An unexpected twist in Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Christian Forum’s support for Congress candidates threatens to derail the BJP’s dream run in the north-eastern State.

Published : Apr 16, 2024 18:20 IST - 6 MINS READ

Nabam Tuki, the Congress candidate from Arunachal West, during an election campaign in Palin town on April 7.

Nabam Tuki, the Congress candidate from Arunachal West, during an election campaign in Palin town on April 7. | Photo Credit: ANUWAR HAZARIKA/ANI

The Arunachal Christian Forum’s (ACF) declaration of support for Congress candidates in the April 19 election to the two Lok Sabha seats in the border State has upset the BJP’s plans to retain the two seats it won in 2019. However, it can take some comfort from the fact that it has already won, uncontested, 10 of the 60 seats in the Assembly elections being held simultaneously.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu accused the Congress of playing the religion card, while senior BJP leader and Union Minister Kiren Rijiju said on social media that the Congress was “blatantly misusing a pure Christian forum so brazenly against the BJP”. (Rijiju is seeking re-election from the Arunachal West Lok Sabha constituency.)

Also Read:BJP is set to form its first elected government in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Congress did not issue any reaction to the ACF’s stand or the BJP’s allegation. Khandu is among the 10 BJP candidates who won uncontested. He was elected unopposed for the third time in a row from Jang-Mukto constituency in Tawang district.

Show cause notice

On April 4, the Chief Electoral Officer, Arunachal Pradesh, issued a show cause notice to the ACF on the grounds that the forum’s circular endorsing and seeking support for former Chief Minister Nabam Tuki and Bosiram Siram was “contradictory to the Religious Institutions (Prevention and Misuse) Act, 1988, and Election Commission of India’s guidelines on Model Code of Conduct”. (Nabam Tuki is contesting in Arunachal West and Bosiram Siram in Arunachal East, where Tapir Gao of the BJP is seeking re-election.)

The notice also pointed out that Clause (a), Section 3 of the Act states that “no religious institution or manager thereof shall use or allow the use of any premises belonging to, or under the control of the institution for the promotion or propagation of any political party.”

However, the ACF, in a written reply to the notice dated April 6, claimed that it was “a non-religious voluntary organisation” in which people could discuss matters of community interest and hence, it did not come under the “religious institution” category.

It further said: “ACF has not committed any offence punishable under the Section 3 as ACF has no religious institution wherein ACF has conducted any activities connected to denouncing and raising any political party or candidates.”

The ACF had issued the appeal and replied to the notice on its letterhead, which described the organisation as a “confederation of Churches of Arunachal Pradesh”.

ACF president Tarh Miri told Frontline that the forum has not withdrawn its appeal although in its reply to the notice it stated that ACF “deeply regrets” any hurt it may have caused to the sentiments of other candidates or the public.

On April 3, the ACF requested all member organisations and denominations to “extend full support and work for the candidature” of the two Congress candidates and warned of “necessary steps” if they did not do so. There are 46 denominations under the ACF.

Anti-conversion law in focus

The ACF’s support for the Congress has also brought to the centre stage contentious issues such as the anti-conversion law, namely, the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, delisting of converted tribals from the list of Scheduled Tribes, and changing the name of the existing Department of Indigenous Affairs to the Department of Indigenous Faith and Cultural Affairs.

Christians constitute 30.26 per cent of the State’s population of 13.84 lakh, followed by Hindus with 29.04 per cent, Buddhists 11.77 per cent, Muslims 1.95 per cent, Sikhs 0.24 per cent, and Jains 0.06 per cent. People belonging to “Other religions” (including indigenous faith believers) account for 26.2 per cent, according to Census 2011.

There are 26 major tribes and about 100 sub-tribes in the State, each with distinct cultural practices and customary laws. In November last year, the ACF submitted a six-point charter of demands to the Chief Minister. The demands included repeal or amendment of the anti-conversion law, stopping of allocation of funds from the State exchequer to institutions of indigenous and other faiths, approval for construction of the Tawang Church, and exempting Arunachal Pradesh from the purview of the proposed Uniform Civil Code.

The ACF also reminded Pema Khandu that he had promised on June 28, 2018, that the anti-conversion law would be brought before the Assembly for repeal. An official release issued then quoted Khandu as saying that “the law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”.

The ACF stated that if the government failed to repeal or amend the anti-conversion law before the 2024 Lok Sabha election, “the Christian community in Arunachal Pradesh may be compelled to remember the issue during the political democratic process”.

The revised estimates of the budget of the Department of Indigenous Affairs for 2022-23 show that the Pema Khandu government allocated Rs.3 crore for payment of honorarium for registered indigenous faith priests (later increased to Rs.8 crore) and Rs.10 crore for “indigenous prayer centres”.

There are more than 3,000 registered priests of different indigenous faiths.

On the other hand, the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh (IFSCAP) has opposed the ACF demand for repeal or amendment of the anti-conversion law. It has acknowledged the “huge role” played by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in influencing indigenous faith believers to institutionalise and document their belief system to check conversion to Christianity. The Sangh Parivar hopes the alignment of Hindu and indigenous faith believers can create a larger constituency among electors and bring electoral dividends for the BJP.

Election scenario

There are eight candidates in the fray in Arunachal West and six in Arunachal East. The Arunachal West candidates include Ruhi Tagung Rughu, who quit as State president of the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) and is contesting as an independent. Nitish had named him the candidate when the party was part of the Congress-led INDIA bloc. After Kumar returned to the BJP-led NDA, the JD(U) decided not to contest, prompting Tagung to quit.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, BJP got 58.9 per cent of the votes, the Congress 20.92 per cent, the JD(S) 9.29 per cent, the NPP 4.3 per cent, and the PPA 4.21. In 2014, the BJP and the Congress each won one Lok Sabha seat, with the BJP getting 46.62 per cent of the votes, the Congress 41.66 per cent, the PPA 7.96 per cent, the Trinamool 1.55 per cent and the NCP 1.03 per cent.

Khandu is confident that the BJP will secure a landslide victory in the State. On April 7, after attending an election rally in Pangin Assembly constituency, he posted on his “X” handle: “The entire Arunachal Pradesh is in the grip of saffron wave thanks to visionary leadership of Hon’ble PM Shri @narendramodiji.”

Also Read | Tribes in Arunachal Pradesh feel push to resist conversions to Christianity

The PPA, a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), is locked in a friendly contest with the BJP in eight Assembly constituencies that fall under the Arunachal East Lok Sabha constituency and in four Assembly constituencies in Arunachal West.

It has extended support to the BJP for the two Lok Sabha seats and promised a post-election alliance in the Assembly. The NPP, another NEDA member, has also extended support to the BJP in two Lok Sabha seats and is contesting in 20 Assembly seats.

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