Wearing a white cotton kurta, Kiren Rijiju sat in the sitting-room area of Room 706 at Aizawl’s Regency Hotel, talking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keen interest in Northeast India.
Addressing this reporter at the hotel, which is now his team’s second home, Rijiju emphasised the Bharatiya Janata Party’s commitment towards development in these parts, and how Mizoram needs the BJP to see the progress it deserves.
It’s become a common refrain for Rijiju, India’s senior-most tribal leader in Modi’s ministry and one of only five union ministers from Northeast India. As the party’s election in-charge for Mizoram, he’s been busy addressing rallies and meetings ever since the assembly election dates were announced.
At a press conference in Aizawl on Tuesday, he declared that Mizoram would “transform into a prosperous state” under Modi, making the Northeast “the most vibrant economic hub of India”.
“This is a guarantee contained in this vision document,” he said, referring to released by the BJP on October 27. Among other things, it promises to make Mizoram the “silk capital of Northeast India” while also investing Rs 1,500 crore to revamp the state’s agriculture infrastructure.
But it’s not an easy battle to win for Rijiju, especially with the ethnic clashes next door in Mizoram.
The people of Mizoram have strong ethnic connection, dating back to the pre-independence era, with the Kuki-Zos, one of two players in the conflict. Over 12,000 Kuki-Zos have fled Mizoram since May, seeking refuge, and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has expressed strong support for the community.
This includes the central government’s orders to collect “biometric data” from refugees from Manipur and Myanmar. The chief minister said it would “amount to discrimination against people who are of our blood and kindred brothers and sisters”.
When asked why Modi still hasn’t visited Manipur, six months after the violence first began, Rijiju told this reporter that other important leaders, including Amit Shah, had made extended visits to the state as representatives of the prime minister.
He also compared the BJP’s response to that of the Congress’s in previous years whenever violence had been reported in Manipur.
“More than 700-800 people were killed in Manipur in unfortunate communal clashes in the past,” he said. “Even the home minister did not speak in Parliament…Our case is not like that. It is the exact opposite. The PM urged the people of Manipur that the whole nation is with them…Before Modi came to power, northeastern people were like orphans.”
Despite Rijiju’s fiery defence, the Manipur issue seems likely to dim the BJP’s chances in Mizoram, especially given that the general population is already lukewarm towards the saffron party.
“Ever since the BJP set foot in Mizoram, their right-wing ideology has failed to impress the Mizo people. That impression remains the same today,” said Jonathan Pachuau, 35, from Aizawl. “The violence in Manipur may not have a major impact on the current polls but it has hurt Zo nationalism sentiments. There are chances it will weaken the BJP’s prospects for the future.”
A question of post-poll alliances
Since the beginning of his campaign, CM Zoramthanga has repeatedly announced the Mizo National Front’s support for Zo nationalism across states. His campaign revolves around his reputation as the leader of a government that has welcomed refugees from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Manipur.
Simultaneously, the opposition led by the Zoram’s People Movement has criticised the MNF for “inaction”, saying Modi and Zoramthanga are the only two major leaders who did not visit Manipur at all.
Rhetoric on Manipur has also prominently featured in speeches by Congress leaders visiting Mizoram from Delhi. During a public rally on October 16, for example, Rahul Gandhi Modi’s government of “being so interested in what is happening in Israel but not interested at all in what is happening in Manipur”.
Lalsawta, the president of the Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee, told Newslaundry that the Manipur issue will “impact the BJP very badly”.
“As far as Mizo people are concerned, BJP seems far away in Delhi. But now, they’ve manifested themselves here in Manipur. It has brought home their picture to the people of Mizoram through Manipur,” he said.
Lalsawta also strongly hinted that the opposition ZPM would form a post-poll alliance with the BJP. “Indian politics is divided into two camps, one led by Congress and the other led by BJP. The government in the state will either have to join Congress or join BJP.”
Lalrinzuala Chawngthu is the former senior vice-president of the People’s Conference Party, a local party that was once part of the ZPM. He said there is local “disdain towards the BJP”, exemplified by the fact that “no regional party wants to be linked with the saffron party either as a pre-poll or post-poll alliance partner”.
“However, we can only know the true outcome once the results are out,” he added.
