“There,” said Nandaram Reang, pointing a finger towards the dark green hills that stood out against the cloudless blue October sky. “Across those hills is where our home is.”

Home for Reang, a Bru refugee living in Tripura, is a village called Hnahthialzawl in Mizoram’s Mamit district, a place he left overnight in October of 1997 after it allegedly came under attack from Mizo nationalist groups. “It was dark when they came,” he recalled. “Many people were already asleep; the Mizos starting burning down all houses in our village and asked us to leave.”

They left immediately, men, women and children, taking little with them. For a whole day, they walked without stopping till they reached Damparengpui, another Bru village in Mamit, Reang remembered.

But they found Damparengpui almost deserted too. It had been raided as well. Chobraha Reang was there when it happened. “Hordes of Mizos had come in multiple vehicles,” he said. “They said, ‘You have killed a Mizo, we cannot let you stay in Mizoram anymore.’ Then they starting burning our houses.”

Overnight, almost the entire village fled, first to a village called Tuipuibari, where they spent a week, and then to Hamtlang, where they stayed two days, before crossing over the Jampui hill range to reach Kanchanpur in Tripura, Chobraha Reang said. Nandaram Reang and others from his village joined them there a couple of days later, following the same route – a distance of over 100 km through wooded mountains, all of it on foot.

Both men now live in a relief camp in Tripura. According to the Bru Displaced People’s Forum, there are currently close to 5,500 Bru families, comprising over 35,000 people, living in seven relief camps in Kanchanpur.

Chobraha Reang and his fellow Bru villagers walked almost 100 km through wooded mountains to reach Tripura.

A ‘final’ repatriation

On July 2, more than 21 years since the first of these camps came up, the Bru Displaced People’s Forum signed a tripartite repatriation agreement with the governments of Mizoram and Tripura – a development the Centre termed a “major breakthrough”. The agreement came on the heels of a firm ultimatum by the Centre to the Bru leadership that this was the “final offer” of reconciliation. The tripartite deal guarantees a rehabilitation package consisting of Rs 4 lakh in the form of a fixed deposit for each family, cash assistance of Rs 5,000 per month for two years, Rs 1.5 lakh as house building assistance and free ration for two years.

But the so-called final repatriation of Mizoram’s Brus, which officially ended on September 25, never quite took off, much like the seven previous attempts since 2009. Only around 40 families have moved back so far in the latest round. According to government records, around 1,000 refugee families were relocated to Mizoram in the previous seven rounds, but Bru leaders say the number is lower.

On October 1, the Centre cut off aid – a daily allowance of Rs 5 and 600 grammes of rice for every adult – to these camps, as it had warned earlier. Yet, few Bru refugees want to go back “home”. For most, home is a nebulous idea, tainted by fear and mistrust of the Mizo people, once their neighbours. “I long for home,” said Nandaram Reang. “But they will not even give us land; how can we go if there is nothing to go back to?”

Nandaram Reang says he longs for the home he left behind in Mizoram, but also that there is now nothing left to go back to.

The conflict

The first signs of a conflict between the Brus and Mizos emerged in the mid-1990s. 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. According to the Brus, there was “mass deletion” of their names from electoral rolls at the behest of the two Mizo nationalist groups.

A reactionary Bru militant movement took wing soon after. It was led by an armed outfit called the Bru National Liberation Front, formed in 1996, and a political body that called itself the Bru National Union, formed in 1994. The two organisations wanted more political autonomy for the tribe, and demanded a Bru Autonomous District Council.

Tensions grew until, in October 1997, a Mizo forest guard at the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mamit district was killed, allegedly by Bru National Liberation Front militants. Things came to head after that: the Brus were at the receiving end of a violent backlash by Mizo nationalist groups, already incensed by the autonomous council demand. Several Bru villages were reportedly set on fire, forcing thousands of its inhabitants, like Nandaram Reang and Chobraha Reang, to flee.

In exile, the Brus have watered down their demand for an autonomous council. Officially, the Bru leadership says an area development council, with much less administrative autonomy, would do. In addition, the leadership asks to be relocated to “cluster villages” comprising at least 500 Bru families. But most people in the community claim they would be happy with just the latter.

According to the current repatriation roadmap prepared by the Mizoram government, Bru families would be distributed across the state’s districts in much smaller numbers. “All we want is to live together, so that we have some security and are able to repulse any fresh attacks on us,” said Piyangmoni Reang, who fled her home in 1997 as a 20-year-old. “After all, we cannot trust the Mizos anymore, how can we?”

Trouble again

By way of proof, they cite the events of 2009, when the second round of the Bru exodus took place. Like the previous instance, it was set off by the alleged killing of a Mizo by Bru militants. The Brus maintain that it was not a murder at all – the young Mizo boy drowned in a river by himself. Another spate of brutal retaliatory attacks on the Brus ensued. At the receiving end were the families of surrendered Bru militants who had just moved back from the camps after an agreement with the Mizoram government, and the few Bru families who had stayed behind in 1997.

Thampara Reang witnessed the violence in 2009. A former Bru National Liberation Front cadre, he had been allotted land in Kolalhian village in Mamit by the Mizoram government following his surrender. According to the understanding with the Mizoram government, he was to construct a house by himself on the land allotted to him while his family waited in a camp in Tripura. The family would join him once the house was built. But after barely four months back in Mizoram, the house he was building was burnt down by Mizo groups and he was forced to return to the camp, Thampara Reang claimed. “They blamed the boy’s death on us when we had nothing to do with it,” he said. “And then, like last time, they started burning our houses. I really don’t want to go back there, that place has no rules or regulations.”

