Mizo people from the northeastern state of Mizoram sing at a church service in the capital Aizwal in this 2003 file photo. Some 90 percent of the 1.1 million people in the state identify as Christians, whose forebears were converted by British missionaries during the colonial era. (Photo by AFP)
In northeast India's Mizoram state, where the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is chasing the majority Christian vote, intra-tribal divisions have come to the fore as ethnic identity takes priority over religious beliefs.
Ahead of the Nov. 28 state elections, a two decade-old rivalry has re-emerged between the Mizo people and the minority Bru, with major political parties taking the side of the majority Mizos.
"A malignant ambiance of inter-tribal rivalry is a reality in northeast India. Mizoram is again facing this. As usual, these complexities remain beyond the comprehension of the policy-makers in New Delhi. And we are faced with so much uncertainty," said educationist Lal Rinzuala.
The socially powerful Young Mizo Association (YMA), which is connected to the Presbyterian Church, remains at the forefront of a wave of protests demanding the removal of the state's chief election officer, S. B. Shashank.
Protesters accused the federal election officer of "taking a pro-Bru" decision by setting polling stations for Bru people in their relief camps in neighboring Tripura.
"As proud Mizos, we cannot allow special arrangements for Brus. If they want to vote, they should come to Mizoram and vote in designated polling stations," YMA chairman Vanlalruata told ucanews.com.
Vanlalruata was referring to the 40,000 or so Bru people who left Mizoram as refugees following a spate of Mizo-Bru violence that began in October 1997. The Brus were attacked after a Mizo forest guard was beaten to death, allegedly by Bru people.
Some 11,000 of them now live in relief camps in Tripura. Others have left to live in other states and only a few Bru people are now "integrated" into Mizoram's social life, according to a Catholic Church official, who did not want to be named.
The state's ruling Congress party, headed by Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, in the past two years has repeated its stance that it would "accept" the residency of the Bru people in the state, provided their names appeared on the 1995 voters' list.
Leaders like Vanlalruata claim that allowing the Bru to vote in refugee camps lent legitimacy to their residency claims in Mizoram.
The Bru are seeking recognition of their distinctive culture in order to safeguard and promote their own identity. They are also demanding that an "autonomous administrative unit" be set up within Mizoram, and some have taken up arms to forge a minor insurgency.
Although Christians rank as a majority in the state, religion fails to act as peace-building agent "because people here always put their ethnicity before their faith," said Bishop Stephen Rotlunga of Aizawl, the Catholic diocese that covers the state.
Christians, led by Presbyterians and Baptists, make up 87 percent of Mizoram's some 1.1 million people. Catholics represent "a tiny minority" of 30,000 and do not rank as a "force that can make an impact in politics or society," Bishop Rotlunga said.
Some people suspect that Shashank, a Hindu federal officer from outside of Mizoram, has been used as a tool to capture the votes of the mostly animist Bru people for the BJP.
Sources within the Congress Party have alleged that the BJP, a political non-entity in Mizoram for a long time, has developed an "extra dose of love" for the Bru people, owing to the tribal group's religious affiliations.
However, BJP state leader J. V. Hluna was among the political leaders pressing to transfer Shashank out of Mizoram. He wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP, seeking his intervention to remove Shashank.
"I express my solidarity with my people, and request that you do everything in your power to neutralize the situation so that the election process to the state legislative be allowed to move forward peacefully," he wrote.
Amid the protests and mounting pressure on various fronts, including a threat from government officials not to cooperate with the Election Commission if the officer is not transferred, officials from New Delhi met representatives of the protesters on Nov. 9 and reportedly promised Shashank would be moved.
However, no official announcement has been made of his transfer as of mid-November.
Meanwhile, the Congress and the BJP have been competing with one another in making statements showing their support for the Mizo's ethnic identity.
As their one-upmanship gains momentum, the minority continues to eke out an existence in the relief camps.