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Mizoram polls: NGOs stage protests, demand removal of election official over status of Bru refugee voters; threaten armed rebellion

Aizawl: Thousands of protesters on Tuesday gathered near Chief Election Officer SB Sashank’s office in Aizawl demanding his removal after he accused the Mizoram government of meddling in the upcoming Assembly elections on 28 November.

This comes after Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, state Principal Secretary (Home), was removed on Friday, 2 November, by the Election Commission of India following an allegation levelled by Sashank that the former had directly interfered in the election process and the security arrangement for the polls.

Called by the influential NGO Coordination Committee, an umbrella body of major civil society organisations and student associations, the peaceful demonstration involved people from all walks of life. All government offices, schools, and business establishments remained closed for the day in support of the statewide protest.

NGOs organising protests in Aizawl. Henry L Khojol/101Reporters

Along with Aizawl, the protest rallies were held in different parts of the state under the aegis of the NGO. A total shutdown was also observed in the Mamit town of western Mizoram to intensify the demand for the CEO’s ouster.

The protesters warned that the Election Commission of India would be responsible if Mizoram’s record of holding the most peaceful elections in the country since 1972 turned into a nightmare this time.

The poll panel sent a three-member delegation to Aizawl on Tuesday which was greeted with black flags on their way to the capital from Lengpui. The delegation met civil society leaders late in the evening and assured them that they will put up the matter before the Election Commission of India.

Shashank had told reporters on Tuesday night that the Election Commission of India had suggested that he leave Mizoram and go to New Delhi to avoid further administrative crisis ahead of polls. He had said that he would leave for Delhi Wednesday afternoon.

The issue erupted after the CEO wrote a letter to the Election Commission of India in which he accused Chuaungo of obstructing their request to make special arrangements for displaced Brus/Reangs to come and vote in the state elections. Many of these Brus had been driven out of Mizoram due to ethnic conflicts with the Mizos in the late 90s and have been living in relief camps in Tripura for the past couple of decades.

According to Sashank, Chuaungo — a 1987-batch Gujarat-cadre IAS officer — opposed the usage of identification slip of Bru voters for any other purpose except for repatriation. The CEO asked the poll panel to remove Chuaungo from his post as the latter had also interfered in the security arrangement for the polls.

The Mizoram chief electoral officer also said that arrangement for deployment of Central Armed Police Forces personnel were being done based on the recommendation of the poll panel. The Election Commission of India has recommended 40 companies of Central Armed Police Forces, which according to Shashank was reasonably require to ensure free and fair elections.

Acting swiftly on the complaint raised by Sashank, the Election Commission of India removed Chuaungo on 2 November and barred him from his work until the elections.

The unprecedented move infuriated civil society organisations who have served a ‘quit Mizoram notice’ to the CEO asking him to leave Mizoram by 5 November to avoid mass protests. The NGOs said that Chuaungo, a Mizo officer, acted like any other Mizo and refused Bru identification slips to be used for electoral purposes. The NGOs are also against the deployment of additional personnel from the Central Armed Police Forces during the election, terming it a waste of the state’s resources.

The civil society groups are of the opinion that the Bru people, who are reluctant to return, should not be allowed to exercise their franchise outside the state and they should be allowed to cast their votes only in their respective constituencies inside Mizoram.

NGOs organising protests in Aizawl. Henry L Khojol/101Reporters

NGOs organising protests in Aizawl. Henry L Khojol/101Reporters

Meanwhile, Shashank said that he was simply doing his duty based on the ECI’s directive and that he didn’t intend to hurt the sentiments of the people.

Addressing a protest rally in Aizawl, NGO Coordination Committee chairman and YMA president Vanlalruata alleged that Sashank was creating a rift in the Mizo society. Vanlalruata also warned that Mizos will look towards other East Asian countries if the Central Government continues to neglect the state.

The YMA president also added that they will cooperate with the Election Commission of India to ensure free and fair elections if Sashank is removed. YMA vice-president R Lalngheta threatened that they will resort to any sort of protest until the CEO leaves Mizoram. On Tuesday, YMA volunteers at Kolasib and Kawnpui towns on the Mizoram-Assam border reportedly blocked around 76 vehicles ferrying CAPF personnel and forced them to return to Aizawl.

President of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) or Mizo Students Federation, L Ramdinliana Renthlei shared the platform with Vanlalruata and said that while the Indian government paid sincere attention to the Bru issues, the voices of the Mizo people have always been unheard.

“We have been neglected several times by the Union of India. The Mizo youths will not hesitate to take up arms like in the 1966 uprising if the Central Government continues to turn a deaf ear to our voices,” he said, adding that Mizoram will fall into a state of turmoil if the Election Commission of India allows Bru people to exercise their franchise outside the state.

Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Monday to restore status quo.

Fleeing communal tension triggered by the murder of a Mizo forest guard by Bru militants in 1997, thousands of Brus fled Mizoram and live in six transit camps in Tripura since then. Several attempts to repatriate them have turned futile. Between August and September, only 40 families out of the 30,000 people in the camps chose to return home despite the announcement that the Centre and Tripura government would suspend all their relief and allowances from October and also shut down the camps.

(The author is an Aizawl-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters’ grassroots network.)

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