Last month, for the first time, the Bharatiya Janata Party won an election in Mizoram. The party contested 201 seats in 37 village councils in the autonomous tribal area for Chakmas, a Buddhist community that is an ethnic minority in the predominantly Christian state. It won 42 seats and a majority in seven councils.

"We are Buddhists, not Christians, and so they [the Mizos] want to keep us backward," said Deepak Larma, a resident of Borapansuri, which lies along the Bangladesh border, as he explained the appeal of the BJP. "The way things are, we will not advance in Mizoram, and so we are thinking of partnering with Modiji. We have voted for the Congress and the MNF [Mizo National Front] and they did nothing. Can Modiji do something for us?"

But it's not just the Chakmas who are turning to the BJP. Leaders of the Lais and the Maras – two minority tribes that follow Christianity and have with their own autonomous councils in south Mizoram – are also making overtures to the party.

They want the councils, which are dependent on the state for their funds, to be converted into Union Territories directly funded by New Delhi. So far, the main parties in the state, the Congress and the Mizo National Front, both Mizo-dominated, have ignored the demand. But with the BJP coming to power in New Delhi, the leaders of the Lai, Chakma and Mara communities sense room for a breakthrough.

Crucial time

This is a potentially disruptive moment for Mizoram.

If the BJP accedes to the councils' demand, it will get a foothold in a state where it had none. But in the process, the rest of the state will turn against it, including its Mizo-dominated state unit. Worse, with Mizos furious about the vivisection of the state, the state could slip into chaos.

The fallouts could be serious. “Mizoram is the state through which the government's Act East policy can best work,” an Intelligence Bureau official said. “We cannot build highways to Burma through Manipur or Nagaland. I hope we do not destablilise Mizoram.”

In a bid to understand these emergent contours, Scroll spent the second half of March travelling through the three autonomous councils, starting with Maraland in the south-east.

Deepak Larma, a former Border Security Force staffer, lives in Borapansuri, on the Bangladesh border. ‘The way things are, we will not advance in Mizoram and so we are thinking of partnering with Modiji,’ he said. 

The view from the councils

Welcome to Maraland, announced a hoarding as the Sumo crosses the bridge over the Kaladan river and enters Saiha district, home to the Mara Autonomous District Council.

This is the south-eastern extremity of Mizoram. Burma, as the crow flies, lies about 20 kilometres to the west and 60 kilometres to the south. The Maras live on both sides of the border.

The council was created in 1972, along with the Chakma and Lai councils. The idea was to create an administrative structure that would give the tribals, all of whom were in small populations with distinct cultures, greater control over the management of their region and help protect their traditional ways of life. It was meant to be a gradual process of modernisation, where change was curated – as it were – by them.

A little over 40 years later, Saiha is one of the most wretched districts in the country. This is apparent even when you walk down its capital. Compared to bustling Lunglei, the eponymous capital of the adjoining Lunglei district, the town of Saiha is an economic backwater. Youngsters mill around aimlessly. The buildings are small and rundown.

This sense of neglect is reflected by the state's health statistics. According to the health department’s data for 2014-'15, Saiha fares twice as poorly as all of Mizoram on maternal mortality and infant mortality. No less than 147 women die for every 100,000 live births – the equivalent maternal mortality ratio for the entire state is 76. Similarly, for every 1,000 infants less than a year old, 79 died in Saiha compared to 35 in Mizoram.

Tussle with Aizawl

Ask officials at the Mara Council about the state of Saiha and they blame the Aizawl administration. “In 2014-'15, the council was given just Rs 80 crore,” said LC Chakhai, the chairman of the Mara Council. The salary of the staff alone, he claimed, was Rs 6 crore a month or Rs 72 crore a year. This left the council with hardly any money for development.

In the Lai and Chakma councils, Scroll encountered a similar pattern – complaints of low funding, most of the existing allocation going into salaries, poor performance on the human development front. In Lawngtlai – which houses the Mara and Chakma councils –the maternal mortality stands at 248, the highest in the state. 

