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Mizoram elections 2018: Fractured identities and the Church in state politics

Mizoram, a predominantly Christian state, went to polls on 28th November following a rather unceremonious exit of the chief electoral officer, S B Shashank.


December 10, 2018 6:19:33 pm
Mizoram elections 2018: Fractured identities and the Church in state politics Mizoram, a predominantly Christian state, went to polls on 28th November following a rather unceremonious exit of the chief electoral officer, S B Shashank. (Express photo by Debraj Deb)

(Written by Smitana Saikia)

The airport at Lengpui, near Aizawl, welcomes you with a big Christian Cross with the inscriptions Thy Kingdom Come – revealing the curious nature of politics in Mizoram.

Mizoram, a predominantly Christian state, went to polls on 28th November following a rather unceremonious exit of the chief electoral officer, S B Shashank. Many Mizos, led by influential civil society organisations, took to the streets to protest the Election Commission’s (EC) order of transferring the Mizoram Principal Secretary Lalnunmawia Chuaungo. Shashank’s complaint to the EC: the Mizoram government and Chuaungo had interfered in the revision of electoral rolls to include new Bru voters residing in refugee camps in neighbouring Tripura. A large number of Brus, a minority ethnic group in Mizoram, had fled their villages to North Tripura in 1997 after clashes with Mizos and have resided there since.

Ethnic clashes based on competing for territorial demands are not unique to Mizoram, as politics in many states in the northeast are organized around group territorial rights. The 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides for special institutional arrangements for administration of tribal-dominated areas in the region. In Mizoram, however, much of politics is organized by terms set by religious institutions and civil society groups. In the recent crisis, the Election Commission yielded to an influential section of the Mizo society led by the All NGO Co-ordination Committee and had to make polling arrangements for Bru refugees in Mamit district of Mizoram. The Committee, supported by the Church, also urged political parties not to field MLA candidates from among minority groups like Brus and Chakmas.

Mizoram is often seen as an oasis of peace in an otherwise ‘troubled’ region. The state was carved out of Assam in 1987 as a result of the Mizo Accord signed between militant outfit Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Indian government. Lal Denga, the leader of MNF became its first chief minister, and despite his government’s fall in two years, Mizoram was declared a success story of ethnic accommodation. Unlike other states in the region, peace once brokered has been mostly durable in Mizoram. This peace is majorly credited to Mizoram’s relatively (ethnically) homogeneous population and the role of the Church and civil society. Furthermore, three ethnic groups in south Mizoram – Lai, Mara and Chakma- were granted autonomous district councils as early as 1972 and continue to function till date. Thus accommodation of minority demands of autonomy is touted as another reason for Mizoram’s relatively enduring peace and stability.

A closer look, however, reveals the fragility of these historically constructed identities and hence the nature of the peace. For example, while Mizos consider Lai and Mara as part of their own group, the latter do not always agree since they have strong affiliations to their own local identities; similarly, Hmars, seen as Mizo, contest this identification and picked up arms to demand greater territorial autonomy. On the other hand, attempts are also made to cement the Mizo identity by constructing the ethnic Other. The Chin people inhabiting the borderlands between Mizoram and Myanmar were seen as different until a movement to unify all Kuki-Chin-Mizo people in a greater Zo nation acquired salience. But most recently, the Chakmas, and Brus have emerged as the political other within Mizoram. Since religion is a major axis around which the Mizo identity and society are organized, the fault lines between Mizos and predominantly non-Christian groups like Chakma and Bru (although a sizeable number are also Christian) become sharper. Thus while Chakmas are seen as the explicit ethnic outsider, Brus are posited in the margins of the Mizo identity.

The Mizo political elite, across party lines, view Bru demands for an autonomous council as unreasonable, while many discredit the Chakma Autonomous Council as an institution for ‘illegal’ immigrants. In fact, Congress’ political opponent MNF, wishes to implement an exercise similar to Assam’s NRC to deal with the alleged illegal influx of non-Mizos, though it is not explicitly cited in their election manifesto. Interestingly, the BJP who is yet to gain a foothold in the state is heavily relying on Chakma support. It has fielded two Chakma candidates from West Tuipui and Tuichawng.

Similarly, the BJP is expecting to earn Bru votes by capitalizing on their resentment against the incumbent government. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a welfare organization affiliated to the RSS is actively present in these refugee camps.

The fractious identity politics of Mizoram is adroitly hinged around the institution of the Church. While many denominations dot the landscape of Mizoram, the Presbyterian Church is the most influential. The Church became entrenched in Mizo politics owing to its role in the peace process that brought the MNF rebels to the table. Today, it exercises strong influence in not only shaping the Mizo identity, which include a combination of traditional cultural practices and Christianity but also frames the state political discourse. The governing council of the Presbyterian Church engages with socio-political issues to check electoral malpractices, political corruption and prohibition. In 2006, a Church-sponsored watchdog known as the Mizoram People’s Forum (MPF) was formed with an agenda to ensure free and fair elections; it even signed a 27-point MoU with major political parties in the electoral fray. The Church issues a list of do’s and don’ts for voters and candidates, which include prohibiting support for candidates who drink or have extra-marital sex. With almost 70 per cent of Mizoram following the Presbyterian Church, parties do not want to risk challenging it. In the current election, for instance, the incumbent Congress party under Lal Thanhawla expressed its willingness to reconsider their 2014 decision of removing total prohibition and offered a public apology to the Church.

One of the last remaining bastions of the Congress, Mizoram may be unforgiving to the party this time. MNF has a fair chance but is unlikely to get a majority and may have to cobble up an alliance with the BJP. Yet, whichever party comes to power, the Church and the civil society will continue to dominate Mizoram politics.

Assistant Professor FLAME University

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