H Lalchhandama, editor of Aizawl newspaper Zozam Times, said it was “unavoidable” that Manipur would impact the polls in Mizoram.
“Especially since it is being utilised as a political tool by other parties,” he pointed out. “The prime minister only spared a few seconds for Manipur but he has so much to spare for other countries like Turkey and Israel, where he would be the first to respond.”
Battling ‘anti-Christian’ allegations
The BJP first contested elections in Mizoram in 1993. Since then, it’s had only one MLA, Buddha Dhan Chakma, who was elected from Tuichawng in 2018. He retired from politics in August.
As a result, the party is relying on its performance at the centre to promote itself. But this approach isn’t always helpful. Its baggage in Mizoram includes the fact that it’s perceived as “anti-Christian” in a state which has an 87 percent Christian majority. As Newslaundry reported last week, this has as well.
“In the state, we cannot see whether they are good or bad for us. But at the central level, we can see how the Supreme Court no longer has an independent voice, how all the pillars of democracy are being dismantled,” said editor Lalchhandama. “Even Christian churches no longer have funding.”
The BJP’s solution has been to dispatch ministers who are Christian to Mizoram to attempt to dispel the perception of the party being pro-Hindu.
During the 2018 assembly elections, JV Hluna, then president of the state unit, had said, “As long as I, a Mizo Christian man, am the president of the BJP, no harm will be done to Mizo Christians. If there is word regarding the possible occurrence of any crimes, I will be the first one to leave the party.”
Now, ahead of the 2023 elections, this mantle falls to Rijiju, a tribal and Christian leader.
He explained his stance to this reporter, and why it links back to the Manipur issue.
“Tribal people are emotional. We are easily misguided based on the Manipur issue, based on religious issues. Can any Mizo be converted to Hinduism? If tomorrow the BJP comes to power in Mizoram, who will be chief minister? A Mizo only – a Sardarji will not become CM, a Maharashtrian will not become CM. If somebody gets elected from Aizawl on a BJP ticket, he will be Mizo only.”
Rijiju slammed “stupid people” who were trying to “mislead” voters by claiming the BJP would “damage Christianity”.
“It cannot. Some people say ‘you will convert Christians to Hindus’. Hindus do not have a system of conversion. Hindus have to be born into a Hindu family. They have a structure – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Shudra and Vaishyas. We don’t fall into any of them,” he said.
When Rijiju himself was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 from the Arunachal West constituency (he had a brief stint with the Congress too from 2009 to 2012), he said he was “warned” that the party would “ban beef” and “destroy indigenous tribal culture”.
“But we have got more support. Our identity, our status are all enhanced,” he said. “…As the senior tribal leader from the Northeast, I feel sad that some of the people here are misguided. But finally people will understand – ultimately, you need food, good roads, electricity, and a good quality of life.”
The party is hoping to appeal to minorities in the state including the Brus, the Chakmas and the Mara Autonomous District Council. In Siaha constituency, the capital of the MADC, it has fielded Dr K Beichhua, a former minister and MLA from the MNF. It has also fielded Lalrinliana Sailo, former assembly speaker and MNF MLA, from Mamit constituency.
Voices on the ground
But what do voters think?
Lalthanmawii, 80, and Lalthanthuami, 85, are sisters who grew up in Aizawl in the 1930s and ‘40s. Over the decades, they witnessed Mizoram’s journey from district to statehood and have been keen observers of the changing political landscape.
When asked about their opinion on the BJP before and after the Manipur crisis, Thanmawii said, “From how I see it, they do not want Christians. They are trying to annihilate us. If they come to power, we will meet the same fate as Manipur. See how many Kuki churches have been burned by Meiteis. Till now, not a word has been said about it by the BJP. So we believe they are part of the instigators of this violence.”
On whether regional parties would ally with the BJP, Lalthanthuami said, “If they do, we will condemn the regional party. Only a few states are left in the Northeast that are untouched by the BJP. If they win, we will all be under their leadership and we will not be able to practise Christianity.”
A retired church leader in Aizawl said, on condition of anonymity, that Modi’s BJP is perceived as an Hindu party while in Mizoram, the state government has strong ties to the church. The church also has a major say in politics. For example: “The elected chief minister of Mizoram will always be a Presbyterian as the majority of people are Presbyterians. No other Christian denomination has a chance to become chief minister.”
