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Home > 2023 > Ethnicity Will Matter In Mizoram Polls | Papri Sri Raman

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 43-44 October 21 & 28, 2023

Ethnicity Will Matter In Mizoram Polls | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 21 October 2023, by Papri Sri Raman


FIVE STATES IN India will hold elections in November to select their governments, just six months before the country heads to general elections to decide on the colour of the Union government. The smallest assembly among these States is Mizoram’s, with 40 seats. So, let us begin our overview with this north-eastern State, south of strife-torn Manipur. To understand Mizoram, we cannot ignore all that happens in Manipur, nor can we discount the fact that Mizoram is a State with two international borders, it is a trade gateway into India for Myanmar and Bangladesh; in other words, foreign arms, drugs and refugees have pathways into this subcontinent through Mizoram.

The adjacent north-eastern State of Manipur has a Bhartiya Janata Party government. Not surprisingly, there is no reduction of violence there, and Mizoram has accommodated some 15,000 refugees from Manipur since the beginning of the early May violence in the neighbouring State. On the net, the most dominant image is of Union Home Minister Amit Shah with Mizoram’s chief minister, Zoramthanga, whose Mizo National Front (MNF) has so long been an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Of the 40 seats in the 2018 assembly, there is one BJP seat –Tuichawng MLA Buddha Dhan Chakma defeated MNF aspirant Rasik Mohan Chakma to provide the saffron tint to the State election map.

So far, however, there has been no seat-sharing agreement announced by the MNF with the BJP. MNF strongman Zoramthanga says, support to the BJP will henceforth be ‘issue based’, whatever that might mean. Zoramthanga thinks his party, as the ruling party, has an edge over rivals in the 7 November 2023 polls because his government has been able to distribute financial assistance under its socio-economic development programmes to all the refugees and displaced people from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Manipur, who have arrived in his State since 2018. According to a report in September 2022, in The Hindu newspaper, more than 40,000 refugees from Myanmar have taken shelter in Mizoram since a military coup in the neighbouring country in February 2021. This statistic was provided by K Vanlalvena, the lone Rajya Sabha member from the ruling MNF. He pointed out that refugees, now living in 60 camps, are prohibited to take up any kind of work or employment.

MNF chief Zoramthanga also hopes to exploit the Zo sun-nationalism of Mizo tribes as a reaction to the ethnic displacements the Zo communities have faced in the neighbourhood in recent times. The displaced Mizo, Kuki, Zomi, Hmar, Chin and Kuki-Chin tribals are ethnic cousins, belonging to the Zo community. The most famous Zo community member is Mary Kom, the boxer from Manipur and former Rajya Sabha member. The first Zomi-language movie was a 2021 English-Zomi bilingual film, written and directed by the Burmese refugee, Thang Mung, called Thorn in the Center of the Heart. Mung was resettled in the US by the US refugee services as a teenager.

The Constitution of India provides for citizenship based on specific principles and criteria, rather than ethnic identity. The constitution enshrines the principles of equality, secularism, and non-discrimination, ensuring that citizenship is not determined by one’s ethnicity. So, it does not provide any specific considerations for ethnic groups in particular.

How is ethnicity defined in the dictionaries? ‘The quality or fact of belonging to a population group or subgroup made up of people who share a common cultural background or descent is ethnicity’ of that specific group of people. ‘An ethnic group is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of perceived shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups.’ Ethnicity may be construed as an inherited or societally imposed construct. Ethnic membership tends to be defined by a shared origin, physical appearance, cultural heritage, ancestry, myth, folklore, history, homeland, language, dialect, ritual, cuisine, clothing or art. Ethnic groups may share a narrow or broad spectrum of genetic ancestry, depending on group identification, with many groups having mixed genetic ancestry. These attributes can include a common nation of origin, or common sets of ancestry, traditions, language, history, society, religion, or social treatment. The term ethnicity is often used interchangeably with the term nation, particularly in cases of ethnic nationalism.

We must understand what is different in 2023 elections in Mizoram, from the 2018 polls. The difference is the rising question of ethnicity, which has become very important for the people of Mizoram.

Zoramthanga believes that his MNF can win the hearts and votes of Mizos by extending a welcome to the displaced tribals, who are divided by interstate and international borders. The BJP Union government’s move to identify Myanmar refugees and obtain their biometric information has not gone down well with the Mizos, forcing Zoramthanga to say that such data collection would be ‘discrimination against people who are of our blood and kindred brothers and sisters’. There is no doubt therefore, Zoramthanga and his MNF are in a dilemma vis-à-vis their ties with the BJP. In September, the MNF supported the opposition-led no-confidence motion brought against the NDA government at the Centre.

