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Brus vs non-tribal Bengalis: It’s a clash among the displaced in Tripura

Brus in the Naisingpara refugee camp in Kanchanpur sub-division in Tripura.

Brus in the Naisingpara refugee camp in Kanchanpur sub-division in Tripura.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Following the agreement allowing some 35,000 displaced Bru tribal people to settle permanently in Tripura, tension is brewing between the Brus and the non-tribal Bengali residents who worry that they will become refugees in the State. Rahul Karmakar reports on the challenges to secure suitable land for both

Anandabazar, a commercial centre in northern Tripura’s Reang tribal domain, means Market of Happiness. Given by Bengali refugees from present-day Bangladesh during the Partition of India, the name perhaps reflected their state of mind on receiving a piece of land to rebuild their lives.

But Anandabazar is far from the picture of happiness it was once, since December 10, 2019, when some 150 “miscreants” ransacked and looted the shops and houses of 93 Bengali families. These families have since been living in the barracks, official quarters, and the second floor of the Anandabazar police station.

“This is not the first time we have had to vacate our houses. We became refugees following a series of violent incidents from 2000 to 2003. Some of us left Anandabazar for good. Aren’t we humans enough to deserve a fear-free life and a rehabilitation package similar to that of the Brus,” asked Rathindra Kumar Roy, general secretary of Anandabazar Displaced People’s Committee.

 

On February 19, Kanchanpur’s Sub-Divisional Magistrate Chandni Chandran visited the displaced Bengalis to break the news that the Tripura government has decided to stop their free rations and close down the camp in the police station. “Peace has prevailed since the incident that made them leave their homes. The compensation issues can be worked out after they leave the camp,” she said.

Anandabazar is 23 km from Kanchanpur, the headquarters of one of three divisions of North Tripura district. These families, now numbering 117 with more from nearby villages taking refuge, have refused to budge until the State government compensates their losses and ensures safety for them back home.

The homes of the displaced Bengalis are within a 300-metre radius of the Anandabazar police station that has been virtually under siege for more than 70 days. Apart from the barracks, the quarters of some 20 police personnel accommodate some displaced families. “The government has asked them to leave but we cannot use force. We hope these families heed the government. We are trained to take the pressure of policing, but it is difficult when you hardly have a place to take rest,” the police station’s in-charge Keshab Ranjan Jamatia said.

But Sudhir Roy and Ashutosh Das are scared of becoming “soft targets” again. Roy’s house, partly damaged with almost everything from his wife’s jewellery to poultry and goats gone, is barely 50 metres from the police station. “What is the guarantee that the refugees, emboldened by the government’s largesse, will not attack us again,” Roy asked. By refugees, he meant the Bru community displaced from Mizoram and living across seven relief camps in north Tripura for more than two decades now, which places them in close contact with the Bengalis. Although the December attack on the non-tribal people was the fallout of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, Bengali organisations believe the “outsider” Brus, not their local tribespeople, have been targeting them to occupy their homes.

‘New refugees seen as villains’

The Brus, referred to as Tuikuks by other tribes in Mizoram, are called Reangs in Tripura. They number about 2 lakh across Tripura and form the majority of the 1,09,648 Scheduled Tribes (2011 Census) in North Tripura district, followed by the Chakma and Tripuri communities. The district has 3,34,931 non-tribal people but they are fewer in number across the Kanchanpur subdivision, where Anandabazar is located, and in Damcherra block of the Panisagar subdivision that are under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC).

 

Four of the seven Bru refugee camps are in Kanchanpur subdivision and three in Damcherra block. The largest of these, housing about 3,000 families, is Naisingpara and the smallest is Nabajoipara with some 300 families. Both are in Kanchanpur subdivision. Nabajoipara derived its name from the “newcomers”, Brus who fled a second round of ethnic tension in Mizoram in 2009. Their arrival added to some 32,000 refugees who had come after the first wave of violence in 1997.

“Every problem needs a villain. The internally displaced people, removed from their roots and with nowhere else to go, are easy to blame for every ill,” said A. Sawibunga, president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum. He stays at the Naisingpara camp. “We were blamed in Mizoram; we are being blamed now. If extremist groups in Tripura were behind the attacks on Bengalis in 2000, the December incidents were the fallout of the anti-CAA protests where some of our youth may have been involved without our knowledge.”

The Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum was one of the five Bru organisations that signed the resettlement plan involving the Centre and the State governments of Mizoram and Tripura. The others were the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Coordination Committee, the Mizoram Bru Indigenous Democratic Movement, the Bru Tribal Development Society and the Bru Displaced Welfare Organisation.

Brus vs non-tribal Bengalis: It’s a clash among the displaced in Tripura
 

On December 14, the Kanchanpur police registered a case against “26 and others” for the violence during the anti-CAA protests. Among the 26 named were 14 Reangs and 12 Bengalis. There is no clarity on how many of the Reangs are refugees. But locals said all the Bengalis named are members of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules the 30-member TTAADC that the Bharatiya Janata Party is keen on winning with or without the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The BJP and IPFT rule Tripura together. That same day, the State Election Commission notified the elections to the TTAADC. The dates have not been declared as the process to increase the number of seats in the tribal council to 50 is on.

