People Society

How Bru leaders made sure the exiled community in Tripura did not unravel during the pandemic

An elderly woman at Naisingpara, the largest Bru relief camp in north Tripura’s Kanchanpur subdivision.   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

One sultry afternoon, in the days before the pandemic, I visited Naisingpara — the largest Bru relief camp in north Tripura’s Kanchanpur subdivision. A stubborn goat, relaxing in the middle of what was supposed to be a road, refused to take any notice of our decrepit car. Tired of honking and swearing, Rupjit (name changed), a local Bengali driver, alighted from the vehicle. “This is a Bru goat. It won’t buzz off easily,” he grumbled while goading the animal.

Minutes later, I reached my destination. “There it is,” said a camp resident, pointing at a sun-drenched hut with a small signboard: ‘Office of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF)’. As I stepped inside, over a dozen young and old Brus, perched on plastic chairs and wooden benches, stared inquisitively at me. After an exchange of pleasantries, they began to open their hearts.

A long exile

Bruno Msha, the secretary of MBDPF, narrated how a violent clash with the Mizos in 1997 had prompted thousands of Brus to flee Mizoram. Since then, over 30,000 internally displaced Brus have been living precariously in six makeshift relief camps in Tripura. The government had tried to repatriate them. But the chasm of distrust between the communities rendered reconciliation efforts futile.

A Bru couple makes baskets for sale at Naisingpara relief camp

A Bru couple makes baskets for sale at Naisingpara relief camp   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Northeast, a wonderful cultural mosaic, is marred by complex ethnic conflicts displacing lakhs of people. According to the Human Rights Law Network, the Brus’ is “the most severe case of internal displacement in the history of independent India, yet most under-reported… Number counts of rape and murder ran into hundreds. Several Bru villages were burnt and large number of Brus fled across to the state of Tripura, where they have resided in relief camps since then in well documented pitiable conditions (sic).” Hundreds of people have died in these camps without adequate food or medical assistance.

Wherever I went in these internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps, the Brus seemed to be waiting for a patient listener to whom they could narrate their heart-wrenching stories and have a moment of cathartic respite. “My entire village was burned down in front of my eyes,” said a mournful resident. “But when I hear about what others have witnessed, I consider myself extremely lucky!” he told me. “Horrible things happened to my loved ones. And all I could do was watch helplessly,” said his friend.

The indigenous people share a profound spiritual relation with their ancestral land, and a forced separation from their home affects every aspect of their lives. While fleeing Mizoram in the turbulent 90s, the Brus had not imagined they would never see their homes again. Over two decades since their exodus, the now hopeless elderly have only one wish: to see what has become of the world that they had left.

A view of the camp

A view of the camp   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Brus sorely miss their past — the “real world” — that frequently visits them in their dreams. “I am a Jhumia, I often see jhum in my dreams. Miles and miles of ripe jhum. But there is no one in my village to reap it,” said an elderly man wistfully. “Sometimes, I find myself in my own village, roaming in the fields, or relaxing in my house. Then, suddenly, I wake up, realising that it was merely a dream. I spend the whole day ruminating the wealth I left behind. And here I am, living like a beggar. I can’t tell you in words how much pain I carry here (he places a hand on his heart). But nobody cares,” says another elder.

A catastrophe

In January 2020, the Brus felt relieved when the government announced to settle them permanently in Tripura. But barely two months later, they faced a peculiarly unnerving crisis. In the early morning of March 25, three anxious youth in Ashapara, the second-largest Bru camp, met their chief, Bojendra Reang, and shared some unexpected news: the previous night, in a televised address, the Prime Minister had ordered a three-week nationwide lockdown.

Around 5,000 Brus live in Ashapara without basic amenities — electricity, water supply, medical, education. Given their unique vulnerabilities, the coronavirus posed a serious threat to them. But due to negligible access to a TV and other sources of information, they were ignorant of the raging pandemic and the lockdown. Bojendra worried that the news might trigger panic in Ashapara. He convened an emergency meeting with the community’s leaders. Under Msha’s guidance, a 16-member ‘Joint Task Force for COVID-19’ was formed to mount a local response.

A young woman buys goods at a weekly market near the camp before the pandemic

A young woman buys goods at a weekly market near the camp before the pandemic   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The task force began to spread awareness, appealing to the indigenes to stay indoors and practise COVID-appropriate behaviour. But, surprisingly, the Brus were not afraid of the novel coronavirus. “They found it hard to believe that such a thing even existed,” said Gobinda Reang, the secretary of the task force. Many began to ridicule the task force. The naivety of their questions left their leaders speechless. “Don’t try to fool us! How can a virus from China travel this far?”; “Why will the virus harm us when we haven’t done anything wrong to it?” And then followed a deluge of practicalities: “Who will feed us if we do not work?”; “who will fetch water and firewood for us if we stay at home?”; “what will our children do if we stop them from playing outdoors?”

