23 April 2024 05:12 AM



The Sangh in Mizoram – Part II

The final part of an essay on Hindu nationalists in the state

AIZAWL: The tribal conflict brewing in the 1990s in the state was a ‘routine normal’, so familiar in the northeastern ethnic scenario, with the minority Reang-Bru organising themselves to further their political demands for autonomy against the hegemonisation of the Mizo who rule the state.

But events leading up to the exodus of a section of Reang-Brus from the state in October 1997, and their subsequent settlement in camps in Tripura, clearly showed that this time the trajectory of the conflict was different, because religion became a major factor in the dispute.

In ensuing memorandums to the government of India, the National Human Rights Commission and other bodies, the Reang-Bru took to describing themselves as Hindus suffering at the hand of the larger Christian community.

Among those who guided these thoughts and subsequently took the matter to Supreme Court was the Akhil Bharatiya Vanbasi Kalyan Ashram (All India Forest Dwellers’ Welfare Ashram, or ABVKA), one of the wings of the RSS active in the northeast. The ABVKA continues to be a major force in implementing the RSS programme of ghar wapsi. As a lesson learnt from the ongoing conflict, Mizos understand them as being ‘Hindu missionaries’ who want to bring the tribes into the Hindu fold.

Apart from allegations that dozens of Reang-Brus were killed and raped by Mizos, for which no evidence was found in subsequent investigations, what particularly stung Mizos’ image was Brus’ allegation that Mizo mobs had destroyed dozens of their ‘places of worship’, interpreted as temples.

The RSS Agenda in Mizoram

Mizos claimed this was a blatant lie as there were no temples in the area, but the allegation was spotlighted and splashed across the national and international media through the vast networks of the RSS and the BJP, then in government at the centre. Mizos, with few networks and little support outside the state to amplify their denials, lacked the power and media reach of the other groups drumming up support for Reang-Brus on religious grounds. Mizos were the villains and Reang-Brus the underdogs.

This agenda was powerfully reemphasised in 2011 by none other than RSS senior functionary Ram Madhav, who is now the BJP’s national general secretary with special charge of the northeastern states. In an article on Samvada.org he laid the blame squarely on ‘the Mizo population’ for the exodus of a section Reang-Brus from the state.

Madhav alleged that the Brus were ‘victims of religious persecution’ and that they, after being ‘repeatedly subjected to persecution at the hands of the Mizo population as well as the political dispensation the Reangs – or the Bru people – were finally hounded out of the state during prolonged communal strife in 1997’.

This allegation is vehemently disputed by the Mizo community as well as the government of Mizoram.

Madhav likened the Reang case to that of the Kashmiri Pandits, calling it the ‘same case of religious persecution’ as ‘both have been persecuted for being a religious minority in their respective states’.

There is no persecution of any kind, attested Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, who also held the post at the time. The various churches of Mizoram too denied Madhav’s claim, saying that if they did missionise the Reang-Bru people it was without any political agenda.

T. Vanlaltlani, professor at the Aizawl Theological College and a well known scholar who has written a book on the matter, said hegemony was never the intention or motivation behind preaching the gospel to the ‘lesser tribe’. All they were doing was following the Bibical tradition of preaching the gospel to the ‘unsaved’ – just as European missionaries had a burden for the ‘savages’ such as themselves, so also the Mizo had a burden for the Tuikuk, as they are known to the Mizo people.

The Reang-Bru are a nomadic people and even before the conflict erupted in 1997 they were wont to move around the hills and cross borders as a matter of course. The Mizo community see the Reang as migrants from Tripura and Bangladesh. They are not seen as sharing blood with the Zo or Mizo group of tribes, but are part of the Kokborok family, with the Reangs known to be the second largest tribal unit in Tripura.

Ironically, it was the unstinted missionary work of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church and other churches since 1948 that helped spread education among this tribe. As the teaching was done in the Mizo-Duhlian language, in the process they were 'Mizoised' almost to the point of losing their language and identity.

Education and exposure to their affiliates across the border in Tripura brought about a political awakening among educated Reang-Bru. This new chapter in their history to reclaim their identity became intertwined with the RSS movement for control of the tribal areas of the northeast region.

With the full power of the central government behind them this time and the Reang-Bru voters, the BJP hopes to cash in on the highly polarised electorate.

Mizo NGOs led by the Young Mizo Association have been fighting to delete the names of some of the Reang-Bru from electoral rolls enumerated in the relief camps in Tripura. On the other hand the central government has gone out of its way to facilitate the former for over 20 years, despite the home state having opened its doors for repatriation several times, with no takers.

