In January, Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared that the 23-year-old Bru refugee crisis, which has displaced tens of thousands of people from the community, was over. In what he called the “logical conclusion” to the crisis, Shah announced that around 34,000 displaced Brus, originally from Mizoram, would be settled in Tripura, where they had been living in camps since 1997.

Cut to November: residents of North Tripura, where the government intends to settle a bulk of the displaced Brus, are up in arms over the proposed rehabilitation plan. For over a week, the North Tripura sub-division of Kanchanpur has been shut down by locals opposed to the settlement of the refugees.

On November 21, two people was killed and at least 20 injured as protests turned violent when the police tried to forcibly clear a highway blockade at North Tripura’s Panisagar.

Protesters gathered in large numbers on Saturday (Credit: Special arrangement)

Ethnic tensions

The Brus were forced to leave their homes in Mizoram after a bout of ethnic violence in 1997, triggered by questions over the community’s voting rights in the state. Mizo pressure groups had demanded that the Brus be struck off the state’s electoral list on the grounds that the community was not “indigenous” to the state. This had already led to the formation of a Bru militant group, demanding a Bru Autonomous District Council, in 1996.

In 1997, a Mizo forest guard was allegedly killed by Bru militants – a flashpoint that led to a violent reaction by the Mizos, driving many Brus out of the Mizoram.

A ‘settlement’ finally

There have been several attempts since to get the Brus back home – but few families have gone back. The reason: Brus insist that they are not safe in Mizoram. Even when the Centre cut off rations to the camps, the Brus refused to move. They would rather die hungry than go to Mizoram, they averred.

Finally, in January 2020, after eight failed attempts at repatriation, Bru representatives, the Centre, and the states of Tripura and Mizoram, agreed upon settling the community permanently in Tripura.

In line with the agreement, the Tripura government has identified 15 locations across Tripura to set up resettlement colonies for the community. Six of them, including four major ones, are located in the North Tripura subdivision Kanchanpur, which also houses the Bru refugee camps.

Fresh troubles

But residents of Kanchanpur, most of them Bengalis, are opposed to the resettlement plan. “We will not allow more than 500 families in Kanchanpur and they should not be settled in areas close to villages of original permanent residents,” said Sushanta Bikash Barua, the general secretary of the Nagarik Suraksha Manch, a committee of local Bengali residents of Kanchanpur.

Officials said a decision was yet to be taken on the exact distribution of people area-wise. “The Central government wanted it to be a consultative process, so we have asked the Bru leaders to tell us who wants to settle where, but they are yet to get back to us,” said Chandni Chandran, the sub-divisional magistrate of Kanchanpur. “And we are aware of the issues, so the locations we have selected are at a considerable distance from any existing habitation.”

Old fissures

Barua said the local residents of the area were still wary as they feared being overwhelmed by the Brus. He claimed their fears stemmed from bad experiences in the past. “In the past, several Bengali people living close to the Bru camps have had to flee because of atrocities by the Brus,” he alleged.

In December last year, Barua alleged, members of the Bru community had attacked Bengali shops and establishments in the area while protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship.

The Act had invoked mixed reactions in Tripura. The state’s majority Bengali-Hindu population, many of whom migrated to the state from erstwhile East Pakistan after Partition, had rejoiced. The state’s tribal residents protested against it. This had led to clashes resulting in the death of a tribal man.

In the North East, local communities fear the amended Act will lead to unabated migration from Bangladesh, altering the demography of the region. Critics of the Act often cite the example of Tripura to point out that their concerns are not imaginary: in 1948, tribal communities accounted for over 80% of the state’s population, now they are barely 30%.

Protesters blocking a highway on Saturday. (Credit: Special arrangement)

New alliances

Yet the current opposition to the settlement of Brus in Tripura moves beyond the binary of tribal and non-tribal and has seen some unlikely alliances. The Manch has made common cause with the Mizo Convention, a group that represents the interests of the Mizos living in Tripura’s Jampui hills, also part of the Kanchanpur sub-division. Together, they have formed the joint movement committee.

The Jampui hills are home to around 7,000-10,000 Mizos, according to local estimates.

The Mizos’ concerns and demands are the same as the Bengalis. “Mizo families living close to the Bru camps had to suffer the same fate as the Bengalis,” said Zairemthiama Pachuau, general secretary of the Mizo Convention “So, we have joined hands for a common goal.”

Pachuau added the association was limited to “one specific particular issue”. “That is the Bru settlement issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brus have also threatened to launch their own protests. “If the protests escalate, we also will not keep quiet,” said Charlie Molshoy, a secretary at the Bru Displaced People’s Forum.

To keep the peace, the district authorities have summoned the Assam Rifles. “They have taken charge now,” said Chandran on Sunday afternoon.