The headlines were ecstatic. One said, “Amit Shah leads historic resettlement of Bru refugees”. Another said, “For Bru refugees in Tripura, hope after years of struggle for settlement”. Yet another said, “How Solving 23-Year-Long Bru Refugee Crisis Is Shot In The Arm For BJP”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it “a special day” and several senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders called the development “historic”.
It was January 2020, and Shah had presided over what was hailed as a landmark moment in one of independent India’s most prolonged internal displacements to date.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1997, following a bout of ethnic violence in the state of Mizoram, more than 40,000 members of the Bru tribe fled their homes and took shelter in six relief camps situated on forest land in the adjoining state of Tripura.
The Central government provided the displaced people with daily rations of provisions such as rice and salt, as well as money. The rations were particularly crucial because work was hard to come by near the camps.
Even with government support, life at the camps, without permanent electricity and safe drinking water, was a struggle for survival. Residents also had no easy access to healthcare services or schools. Yet thousands of displaced families continued to stay in them for years, fearing for their safety back in Mizoram.
The years that followed saw many attempts at repatriating the Brus, who are also known as Reangs. Between 1997 and June 2018, Bru representatives signed nine different agreements with the Centre and the state governments of Mizoram and Tripura to ensure the community’s repatriation. These efforts were largely unsuccessful: according to Elvis Chorkhy, former president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum, around 5,000 Brus returned to Mizoram in phases over these years, while many thousands more remained in Tripura.
Over the years, some leaders in Tripura put forth the suggestion that the state government permanently resettle the displaced Brus in Tripura. Among them was Biplab Kumar Deb, the former chief minister of Tripura, and Pradyot Kishore Debbarma, scion of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family, both of whom wrote letters to the Centre in November 2019, to this effect. Debbarma was also a signatory to the final agreement.
Several Bru leaders I spoke to said that they, too, would prefer resettlement to repatriation. Their long stay in the state, even in exile and in difficult living conditions, had made them familiar with the region, which they now saw as their home.
Shah’s announcement of the resettlement agreement in 2020 was seen as a triumph by the Central government, and a much needed breakthrough in a long festering problem.
To formalise the decision, a four-way agreement was signed on January 16, 2020, by Bru leaders, the Centre, and the governments of Tripura and Mizoram. The Centre also announced a package of Rs 661 crore to fund the resettlement process, which the state government of Tripura would carry out. Those families who wished to return to Mizoram would be permitted to do so under an earlier repatriation agreement.
But reality on the ground is far removed from the celebratory reporting of the development. Opposition from local groups and bureaucratic roadblocks have left the lives of the displaced people largely unchanged, I found when I travelled to the state in November last year and April this year.
In November, I had visited a resettlement camp in Kahamtaipara, 200 km east of Tripura’s capital, Agartala, in the Panisagar division of North Tripura district. Spread over more than 37 hectares, the camp is situated on a hillock dotted with small, tin-roofed huts, with a few trees and some wild vegetation scattered about.
The state government, in consultation with Bru leaders, had decided to permanently settle 1,032 families in Kahamtaipara.
But I found that conditions at the camp remain far from suitable for permanent settlement. The road leading up to the location was poorly constructed – a rocky, narrow path uphill. The site did not have water pipelines or a drainage system: most residents, including children, walked down the hill to collect water from a distant stream. The path that led to the stream was unpaved and steep, and residents often ascended barefoot carrying multiple vessels filled with water, work that left them sore and exhausted.
Rakesh Reang, a Bru migrant, said that many who had been allotted plots at Kahamtaipara were reluctant to build their houses there because the area was congested. “There isn’t enough space between each settlement,” Rakesh said. The residents have asked the state government to expand the site, but according to Rakesh, it has not paid any heed to the requests. Many also feel that the location is not suitable for construction because the plots are on sloping land, on loose soil. This, they said, would make it difficult for houses to stand firm, especially during monsoons, when rainwater washes down the slopes.