As it turns out, the councils almost perfectly mimic Mizoram's financial situation. In the absence of industry, with the local economy based almost entirely on subsistence jhum agriculture, the councils generate little revenue of their own: Rs 1 crore for Maraland and Rs 1.33 crore for the Lai council. Most of the revenues come from the Aizawl administration, which in turn depends on Delhi for 90% of its inflows.

Leaders at the three councils say Aizawl gives them less than it should. “The Lais, Maras and the Chakmas account for about 10% of Mizoram's population,” said Chakhai of the Mara council. "But our share of revenues is much lower, at about 4.5% of the state budget."

But in the council, it is evident that it isn’t just lack of funding that is responsible for the lack of development. In Maraland, much of the development funds are spent on salaries. Take soil and water conservation. Rs 3.48 lakhs was spent on development works and assistance to farmers, while Rs 43.82 lakhs went into administration, with salaries accounting for Rs 42.22 lakhs. Both K Chiama, the vice president of the Mara Democratic Front, and a local businessman who requested anonymity, said the council members, at the time of elections, promise jobs in the councils in return for votes. Once elected, they build lavish homes for themselves.

The offices of the BJP and the Mara Democratic Front offices occupy the same building. 

The question of identity

Hidden in the grievance over poor funding is actually the question of identity. Mizos express affinity with the Lais and Maras, saying that they are part Mizo. It helps that they too are Christian. But in the Lai and Mara areas, people feel they have been denied an equal status with the Mizos.  

“We had the same political status as the Mizos [when Mizoram until 1972 was a district] under Assam,” said V Vanlianhrin, the president of the Central Young Lai Association. “There was the Mizo District Council and the Pawi/Lakher District Council [Pawi means Lai. And Lakher means Mara]. But then, the Mizo district council became a state while we remained a councils. We need a higher political status.”

Chiama, the vice president of the Mara Democratic Front, maintained that the ethnic minorities were getting assimilated economically and culturally by the Mizos. “If we do not obey them, they do not release money," he said. "Our traditional dances are also being changed to become more Mizo.” He cited the example of the bamboo dance. “It is a Mara dance. We call it Sawlakia. But over the last 10-20 years, the Mizos have changed its name – they call it Sarlamkai.”

In the Chakma areas, the grievance is about being treated as outsiders. “We were staying here even before the British,” said Jyotirmoy Chakma, the president of the Central Young Chakma Association. Here too, there is anger about cultural factors: that the old town of Dimagiri has been renamed Tbalung and conversions by the church are underway.

The direct funding option

It is for these reasons the councils are knocking at the BJP's doors. But there is little agreement on what they want. 

Chatua, the president of BJP in Saiha, thinks the Maras should get an Union Territory only for themselves. “Our primary demand is for a Union Territory," he said. "As we are a backward area with a different culture and dialect, there is a danger of us being wiped out due to the Burmese, Mizos and Bangladeshis coming in.”

However, the Chief Executive member of the Mara council, Puhpa R T Zachono, a Congressman, thinks that is unlikely. “Our population is too low,” he said, adding that he would be content with direct funding from the Centre.

Vanlianhrin of the Young Lai Association agreed with him that the place was too small to be a viable unit on its own, but suggested that a single Union Territory encompassing all three councils would be viable.

Hmunhre of the Lai council, however, wants a Union Territory with the three autonomous councils intact within it.

The Chakma council, though, doesn't want to be a part of a larger Union Territory. “We do not have a lot of experts and so there is a chance that better educated people from others might rule over us, creating a risk of greater oppression," said Buddha Lila Chakma, the chief executive member of the Chakma council. "What we want is direct funding. The centre should directly allocate finances to the three councils.”

What Delhi wants

This welter of demands – with the promise of attendant electoral gains – is pounding on the BJP's doors at New Delhi. During the two days that this correspondent was in Saiha, the capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council, the leaders of the Mara Democratic Front were in Delhi talking to the BJP. “If they agree to make us an Union Territory, then we will join the Bharatiya Janata Party," said K Chiama, vice-president of the Mara Democratic Front.

