A picture of Siaha town. Photo courtesy Beautiful Maraland Facebook Page

The Mara Autonomous District Council, one of three autonomous district councils in Mizoram, will hold elections on May 5, 2022. There are 80 candidates from four parties and five Independent candidates in the fray. With the campaign atmosphere ripe, the fate of ethnic minorities and their rights in the 6th Schedule has become a political ploy and a campaign debate among the parties. Residents of the MADC, with a population of only 64, 829 as per a September 2015 consensus, are considered a minority in Mizoram.

Among the parties contesting are the central ruling party – BJP, the state ruling party – MNF, Congress, which had won the majority in the last election and, ZPM, a regional party which will be contesting in the MADC for the first time. Along with the Congress and ZPM, MNF is an alliance partner in the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and its partner party BJP will be fighting head-to-head to win the majority.

In the 2017 elections, Congress won the majority. But in 2019, things took a surprising turn when all Congress members defected to the BJP. However, Congress members still have strong hopes for a win.

The MADC is headquartered in Siaha district.

Is MADC in political doldrums amid changing allegiances?

“In the previous council, Congress was the ruling party, but the members defected to the BJP as there were fears that the council would be dissolved. All the Congress units and VCs also joined them, and the Congress ended up with no unit or VC. But as soon as they announced the 2022 elections, we realised that the Congress is God’s chosen party for the Mara people. The Congress has not died in the hearts of the public. We were able to field 23 candidates. People may look down on our party now but there is hope that we will win the majority because the political atmosphere can always change in a day or two,” Eric C Noula, the Campaign Directorate Secretary and General Secretary of Mara District Congress Committee (MDCC) told EastMojo.

“Whether it is BJP or Congress, our culture of governance is wrong. There are no steps taken towards development. These parties only have a single focus on looking for votes. Even if they win elections in their respective constituencies, they fail to have a mindset that they are leaders for the Mara people and Mara land, they only look into their local constituency. We are contesting with parties that are ruling in Central and state governments. It is common knowledge that the Congress does not have a stronghold, either in the Central or state government. We do not have any money or financial backup to boast of, but we have God,” he said.

The locals are also noticing a change in the way these elections are taking place. Judson KT Zephatha, a resident of Siaha, believes parties are focusing on the candidates rather than their manifestos, “In other years, parties would speak about their manifesto and policy. But this time, there is not much talk on the Socio-economic Development Policy (SEDP) or even the 6th Schedule by the BJP in their campaigns. The parties are just reliant on the capabilities of the candidates as individuals. I believe there will be a coalition government,” he said.

He also commented on the minority issue as a factor, adding, “The minority feeling is strong in Palak areas but not as much in the district capital Siaha. While rural areas are more focused on issues related to the 6th schedule, in Siaha we are focusing on the candidates.”

The BJP invited Union Minister John Barla to campaign for the party in MADC elections.

Sixth Schedule a contentious issue, but ‘family matters’

While the BJP has spoken strongly in support of minority rights and empowerment through Amendment of the Sixth Schedule, Noula believes such speeches are pretentious. “Even when Congress was ruling in the Central and state government, BJP never paid attention to us. The Congress has always paid heed to minority issues and given special attention to the minorities in Mizoram. BJP never held power in the Mara or Lai councils and the extra love they are suddenly showing now is all pretending. The only party that truly loves and cares for the minorities in the Congress.”

When the 17 Congress members from the MADC defected to BJP, they had stated that it was because of BJP’s plan for the Sixth Schedule Amendment, but people such as Noula believe the party is not as brave as it was three years back on its stand on the amendment.

“BJP’s biggest forte used to be the 6th schedule amendment, but now they do not speak about it as much. They spent so much money going to the Central leaders to discuss the issue but since they cannot see any results, they are not as brave to speak about it. Also, the public is not in favour of MNF. So neither BJP nor MNF will be able to form a single majority, and that will be an advantage for us,” he said.

M Laiko, a five-time BJP unit president and the first candidate to ever win a seat on behalf of the saffron party in the MADC election in 2012, could not help but laugh when asked if they were falling back on their promises for Amendment and spoke strongly against such accusations.

“We are keeping the 6th schedule amendment as our number one priority. This Bill has been introduced in the parliament, but because our demand was not included we asked for a correction. It was referred to the parliamentary standing committee, and it is currently pending. We will continue to put all our efforts into the amendment of the 6th schedule. We will work together united and show that we are committed to the cause. We are hopeful that they will make our demand successful.”