Further, the site is poorly connected to the nearest main road. “The approach road from the main road to the location is extremely small, therefore vehicles that carry construction material for building houses cannot enter into the relief camps and resettlement locations,” said Bruno Msha, general secretary of the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum, or the MBDPF. “There is no branch road or link road either for vehicles to come in, so people have to carry materials by themselves.” Over a phone call in June, Msha confirmed that conditions at the site remain unimproved from the time of my visit in November.
Rakesh also noted that the land couldn’t support them economically – Brus largely depend on slash and burn cultivation, locally known as jhum, for sustenance. “There is no land available for cultivation,” he said.
Even while the state governnment has failed to provide suitable conditions for people to resettle, it has cut down the number of approved families who can make their homes in Kahamtaipara.
Msha said that after deciding at first to resettle 1,032 families, the government reduced the number to 681 families. “Now they have reduced the number of families further and it has come down to 625,” he said.
Kaskaupara in North Tripura’s Panisagar subdivision has seen relatively more progress on resettlement, compared to Kahamtaipara. In April, when I visited the resettlement site, formerly a relief camp, construction was underway of small tin-roofed houses on even land, and some stilt houses on the slanting slopes. Sanjay Reang, a 28-year-old Bru migrant in Kaskaupara, told me progress was derailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns. “It was difficult to bring in construction material at a time when people were struggling to arrange for food. Construction material is also expensive,” he said. However, he added, work had picked up in the camp. “There are a few families who have been able to construct their houses here.”
But even here, problems abound. There are still no water pipelines, nor a drainage system. People have to climb down a hill and walk up to a stream in order to collect water. The closest school, health centre and market are around 2 km away in Damcherra town, but it can take up to half an hour to reach the town in a vehicle, because the road is poorly constructed, with steep slopes.
“We are facing a lot of problems regarding school, water, health and sanitation,” said Charlie Molshoy, secretary of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum in Kaskaupara. “We don’t know if these things will start here ever.”
This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.
There are currently 6,959 displaced Bru families in Tripura, comprising a total of 37,136 people, according to official government figures.
The resettlement of Brus is complicated by the fact that some groups in Tripura are opposed to their presence in the state. This is particularly apparent in North Tripura district’s Kanchanpur subdivision, where a majority of the migrants have been living in relief camps since the 1997 exodus, including in Naisingpara, the largest Bru relief camp in the state. According to Charlie Molshoy, 5,547 families had settled in Kanchanpur after they fled Mizoram.
The state government has proposed to permanently resettle a total of 4,600 families, or more than 65% of the families in the state, in Kanchanpur.
Opposition to the resettlement was spearheaded by the Joint Movement Committee, which represented the Bengali group Nagarik Suraksha Manch, and the Mizo Convention. According to Sushanta Barua, convener of the Joint Movement Committee, the groups initially were against resettlement altogether. “We initially demanded that they should be sent back to Mizoram,” he said. “They should go back to where they are from, and settle their political issues there. That will give them justice.”
In May 2020, five months after the resettlement agreement was signed, the Joint Movement Committee started an indefinite strike, more specifically opposing resettlement of the displaced Brus in Kanchanpur. A memorandum issued by the organisations stated that they were opposed to the resettlement of “a large number of Brus” in Kanchanpur “because of land constraints and dwindling forest resources”.
The groups protested against a team of government officials and Bru leaders who had arrived that same month for a site inspection at the village of Manu-Chailengta in Kanchanpur.
Later, in November 2020, Bengali and Mizo groups from North Tripura held massive protests in Kanchanpur, as well as in the town of Panisagar, and the capital city Agartala, claiming that settling thousands of Bru migrants permanently in Kanchanpur would put pressure on local resources, lead to demographic imbalance and potentially create law and order problems.
The protests turned violent in Panisagar, when police tried to forcibly clear a highway blockade – two people were killed in police firing, and at least 20 were injured.
Despite the opposition, Bru groups stayed firm in their demand for resettlement. There was, however, some disagreement about the terms that had been decided on. Members of the Bru Displaced Youth Association, or BDYA, told me that after the resettlement agreement was signed, the state government, following discussions with the Bru leadership, had granted them permission to settle in six locations in Kanchanpur. This, they added, had been reduced to two locations, and the migrants had not been given any explanation for the change.
