By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On September 20, 2016, Lalbiakzama, Additional Secretary, Mizoram Home Department, disclosed that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), had approved ‘Road Map-V’ for Bru repatriation, proposed to commence from the first week of November 2016, and would soon release funds for expenses for the process. Though the expenditure for this phase was not projected, Lalbiakzama stated that the total proposed expenses for the repatriation was earlier estimated at INR 680 million in the ‘Roadmap-IV’ of which over INR 97 million was released by the Centre in 2015. “We have spent around Rs. One lakh [100,000] during the proposed repatriation in 2015,” he said, adding, the State Government would ask more fund in case of further requirement. The effort to repatriate Bru families during June to September in 2015 had failed as not a single Bru came forward in their respective relief camps before the Mizoram officials, to be identified as bona fide residents of Mizoram.
On September 13, 2016, while speaking on the repatriation issue, Lalbiakzama noted, “The actual repatriation will commence soon after the completion of the identification process… a large number of Mizoram Government officials would go to the relief camps and conduct the identification process in all the relief camps simultaneously to ensure early commencement of the actual repatriation.”
‘Road Map-V’ was approved on July 1, 2016, and proposed to conduct identification of bona fide residents of Mizoram in the six-relief camps. Those willing to return would be resettled in 13 villages in the Mamit District of Mizoram.
Significantly, replying to an unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) on December 23, 2015, Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, disclosed, “Due to ethnic violence in the Western part of Mizoram in October, 1997, about 30,000 Brus (5,000 families) migrated to North Tripura in 1997-98. As on date, approximately 8573 Brus (1622 families) have been repatriated. The Ministry of Home Affairs with the co-operation of the State Governments of Mizoram and Tripura has taken measures for return of Brus to Mizoram.”
Ethnic-violence between Reang tribals (Brus) and Mizos in Western Mizoram had taken place during 1997-98. The immediate cause of the conflict (between ethnic Mizos and Bru tribesmen) was the killing of Lalzawmliana, a Mizo forest guard working inside the Dampa Tiger Reserve near Persang hamlet in Mamit District on October 21, 1997, by militants of the erstwhile Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF). Moreover, the demand for an Autonomous District Council (ADC) in the Bru-dominated areas of western Mizoram by the Bru National Union (BNU), a political organisation of Bru tribesmen that was formed in 1994, also aggravated the situation. The Reang/Bru Democratic Convention Party (RDCP), another Bru organisation, passed a resolution in this regard, subsequently provoking Mizo organisations like the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and Young Mizo Association (YMA) to organise the violent attacks on Bru settlements. The traditional rivalry between ethnic Mizos and Bru tribesmen also added to the flare up.
Subsequently, the Bru migrants took shelter in the six relief camps – Asapara, Naisingpara, Hazacherra, Kaskau, Khakchangpara and Hamsapara – set up in the Kanchanpur and Panisagar Sub-Divisions of North Tripura.
Seeking a solution to the refugees’ problem, UMHA has been persuading the Government of Mizoram (GoM) to accept repatriation of Bru refugees from Tripura to Mizoram. As a result of these efforts, GoM signed an agreement on April 26, 2005, with BNLF, for laying down of arms and surrender of BNLF cadres, rehabilitation and resettlement of BNLF returnees and Bru refugees and a Special Development Package for the western belt of Mizoram, where these refugees are to be settled on their repatriation from Tripura to Mizoram.
195 BNLF cadres surrendered to GoM on July 25, 2005. In addition 53 cadres of Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram (BLFM), a BNLF splinter group, surrendered before GoM in March, 2006. These BNLF and BLFM cadres, along with their family members have since been rehabilitated by GoM. In October, 2006, another batch of 804 BLFM cadres surrendered to GoM. The surrender of BNLF/BLFM cadres to GoM paved way for repatriation of Bru refugees from Tripura to Mizoram.
The first effort to repatriate the Brus on November 16, 2009 was not only hampered by the killing of a Mizo youth, Zarzokima of Bungthuam village in the Mizoram-Tripura border by Bru militants on November 13, 2009, but also triggered another exodus of an additional 5,000 Brus.
