Ground Zero | Being Bru in Mizoram

For the first time since fleeing to neighbouring Tripura 21 years ago, the displaced Brus of Mizoram exercised their franchise on home soil during the Assembly polls on November 28. Rahul Karmakar reports on the changing dynamic between the minority Brus and the dominant Mizos and the possibility of greater acceptance of the ‘other’

Updated - December 15, 2018 08:33 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2018 12:02 am IST

“There is a perception that many Brus are not original inhabitants of Mizoram and are migrants from Assam, Tripura or Bangladesh.” A Bru with her voter identity card at the Naisingpara Bru refugee camp, in Tripura in 2014

“There is a perception that many Brus are not original inhabitants of Mizoram and are migrants from Assam, Tripura or Bangladesh.” A Bru with her voter identity card at the Naisingpara Bru refugee camp, in Tripura in 2014

Lalvungthanga, 67, misses being Nanda Kumar Reang. He also misses his younger brother, Shibajoy, who refused to return with him from a refugee camp in Tripura 20 years ago.

Unlike Lalvungthanga, who adopted a name associated with the dominant Mizo community in Mizoram and converted to Christianity 40 years ago, Shibajoy retained Reang, his surname as well as the name of the ethnic group he belongs to. The Reangs of Mizoram prefer to be called Bru.

On November 28, the brothers connected in a strange way. They voted almost at the same time in Mizoram, but miles apart. Lalvungthanga cast his vote at a polling centre at Bawngva Government Primary School in Mamit district. Shibajoy voted at a special polling centre for Bru refugees in Kanhmun, a village in the State, 63 km away on the border with Tripura, off National Highway 44A that connects Aizawl to Tripura.

The Kahnmun polling centre catered to Brus displaced from nine Assembly constituencies in Mizoram’s Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei districts. The majority of Brus are from Mamit district, which borders Tripura. “I came to know that he had come from the Narsingpara relief camp (in Tripura) to vote in Mizoram,” says Lalvungthanga.

The Tripura government arranged transport for 11,987 Bru voters across six relief camps in Tripura to come and vote in Kanhmun, a village of some 3,000 people on the eastern bank of the Langkaih river flowing along the Tripura-Mizoram border. A 60 m Bailey bridge connects Kanhmun with the other bank in Tripura. Between the nearest relief camp in Tripura, 2 km from the bridge, and the farthest 57 km away, is Narsingpara, Shibajoy’s temporary home since 1997, when thousands of Brus fled to Tripura following a major outbreak of ethnic violence. The Mizo-Bru conflict claimed at least 10 lives and was marked by large-scale arson.

Recalls Lalvungthanga: “We ran away too, though no one attacked our village. We got scared when we heard that some of our people in Saipuili village, 8 km from ours, were attacked. But I returned a year later after seeing many people die of starvation and diseases in Tripura. I preferred to die in my homeland rather than elsewhere.”

He hopes Shibajoy will be back soon. “Today, he stepped on his own soil to vote. Tomorrow, perhaps, he will find the motivation to leave the relief camp, where life is unbearable,” he says.

Fear of ‘outsiders’

In the recent Assembly election, Bru refugees came to Mizoram to vote, unlike in the past when polling officials from Mizoram went to relief camps in Tripura to conduct the elections. Mizoram’s church-backed non-governmental organisation Coordination Committee, a conglomeration of five Mizo social organisations which includes the influential Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), had demanded an end to the earlier voting arrangement which, it alleged, had allowed “outsiders” to creep into the State’s electoral rolls. There is a perception that many Brus are not original inhabitants of Mizoram and are migrants from Assam, Tripura or Bangladesh.

But the process of enrolling Bru voters in the camps in Tripura ran into complications. Allegations of manipulation to include ‘outsiders’ in the list led to the removal of Bhupesh Choudhary as the Deputy Commissioner of Mamit district in September. His counterpart in Kolasib, T. Arun, accused of a similar ‘anti-Mizo’ drive, stayed on, but vociferous protests made the Election Commission replace S.B. Shashank with Ashish Kundra as the State’s Chief Electoral Officer.

