Aizawl, Oct 21 : Six political parties in Mizoram on Thursday submitted a joint memorandum to the Election Commission of India demanding the removal of Mizoram's Chief Electoral Officer Ashwani Kumar.
The joint submission came hours after representatives of these parties walked out of a stormy meeting at Kumar's office to discuss their earlier requests to reschedule dates set for elections and vote counting.
At the meeting, even church leaders threatened they may in the future be unable to support the ECI in terms of awareness campaigns and exhorting members to cast their votes if the ECI does not meet their present request.
Party representatives of the Congress, BJP, TMC, Mizo National Front, Mizoram People's Conference and Zoram Nationalist Party had walked out about half-an-hour into the meeting, which was also attended by church leaders and some NGOs.
Parties, NGOs and church leaders from a dozen denominations had last week written to the CEO requesting the date of polling be shifted to November 25 from December 4 as two large denominations-Presbyterians and Pentecostals-are scheduled to organize their annual meetings in the first week of December.
While the Presbyterians expect at least 4,000 people from across the state to participate in its annual meeting, the Pentecostals expect half that number who would also be engaged and therefore be unable to cast their votes if polling day is not rescheduled.
They also requested that the date of counting of votes, set for December 8, be rescheduled to fall on any day except Saturday and Sunday, the latter being a holy day for Christians that make up close to 90 percent of the state's population.
At the 11 am meeting at his office, Kumar said the ECI had discussed the requests at a meeting on Tuesday and that the poll panel had conveyed to him it would be "really difficult" to reschedule the date of polls and that it was "scared of setting a precedent".
"This was the concern communicated by the EC and they asked me to communicate their concerns to you so you may accommodate their concerns," Kumar said, before distributing copies of a letter he wrote to the poll panel while forwarding the various groups' representations to the ECI.
In that letter, dated October 11, Kumar wrote, "To have 25th November, 2013 as the day of poll will not be sound because polling parties would have to be dispatched on Saturday and Sunday, which are stated to be inconvenient by the representationists [sic] themselves. Further, other church denominations may also have their own conferences and general Assemblies at some point in time in the year; in future they may also request if the date of election clashes with their conferences. It is therefore also an issue of setting a precedent. The dates of election are decided by the Commission after taking into account several factors. Had the Presbyterian Church or Pentecostal [sic] Church informed us about this, it could have been taken into account, particularly when the Commission has been strongly engaging itself towards greater and ethical voter participation.
"As such one option could be to request the Presbyterian Church/Pentecostal [sic] Church to postpone their General Assembly/Synod to 5th December onwards. If they persuade themselves to this reasonable suggestion, the issue would have resolved. If they accept the suggestion to postpone their conferences, it may only, to my mind, enhance their image of being reasonable. Otherwise, the Commission may consider accommodating their request, if possible, by fixing poll day on 27th November, 2013, which would be convenient in terms of logistics of sending and receiving polling parties," Kumar wrote.
He added in a later section, "It is true that a majority of population attends the Church service in the Churches of their respective denominations. Only one denomination namely Seventh Day Adventist conducts its worship day on Saturday.... Knowing this nature of Saturday/Sunday and the experience of change in the date of last Assembly election, this office had written to the Commission... that the date of election may be fixed any other day than Saturday and Sunday. As such, the Commission may kindly consider postponing the counting day to 9th December, 2013 (Monday)."
The politicians, church leaders and NGO representatives however disagreed and charged Kumar of unilaterally suggesting new dates in spite of them collectively requesting the polls be held on November 25. They however said they have no problems with the CEO's suggestion to the ECI to fix the date of counting votes to December 9.
While politicians and some NGO representatives walked out in protest, church leaders and leaders of NGOs linked with the church stayed behind and negotiated with the CEO for another half-an-hour, with Reverend C Biakmawia, the Presbyterian Church's finance officer and Reverend Lalzuithanga, Synod Executive Secretary, saying November 27 would be inconvenient since several high-level meetings that normally precede the general body meetings would begin on that day and participants would be unable to cast their votes.
Reverend Biakmawia also countered Kumar's recommendation to the ECI that Monday would be unsuitable for poll day since polling parties would have to be dispatched on Saturday and Sunday, saying in the past poll parties have been dispatched on Friday or Saturday, attended Church services on Sunday, and carried out their duties on Monday.
Strong words were exchanged later on in the meeting, with both the Reverends saying Mizoram's churches "have been trying their level best to cooperate with the ECI" in terms of creating awareness among its members and urging them to vote".
"If the ECI cannot cooperate with us on this present request, we may in the future find it difficult to cooperate with the ECI," they said, adding "You do not mind about our people who cannot cast their votes. You do not care about our religious sentiments."
Kumar countered, "I was told to appeal to you. I cannot prevail upon you. If you feel I am not toeing your line, please do not expect me to parrot your views." He added the churches and other groups had the option of sending their representations to the ECI directly and not route it through him.
It was only after the intervention of Joint CEO Lalengmawia-who said the good side of the meeting was that the CEO's office would send a feedback of the meeting to the ECI-that tempers appeared to be somewhat soothed.
In a few hours however, the churches sent their earlier representations directly to the ECI while the six political parties faxed a memorandum accusing the CEO of unilaterally coming to a decision even as they and others requested something else.
At a hurriedly called press conference later in the day, the party representatives said, "The CEO has disrespected Mizos and not giving importance to our request. We had, along with church leaders and NGOs, made a request for the poll date to be changed to a particular day. But he has unilaterally and on his own recommended another date. We feel the CEO is not mature enough to conduct the upcoming elections, and have therefore requested the Chief Election Commissioner to remove and replace him."