The displacement of some 40,000 Bru people from Mizoram in 1997 got much less traction than that of the Kashmiri Pandits seven years before. But making them return home from relief camps in adjoining Tripura has been equally frustrating for the Centre and the north-eastern States for almost 21 years now. A few families have accepted the package offered by the Centre and returned, but most of the internally displaced refugees have refused to budge unless they get a better deal. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has set them a September 30 deadline and threatened to stop free rations and other facilities.
Where were they displaced from?
The Brus, also called Reangs, are scattered across Assam, Mizoram and Tripura. In Mizoram, they inhabit small pockets of Mamit, Lunglei and Lawngtlai districts, but the biggest chunk is in Mamit bordering North Tripura district of Tripura. A conflict with the majority Mizos in 1995 made influential organisations like the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (students’ union) demand that the Brus, labelled a non-indigenous tribe, be deleted from Mizoram’s electoral rolls. This led to an armed movement by the extremist Bru National Liberation Front, which killed a Mizo forest official on October 21, 1997. Many Bru villages were burnt down and scores allegedly raped and killed. Thousands of Brus fled to North Tripura where they were given shelter in six relief camps, three each in the Kanchanpur and Panisagar subdivisions. Most of the refugees were from Mamit and a few from Kolasib and Lunglei.
What was the political impact?
Except for some say in three of Mizoram’s 40 Assembly constituencies, the Brus are not a major voting force. Resistance by Mizo NGOs to their return made the refugees relevant only during elections, with Mizoram officials crossing over to Tripura for facilitating their franchise. Talks of repatriation began in 2009 but Bru extremists allegedly killed a Mizo teenager, triggering another round of retaliatory attacks and exodus of Brus to Tripura. As tempers cooled, the first phase of repatriation in November 2010 saw 8,573 members of 1,622 Bru families having been resettled in Mizoram. But the protest by Mizo groups halted the process in the next few years. With time, the Brus began demanding relief on a par with that of Kashmiri Pandit and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The impasse increased the Centre’s bill. Since 1997, it has given ₹348.97 crore to Tripura in financial assistance for relief and rehabilitation, and ₹68.9 crore to Mizoram for those resettled in 2010.
What hit the new rehab package?
The MHA brought the stakeholders to the talks in 2015, and a financial package of ₹435 crore was arrived at in July. The Centre signed an agreement with the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum and the governments of Mizoram and Tripura. The package covers 32,876 members of 5,407 Bru families, entailing a one-time assistance of ₹4 lakh in fixed deposit within a month of repatriation, monthly assistance of ₹5,000 through direct benefit transfer, free rations for two years, and ₹1.5 lakh in three instalments for building houses. The package included Eklavya residential schools, permanent residential and ST certificates and funds to the Mizoram government for improving security in the Bru resettlement areas. The refugees were given the September 30 deadline to move or face harder times in the camps. But the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Coordination Committee (MBDPCC), another refugee group, has demanded a better package that includes resettlement in clusters and an autonomous council for Brus.
Where does it go from here?
Since July, only 42 Bru families have returned to Mizoram. MBDPCC leaders say they are undaunted by the threat to stop assistance to or wind up the camps, since “we survive by doing odd jobs, anyway.” But Mizoram and Tripura officials involved in the repatriation process feel the government will relax the deadline for more refugees to “change their mind.” The pressure is also from local Brus of Tripura, who are reportedly facing an identity crisis because of the refugees.