Protesters demanding the removal of CEO SB Shashank in Mizoram | Image Credit: Indian Express
The Election Commission of India (ECI) appears to have relented in the face of the protests in Mizoram demanding the ouster of Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) S. B. Shashank and the return to ‘status quo’ regarding the 2014 agreement pertaining to Bru voters. At present, the murmurs are that the CEO, Shashank will be replaced and the Bru voters will have to travel to Mizoram to vote.
Mizo civil society groups under the banner of NGO Coordination Committee had launched a series of protests in the state following the removal of the Principal Secretary (Home), Lalnunmawia Chuaungo on November 2. The Principal Secretary was removed from election duty following a letter penned by Shashank to the ECI alleging that Chuaungo was interfering in the electoral process.
From November 6, a three member team has been holding talks with the civil society groups. The team was led by Jharkhand’s CEO, Lalbiaktluanga Khiangte – an ethnic Mizo – and also consisted of the Chief Secretary, Arvind Ray, and the new Principal Secretary (Home) Lalrinliana Fanai.
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In Mizoram, civil society groups act as unofficial ombudsmen in the electoral process. In the past, they had banned door to door campaigns due to fears of candidates and parties bribing voters. Currently, this ban has been lifted since payments can be made digitally and hence, the ban no longer makes sense. Thus, one can see that civil society groups in Mizoram have been playing a role in maintaining a degree of social conformity. This role can also be seen in other spheres such as meting out punishment to drug peddlers and addicts without involving the criminal justice system.
In the present case, the NGO Coordination Committee’s demands for Shashank’s ouster may have been influenced by a perception that their control was being threatened. However, the CEO had accused the Principal Secretary of omitting Bru names from the rolls. This allegation brings one back to the 2014 agreement between the government of Mizoram and the ECI wherein the ECI had assured the state government that postal ballots would not be allowed in future polls.
The Bru people have traditionally lived in the region between Mizoram and Tripura. In 1997, many fled Mizoram for Tripura following ethnic riots after members of the Bru National Liberation Front killed a Mizo forest guard. The Brus at the time had been agitating for regional political autonomy in the form of an Autonomous District Council (ADC) similar to what the Chakmas had. Perhaps, the overwhelming Mizo nationalism based on the Church and a shared Chin ethnicity has prevented any such arrangement from emerging. Both the Bru and Chakmas are native non-Mizo groups. The Bru are mostly animists and the majority Chakma are Buddhists.
This exclusive ethnic nationalism has also seen comments from the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP)– the apex students’ organisation – demanding that the Chakma ADC be abolished. Similarly, according to the Mizoram Post, Dr. Kenneth Chawngliana of the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) at a meeting said he looked up to former the Chief Minister, Brigadier Ṭhenphunga Sailo, who ‘drove away almost 5000 Chakmas’.
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Despite several attempts over the years to repatriate the Bru people, few have actually returned to Mizoram. Many still live in the transit camps in Tripura. At present, there are around 40,000 Bru living in Mizoram while around 32,000 are still in the transit camps. In October this year, a charge-sheet was filed which named three office bearers of the Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA) and one member of the MZP. The offence was stealing and burning of voter enrolment forms filled in by Bru voters from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Mamit in August. Evidently, the idea of ‘sharing’ Mizoram with native non-Mizo groups does not sit well with the Mizo organisations.