Subhash Acharya, the subdivisional magistrate of Kanchanpur conceded that resettlement at one of the sites, in the village of Manu-Chailengta, had been cancelled.
“There is some problem with the land in Manu-Chailengta. The forest department is not allowing land diversion there for settlement there,” he said.
Two locations, Naisingpara and Bhandorima, had been confirmed, Acharya said. About the three remaining sites, at Anandabazaar, Nandirampara and Bikramjaypara reserve forest, he said, “I cannot say at this point.”
In April, Bru leaders wrote a letter to Amit Shah, urging the government to expedite the resettlement process. They said that work was delayed in Kanchanpur, and that so far the process had only begun in Bhandorima, where many had built houses despite “terrible” road conditions leading up to the site. “You can’t call it a road, it’s a narrow broken path,” said Govind Reang, general secretary of the Bru Displaced Youth Association.
The organisation also demanded in the same letter that work start in Naisingpara, the other location that Acharya agreed had been identified in Kanchanpur for resettlement. When I visited the site in April, no clearing or construction work had started.
Further, the organisation insisted that the government release the other four locations that they say had earlier been identified under the Kanchanpur subdivision.
“We don’t want to move from Kanchanpur because we have been living here since 1997 when we were chased out of Mizoram,” said Achausa Reang, a spokesperson of the Bru Displaced Youth Association. “Many of us don’t want to go to other locations like South Tripura, for instance, by uprooting our lives here. So many old people live with us, how will we leave them or how will they shift?”
Debbarma, of the erstwhile royal family, argued that groups like the Nagarik Suraksha Manch were not justified in opposing the resettlement of Brus in Kanchanpur because many who saw themselves as natives of the area were themselves descended from displaced people. The Nagarik Suraksha Manch, he said, comprised Bengali Hindus who were displaced from erstwhile East Pakistan during Partition. His grandmother Kanchan Prabha Devi, then the regent of Tripura, administering the still independent kingdom on behalf of her minor son, granted the refugees permission to settle on an area of more than 6,000 acres in the hills of northern Tripura. She did this on humanitarian grounds, Debbarma said, and “rightfully so”.
Now, he argued, “the same people should not have any objection to the Reangs settling down in the area.”
Debbarma also questioned the Nagarik Suraksha Manch ’s locus standi to raise objections to the deal. “The four-way agreement agreed to settle the Reangs in Tripura in and around areas where they have been staying, how can someone who is a non-state party object?” he said. “Nobody is taking away their livelihood, nobody is taking away any of their constitutional rights.”
But Barua, of the Joint Movement Committee, alleged that since 1997, some displaced Brus who were settled in relief camps in and around North Tripura district had made the lives of local Bengalis and Mizos difficult. According to him, large numbers of people from ten Bengali villages and six Mizo villages near the Naisingpara relief camp, had to flee due to the “atrocities of the refugees”. (Most Bru leaders of the displaced community I spoke to opposed the use of the word “refugee” and termed it offensive. They described themselves as Indian citizens who had been internally displaced due to ethnic conflict.)
“They took our agricultural products and stole our animals. They chased around 650 Bengali and 81 Mizo families out. Some Mizos fled to Mizoram,” Barua said.
In 2016, Tripura’s then Left government made arrangements for some of the Bengali families who had fled to return to a location near Naisingpara. According to Barua, the “refugees” started stealing again, and broke into houses – since then, he said, those Bengali families have been living at a relief camp in Dasda, a town in North Tripura.
Charlie Molshoy, of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum in Kaskaupara, disputed these claims. He argued that Bengalis in Tripura had been in conflict with local Brus from the state, even before the displaced Brus arrived from Mizoram.
Despite the problems, Barua said, the Joint Movement Committee accepted the government’s plan to resettle Brus in Kanchanpur.
“But we demanded that no more than 500 families live in Kanchanpur because land is limited here,” he said. “They should be equally distributed in all districts of Tripura. Par yeh refugee log maanta nahin” – these refugees don’t listen.
The impasse has left thousands of Brus in a limbo.
Bandirung Reang, a resident of Naisingpara, told Scroll.in that she struggles daily to find enough food and water for her family. Bandirung, who is in her late thirties, lives with her husband, their five children and her husband’s grandmother who, according to local belief, is nearly 100 years old.