“Given the sensitivity of the issue, we are investigating the cases carefully to identify the troublemakers,” said Kanchanpur’s Sub-Divisional Police Officer Bikramjit Suklabaidya.

 

The Nagarik Suraksha Mancha, a front formed after the December 10 violence for the protection of Bengalis, believes the Brus are being used in a conspiracy to gradually drive the non-tribal people out of the TTAADC areas where land rights of tribal people are protected under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. “In a bid to be seen as humanitarian, the BJP government at the Centre and Tripura fell into the trap of cleansing the tribal-dominated areas of Bengalis and other non-tribal people such as the Buddhist Baruas. The rehabilitation of Brus from Mizoram is making more and more Bengalis internally displaced but very few, including the administration, are sympathetic to our plight because we do not fit into the narrative of victimised people,” the Mancha’s president Ranjit K. Nath said. He added that the CAA gave the “xenophobic elements” a weapon to create a rift between the tribal and non-tribal people who have been coexisting peacefully for decades barring some incidents in which some Bru refugees were responsible.

Land for Bengalis

The Mancha has blamed TIPRA (The Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance), a newly formed “apolitical party”, for the plight of the Bengalis. TIPRA is headed by Pradyot Manikya Debbarma, former State Congress president and scion of the Tripura royal family as well as a signatory to the agreement for resettling the Brus in the State. According to the Mancha, Debbarma’s political ambition was making him undo what his grandmother, Queen Kanchan Prava Devi, had done for the Bengali Hindu victims of Partition. On February 9, the Mancha lodged an FIR against Debbarma for allegedly whipping up sentiments against the Bengalis.

“Much of the Tripura kingdom was lost to East Pakistan but the royalty had a soft corner for the Bengali refugees of 1947-49, most of whom were its subjects. The Queen took the initiative to form the Swasti Samabay Samiti (cooperative society), one of India’s oldest cooperative societies, and let the Partition-affected Bengalis settle on 1,000 drune of land in the hills of northern Tripura,” said Agartala-based Pannalal Roy, a researcher and author.

The Samiti allows its 3,500 members to settle on specified plots within the 1,000 drune, equivalent to 4,026.06 acres, without ownership. Members are also allowed to transfer land by paying the Samiti a fee. The arrangement, members said, somewhat insulates the non-tribal people from Sixth Schedule restrictions on land. In a letter to Governor Ramesh Bais on January 21, the Samiti’s chairman Kamal Krishna Nath outlined how the Bengalis have been bearing the brunt of the Bru refugee pressure since 1997. He sought delimitation of the land for non-tribal people besides restoration of land vacated by the Bengalis because of years of violence and intimidation.

“Not only did the government not act on a series of attacks on Bengali people since 2000-2001, it has also not handed over the 1,000 drune of land to the Samiti. A survey done in 1954 revealed that 803 drune had been handed over, which was later recorded in the local administration’s report in 2008. And of the allotted land, our members effectively have 650 drune because of spaces provided for roads, government offices and schools,” Nath said. The Samiti also claimed to have provided about 30 drune for helping the government set up some camps for the Bru refugees.

Bengalis have been living in the barracks, official quarters, and the second floor of the Anandabazar police station ever since their shops and houses were looted by ‘miscreants’, who they believe were the ‘outsider’ Brus, on December 10, 2019.

Bengalis have been living in the barracks, official quarters, and the second floor of the Anandabazar police station ever since their shops and houses were looted by ‘miscreants’, who they believe were the ‘outsider’ Brus, on December 10, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

 

At Dasda, midway between Kanchanpur and Anandabazar, about 290 Bengali families have been living in a makeshift colony since being displaced by the violence in 2000. “We helped the Brus in many ways when they came but they made us flee our homes. We have somehow managed to survive despite the government stopping relief after six years. Whether the Left Front earlier or the BJP now, the government has shown it does not care for us,” said Arun Chandra Nath of the Udbastu (displaced) Unnayan Samiti on the outskirts of Dasda.

The pressure of the refugees, locals of Dasda said, was felt by the tribal Lushais of the area too. About 60 families of the Lushais — Mizos of Tripura — relocated to North Tripura district’s Jampui Hills during the violence in 2000 fearing a backlash from the Brus who had fled retaliatory violence in Mizoram after a Bru extremist group killed a Mizo forest department employee in 1997.

Who are the outsiders?

“We have no conflict with the local Reangs and other tribes but the government must scrap the agreement and make the Brus return to Mizoram so that we can live in peace again. We have endured the outsiders for too long and can understand why the Mizoram government was happy to let Tripura rehabilitate them,” the Mancha’s general secretary, Diptanu Nath, said.

“Who said they are outsiders? The Brus are our very own people displaced by the Dumboor dam (in Gomati district) that submerged 70 sq miles of prime agricultural land for a power project in 1974 that gave us only 2 MW of electricity. Fate was cruel to them and they were displaced again two decades later from Mizoram,” Debbarma said.