But Aizawl-based writer Rinfela Zadeng believes the roots of Mizo opposition towards the BJP stems from people being “racist” and “fundamentalist”.
“Due to our racist inclinations, Mizo Christians have a strong opposition to the BJP,” he said. “…We are not interested in trying to understand the meaning and ideologies of the BJP or Hinduism, so our minds will not be easily shaken. Even though we have different denominations within Christianity – like the United Pentecostal Church, Synod, and the Baptist Church of Mizoram – we stand united when it comes to racism or fundamentalism.”
Others like V Mankunga, an 85-year-old resident of Aizawl, do not see much difference between the BJP and other national parties.
“If the BJP comes to power and tries to make us a Hindu nation, we will see which people are strong in their Christian faith. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” he shrugged. “Even under Janata Dal’s rule, there were major issues – such as the one we called Satan’s Bill.”
“Satan’s Bill” was the Freedom of Religion bill which was supported by Prime Minister Morjarji Desai during the Janata Dal’s rule. The bill was strongly by the Christian community in India, who believed it was targeted at them and that it would restrict the movements of missionaries.
Then there’s Lalawmpuia, a taxi driver from Chawlhhmum in Aizawl, whose views towards the BJP are softening. “We are a part of India,” he said. “We are not a separate country. So we cannot separate ourselves from leaders at the centre.”
R Lalremliana, an economics professor at T Romana College said while he’s angry with the BJP’s handling of Manipur, the Modi government has done “quite well” on the economic front.
“Speaking from an economics point of view, BJP is the best,” he said. “If we look at bank interest rates, we can see how stable our economy is. During the Congress’s rule, it would fluctuate very often. Depositing our money in the bank is beneficial to us due to the high interest rates at present. Modi also led the most successful demonetisation process. The circulation of money has become even.”
Differences of opinion
Those from Kuki and Meitei communities are more vocal in their criticism of the BJP.
When asked how he’d feel if the BJP formed a coalition government with any of Mizoram’s regional parties, Kuki lawyer Siam Phaipi immediately said, “Offended.”
Explaining why, Phaipi, 33, said the governments at the state and centre had failed to protect their citizens.
“Aside from blaming the other community, it is the responsibility of state and central governments to protect citizens. But even after six months, they have completely failed to do so in bringing peace or providing any long-lasting solution,” he said. “And this happened under a BJP-led government in Manipur and a BJP-led government at the centre.”
He added, “Allying with them still after a new election would be offensive in itself. For example, if Mizoram considers us their kin, then the least kin would expect from one another is not to ally with people who have not provided peace or a solution for half a year – and probably much, much longer.”
Vidya, 23, a Meitei student in Delhi, said she was not surprised the Manipur conflict is a poll issue in Mizoram.
“Even in Manipur, most Meiteis are very angry with the BJP,” she said. “The Manipur conflict probably will affect Mizoram politics too. Some BJP leaders quit the party because of the Manipur conflict even outside the Northeast, or at least they claim that was the reason. And yes, there are BJP supporters too, but it’s mostly because of the conflict. At the same time there are people who feel that if the blame is only put on the government, the perpetrators of the violence won’t be held accountable.”
Judson KT Zephatha, a resident of Siaha district and a former student leader, does not think the “impact” of the Manipur conflict is seen in Siaha district areas, even though the opposition often brings it up.
“Our people empathise with the people of Manipur and have done a lot of charity for them,” he said. “But it is not a priority as a poll issue and may not have a big weightage on their decision-making.”
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Meanwhile, Rijiju told Newslaundry his party is certainly not to blame for the ethnic violence in Manipur.
“BJP has not created the problem though BJP will solve the problem,” he said. “The problems were created at a local level but who will solve them? Ultimately, the BJP government…This incident in Manipur is very unfortunate. It is the BJP and central government which is more concerned.”
He dismissed the Congress’s allegations as a quest to “get votes”. “It is shameful that human tragedy is being converted into a political issue. Is it not a shameful thing? If you want peace, appeal. Don’t accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modiji.”
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