Protest against CEO and ECI in Mizoram | Image Credit: Scroll.in, Jami Koshi/Twitter
An administrative tussle between the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) and the Principal Secretary (Home) in Mizoram appears to have become politicised along ethnic lines. The issue first came to light when the CEO S B Shasank reportedly wrote to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to keep the Principal Secretary Lalnunmawia Chuaungo away from election duties. The allegations reportedly raised against Chuaungo were that he was interfering in the the electoral process, i.e. he was allegedly involved in the denial of Bru people from being enrolled on the voter lists. Another allegation against him was that he had made public statements questioning the need for increased deployment of central paramilitary forces. This letter became the basis for the tussle wherein civil society groups have demanded the CEO’s removal from Mizoram.
On November 2, acting on a letter written by CEO Shashank, the Election Commission of India (ECI) passed an order for Chuaungo’s removal from election duty. This enraged Mizo civil society organisations who directed their anger towards the CEO and served him a ‘Quit Mizoram’ notice while picketing his office.
On November 3, Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla wrote to the Prime Minister as well as the Union Home Minister requesting a return to status quo wherein the Bru voters will cast their votes in Mizoram and not in the Tripura Transit Camps.
The letter referred to the CEO as ‘inexperienced and incompetent’ in his ‘inept’ handling of the situation. Lal Thanhawla sided with the civil society organisations in their demand that the Bru people in the Tripura Transit Camps should travel to Mizoram to cast their votes rather than cast them in the camps. The letter also mentioned that adequate provisions have been made to ensure the safe travel of the Bru voters to Mizoram. As well as alleging that there are elements within the camps trying to stoke trouble.
On November 7, an agitation against the CEO was called off when he left for Delhi after being summoned by the Election Commission of India.
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The Principal Secretary, though ethnically Mizo, has come to Mizoram on deputation as he belongs to the 1987 batch Gujarat cadre. At this point one may presume some truth in the CEO’s allegations since, Chuaungo may have been prejudiced against the Brus. However, his replacement, Lalrinliana Fanai, as approved by the ECI is also a Mizo.
Apart from occupying the post of Principal Secretary, Chuaungo is the highest ranking Mizo in any service and hence, his removal can become a matter of ethnic pride. This becomes more pronounced as CEO Shashank is quite clearly not a Mizo. This equation has spawned WhatsApp forwards of a stylized Mizo warrior cutting off the CEO’s morphed head.
However, another and possibly more interesting dimension in this equation is whether the actions of the CEO slighted the Mizo civil society organisations who have in the past acted as watchers in the polls to ensure no wrongdoing. From this perspective, the CEO’s letter for Chuaungo’s removal was unwarranted as the Principal Secretary was ensuring that the identification slips possessed by Bru voters could only be used for repatriation.
At the centre of the entire stand-off lies the issue of the Bru people. The Bru people fled Mizoram after ethnic riots were triggered by the killing of a Mizo forest guard by cadres of the Bru National Liberation Front in 1997. The have been living in refugee camps in Tripura ever since. Several attempts at repatriating the Bru people have failed, primarily because the main Bru demand for creating an Autonomous District Council (ADC) for them in Mizoram has been opposed by the state government as well as Mizo civil society organisations.
It has been speculated that the hurried repatriation agreement this year as well as the hurried window for completing the repatriation was done by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the centre with a view on the elections. It is known that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and affiliated Hindutva groups have been active in the Bru Transit Camps in Tripura. However, according to reports in the Zoram Observer it appears that the Mizo opposition to the Bru has arisen from the failed repatriation. The Mizo position seems to be that if the Bru people are unwilling to return to Mizoram after around 20 years, then they should not be allowed to vote in Mizoram elections from the camps in Tripura.
At this point the picture appears to be very hazy, on one hand, the Mizo people have a point regarding the Bru’s unwillingness to return – if they do not want to return, they should not be allowed to vote from the camps. Yet on the other hand, a part of the Bru problem finds its roots in the first demand for an ADC, before the armed movement and before the ethnic riots of 1997. Those who rejected the present repatriation deal appear to be willing to return only when the ADC demand is fulfilled.