He trashed the Mancha’s allegation that he was fomenting communal tension by consolidating the 19 Scheduled Tribes of Tripura and pitting them against the Bengalis on the pretext of opposing the CAA. The royal family belongs to one of these tribes. “The SC, ST and general caste people have been staying together and there is no reason why they cannot continue to do so despite the Bru resettlement issue. I am not trying to create communal riots, but at the same time, I don’t think it is wrong to fight for your own people. The past 70 years have given the indigenous people nothing. What we need to do is create unity so that we can demand our economic and land rights first and then strive for political rights,” Debbarma said. “Unlike all leaders who have made speeches against me, I have donated ₹1.5 lakh to the affected Bengali people. I am not into divide-and-rule like them.”

 

The IPFT believes the Bru resettlement would not have been much of an issue had the CAA not come at this juncture. “The tribal groups think exempting the tribal areas from the CAA would not help as a sudden increase in the population of the non-scheduled areas (beyond TTAADC) may eventually impact the resources of the State, including the areas under TTAADC,” said the president of the IPFT, N.C. Debbarma.

The fear is because of the demographic shift over the years in Tripura. In 1941, the tribes made up 50.09% of the population in present-day Tripura while the non-tribal people, mainly Bengalis, were 49.91%. By 1951, the tribal population fell to 37.23%. The 2011 Census showed a dip in their population to 31.8% compared to 68.2% of the non-tribal people.

The Bengalis see a design in the resettlement of Brus to bridge the population gap at least in some tribal areas. “But our people are relocating to non-tribal areas. This is evident from the voters list of the Kanchanpur Assembly constituency that had 5,000 Bengali voters more than tribal voters in 1993. Today, there are 5,000 more tribal voters and we suspect the increase is because of the inclusion of Brus in the electoral roll,” said Shailendra Nath, a Bengali leader of Satnala area near Kanchanpur.

Officials in Tripura denied having included the refugees as voters. Besides, Mizoram is yet to delete the names of some 12,000 Brus who would be resettled in Tripura.

The way forward

What matters most, tribal leaders said, is the determination of the Central and State governments to adhere to the schedule of resettlement of Brus by ensuring the local tribes and the Bengalis do not feel threatened.

But social wounds are taking some time to heal, and the local Reangs seem to be feeling the heat too despite belonging to the same ethnic group as the refugees. There are reports of the local tribes, outnumbered where the Bru relief camps are located, taking bank loans to erect boundary walls around their lands. The police recorded some minor clashes between the refugees and the local Reangs. “The locals were not consulted about the resettlement plan, but we can share our resources with our less fortunate brothers and sisters from Mizoram. We cannot say what will happen in the future, but the original inhabitants must not be affected,” said Jogendra Reang, former president of the Anandabazar Committee. He admitted some cultural differences with the Brus “who have some Mizo traits”.

 

A big concern is the lack of adequate space in some parts of TTAADC, specifically in North Tripura district where the population density is higher than the State’s average. The Tripura government has assured local tribes and Bengali settlers that their lands would not be touched while honouring the Bru demand of being settled in clusters of not less than 500 families across the State.

“We are looking at slightly degraded forest land and places where they can practice agriculture as well,” said Chandran, the Kanchanpur SDM. On February 18, she issued an order identifying four locations with a combined area of 2,302.6 hectares for tentatively settling 1,950 of the 4,744 families in the relief camps of Kanchanpur subdivision. “During the physical verification, the teams have been told to avoid patta land and ensure the land has road connectivity besides being free from encumbrances,” she said.

A similar exercise has been undertaken in the adjoining Panisagar subdivision where another 1,000 families have taken refuge. The authorities in the two subdivisions have already conducted the physical verification of the Brus living in the camps to find out their actual number. Officials have not recognised families who do not have any document establishing their stay in Mizoram. The population of the refugees is believed to be “much more than the estimated 35,000” but the data is expected to be made public at the time of allotting the land to beneficiaries within 150 days of signing the agreement.

For the likes of Laldinpuia, a 57-year-old inmate of the Naisingpara camp, the final resettlement would be the end of his dream of returning to Darla, his village in Mizoram about 100 km away. He wished the 40,000 Brus of Mizoram, including the 328 families who took the rehabilitation package to return till November 2019, well. “This place has been our home for more than 20 years. We picked up the pieces with refugees from different parts of Mizoram, many of whom were strangers. We are happy with how things have panned out but the sad part is many of us would have to live far apart,” he said.

 

“It is a pity the Mizoram government could not change its attitude and make us feel wanted and safe unlike in Tripura. We are grateful to the BJP government at the Centre and the State and Bubagra (king in Kokborok language, meaning Pradyot Manikya) for finding a solution to our problem. We have at times been accused of biting the hands that fed us, but we want to move forward, co-existing with the local tribal people and the Bengalis. Having suffered as displaced people, it is unthinkable for us to make others refugees,” said Bruno Msha, general secretary of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum. The Brus, he added, were yearning to shed the ‘Mizoram’ and ‘displaced’ tags. “The faster it is the better,” he said, hoping for a Tripura where no community could be held responsible for displacing another.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 8:52:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/brus-vs-non-tribal-bengalis-its-a-clash-among-the-displaced-in-tripura/article30883079.ece

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