Since 2015 the YMA has been raising the issue of the ‘favouritism’ shown to the Reang-Bru, while other similar relief camps housing the numerous victims of ethnic conflicts in the region are to be closed in a few months.

They also protest the fact that Reang voters continue to want to vote in Mizoram elections while refusing to return home, for over 20 years. Under election law they must vote where they are domiciled. Noting the point, the central government decided to close down the six Reang-Bru relief camps by October 1.

The Mizoram government along with NGOs in the state wants a final call to be issued to relief camp inmates. Those who do not want to return should be absorbed into the state where they are currently domiciled. As per a decision made and approved by the Supreme Court, those refusing to return to Mizoram this time would have their names deleted from the state’s electoral rolls.

However, after a plea by the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF) the closure of the camp was kept in abeyance. Mizo NGOs believe the camp has vested interests built into its system, and is being kept open only as a political tool for outsiders (read the RSS) to continuously interfere in the affairs of the state and defame the Mizo community. They believe it is a doorway for illegal Reang-Bru voters to enter the state’s electoral rolls.

Earlier, Manisha Saxena, chief electoral officer of Mizoram said that as per the agreement the special summary revision of the electoral list of Mizoram being undertaken would not cover Reang-Bru refugees living in camps in Tripura, but in a few weeks this was overturned by the Election Commission of India which ordered the revision be taken up in the camps. This brought Mizo NGOs at loggerheads with the ECI and the chief electoral officer.

In 2015 the YMA had objected to the electoral rolls’ revision, alleging that official documents like electoral roll claims forms were sent to the MBDPF in the relief camps when that NGO was not designated to perform this official role. They went on to term the ECI ‘illegal’ and demanded that all these officials’ documents be taken back by election officials. "In fact, on the other hand, when these documents were 'stolen' from the Mamit Deputy commissioners office, the local Mizo tribesmen were blamed for this"

Meanwhile, the BJP has identified five Mizoram assembly constituencies where it has a chance based on Chakma and Bru voters: these are Tuipui, Mamit, Tuichawng, Hachhek and Thorang. Chief minister of the Tripura government Biplab Kumar Deb, its social welfare minister Santana Chakma, BJP state vice-president Pratima Bhowmick and MLAs Sambhu Lal Chakma and Promod Reang campaigned inside the camps.

Aligned in the fray are the Congress, the Mizo National Front, the Zoram Peoples Movement, the Nationalist Peoples Party, PRISM, the anti-corruption organisation turned political party, and the BJP. A piquant situation has arisen here, with the non-BJP parties doing their best to tell the electorate that they have no truck with the BJP, while on the other hand the leaders of the Hindu supremacist party have gone on record to say they are ready to align with any party including its nemesis, the Congress, as announced by Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP supremo from Assam.

Mizoram, 'Lone Sentinel of Christianity'

A sliver of land wedged between the Asian giants, India to the north, Myanmar to the east and Bangladesh to the west, Mizoram, formerly known as the Lushai Hills District under the British Empire, has been described by its leaders as a lone sentinel of Christianity, embattled and sandwiched amid Hindu India, Buddhist Myanmar and Muslim Bangladesh – from where ‘outsiders’ are believed to be routinely immigrating through the porous borders, endangering the demographic balance of the minuscule ‘indigenous’ tribal population.

From the Mizo point of view these ‘unwanted’ migrants include Chakmas, Reangs, Muslims, plainspeople of all hues, and even at times, affiliated tribespeople stumbling into the state from across the Burma border.

As MoneyControl.com explains in a poll backgrounder, ‘Mizoram is the only state unclaimed by the party of Ram, one of the seven states in the country where Hindus are a minority, and the only state in the Northeast under Congress rule at present.’

Supporters of the Hindutva brand surely see the tiny state as a red rag before a bull, for it is a self-declared Christian state, which a writer on HinduJagruti.com (Hindu Awakening) unhappily notes is ‘the only Indian state which has unconstitutionally declared itself as a Christian State. The State’s official website mentions this in its home page. No other India state has any official religion.’

Evidently it is all out war to win this trophy for the ruling BJP. As it is in power at the centre, it’s now or never. They have to prove that the Hindutva brand is acceptable to non-Hindu voters, and Mizoram is the acid test of the success or failure of the cocktail of religion-culture-politics being poured down the collective Indian throat.

You can read the first part of this report here.