The majority of the people in Mizoram are Christians with above 90 per cent literacy; there was 80 per cent voting in 2018 and only about 20 percent people are below the poverty line in this agrarian State, practicing seasonal jhum cultivation. There is an all-party consensus, supported by the churches, on the issue of displaced people from Manipur and Myanmar in the State, and experts opine that the MNF will exploit this in the 2023 polls to emerge winner for the fourth time. In Manipur itself, ten tribal MLAs, including seven belonging to the BJP, and various tribal organisations, including the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) and Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), have been demanding a separate administration (equivalent to a separate State) for these tribals. The sister tribes in Mizoram support Manipur’s demand for unification of the Zo tribes.

Already, there are three Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) for ethnic tribes in Mizoram. These are the Chakma Autonomous District Council (in the southern part of State, bordering Bangladesh), Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC) for Lai people in the south of the State, and Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC) for Mara people in the south-eastern corner. The Chakma people have been demanding that the Chakma Autonomous District Council in Mizoram be converted into a Union territory under the name Chakmaland. According to the 2011 census, there are about a 100,000 Chakmas living in India. Originally, they were an ethnic group living in the hill-tracts of Chittagong, in Rangamati district of now Bangladesh. In the 1960s, they were uprooted by the erstwhile East-Pakistan government during the building of the Kaptai river dam.

How Mizoram and MNF Came About:

The majority of the tribes classified as ‘Mizo’ tribes today are said to have migrated from the neighbouring countries in several waves around 1500 CE; when the clan chiefs ruled supreme over all tribes. The various ethnic groups are collectively known as Mi-Zos (Mi means People, Zo means from the original Zo fountainhead of the various tribes; Mizo, therefore, means People of Zo origin). Mizo is a collectively-adopted group name of many tribes together. In the ‘Mizo’ languages, Ram means land. The first batch of Mizo who crossed Tiau River and settled in Mizoram were called  ‘Kuki’s by Bengalis of East Bengal. The term Kuki mean the inhabitants of the interior and inaccessible mountain tracts; they were sometimes grouped as Kuki-Chin tribes. This First batch were of the Biate, Ranglong and the Hrangkhol, and the second batch that followed included the Lushei (or Lusei, Lushai), Paite, Lai, Mara, Ralte, Hmar, Thadou, Shendus, and several other. The Bru (Reang), Chakma, Tanchangya are some non-Kuki tribes of Mizoram, said to be of Indo-Aryan origin. The Bnei Menashe tribe claims Jewish descent. All these tribal groups have their own political organisations.

The British rule over this land lasted from 1840 to 1940, after it was occupied by the British following a conflict with a Palian tribe chief. Then they fought against the Lusei tribe (Lushai) with the help of the rival Thadous. Once the British occupied the Mizo hills, Christian education followed and the tribal communities grew under the church stewardship. One important element of the tribal culture the priests promoted was Hnatlang, which literally means social work, united labour or community labour (the word hna‘ means job or work in the Mizo language; and tlang‘ means together and mutual). Mizo society applauds the concept of self-sacrifice, donating labour or the culture of Tlawmngaihna.

Following independence of the subcontinent from colonialism, the educated elites campaigned against the tribal chiefdoms under the banner of the Mizo Union party. As a result of their campaign, the hereditary rights of the 259 chiefs were abolished under the Assam-Lushai District (Acquisition of Chief’s Rights) Act, 1954, as Mizo lands were a part of Assam State until 1972. Village courts were re-implemented in the Mizo regions after that. In 1956, the Young Mizo Association was formed which is still an important institution in Mizoram. 

The Mizos were particularly dissatisfied with the government’s neglect of the 1959 Matum famine. The Mizo National Famine Front, a body formed for famine relief in 1959, later developed into a new political entity, the Mizo National Front (MNF) in 1961. Mizo insurgents, seeking independence from India, were at the time being funded by Pakistan and China, both at war with India then. They were led by a separatist leader called Laldenga (d.1990). To contain the insurgency, the Indian government bombed Mizo areas, and this is the only known bombing of India on its own soil, on 5 March 1966. During the Bangladesh war, when Mizo areas were flooded with refugees fleeing from East Pakistan, the Mizo Hills and Chittagong Hills were used by both Indian troops and the Mukti Vahini, in their bid to liberate Bangladesh.