Thampara Reang was part of the militant Bru National Liberation Front.

From the surrendered militants, Mizo groups reportedly shifted their attention to the Bru families who had stayed back – most of them because they were compelled. Swarnajoy Reang said he was not allowed to leave in 1997 because he owed money to some of his Mizo neighbours. “But I thought the worst was over, things had become better gradually, though, some tensions always remained,” he said.

In 2009, after his debt had been repaid, his house was burnt down and he was asked to leave immediately, he said.

Though they were considered refugees by the Centre and Tripura, most 2009 exiles are not recognised by the Mizoram government, making them automatically ineligible for the current repatriation process. Yet, aid has been cut off to such families, too. “If they give us rice, we will stay here,” said LL Shyama, who also came in 2009. “If they don’t, we will starve to death here; what other choice do we have?”

A split in the ranks

As the Brus negotiate with a particularly precarious situation, they have also had to contend with a divided leadership. Soon after the tripartite agreement was signed, the Bru leadership split. A new splinter group, the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Coordination Committee, was formed under the leadership of T Laldingliana.

T Laldingliana leads the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Coordination Committee, which was formed after the Bru leadership split over the repatriation agreement.

The coordination committee contends that the Bru Displaced People’s Forum’s leaders signed an agreement that did not reflect the community’s aspirations. “Already the level of demand is dropping down and down, but even that is not there in the agreement,” he said.

The forum, in its defence, insists it did not have a choice. “It is not possible to fight for a... council from outside Mizoram,” said Bruno Masha, the forum’s general secretary. Besides, Masha claimed, the Central government had given them “verbal assurance” that they would look into the demands of a development council and cluster villages once the repatriation process was complete.

Bruno Masha of the Bru Displaced People’s Forum says they had no choice but to accept the agreement.

A communal divide?

While the demand for the autonomous council is considered the primary flashpoint in Bru-Mizo relations, many say the fault lines always existed as a large number of Brus are Hindus. Some Hindu Brus insist this never went down well with the Mizos, most of them devout Christians. Monbahadur Reang, who lives in one of the camps in Kanchanpur, said, “Even before all the trouble started, they would sometimes say, ‘If you want to live in Mizoram you have to be a Christian.’”

Religious difference even became the subject of a political spat. In 1999, former Bharatiya Janata Party president LK Advani contended that the Brus were being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla said he had refuted the allegation then, telling Advani that the Brus “were never Hindus and though they were originally animists, majority of them were converted to Christianity”. He also denied Advani’s allegation that Hindu temples were burnt in Mizoram, saying there was “no such Hindu temple in the Bru-dominated areas”.

In January 2017, the Hindu connection cropped up again: an organisation called the 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, seen by Scroll.in, stated that many people who had converted to Christianity had “returned to their original religion” in the camps in Tripura. Indeed, several Hindu temples now stand in the camps’ premises, along with a couple of churches.

This has led to murmurs that the push for repatriation by the BJP-led government is rooted in electoral calculations: Mizoram goes to polls later this year and the Brus could be an important Hindu vote bank for the BJP in Christian-dominated Mizoram. Speaking to Scroll.in last year, Mizoram BJP president JV Hluna, however, played down the Brus’ importance in the state’s electoral politics. “It is only around 10 constituencies that will be affected if they return,” said Hluna.

Bru leaders, on their part, remain tight-lipped on queries about electoral politics.

‘Why don’t they just give us all poison?’

In the Bru refugee camps, conditions are growing grim. Families are living on leftover rice from September. “We desperately need to draw the attention of the Central government,” said Charlie Molshoy, a secretary at the Bru Displaced People’s Forum. “If the government does not revive ration supply, there is a real possibility people will die of hunger.”

Bru leaders say they have been let down by the Centre. “They had assured us that before repatriation, they would open bank accounts for direct bank transfer of cash assistance,” claimed Masha. “But even before that could happen, they have cut off aid.” Masha also said the government had assured them that electoral rolls, which are based on the 1995 rolls, would be revised to include 1,000 families who had been left out of the process. The Brus allege the 1995 electoral rolls are flawed. The tripartite agreement, seen by Scroll.in, states that the Central government will “endeavour” to update the “electoral rolls before August 31, 2018”.

Revision of the 1995 electoral rolls is a greatly contested project in Mizoram, one that Mizo nationalist groups are staunchly opposed to. In 2015, Mizoram government officials on their way to the Bru camps to conduct a special summary revision of the voters’ list were left stranded for four days after Mizo groups blocked the road to Kanchanpur from Mamit.

In August, electoral revision forms with the names of Bru refugees collected from the camps were “stolen” from the Mamit district election office. “Everyone is saying the Brus want to live in refugee camps, and survive on government doles,” said Masha. “But people don’t actually know what it is like to go back.”

Twenty-one years after he fled his home one October night, Chobraha Reang said he had lost all hope now that the government had stopped his supply of rations. “Since the Indian government is treating us like Pakistanis, we will starve to death wherever they want,” he said. “In fact, why don’t they just give us all poison?”

The Centre has cut all aid to Bru refugees at the camps in Trupura.

All photographs by Arunabh Saikia