When we talk of migration within the country and repatriation, it is the case of Kashmiri Pandits which immediately strikes us. However, the ongoing protests in Tripura’s bordering areas with Mizoram brings to light an equally important issue of the Bru refugees.
The ongoing protest by Bru refugees in the area in Tripura bordering the state of Mizoram shows no signs of relenting. The road blockade in the area has entered the fourth day to protest the lack of essential supplies by the government. The protest has been further aggravated by a spate of deaths. Yesterday, a two-year old boy and a woman reportedly died in a Bru relief camp. Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), a committee of Bru refugees and one of the signatories to the Four Corner Agreement with the Centre on repatriation, has alleged that the two died of “starvation” following the centre’s move to stop the supply of free ration and cash-dole to the inmates of the relief camp from last month after commencement of the ninth and last process of repatriation of Bru refugees from October 3.
Today again, there are reports stating that two more persons, including an infant, died allegedly of starvation at the relief camp. Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF) vice president, R Dawngliana has said that the death toll has risen to four since Thursday. He also said, “The relief was stopped on October 30, whereas the month long repatriation process that began on October 3 was to end November 30. How do we survive for one month?”
The Bru refugee crisis dates back to the year 1995, when the their peaceful existence came under threat as the Mizos, the majority community in the state of Mizoram, demanded that the Brus be stripped of their voting rights, arguing that they were ‘not native’ to Mizoram. 2 years later, a Mizo forest guard was shot dead by unidentified assailants. Blaming it squarely on the Bru community, the violent backlash from their side forced the Brus to leave their homes and take shelter in Tripura, where they have been living in pitiable conditions since 1997.
Ever since the Brus were driven out of the state of Mizoram in the year 1997, they continue to be subjugated by the Mizo groups. Last year, ahead of Mizoram Assembly polls, the Brus had to travel to Mizoram in order to cast their ballot. Earlier, the polling officials used to travel to relief camps in Mizoram in order to conduct the elections. Mizoram’s church-backed non-governmental organisation Coordination Committee, which consists of five Mizo social groups had objected to this voting arrangement arguing that this arrangement had allowed ‘outsiders’ to enter the state’s electoral rolls. They have been alleging that Brus are not original inhabitants of Mizoram, but migrants from Assam, Tripura or Bangladesh. Subsequent attempts for resettlement were stalled by the Mizo NGOs. The first phase of repatriation of the Bru refugees started in 2010, when 1,622 Bru families with 8,573 members were resettled in Mizoram. However, in 2011, 2012 and 2015, the process of resettlement of Bru refugees in their native state of Mizoram was stalled.
What has further aggravated the plight of the Brus over the last two decades is aptly illustrated by the claims of some villagers and leaders from the community speaking on the condition of anonymity that even their efforts in the form of conversion to Christianity, adoption of Mizo names, and even giving up on their traditional customs has not helped their cause. They are not seen as “Mizo enough” despite their having lived in the state of Mizoram for ages. According to a surrendered Bru extremist, “No matter how much we try to assimilate, everything is measured in terms of zonahthlak [possessing Mizo traits].”
The latest peace deal was brokered over a period of three years, starting in 2015. A financial package of Rs. 435 crores, which covers 5,407 Bru families (32,876 members), was agreed on. This package renders a one-time assistance of Rs 4 lakh to every Bru family in the form of fixed deposit within one month of their repatriation, along with a cash assistance of Rs 5,000 per month, along with free rations for a period of two years. Moreover, Rs. 1.5 lakh will also be provided as house building assistance, spread over three instalments.
The Bru refugees living in makeshift camps have been protesting and resisting the ongoing repatriation initative. Last month, the protestors demanded fulfillment of eight demands before repatriation. These demands included the constitution of a Bru autonomous district council under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, a demand that has been rejected several times by the Mizoram government.
The Bru, also known as Reang, refugees are also apprehensive of the security situation and rehabilitation arrangements. Last year, A. Sawibunga, the Tripura-based president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum said, “No one likes to stay away from their home, but we want to be assured of the security of our people, and of rehabilitation in areas where they can stay together.”
Amidst the ongoing protests, Bru refugees have now expressed concern about the inadequacy of the rehabilitation arrangements. A Bru from Mizoram working at private company in the national capital, spoke about the poor arrangements made by the Mizoram government for the returning refugees, on the condition of anonymity and said, “It is like a ‘Gaushala’ (cattle shelter) at Mamit field where they are staying presently. We don’t want to stay separately. The places we had before in Mizoram are no longer there. Since so many years, we continue to be backward and neglected. Visit any Bru village in Kolasib, Lunglei or Mamit district, and you will see how we are living – barefeet, no pucca houses, no roads. Some still live in bamboo huts.”
MBDPF leader R Dawngliana said that the Brus have placed “legitimate demands” before the centre. He reiterated, “we want the head of every family to go to their respective places in Mizoram before the commencement of repatriation, and build their house there. On completion of the house, they would return to take their families from the relief camps in Tripura. No one wants to return as a refugee.” Apart from this, Dawngliana, Vice President of Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF) said, “We also want the bifurcated families to stay together at one place, not in scattered areas. Some of our people have been allotted areas in Mizo villages. They want to stay away from Mizo villages for safety and security reasons.”
It is clear that the Brus don’t feel secure in repatriating to Mizoram and that is why they are still reluctant to return to their original homes from the relief camps where they already live in rather inhumane conditions. What has worsened the situation for them is the fact that there is no proper rehabilitation arrangement in Mizoram as alleged by the Bru refugees. Repatriation cannot be thrust upon the community, rather a humanitarian approach has to be taken and the Centre and the Mizoram government must take necessary steps in order to rehabilitate them properly. Rehabilitation is based on the idea of restitution, that is, bringing back the refugees, as nearly as possible, to the same position that they enjoyed immediately before they were driven out. In the present circumstances of lack of security and lack of proper infrastructure makes the repatriation process a futile exercise.