By Ashis Biswas
It is no secret that a majority of Christian organisations and community leaders in Northeast India are upset with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Manipur. This has come as a setback to the saffron party’s long term plans seeking a durable political consolidation in the region, for the present.
From Nagaland to Tripura, Christian community leaders and groups lost no time in censuring the Central and state Governments for what they saw as a deliberate official move to marginalize the Kuki, Zo and other tribes even during the post-violence period in Manipur. Now Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has just added fresh fuel to the still raging political controversy, adopting a strongly critical stance towards the BJP, during an interview he gave to the BBC.
There has been considerable local surprise over Zoramthanga’s categorical announcement that he would not address any joint public rally with Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi as part of the ongoing pre-election campaign. Not everyone approves of his making such a declaration to a foreign channel that has had its own problems with Delhi authorities relating to what was alleged to be its ‘biased coverage’.
Mr Modi is scheduled to visit Mizoram for a barnstorming trip by October-end. He would not be happy to learn that by way of an explanation, the Mizo leader had said, somewhat elaborately, that the attacks on churches and on Christians in neighbouring Manipur had not gone down well in his state. Therefore, it would not be a good idea to organize joint rallies at this stage and the MNF would rather follow its own campaign schedule.
The situation does not look good for either the Mizo National front (MNF) party that the chief Minister leads or the BJP, with which he remains politically aligned as the state’s administrative head, going into the Assembly elections scheduled for November 7. As constituents of the BJP-led NDA at the centre, the parties are allies. But in the Mizoram context, as the bigger party, the MNF calls the tune.
Local NE-based media coverage of Zoramthanga’s comments however, have not brought much cheer to the supporters of opposition parties including the Congress. The MNF has consistently opposed the Congress, a stand it has reiterated during the present pre-poll campaign phase.
Much before the outbreak of major ethnic violence involving the dominant Meitei and Kuki groups of people occurred in Manipur, the MNF has been pursuing its virtually independent line vis-à-vis the bigger BJP, in matters relating to the state’s governance. The centre had specifically instructed state Governments in the NE region not to encourage refugees crossing into India from Myanmar, in the wake of the civil war there between the ruling army junta and supporters of the pro-West National Unity Government (NUG).
The centre’s directive had a special significance for Mizoram, where the bulk of escaping Burmese tribal refugees had first been sheltered in various camps and later shifted elsewhere as their numbers rose. Led by Zoranthanga, the MNF repeatedly pressed for greater financial and other assistance from Delhi to meet the new situation, as these refugees could not return home early.
The NDA Government, it is alleged, did not respond to Aizwal’s requests for more aid, after sending some initial help. Local church authorities, NGOs, common people and foreign donors helped the refugees, according to NE media accounts.
At present, the number of people currently enjoying relief facilities in Mizoram is around 45,000 according to some estimates. The number has increased following a major influx to Mizoram of Kuki and other tribespeople from Manipur, following the ethnic troubles that had erupted and continued for months, from May 3 onwards.
Mizoram authorities have often explained to mediapersons that they only followed the procedures established by Delhi in dealing with the influx of refugees.
The Indian government in 1970-71 had helped lakhs of displaced Pakistani citizens in stay in India before the emergence of Bangladesh. The MNF was doing the same thing vis-à-vis the refugees from Myanmar, many of whom were also socially/ethnically related to Mizos by blood/cultural ties, the state government told the Centre. It also continued to carry the additional financial burden as the unrest in Myanmar showed no signs of ending.
Observers, explaining why the differences between the MNF and the BJP would not help the opposition, pointed to the divisions among the tribal communities in the region including the Mizos, on the question of economic development. A section of aspirant, educated younger tribals were in favour of new development projects for the NE region in infrastructure, tourism or related areas, as proposed by the NDA Government. Broadly, they tended to associate themselves with local projects, while generally supporting the NDA on national issues in and out of Parliament.
On the other hand, more orthodox groups among Christians in the region tended to oppose all new projects, from the expansion of railways to the production if hydropower , especially if they were to be sponsored by the NDA. Meghalaya was one such area where the opposition of local people to most of the proposed projects for economic development, has been the strongest in the NE region in recent years.
Meghalaya, while being home to Shillong, among the most picturesque hill stations in India, is currently the poorest state in the NE region! (IPA Service)