Every morning, Bandirung walks down a muddy, slippery path of a hillock to reach a stream where she collects water in earthenware pots – she returns with two on top of her head and three inside a backpack stitched together with bamboo and cane. On days she is unwell, she has to borrow water from her neighbours, or the family has to manage with the bare minimum.
Bandirung’s family lives in a single-room hut. The family has one large bed, made of bamboo and wood, about 15 feet wide. It occupies most of the room, and all eight members of the family sleep on it in a straight line. There is a small space within the room that serves as a makeshift kitchen, with an earthenware stove placed on the mud floor, where Bandirung cooks using firewood. “Sometimes there is scarcity of wood,” she said.
According to Bandirung, she was supposed to move to Manu-Chailengta before the resettlement at the site was cancelled.
Bandirung and her family’s plight is not an isolated account – several other families from the community told me similar stories. Shortage of food, lack of basic necessities such as water, healthcare and electricity, have been common across all Bru relief camps over the years.
Education is also a challenge. The camp has one government school which lacks a sufficient number of teachers and basic infrastructure, such as desks and benches.
“It’s exactly like what it used to be,” said Sawibunga Reang, president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum. “It depends on the government of Tripura to change our condition.”
When I asked her if she had any idea when she would be able to move and build a house for herself, she said, “I don’t know when that will happen.” But she was ready to seize any chance at resettlement, irrespective of the location. “We will shift anywhere,” she said.
Brus are known as Reangs in Tripura and constitute the second largest group among the state’s tribal population, after Tripuris. They are also marginalised socio-economically, and classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”.
Dr Lincoln Reang, who teaches history at the Tripura University in Agartala, said that Brus are largely found in Lunglei, Mamit, Kolasib and Lawngtlai districts of Mizoram, and Bandarban and Rangamati in present day Bangladesh. According to him, they are also scattered in North Tripura and parts of southern Assam.
In Mizoram, signs of conflict among the Brus and Mizos emerged sometime in 1994, when a political party known as the Bru National Union was formed and demanded an Autonomous District Council or ADC, to oversee the welfare of the Brus. The sixth schedule of the Constitution has provisions for the creation of such councils.
“We are the most backward community in Mizoram and because of that we feel our people need an administrative umbrella for its development,” said Elvis Chorkhy, who returned to Mizoram during one of the phases of repatriation, in 2009.
Mizoram is predominantly inhabited by the Mizo people, who comprise several clans, such as the Ralte and the Khiangte – these Mizo groups dominate government and administration in the state. Some other tribes in the state, like the Maras, the Lais and the Chakmas, have their own Autonomous District Councils.
Brus, who were in the mid 1990s the second largest tribe in the state, were not granted an ADC by the government. “The government was totally against it,” Chorkhy said. “Their version was that if an ADC is given to the Brus, then there are so many other communities in Mizoram, they will also demand the same. But according to us, being the second largest community, we deserved ADC just like the others. There was nothing illegal in providing this, it is a constitutional demand.”
This disagreement led to the formation of Bru National Liberation Front, or BNLF, an underground outfit that demanded more autonomy for the Brus. In 1997, militants of BNLF allegedly gunned down a Mizo forest guard at the Dampa Tiger Reserve, located in Mamit district of Mizoram. Large-scale ethnic violence followed, with reports of arson and killing by the Mizos, which led the Brus to flee and take shelter in Tripura. “That was the immediate cause,” Chorkhy said. “The main problem was the demand of the ADC. The killing of the youth added fuel to the fire.”
Malirung Meska was among those who left her home in Mizoram in 1997. Since then, she has lived in the relief camp in Kaskaupara, which was converted to a resettlement site. She lost her husband during her time in the camp. “During the exodus we had to flee with some clothes in our hands,” said Meska, now 81 years old. “We stayed at a guest house arranged by the Tripura government. One room accommodated more than three-four families.”
She said the problems of their initial days continue even today. “We have been struggling with water problems for too long now. There is also no education for our children, and no healthcare facilities.”