He is also confident of being the next governing party in the MADC, “We believe we have a chance to win. We want to introduce a New Maraland with good governance and a transparent and corruption-free council as the core of the function. We have many things we want to do in terms of planning, development, and repairing the council administration at our headquarters from the grassroots level.”

While the BJP has often been accused of being anti-minority and targeting minorities at the national level, Laiko is positive that BJP is pro-minority.

“All India has accused the BJP of being anti-minority. but in our council, BJP has assured our safety and for us, they are not anti-minority.” He instead accused the MNF of being anti-minority, saying, the ruling party paid little to no attention to the development of the autonomous district councils. He accused the MNF of forming an enquiry commission to dissolve the ADCs and said they were never given preference in the budget in the past three years.

“They have never worked towards making the minority projects a success. They do not even favour people of their own MNF who are in the ADC, they would rather give contracts to their people in Aizawl,” he said.

In December 2021, the three ADCs had staged a protest saying the MNF objected to the amendments in the Sixth Schedule regarding the upliftment of tribal minorities in Mizoram. In a statement, the BJP had said, “The Home Ministry asked the four states for its comments regarding the proposed Constitution Amendment. Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura have given their comments very positively to uplift the Tribal Minorities in their respective States, whereas the Government of Mizoram led by the MNF gave very negative comments and opposed upliftment of the Tribal Minorities in Mizoram.”

File images of protests in the Chakma Autonomous Council. In December 2021, the three ADCs had staged a protest, saying the MNF objected to the amendments in the Sixth Schedule regarding the upliftment of tribal minorities in Mizoram.

Responding to these comments, HC Malsawma Zasai, an MNF candidate from the Amotla constituency, said, “There is a lot of ethnic group feeling in the Mara and Lai areas, there is sometimes hesitation towards being part of the mainstream. This is Congress politics, they try to create these ethnic tensions as a political advantage. They tried to convince the people saying we have to hold towards the Central government as the state discriminates against us.”

On allegations that MNF had given a negative comment regarding the empowerment of the ADCs, he said, “The Central government had asked the state government for its opinion on various points. The MNF responded, saying they are not sure if the suggestions are necessary. The BJP shared their policy and their agenda there is no reason why the Mizoram government has to support the BJP in their agenda when the MNF were not even consulted on the matter. But the people twisted it and said they are objecting to us because they are anti-minority. In actuality, we are not objecting to it. We never oppose any minority developments, we are minorities ourselves. All the MNF leaders are minorities. They are just using this to attack us. Even I, myself, am a pure and true Lakher. So we know that this is all a political play.”

“We will protect our 6th schedule. We will look into further empowerment of the 6th schedule and seek additional power as is available in ADCs in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar as per para 3 of the schedule,” he said.

Even with parties putting up a fight on minority rights and empowerment of the people, Dr C Hmingsanzuala, Assistant Professor of Hnahthial Government college and an expert on MADC politics, believes minority rights take only the third or fourth position in the voting factor.

“From how I see it, what makes the MADC different is that family precedes the importance of party. People will vote for their family, for example, a Fanai will vote for a Fanai. Even if the candidates or the local politicians change their party, their voters will not differ so much. The candidate’s profile has a higher bearing than who is ruling the state government.

Locals attend an election meeting in the run-up to MADC elections.

“The biggest factor in the voting trend in the MADC is family and support for their fellow clan. The second factor in this election is the parties ruling in the state and central government. The BJP, which is ruling in the central government is trying to win voters through the 6th schedule amendment. While the state ruling government will try to win voters by assuring their friends and relatives jobs and positions. The state and central ruling party also have a political advantage because the ADC wants the powers akin to those conferred to Bodoland. However, we cannot just ignore the Congress because even the new BJP leaders were all originally from the Congress. The MADC has been a Congress stronghold for a long time, and the public may still favour them to some extent,” Hmingsanzuala said.

“The Congress has an advantage in the minority aspect as they have taken a lot of initiatives for them in the Central government. While the minority rights were the main motto in 2019, the parties are not as brave to speak up about it and have started focusing on other aspects like ‘New Maraland.’ Minority rights come at the 3rd or 4th place when it comes to the voting factor,” Hmingsanzuala added.

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