In 1997, a bout of ethnic violence forced thousands of people from the Bru tribe to leave their homes in Mizoram. An attempt at repatriation began in 2010 and some people even moved back. But 2017 was to be a landmark year. In December, the Mizoram government announced that it had identified 32,857 people belonging to 5,413 families for repatriation and the process would begin soon. However, so far, this has been a hollow promise.

As March ended, the process seemed to have gone nowhere. The Bru Displaced People’s Forum filed an application in the Supreme Court stating that it feared the Union of India and the Tripura government were trying to “force the Brus back to Mizoram without either proper security or proper rehabilitation”. Consequently, the court on March 27 called for status quo to be maintained: only people who wanted to move back should be asked to go.

The Brus of Mizoram

The Brus, also referred to as the Reangs, are spread across the northeastern states of Tripura, Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. In Mizoram, they are largely restricted to the districts of Mamit and Kolasib. The first signs of a conflict between the Brus and the Mizos, the majority tribe of the state, emerged in 1995.

Two Mizo organisations, the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Zirlai Pawl, or the Mizo Students’ Association, reportedly demanded that Brus be left out of the state’s electoral rolls, contending that the tribe was not indigenous to Mizoram.

This led to a reactionary militant movement among the Brus that was led by an armed outfit called the Bru National Liberation Front, and a political body called the Bru National Union.

The two organisations wanted more political autonomy for Mizoram’s Brus, and demanded a Bru Autonomous District Council. In 1997, militants of the Bru National Liberation Front allegedly shot down a Mizo forest guard at the Dampa Tiger Reserve located in Mamit district. The incident evoked a hostile reaction, and the Brus were at the receiving end of a violent backlash by the Mizos, forcing the Brus to flee the state in large numbers to neighbouring Tripura.

The exodus

The displaced Brus took refuge in a town called Kanchanpur in northern Tripura, on the Mizoram-Tripura border. Now, they are spread across seven refugee camps on the Jamui hills, which separate Tripura from Mizoram and Bangladesh. The number of Bru refugees living in these camps is estimated to be around 35,000. The Bru Displaced People’s Forum, however, claims the number to be much higher.

In 2014, the Tripura High Court had called the situation in the camps “ridiculous”. According to reports, each adult in the camp in 2014 was eligible for an allowance of Rs 5 per day and 600 grams of rice. Minors get Rs 2.5 and 250 grams of rice. According to leaders of the Bru Displaced People’s Forum, people in the camps still have little access to potable water and medical services.

People from the tribe living in the camp have in the past alleged that the Tripura government was making life as difficult as possible for them in order to make them leave. Residents of these camps are not entitled to employment opportunities under any government scheme.

As talks of repatriation began, violence struck again. In November 2009, Bru militants reportedly killed a Mizo teenager, triggering another spate of brutal retaliatory attacks on the Brus who had stayed behind, and another round of exodus to Tripura.

A Sawibunga, president of the Bru Displaced People’s Forum, said that the Mizoram government was not serious about rehabilitating the Brus. “We cannot go back until our demand for five hectares of land per family and cluster villages is met,” said Sawibunga, over the phone from a camp in Tripura.

Of land and other demands

The forum insists that Brus who return are not safe in Mizo-dominated villages, and that they should be provided with cluster villages, a demand that the Mizoram government has termed as unreasonable.

“What will we do if there’s no land for our jhum farming?” asked Sawibunga. Jhum refers to a method of slash-and-burn farming traditionally practised by the Brus. The demand for five hectares of land per family was not negotiable, he added.

The Brus also want the Mizoram government to provide at least one government job per family and cash assistance of Rs 1.5 lakhs for each repatriated family. The most contentious demand, however, is “the facilitation of the creation of an autonomous district”, something that the Mizoram government has refused to even consider.

Additionally, the Brus have alleged in their application to the Supreme Court that around 1,000 families living in camps in Tripura have not been identified by the Mizoram government as eligible to return to Mizoram.

The Bru Displaced People’s Forum’s mistrust of the Mizoram state government is reciprocated. The state government has accused leaders of the forum of deliberately sabotaging the repatriation process by repeatedly changing their demands.

Criticism of the forum’s leadership, however, does not just come from the Mizoram government. William Singh, a professor in Aizawl’s Pachchunga University, said the forum suffered from the problem of having “too many leaders”, leading to lack of unity among them.

Singh added that the demand for an autonomous council was impractical.

“The government will never relent to such a demand,” he said. “Mizoram itself is in very bad shape financially so some of the demands for financial compensation will never be accepted.”

Religion and polls

Former Bharatiya Janata Party president LK Advani had contended in 1999 that the Brus were being persecuted because a large number of them were Hindus. Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, who was also at the helm then, had refuted the allegation.

Thanhawla maintains that the Brus have traditionally followed an animistic religion, worshipping rivers and trees. Over the years, a large number of them have converted to Christianity.

However, on January 5, a Tripura-based organisation going by the name of Bru Hindu Joint Coordination Committee wrote to the Union Home Ministry, asking it to “safeguard the Hindu religion or indigenous faith of the Bru community in Mizoram”. The letter, which this reporter has seen, stated that many people who had converted to Christianity had “returned back to their original religion” in the camps in Tripura.

With Mizoram going to polls next year, analysts believe the BJP could benefit from the repatriation of the Brus. However, the Mizoram BJP president JV Hluna played down the importance of the Brus in the state’s electoral politics.

“It is only around 10 constituencies that will be affected if they return,” said Hluna. He, however, said he welcomed the Brus, “like the rest of Mizoram” would. “We hope they will vote for us since BJP is at the Centre.”