take it lightly and we in government also fully supported their long standing demand that the Brus now living in Tripura Transit Camps should come and cast their votes inside Mizoram like every other Mizo do from outside the state at the time of election.”
Leaders of civil society groups referred to a April 7, 2014 letter from the EC telling the then CEO of Mizoram that during “future elections” to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly, provisions would be made for Bru voters to cast their votes within Mizoram. “Shashank carried out roll revision in the relief camps in Tripura. We feel if Shashank continues then polling booths might also come up at the relief camps,” Lalhmachhuana, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Young Mizo Association, told The Indian Express.
What is the CEO’s stand?
In an interview to The Indian Express, Shashank, a 2007-batch IAS officer of the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-UT cadre, said, “I have done nothing wrong or illegal. I appeal to the state’s civil society to understand my position and see that I was doing my job. If I have hurt anyone, I am sorry.”
What has the EC’s response been?
While it has asked the Mizoram government for a panel of candidates, the EC has also been backing its officer, saying he was only doing his job in keeping the EC posted. The EC has told civil society representatives and the Mizoram government that the removal of Chuaungo was the collective decision of the three Election Commissioners based on recent events.
On Tuesday last week, an EC team reached Mizoram to meet representatives of agitating groups and state government. With the protesters unrelenting, the CEO was called to Delhi for a meeting. On November 7, the EC released a statement that it had accepted the “broad contours” of a joint resolution submitted by the NGO Coordination Committee. On November 8, a high-level team led by Deputy Election Commissioner Sudeep Jain was sent to the state. Last Saturday, the EC initiated the process to find a replacement.
What is the process for replacing a CEO?
Demands for the removal of a CEO are unprecedented. When the EC does replace a CEO, it does so in consultation with the state government. In August, when the EC replaced Rajasthan CEO Ashwani Bhagat with Anand Kumar, its statement mentioned that this followed consultations with the state government. In Shahshank’s case, the EC has followed the standard drill and asked the Mizoram Chief Secretary to suggest a panel of suitable candidates. The EC received three names this week, but has now asked for two more. The EC maintains that any decision to replace Shashank will only be taken after examining the suitability of the candidates suggested.