Mizoram: The ‘Bru’ing Issue That BJP Is Capitalising On
In 1997, 40,000 Brus from Mizoram fled to Tripura. After 8 repatriation efforts, only about 9,000 have come back.
Go through most roads in Mizoram’s capital city, Aizawl, and any sign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being a contender in the state elections is missing. Even a day before the prime minister’s arrival, a BJP poster – or even a stray flag – was difficult, if not impossible to find in the city.
Speak to locals or the stronger parties in the region like the Mizo National Front (MNF) or the Congress, and they’ll tell you that the main thrust of the BJP’s campaign is in the districts dominated by the minority, non-Mizo tribes – Mamit, Kolasib, Lenglui and the Chakma areas.
A few weeks before the elections, Aizawl saw major protests by the civil society – dominated by the majority Mizo population. The protest demanded the removal of the then CEO of the Election Commission, SB Shashank, after he orchestrated the transfer of the serving Home Secretary of the time, on the allegation of interfering with the polls.
On the streets of Aizawl, however, the deeper issue with the chief electoral officer was clear.
In 1997, following a violent conflict with the Mizos, over 40,000 members of the scheduled Bru or Reang tribe had fled to adjoining North Tripura, and have been staying in relief camps over there ever since. An issue that crops up in every state election since, is whether or not these Bru refugees, technically residents of Mizoram, should be allowed to cast their votes for the Mizoram state elections in Tripura. The Mizo community is opposed to this idea, and the word on the street was that SB Shashank was in favour of it.
Since 2010, in a collaborative effort by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram, there have been eight repatriation efforts to get the Brus back to Mizoram. However, protests by local Bru groups, who argue that the state is not safe for members of the tribe, means that these efforts have largely failed.
From 2010 to the last repatriation effort in 2018, less than 9,000 members of the community have returned to Mizoram.
However, in the border districts of the state, close to 40,000 members of the community who did not migrate to Tripura, continue to live on.
“There are more Brus living in Mizoram currently than there are in Tripura. They are safe and are not facing any problems. So where is the question of there being an unsafe environment for them to return?” said incumbent Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla of the Congress, in an interview to The Quint.
Separated By Land and Language
The Quint travelled about 140 km from Aizawl to the district of Mamit to feel the pulse of the Bru community this election season. What is startling is that the journey took six hours by roads, which could barely be called so. Running through forests in some parts, the connectivity to the border, tribal districts is a nightmare that most of Mizoram knows well. Probably why no one from Aizawl comes to these districts unless they absolutely have to, leaving these ST dominated areas, untouched by the majority Mizo population.
40 km from the main Mamit town, connected by some more bad roads, is the village of Damdiai.
After spending almost a week in Aizawl, where the absence of any BJP symbol was conspicuous, we were greeted by BJP flags fluttering outside the bamboo houses in the village as soon as we entered.
A Bru village, people in Damdiai could speak the Mizo language, but almost all communication happened in native Bru. From the roads to housing to general educational facilities – the lack of development in this part of the state, compared to the villages around Aizawl was evident. Outsiders were treated with suspicion, but once the locals figured out that we were non-Mizo journalists, they were a little more comfortable.
The Horrors of 1997, And Life in Tripura
Of those Bru families living in the village, The Quint met three that were repatriated from Tripura.
In an almost-falling-apart bamboo hut, we met 50-year-old Janaki. She and her two daughters returned to Mizoram in the repatriation of 2015. Recalling the night she fled to Tripura, Janaki says that there was a fear of life in all members of the community in her village that night. Around 10 pm, news of Mizo-Bru violence floated in from the adjoining villages.
“There were reports of houses being burnt down, women being raped and the menfolk being stabbed in plain sight. Fearing for our life, our entire family and others in the village, walked over 20 km in the forest to reach the nearest highway that connects to Tripura. With no money and barely any belongings, we pleaded a passing car to ferry us across the border.”Janaki to The Quint
A few houses after Janaki’s, 45-year-old Ahoila Rani smiles when she hears that a journalist wants her to recall the events of that night. “She won’t understand my language,” she tells the young Bru guy translating for us.
She sits next to a bunch of medicines and a saline drip. She has been getting chest pains for two years now. But the doctors haven’t been able to diagnose her with anything. She goes to the hospital in Mamit town to get her check-up, but the government hospital is understaffed and those like her, who don’t speak Mizo, are not paid much attention.
“There was very little ration and not much medical care at the relief camp in Tripura. We didn’t have any land and no means of survival as cultivation is all we knew. I lost my brother to illness and starvation. It was a difficult life. We wanted to come back home. Now that we are back, we still fear for our lives.”Ahoila Rani to The Quint
As we walked out of Rani’s house, we met 60-year-old Noniro. Unlike the other women, Noniro had an infectious, ‘happy’ vibe to her. She insisted that we go to the local club house, also made of bamboo and also in tatters, to sit down and talk.
“That night my husband, who was on his way back from work, was kidnapped by Mizo men. We got the news and my family was in shambles. They came to our house and I pleaded with them to let him go, wherever he was. Instead, they came in and started pulling at our clothes, trying to take them off. I fought and tried to hit them with whatever I could get near my hand. My daughter and I managed to run away and escape. On the way, we met an Army truck. I asked them to keep us safe and also told them about my husband. Since the perpetrators were known to us, they tracked them down and recovered by husband. The next day we fled. We knew we couldn’t stay here anymore.”Noniro to The Quint
“I tell this story with pride because my courage to fight off those men that day is what saved my family,” she adds, smiling all along.
The BJP’s ‘Minority Appeasement’
In the eyes of these Bru families, who fled when the Congress was in power, their return to Mizoram is a ‘gift’ from the ruling BJP dispensation.
Janaki, who has a BJP flag tied to the entrance of her house, says that she will definitely vote for the party in the upcoming elections.
“They have given us back our home and have promised us safety,” she says. “They listened to us when no one else would.”
It is the same story for Ahoila Rani and Noniro. The repatriation is being seen as the BJP government veto-ing the will of the dominant Mizos.
Therefore, for the first time in any election, the BJP – which usually accuses every other party of minority appeasement – is being accused of doing just that by the traditional parties of Tripura.
Their modus operandi is clear when we speak to 27-year-old Lampchuk Musa, our guide and translator in Damdiai – the only person who knows English in the entire village.
His father, the village chief, was the former head of the militant group Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), which led an armed conflict in the state from 1995, when following a clash between the Mizos and the Brus, the Mizo community started demanding that the latter be removed from the state’s electoral rolls, contending that they are not indigenous to Mizoram.
This is not about what happened 20 years ago. Even in 2009, some people from the majority community came to our village and burnt down houses. These incidents are not reported, but they are a reality for us. When Rajnath Singh had come to Mizoram, a bunch of us met him with our problems and demands. We told him about our oppression and he assured us that the BJP will develop our areas and provide us with protection. The other parties have failed us, but the BJP wants to bring our people back to a safe Mizoram.Lampchuk Musa to The Quint
As we leave, Lampchuk says that the community has put 1997 behind them, and it has been ages since any of them has recounted these experiences. But he hopes that our report helps close the gap between the minority and majority communities, instead of aggravating them.
“We want peace, so that we can all help each other,” he signs off.
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.