Apart from allegedly trying to let Brus in through the ‘backdoor’, Shashank had complained against Mizoram’s former Principal Secretary (Home) Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, a Mizo IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre on deputation, for reportedly interfering in the poll process. Chuaungo was moved out of the State.

Says Vanlalruata, the CYMA president, “We have nothing against either the non-Mizo officers or the Brus. Had that been the case, there could have been a movement against the Lunglei Deputy Commissioner [Ankita Chakravarty] too. She monitored the enrolment of Bru refugees from Lunglei district, and did a commendable job.”

The Shashank episode gave rise to suspicion that non-Mizo officials were either working under pressure or trying to be in the good books of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was said to be nurturing hopes of riding on the support of minority communities for berths in the 40-member Mizoram Assembly. The Brus, spread across nine Assembly seats but concentrated in the three in Mamit district, were in the party’s scheme of things, as were the Buddhist Chakmas in three southern Mizoram constituencies.

The suspicion that the BJP has been targeting the Brus for a long time has its origins in former BJP president L.K. Advani’s contention in 1999 that the community was being persecuted because they were primarily Hindus. The Brus had also petitioned the National Human Rights Commission and other rights groups saying that they were being victimised by the majority Christians in Mizoram because of their faith.

The conflict between Mizos and Brus began brewing five years before Advani’s remarks. The immediate trigger was the demand of the Bru National Union, a political organisation formed in 1994, for an autonomous district council for the community.

Mizo organisations reacted by demanding that the Brus be left out of the State’s electoral rolls as they “are not indigenous to Mizoram”. Clashes between the two communities in Mamit district led to the birth of the extremist Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) in 1996. In October 1997, members of the BNLF allegedly gunned down a Mizo forest guard in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mamit district.

Subsequently, the Brus bore the brunt of a hostile reaction, with a large number of them fleeing to adjoining Tripura. Bru groups claimed that 1,391 Bru houses in 41 villages were burnt down and several women were raped and people killed. According to Mizoram police, 325 houses in 16 villages were torched, but it could not confirm other crimes, including the alleged “destruction of temples”.

About 9,000 of the estimated 40,000 who fled in the two waves of violence, in 1997 and in 2009, returned to Mizoram, after eight repatriation attempts since 2010.

Former Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla acknowledged that a large number of Brus converted to Christianity over the years. But he trashed the ‘Hindu’ claim, maintaining that the Brus were primarily nature-worshippers.

Nevertheless, the Tripura-based Bru Hindu Joint Coordination Committee, allegedly propped up by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that works among tribal populations, asked the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2017 to “safeguard the Hindu religion or indigenous faith of the Bru community in Mizoram”. It also said in its letter that many people who had converted to Christianity had “returned to their original religion” in the camps in Tripura.

A fair rehabilitation package

Lalvungthanga became a Christian four decades ago. But at home, he still prays to the deities his parents worshipped. “This is my mother (pointing to a woman in a laminated photo) dancing the Hojagiri, our traditional dance,” he says, adding that the community has for long been under pressure to “forget” its cultural and religious practices.

His parents did not convert. His brother did but is now a Hindu in Tripura. “What else do you call people whose deities are similar to Hindu gods and goddesses?” he says.

Lalvungthanga is a supporter of the Mizo National Front (MNF), which has returned to power in Mizoram after a decade, winning 26 seats in the 40-member Assembly. His ramshackle house, the first on the road to Bawngva Natunbasti off National Highway 44A, sports the party’s flags. Almost all residents of Natunbasti, meaning ‘new colony’, are aligned with the MNF, unlike the majority in Bawngva Puranbasti (old colony) across the highway. Here the village council president Biakmawia and vice-president Lalfeli are both Congress workers and Brus “converted to Mizo”.

