The Brus of Mizoram are not returning home. After eight repatriation attempts over the last decade, more than 30,000 displaced members of the community will be permanently settled in Tripura where they have resided as refugees since 1997 after a bout of ethnic violence forced them to flee Mizoram.

The refugees will be allotted land and cash assistance to build homes and start over.

A four-way agreement was signed on January 16 by representatives of the community, the Centre, Tripura and Mizoram to formalise this arrangement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it “a special day”; Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who announced the agreement, declared it to be a “logical conclusion” to the impasse. Several senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders followed suit with congratulatory messages, terming the development “historic”.

But sections of the Bru community have misgivings about the agreement. The few families who trickled back to Mizoram under a repatriation deal signed in 2010 fear it could undermine their political aspirations and security. A few among those who remain in Tripura regret that they will never return to their homes in Mizoram.

Suhas Chakma, a human rights activist from Mizoram, said it was myopic to applaud the agreement. “What are we celebrating, really?” he asked. “This amounts to legitimising the idea of ethnocentric states and goes against the Constitutional tenet of pluralism.”

Chakma was scathing in his criticism of the Central government who, he said, should be “ashamed”. “You could not ensure the repatriation of the Kashmiri Pandits, now the government of India is not being able to send the Brus back to their home state of Mizoram,” he said. “Tomorrow, the Biharis of Maharashtra will be driven out of the state and the Central government will say they cannot ensure their safety too. Where do you draw the line?”

Political aspirations ‘derailed’

The exact population of Brus in Mizoram is difficult to come by, given that many from the community have adopted Mizo names over the years.

“We want to congratulate our brothers and sisters in the Tripura for this agreement,” said a community leader who moved back to Mizoram’s Mamit district in 2010. “But us living in Mizoram we cannot say we are 100% happy.”

This trepidation stems from concerns that the agreement may make the Bru community in Mizoram further marginalised. “Numbers matter,” explained the leader, who requested to not be named fearing a backlash from the Mizo civil society groups. “For a long time, we have been fighting for our political rights here. We want our own MLAs, our own district council, but now those of ours suddenly seem very distant.”

For years now, the political rights of the Brus has been a lightning rod in Mizoram. The state’s civil society groups led by the all-powerful Young Mizo Association have opposed the rights of Bru refugees in Tripura to participate in Mizoram’s electoral process, leading to several stand-offs.

Credits: Special Arrangement
Protestors in Mizoram demand the resignation of the chief electoral officer before the assembly elections of 2018, when conflict over Bru votes arose again.

The first signs of a conflict between the Brus and Mizos in the mid-1990s also sprang from the question of voting rights for Brus. 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.

The Bru demand for a separate autonomous council also met with stiff resistance from Mizo politicians and pressure groups, alike.

It is little surprise that the Young Mizo Association has endorsed the latest pact. “The best thing about the agreement is that the names of those Bru voters, who will permanently settle in Tripura, would be permanently deleted from Mizoram’s voter list,” the group said in a statement.

The Brus of Mizoram, on the other hand, see it as a body blow to their political aspirations. “You can say they have been all derailed,” said another person who came back to Mizoram in 2010.

Fears of a fresh attack

Chakma said the agreement could lead to Mizoram’s Brus being targeted once again by the state’s majoritarian elements. “There will be fresh pressure on them to leave,” he said.

Indeed, these concerns are already being articulated by the Brus in Mizoram. “All it takes is one incident for things to turn communal here,” said Zawmarai, a Bru pastor from a south Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district.

Only last week, Zawmarai claimed, several houses in his village – a Bru settlement of around 700 families - were destroyed by Mizo nationalist groups. The arson took place after a Mizo boy from a neighbouring Mizo village was allegedly murdered by Bru miscreants.

The 1997 violence had begun in similar circumstances. A Mizo forest guard at the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mamit district, not far from Zawmarai’s village, was allegedly killed by militants belonging to the Bru National Liberation Front. The outfit was formed in 1996 to demand a Bru Autonomous District Council. The ethnic violence that followed the murder prompted the exodus of Brus from Mizoram.

Another person from the area expressed similar fears. “When someone does wrong, the police will decide and law will take its course in other places, but here things are different,” said the person. “The police will always keep mum and not do anything if any communal flare-up happens.”

A refugee family at the Kanchanpur camp for Brus in Tripura.

‘Total injustice’

Brus who returned to Mizoram under the 2010 repatriation deal also feel they lost out in material terms. When they were repatriated, most of the 1,900 odd families who came back got a one-time cash assistance of Rs 80,000 and free supplies for a year.

The new rehabilitation package is much more generous: Rs 1.5 lakh in housing assistance per family; one-time cash assistance of Rs 4 lakh to be handed over after three years; a monthly allowance of Rs 5,000; and free ration for two years.

“It is total injustice,” said Elvis Chorky, a Bru community leader based in Mamit. “And very unfair on the Central government’s part. We are also the same community.”

A ‘joyful march’

The mood among their counterparts in Tripura is much more upbeat. On Sunday, the community carried out a “joyful march” to commemorate the “historic occasion”.

But is there a tinge of melancholy too somewhere underneath the joy? After all, they will never be able to go back to the place they call home. “If a father makes a son feel unwelcome, what can you do?” rued Charlie Molshoy, a Bru leader who lives in one of the camps in Tripura. “We can never feel secure in Mizoram.”

A Sawibunga, president of the Bru Displaced People’s Forum, was more matter-of-fact. “It doesn’t matter whether it is fortunate or unfortunate,” he said. “It is the agreement.”