Even Congress leaders are also promising to switch to the party if it meets their demands. “I am with the Congress but we will join the Bharatiya Janata Party if they give us a Union Territory with independent councils,” said Hmunhre, the Lai council leader.

The high command of the BJP seems to be playing along. Converting the councils into Union Territories seems unlikely, since that would open a Pandora's box in the region, with other councils making similar demands. But leaders said they are considering another alternative: direct funding, where the councils' requisition for funding would be sent to Delhi which will allot a fixed sum that is then routed to them through the state administration.

Ranjit Majumdar, the BJP national secretary who looks after the party's affairs in the North East, confirmed to Scroll that a constitutional amendment has been prepared. “It is a draft. It is yet to be finalised. But it promises greater autonomy through direct funding from Delhi and an administrative structure similar to what the states have,” he said. He emphasised that a final decision on the amendment was yet to be taken.

“In the days ahead, [BJP president] Amit Shah and others will discuss this," Majumdar said. "These are the demands we always hear from the North East – more power, more funding – but 10% development takes place. If 60% work gets done while 40% money gets stolen it is okay. But here, 90% of the money vanishes.”

Scroll tried to contact Minister of State for Home)Kiren Rijiju, who met the Mara Democratic Front leaders when they were in Delhi, but he did not respond.

The council leaders said direct funding was an acceptable compromise.

The spanner in the works

But the BJP's state unit is apprehensive about these plans.

One morning, at the BJP's small office down a steep road near the state assembly in Aizwal, Lalhluna, the state president of the party, explained why granting Union Territory status for the councils would amount to a deathknell for the organisation in Mizoram. “The rest of the state will turn against us," he said. "The BJP will never come to power.”

JV Hluna, the party's chairman, who teaches history at a local college, even dismissed the idea of direct funding. “There is no difference between direct funding and a union territory. It is the same thing. The state has no control over these areas. Mizoram is a small state. We cannot afford to break it up further.”

The state unit of BJP is proposing another approach. Lalhluna said the unit has not promised the councils any quid pro quo in return for joining the party. “These areas are very remote, the condition of roads is very bad," he said. "Even during the Chakma elections, we have promised better roads, better communication. Not greater autonomy.” He claimed this was a better way to take care of the ethnic minorities.

But that leaves the question of winning seats in Mizoram unresolved. A succession of decisions by the Bharatiya Janata Party, ranging from the beef ban to the rapid removal of governors from the state, are turning the state against the party.

To control the damage, and to woo the Mizos, the state unit is recommending a three-pronged approach. Hluna listed them out.

First, he said the centre should apologise for the bombing of Aizawl. In 1966, when the Mizo National Front's efforts to break Mizoram off India were underway, the Indian Air Force had bombed Aizawl. “We are happy to be Indians after the return of the peace and having our own state. But that bombing was a bad idea. Only civilians were killed.”

Second, he says, a long pending border dispute with Assam over 509 square miles of forestland should be settled in favour of Mizoram.

Third, in a state which is worried about being swamped by outsiders, so much so that local non-governmental organisations periodically issue notices telling outsiders to leave, he proposes that the BJP announce that only those present in the state before 25 March, 1971, be counted as legal citizens. The date, he says, is the same as the one in the Assam accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi.

What will this mean?

N William Singh, a professor of Sociology at Aizawl's Pachchunga University, said, “People who came after 1971 won't be able to vote, they won't get subsidies, or a ration card nor own property. Only those here before 1971 can buy and own property.” The move would clearly target Muslims in the state.

If the BJP goes ahead with this demand, he added, it would introduce a new dimension to the electoral politics of the state. Until now, elections were fought by the main political parties, the Congress and the Mizo National front, on the basis of patronage, where state funds are used by the parties to gain supporters.

But identity politics might now come to dominate the state’s political arena, regardless of whether the BJP decides to side with its state unit or meet the demands of the councils.

For a land already riven by identity, this might not be great news.

The next story will look at whether direct funding for the councils makes economic sense.