Bawngva, one of the 35 Bru resettlement villages in Mamit district, falls under the Mamit Assembly constituency. Of the 1,584 repatriated families in these villages, 57 are in Bawngva. Almost all of them had fled in 1997, and returned in less than five years.

Says Lalfeli, “All Brus are not BJP supporters. Some on the other side (Tripura) may be, but most of us here are devout Christians and perhaps not compatible with the BJP.”

Unknown perhaps to Lalfeli, the BJP has made inroads in a few Bru resettlement villages. One of them is Damdiai, a village of 115 Bru families about 40 km from Bawngva. A majority of the residents are among the 195 former extremists who had surrendered in 2005 to facilitate the repatriation process.

Former BNLF leader and Damdiai resident Elvis Chorkhy toured the Bru-inhabited areas as a campaigner for the BJP. He says, “We want all the Brus of Mizoram to return and be given a proper rehabilitation package. We want to ensure similar benefits for those who have already been repatriated.” He adds that the relationship between Brus and Mizos has improved over the years despite niggles from time to time.

Says Jacob Lalawmpuia, the Additional Deputy Commissioner of Mamit district: “As per our records, since 2010, 64 Bru families have returned from the Tripura camps to Mamit and Kolasib districts. They will be given the latest package that is being offered to those in Tripura. But they have to report to the local authorities and have proper documents.”

According to the data with the district authorities at Mamit town, 18 km from Bawngva, there were an estimated 10,919 resident Bru voters in 116 villages in Mamit district. The number of Brus from the same district in the Tripura camps was 8,777. Says Lalawmpuia, “The actual number of resident Brus may be different because many of them have Mizo names and are difficult to identify from the voters’ list.”

A. Sawibunga, the Tripura-based president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum, says the reception accorded to Bru voters by Mizo NGOs at Kanhmun was encouraging. “We hope this translates into general acceptance of the Brus in the greater Mizo fold,” he says.

“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,” says Sawibunga. The forum is also seeking an autonomous district council for Brus like the ones that other minority groups such as the Lai, Mara and Chakma have in southern Mizoram.

Bru children at a class in Kanchanpur sub-division in Tripura, in 2016.

Bru children at a class in Kanchanpur sub-division in Tripura, in 2016.


The fears, Vanlalruata says, are unfounded: “There are many more Brus living in Mizoram than in the Tripura camps, and they live happily, enjoying the same constitutional rights that Mizos do. It is wrong to say that Mizos are not accommodative, or that they do not want to give space to others.”

Some Bru leaders and villagers, seeking anonymity, say that conversion to Christianity, adoption of Mizo names, and giving up their age-old customs have not made them “Mizo enough” despite their having lived in Mizoram for ages. “No matter how much we try to assimilate, everything is measured in terms of zonahthlak [possessing Mizo traits],” a surrendered Bru extremist says.

According to K. Robin, who teaches History and Ethnography in Mizoram University, the identity of the people who were once ruled by the Sailo chiefs in what constitutes present day Mizoram and beyond crystallised to form the ‘Mizo’. The Sailos belong to the Lushei or Lushai group, whose dialect, called Duhlian, was adopted by ethnically similar communities such as the Ralte, Lakher, Poi, Lai, and Fanai. In return, the Lusheis expanded the Mizo identity to include other communities bound by a common language.

In his book Chin: History, Culture and Identity , Robin notes: “And in this (identity), the Mara, Chakma, and the Bru were generally not included, nor related Mizo tribes in Manipur or Myanmar. The rule under the Sailos gave a sense of territoriality to the identity, which had earlier been in a state of flux. The British contribution was that of legitimising their status.”

Says Lalzarliana, who teaches Sociology in Mizoram University: “Mizo language and identity used to be the sole preserve of the Lusheis, but we have all claimed ownership of it. I belong to the Poi group, which, along with the related Lai, is numerically larger than the Lusheis. I have no problem including the Bru in the Mizo fold, as Mizo itself is an amalgamation of several small groups. The Bru language, however, is very different from those clubbed in the Lushei-Kuki-Chin group.” He adds that the Mizos and Brus have continued to coexist despite their differences. The relationship has at times been strained, as is the case with most insular ethnic groups across the Northeast.