The repatriation and resettlement process finally started in November 2010. Since then, six rounds of repatriation have taken place with poor success. The last attempt to repatriate the Brus between June 2, 2015, and September 4, 2015, also failed miserably, as only one Bru woman named Porati, native of Zawlnuam village in Mizoram, opted to be repatriated to Mizoram from relief camps in Tripura. Arrangements had been made to repatriate over 20,700 Brus belonging to 3,455 families.
Meanwhile, taking note of the Supreme Court’s directives on the repatriation of the refugees, GoM submitted ‘Road Map-V’ to UMHA on May 17, 2016, proposing to repatriate over 20,700 Brus, including 11,500 minors belonging to 3,455 families.
Earlier, on June 3, 2016, Satyendra Garg, Joint Secretary (Northeast), UMHA, visited the Naisingpara relief camp in the Kanchanpur Subdivision of North Tripura District and appealed to the Brus to return to Mizoram en masse during the repatriation process in the first week of November 2016.
However, on September 11, 2016, A. Sawibunga, President, Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), the lone organisation representing the refugees in this imbroglio, objected to the repatriation process, claiming, “We have not received the copy of the ‘Road Map’ for Bru repatriation prepared by the Mizoram Government and submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs.” The Bru people in the relief camps have made various demands before being repatriated and those demands were not met by the Centre or GoM, hence, Sawibunga asserted, the Forum would consult the people staying in the relief camps after receipt of the official communication, and only then would the repatriation process be considered.
Earlier, on December 1, 2015, Bruno Msha, general secretary of the MBDPF, alleged that GoM was yet to accept their eight-point demands in writing. These included financial support of INR 200,000 for each tribal family, free rations for four years, contiguous resettlement of the returnees with adequate security, land titles for the tribal families who are to be allotted plots to build houses, and financial aid to purchase about 2.5 acres of farmland for each family. Msha also alleged, “The experience of a few hundred refugees is very bad after their return to their villages in western Mizoram from Tripura a few years back as the Mizoram Government did not fulfill its commitments.”
Meanwhile, the Tripura Government has been asking the Centre and GoM to repatriate the refugees at the earliest as serious socio-economic and law and order problems have cropped up in the State. Tension prevailed in Kanchanpur in North Tripura District on May 15, 2016, as angry tribal refugees, originally hailing from Mizoram, set ablaze around 10 houses of locals. The arson followed the suicide by a tribal man living in a refugee camp at Kanchanpur, after he was allegedly beaten up by locals. According to the Police the deceased, identified as Bhiguram Reang (36), allegedly committed suicide, after he was beaten up by local people who accused him of catching fish from a pond without seeking permission from the owner.
In a related development, the proposed second round of peace talks, scheduled to be held in Aizawl by mid-September, between the GoM and the Manipur-based Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D) was deferred on September 18, 2016. According to an unnamed senior State Home Department official, the postponement was not due to any problem between the two sides, but due to ‘heavy engagement’ of the Government delegation on the proposed Bru repatriation and other pressing matters.
The HPC-D had carried out its last major attack on March 28, 2015, when its cadres had opened fire on a convoy accompanying a group of Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) near Zokhawthiang in Aizawl in Mizoram, in which three Policemen were killed and another two were injured. HPC-D which was the only active group in the otherwise peaceful State of Mizoram after the surrender of BNLF ceased its activities after May 11, 2016, when GoM accepted its peace overtures on the condition that the outfit would not engage in any anti-Government activity during the by-elections to the village councils on May 19, 2016.
The dispute over the Bru repatriation issue has remained insurmountable on account of some technical issues that crop up time and again. For instance, MBDPF claimed on September 11, 2016, that they have not received any official communication from the Mizoram or the Tripura Government that repatriation of Bru refugees staying in Tripura would resume from the first week of November 2016. MBDPF President A Sawibunga complained, “We also have not received the copy of the ‘Road Map’ for Bru repatriation prepared by the Mizoram Government and submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs.” Significantly, the Mizoram Government had announced on June 7, 2016, that it will start the process of repatriating 3,445 Bru families from six relief camps in North Tripura District from November 2016, in accordance with ‘Road Map-V’ prepared by the Home Department.
Nevertheless, Mizoram appears to be limping gradually towards the end of the tunnel. The political will of the ruling establishment is required to provide attractive terms as well as greater security to the refugees to return to their ancestral homes.
* Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management