The task force deployed ‘patrolling teams’ that restricted people’s unnecessary movement, prevented public gatherings, and confronted those who did not wear a mask. The Brus were annoyed. Their civil liberties, they felt, were unnecessarily curtailed. They also grew suspicious of the timing of the lockdown.

After two miserable decades — punctuated by peaceful protests and hunger strikes — in a squalid relief camp, the Brus were finally getting homes. The government had agreed to permanently settle them in Tripura. But the sudden appearance of a mysterious virus and the restriction on the community’s movement raised doubts in the minds of Brus. A predicament that Gobinda explained thus: “Initially, people surmised that this virus is the government’s way of getting rid of the Brus. They also suspected our role. When we asked them to wear masks and not loiter, they snapped at us: ‘What kind of law is this?’ There were rumours that ‘these teachers (founding group members) think they are manyavar (eminent people), so they are bossing us around at the behest of the government, making the entire community suffer for their own gains.’ Suddenly, people turned hostile. Many started abusing us after getting drunk.”

A safety net

As cities abandoned migrant workers, millions hopelessly marched to their villages. The Brus also started returning to the relief camps. And when the community learnt about the tragedies of the fleeing people, all their doubts were dispelled.

Women and children returning from the market

Women and children returning from the market   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Ashapara lacks medical facilities, and the Brus cannot afford an expensive treatment. Thus, prevention was their only option to escape the wrath of the pandemic. The task force quickly set up three quarantine centres where the arriving Brus stayed under observation for weeks before joining their families. The community contributed small donations — in cash or in kind — to run these centres. The task force sought help from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate to distribute soybean and lentils. Ashapara does not have water supply. The task force lobbied the local administration and arranged water within the community during this crucial period.

As India moved from one phase of lockdown to another, several Bru families began to panic. “Some shut their doors and windows, completely locking themselves inside their houses. They even hesitated to come out to speak to anyone. We were so anxious. We did not know if they had anything to eat,” said Gobinda.

Fear, poverty, illiteracy, and a lack of basic amenities made the Brus lean on superstitions and occult practices. “People began to believe that if they draw a line around their house and perform a certain ritual before sunrise, it will ward off the virus. They also fell for another rumour that if they dip their hair in water and then drink that water, the virus would not affect them.”

The Brus were indeed susceptible to fake news and misinformation. “People heard a rumour that the virus won’t touch a person who consumes alcohol daily. Believing this, many started drinking. The group members warned the community against the rumour. Several people had even started feeding alcohol to their entire family, including children and the elderly. We went to their houses and explained to them: ‘brother, alcohol will not protect your family; it will only cause more harm’,” said Gobinda.

The task force extended psychological support to its reeling community. It answered queries, cleared doubts, busted myths, and urged the people to diligently follow safety guidelines.

The Brus depend on firewood for cooking. Women and children collect wood from the forest, walking 15 to 20 km. They undertake around five to seven such trips to meet their monthly requirement. However, after lockdown, many families faced fuel crisis. The task force fetched firewood and distributed it to the needy households. The Brus survive in the camps on government dole: 600 gm rice and ₹5 and 300 gm rice and ₹2.50 every day for adults and minors, respectively. With negligible livelihood opportunities, they rely primarily on daily wage labour. However, since the lockdown, the Brus lost work. Soon, families were unable to buy essential commodities. The task force surveyed the camp and identified several vulnerable households. But it lacked funds to provide support.

The Brus can barely make ends meet. It was impractical to ask people even for small donations. Gobinda and three other youths, who teach at an NGO-run school in Ashapara, received a paltry salary of ₹3,000 per month. They voluntarily donated two-thirds of their salaries with which essential commodities were bought and distributed among the needy families.

Sense of worth and dignity

Throughout the pandemic, the task force played a crucial role. Against all odds, it managed to safely navigate the highly vulnerable community through an unprecedented crisis. The inclusive and equitable response, based on indigenous culture and tradition, offers significant learnings. Its most remarkable outcome is it restored the lost self-respect of the Bru youth.

Men at Khakchangpara relief camp in north Tripura

Men at Khakchangpara relief camp in north Tripura   | Photo Credit: Ajay Saini

Children have grown up in Ashapara watching their community living without dignity. The Brus are looked down upon by the local non-indigenous people who caricature them as a cowardly tribe hooked on government dole, and reluctant to leave the camps. During my earlier interaction with Gobinda in Ashapara, he had sorrowfully said: “Being a displaced person is the most painful situation. One cannot do anything for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.”

But after leading a successful local COVID-19 response, a group of Bru youth has developed a strong sense of self-worth and dignity. “We are not very educated. We don’t even have jobs. And we have always felt that our life is worthless. But the coronavirus crisis gave us an opportunity to work together for the well-being of Ashapara,” said Gobinda. “Now, the group members feel extremely proud. Because they can say that they have also done something for the community and the country,” Gobinda exclaimed cheerfully.

The author is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 3:02:41 PM |

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