Under the 2020 resettlement agreement, every displaced Bru family in Tripura is entitled to a plot of 30 feet by 40 feet on which to build a house, and a payment of Rs 1.5 lakh, in three installments, for the construction.
Once they have completed their house and have moved in, each family is to be paid Rs 4 lakh as a one-time cash benefit for sustenance, and a monthly allowance of Rs 5,000, and is to receive free rations for two years.
But even in Kaskaupara, where conditions are relatively better than in some of the other camps, there are many who have not received help under the plan.
On a hot afternoon in April, 20-year-old Tentis Mary sat inside a small thatched mud hut in Kaskaupara, cradling her fourth-month-old baby, with Tentis’s own two-year-old baby brother in tow. Tentis’ family hasn’t received a plot or any installment of money to build a house yet.
She told me that she studied till Class 10 but had to stop midway and went on to get married at the age of 18. She said, “Mann toh karta hai par paise nahi hai” – I want to study but we have no money.
Thirty-year-old Olirung Reang has also not received a plot or money yet. As a result, she has had to temporarily occupy a small room in a rundown dormitory with her three children.
On the day I visited, Olirung was feeding her children rice and a small portion of dal. She told me that her eldest son was born in 2012 – her other two children didn’t appear much younger than him. Olirung and her husband are separated, following a traditionally accepted form of divorce according to Bru customs. Since her separation, she has been the sole caregiver to her children and does daily wage work to earn money, which she said is “not enough”. She sorely needed a plot, she said, because “living in the dorm is difficult, especially now that the summers are here, it gets very hot”.
According to Charlie Molshoy, some people, like Olirung, have not been allotted a plot because there is a shortage of land. “There are 38 families without a plot in this area,” he said. “I am trying to convince the authorities but they say that land extension won’t be allowed for Kaskaupara, and the ones who have been left out should move to another location. I told the District Magistrate that we can’t drive them away, but I don’t think the authorities can do anything about it.”
Olirung struggles with another problem – she and her children are a “split family”, a term the Brus use to refer to new families formed by children who grow up. Supporting such a family is an immense challenge because of the difficulties of acquiring a new ration card, or adding new names to an existing one. A card typically has one guardian’s name written on it, along with their dependents, who are also entitled to a ration from the government. If the guardian dies, the card becomes invalid, a Bru Displaced Youth Association spokesperson told me. Getting a new one made, or adding a new child’s name to an existing card is a bureaucratic nightmare. So if a child grows up and, like Olirung, starts a new family, she still typically relies on her portion of rations from her parental family.
Thus, Olirung is eligible for her share of rations from her parent’s ration card, and she uses those supplies to feed her children as well. “This is one of the main reasons there is never enough food for all of us,” she said.
Bandirung from the Naisingpara camp also struggles because of the difficulties of adding new names to ration cards. Bandirung told me that her family’s ration card, updated in 2003, includes her name, her husband’s name, his grandmother’s name, and one child’s name. But she has had four more children since, none of whose names she has been able to add to the card, as a result of which there is always a food shortage at their home.
According to Govind Reang, general secretary of the Bru Displaced Youth Association, apart from the difficulty of adding names of family members to ration cards, there are at least 453 Bru families that have no ration cards at all. Govind said that sometime in 2016, the Mizoram government had conducted a survey on the number of families living in the relief camps of Tripura, which also indicated the number of families that were being excluded from ration. “What was the point of that survey?” Govind said. “Our ration cards have not been updated even once since 2003.”
Life in the camps, over the years, has been so difficult that many leave even with uncertain prospects. “Our people have to struggle a lot for livelihood,” said Govind. “People come from outside and take young people away, luring them with jobs in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu. Some leave on their own because they are helpless.” He added that young people move away, or are taken away, for various jobs, including as restaurant staff, and in construction sites, while some are also trafficked and sexually exploited.
Chorkhy, the former president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum said that the long years of displacement had “derailed” the development of the community. “The camps were temporary in nature, ” he said. “People living in the camps had no scope of cultivation, no schools, no occupational activity. People are living there very idly and with no scope for the future, people were completely in the dark.” Brus, he said, had “been languishing in the camps for so many years, that it has had an impact physically and mentally. Because the situation in the camps was not normal.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.