In 1971, the government agreed to convert the Mizo Hills into a Union Territory, which became Mizoram in 1972. Following the Mizoram Peace Accord (1986) between the Indian government and the MNF, Mizoram became an independent State in 1987, during Rajiv Gandhi’s rule.

Zoramthanga (now 89), Laldenga’s second in command, has been leading the MNF since 1990. Mizoram, so long, has been ruled by MNF alternating with the Indian National Congress, which defeated the MNF in 2008 assembly polls, capturing 32 seats. 

INC: The Mizo Union party was formed in 1946 and after the State was reorganised, it joined hands with the INC in 1974 and merged into the Congress. The Congress has formed the State government several times, leading to the belief, there are just two parties in Mizoram; it is not so, however. The BJP had entered the State as long ago as in 2000. No one should forget that fifteen years ago, the BJP had joined with the Congress to keep the MNF out. It formed the United Legislature Party (ULP), an alliance with the Congress in 2008. The MNF ousted the fourth Congress government from power in 2018, winning 26 seats and 37 per cent vote share. It is fighting 40 seats alone these elections.

Chief Election Officer in the State, S B Sashank was removed from office before the 2018 polls, due to charges against him that he used Central forces against Reang tribals living in camps Tripura, who are voters in Mizoram. He had also complained against the Congress State’s Principal Secretary (Home) Lalnunmawia Chuaungo. The Election Commission had ordered the State government to remove Chuaungo. At that time, over 40,000 people, mobilised by a coordination committee headed by the Young Mizo Association comprising Mizo Upa Pawl (Mizo Senior Citizens’ Association), Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (Mizo Women’s Organisation) and two student bodies, took to the streets in Aizawl demanding Sashank be removed.

In 2018, four high-profile leaders of the Congress including the then-Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in Mizoram defected to the BJP just before the 2018 polls. The Congress, under its new president Lalsawta, managed just five seats with 30 per cent vote share. By 2019, the Congress had lost its grip over the CADC, all its 20 members in the MADC joined the BJP, and it was weak in the LADC too. In 2023, the Congress has released a list of 39 candidates for the assembly elections.

The BJP: The ambitious BJP has been eyeing Mizoram since 2014, though the State has only two seats in Parliament, as it is the second least-populated State in the country. What are the BJP’s chances in Mizoram? Now it calls the MNF an ally. Yet, on 11 October 2023, Mizoram’s Assembly Speaker and MNF leader Lalrinliana Sailo resigned as a legislator, saying he was joining the BJP ‘to usher in development’ in the State. It is obvious that even as Zoramthanga is becoming more and more uncomfortable with Union citizenship and refugee policies, the BJP is busy acquiring MNF leaders at the expense of its ally.

ZPM: A surprise big player in the 2023 elections is a small regional party, called the Zoram People’s Movement. The ZPM is led by a former Congressman, the seventy-four year-old Lalduhoma (also spelt Lalduhawma), who was a former IPS officer and a State Congress chief in 1984. He was then elected as a Member of Parliament. He was later disqualified under anti-defection laws, and was the first MP to be disqualified thus. Lalduhoma then left the Congress and founded the Zoram Nationalist Party, a regional political party in Mizoram. His party joined the coalition party Zoram People’s Movement, in which he was chosen as the first Chief Ministerial candidate in the 2018 Assembly election in Mizoram. He was elected from Aizawl West I and Serchhip constituencies, and chose to represent Serchhip.

The Zoram People’s Movement is an alliance of small regional parties, its allies include the Ephraim Israel National Convention, Mizoram People’s Conference, the Maraland Democratic Front, the Zoram Nationalist Party, the Zoram Exodus Movement, the Zoram Decentralisation Front, the Zoram Reformation Front and several others. In the Lunglei Municipal polls held in March 2023, ZPM swept the town’s council, the second largest in the State, by getting 49 per cent of the votes. It won all 11 wards in the newly formed Lunglei Municipal Council. The ZPM has announced candidates for all 40 assembly seats, with their leader, Lalduhoma, contesting from the Serchip constituency, where he won.

The Mizoram Congress is still no match for the MNF. However, if it has a coalition with former Congressman Lalduhoma, it may still have a good chance of giving the BJP a run for its money. In the near future, it is a given that MNF’s Zoramthanga will be very occupied with the ethnic cauldron fuelled by Manipur and Myanmar’s refugee exodus and be reluctant to hold the BJP’s hands. At this time, ethnicity is the most important issue in Mizoram. How the INC and ZPM manage this situation only the future will tell; if the two together can garner more than twenty seats, the chances are Mizoram will stymie the orange onslaught in the north-east for the time being; delivering at best a fractured verdict.

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