Staying together

Few villages in Mizoram exemplify the interdependence and intermingling of Mizos and non-Mizos as Bawngva. Of the 215 houses in the village, only three are of Mizos. One of them belongs to Gabriel-a, the former village council president (VCP).

Lalvungthanga stayed at Gabriel-a’s house for three days after returning from a Tripura relief camp in 1998. “Miscreants demolished the house I had left behind in Puranbasti. Gabriel-a helped me collect material to build a new house and resume jhum (shifting) cultivation on the hill slopes,” he says.

Another former VCP is Rosiama, a Mizo whose father Khalifa, a Bengali Muslim from adjoining Assam, died three weeks ago at the age of 96. Lalfeli, the Bawngva village council vice-president, is a Bru married to 52-year-old Dilip Roy, a Bengali Hindu from Karimganj in Assam and one of two non-tribal grocery store owners in the village. Jagat Pal, the other Bengali grocer in Natunbasti, has a Mizo name, Zominga, like his Bru wife Lalhlinpuii. Lalfeli and Roy’s daughter is married to the son of Lalropuia, a “pure Mizo” of Darlak, a village 1 km west of Bawngva.

“Some areas were disturbed during the violence 21 years ago. Many of our Bru neighbours fled out of fear. But some 10 families in Bawngva did not budge. In Darlak too, some 20 families stayed back,” says Lalropuia.

“There were some 200 Bru families here. Many went away during the violence. About 60 of these families returned within four years, and I don’t think they regret it,” says Lalchhanhima Valpuia, the VCP of Darlak.

Local literature has it that the Bru-Mizo relationship goes back to 1942-43, when a Bru leader named Ratnamani Noatia revolted against Tripura’s Manikya rulers. After Ratnamani was beheaded, the Mizo chieftains sent Lalhuliana, a pasaltha (or commander), to rescue the persecuted Brus.

Says V. Pachuau, the BJP’s candidate for the Hachhek Assembly seat bordering Tripura, “Lalhuliana was my grandfather. The Brus have great respect for him and my father, who carried on the job of caring for them.” The goodwill that his grandfather had earned from the Brus did not, however, translate into victory. He finished third behind his rivals from the Congress and the MNF, but did better than the 37 other BJP candidates who lost.

The BJP candidates in Mamit and Dampa, two other Assembly seats where the Brus form a sizeable chunk of voters, also finished third. According to Mizoram-based rights activist Paritosh Chakma, the BJP could have won these seats had it fielded Bru candidates. “The party should have fielded activist leaders who have a huge support base, as both the Brus and Chakmas are oppressed communities,” he says. The BJP’s solitary win came in Tuichawng, a Chakma-dominated constituency. Its candidate, Buddha Dhan Chakma, was a Congress import.

Says Pachuau: “Though I am a Mizo, I am also a Bru at heart. The Brus in Mizoram are 99% Christian while 40% of the refugees in Tripura are Christian. They have been victims of misplaced political aspirations and wrong advice from so-called intellectuals. I hope to play a role in bringing them back to Mizoram for the sake of peace, and of course, my grandfather.”

Mizoram’s influential church leaders, who had converted the Brus years ago, feel that they need to build bridges between the two Christian groups. “After all, they are our brothers and sisters,” says Reverend B. Sangthanga of the Mizo Presbyterian Synod, the largest Christian denomination in the State.

Adam Saprinsanga, who edits a magazine in Aizawl, says internal politics is what has been keeping the Bru issue alive. “Certain groups are trying to capitalise on the ethnic divide, which may take years or decades to resolve,” he says.

Lalvungthanga, used to living life as a “second-class citizen”, is prepared to wait. He hopes that his party in power, the MNF, would hasten the healing and assimilation process between the communities. “I hope I die feeling as much Nanda Kumar Reang as Lalvungthanga.”

In other words, as much Bru as Mizo.


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