In the ultimate analysis, two bureaucrats have been made scapegoats in Mizoram. The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the poll-bound state SB Shashank has been transferred out of state capital Aizawl and the Home Secretary – a local Mizo IAS officer Lalnunmawaia Chuaungo- was also posted out.
So who triumphs? On the face of it, the writ of the Mizos has prevailed vis-a-vis the voting rights – or whatever that means – for the beleaguered Brus or Reangs who reside in relief camps in Tripura.
Where was the fault line? Now, that’s the big question whose answer lies strictly in the womb of time.
The episode seemed to be exploding when on November 5, Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla gave credence to the view that he has been failing in his task and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying the ‘removal’ of CEO Shashank was crucial to ensure peaceful elections in Mizoram. Political observers in Aizawl understood it well that the letter from the Chief Minister actually exposed his weakness and ‘indifference’ in the episode. He could not ensure ‘protection’ of the election officer – who serves directly at the discretion of the Election Commission of India. This is unprecedented and was a fit case to consider imposing President’s Rule.
“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 SB Shashank, CEO from the office forthwith,” the Chief Minister wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister.
Several Mizo National Front (MNF) and BJP leaders in the state suggested that there was an attempt to polarise the political atmosphere in the state on the eve of elections. “Polarisation of Mizo voters had helped Lal Thanhawla in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He tried the same game this time too,” said one of them.
But they were cautious as removing Lal Thanhawla as a caretaker Chief Minister could make him a martyr.
The crisis – ‘Home Secretary (Mizo)-CEO (Shashank, a non-Mizo) conflict’ – essentially relates to the years-old Mizo-Reang (or Bru tribe) conflict.
Mizo civil society leaders accused CEO Shashank of being ‘pro-Brus (or Reangs)’. They later said his complaint against a Mizo IAS officer and the then Principal Home Secretary was ‘unwarranted’.
“If at all anyone was interfering into the functioning of CEO, it was the state government through its Mizo Home Secretary,” was the refrain by a section of retired babus. The Reangs or Brus have been demanding setting up of polling stations at relief camps in Tripura – a move opposed vehemently by Mizo society.
“Our demand is clear. Shashank should be out and the Bru voters in the Tripura relief camps should not be given any undue privilege of setting up polling stations in relief camps. Bru refugees willing to repatriate to Mizoram as part of the agreement signed earlier this year should exercise franchise in their respective polling stations inside Mizoram,” said YMA chairman Vanlalruata.
However, it will be in the fitness of things to say that CEO Shashank was only trying to work according to the rule book and implement a decision endorsed by the Election Commission. On November 5, the day the deadline for his ‘exit’ was to end, Shashank told a group of journalists: “It was found that the four-party agreement (on Bru repatriation) was not being implemented. Keeping in view the election process, it was decided that the roll revision should be kept out from the physical repatriation of Brus and hence polling stations should be set up so that Reangs do not feel left out”.
Earlier in May this year, a four-party agreement between the Centre, Mizoram government, Tripura government and Reang refugees was inked in Delhi and it was decided that ‘repatriation’ of the Brus or Reangs would be felicitated.
Of course, given the age-old differences between Mizos and Reangs, this was easier said than done. Hence it was only natural that on the eve of elections, the high-intensity emotive issue would get blown up.
But in retrospect, it is pertinent to underline yet again in these columns that the complexity of issues involved remains a puzzle for ivory tower policy makers in Delhi. Adding to this discomfort is the stubborn stance often taken by the tribal societies in the northeast.
These again get compounded by the habit of politicians of fishing in troubled waters. Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla apparently tried that and the November 28 voting could establish whether he has succeeded.
But the Chief Minister’s own faultline stood exposed before the people of the state when two former retired IAS officers in Mizoram hit the nail on the head. They pointed out if the then Home Secretary Lalnunmawaia Chuaungowas in conflict with the CEO, he was doing so on ‘behalf’ of the Lal Thanhawla government only.
“It is certainly presumed that a Home Secretary is answerable to the state government. He is under the Home Minister, state Chief Secretary and the state Chief Minister. So, we understand the Home Secretary’s actions vis-a-vis interfering into the election process had approval of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary,” said retired IAS officer of Maharashtra cadre LalfakZuala, who was also Chief Secretary in Mizoram.
Another retired IAS officer M Rinsanga, also a prominent leader of newly floated Zoram People’s Movement (a coalition of smaller parties), pointed out that it is clear from the service rules that a Home Secretary works under the state government. “The Chief Minister who also holds Home portfolio should have protected the Home Secretary,” another senior ZPM leader said.
But such is the clamour for votes when it comes to ‘elections’ that even the state BJP lambasted the CEO Shashank and endorsed civil society’s demand for his ouster.
Thus, it was not without good reason that Prof JV Hluna, president of Mizoram BJP, too backed the civil society demand. “I express my solidarity with my people, and request that you do everything in your power to neutralise the situation so that the election process to the state legislative be allowed to move forward peacefully,” state BJP president Hluna said in his letter to Prime Minister Modi.
On November 6, mounting pressure on authorities, thousands of Mizo men and women picketed the CEO Shashank’s office and did not allow him to enter. The Mizos feel the Brus have been trying to ignite an “insurgency” movement in Mizoram.
In last two years, the Congress government headed by Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla made its position clear that it will ‘accept’ only those Reangs (or Brus) who can prove their bona fides as Mizoram residents.
It was agreed in May this year that only those whose names appeared in the 1995 voters’ lists should be accepted. The complexity of Mizo-Bru differences can be understood from the fact that the Mizos protested in the 2014 parliamentary polls over giving “postal ballot” rights to the Brus.
Calling themselves ‘distinctly different’ from Mizos in more ways than one, the Reangs, are struggling for a proper recognition of a culture of their own. They have also demanded in the past for an “autonomous administrative unit” and had taken up arms in the form of a ‘minor insurgency/militancy movement’.
The Bru-Mizo conflict had originated in October 1997 after ethnic violence following the killing of a Mizo forest warden by Bru insurgents. This was followed by Mizo retaliation and the result was ‘exodus’ of an estimated 40,000 Brus to the adjoining North Tripura district.
The ethnic and tribal conflicts in the northeast are nothing new. With this also comes local people’s ‘fear’ about outsiders – people from other states. In Mizoram, they call it ‘Vaibashing’ (bashing the outsiders)’. In this context, it is not wrong to say that ‘parochialism’has prevailed at times taking the younger generation in its web.
The primary element of reasoning between right and wrong gets often overshadowed.
The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance writer with wide experience on northeast India.