Twenty-six years after facing ethnic violence, migrating and resettling in adjoining state of Tripura, thousands of Bru refugee families will not be casting their votes in the Assembly elections in Mizoram on 7 November for the first time in history.
In 1997, around 40,000 members of the Bru tribe fled their homes and took shelter in six relief camps situated on forest land of Tripura.
Prior to the Centre-sponsored rehabilitation arrangement that came into affect in January 2020, the Election Commission of India had set up special polling stations on Tripura-Mizoram boundary to facilitate voting of the eligible displaced voters.
In 2018, Bru refugees voted at 15 polling booths at Kahnmun in Mamit districts of Mizoram. Out of the 11,987 registered Bru voters, 56.46% had cast their votes.
Five years later, In July 2023, the names of more than 6,000 Bru voters from nine assembly constituencies in three districts -— Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei — have been deleted from the Mizoram voters' list following their resettlement in Tripura.
"We have no interest in Mizoram elections even if some of us had voted there in the last polls. Now, we are permanent residents of Tripura following the 2020 historic accord. It hardly matters to us who comes to power in that state," Charles, secretary of Kaskoupata Bru resettlement village in North Tripura district, told PTI.
Prior to this the Election Commission of India had to set up special polling stations on Tripura-Mizoram boundary to facilitate voting of the eligible displaced voters.
But First, Who Are The Bru Refugees?
Bru or Reang refugees are a primitive minority tribe and the second most populous tribe after Tripuris in Tripura. Brus are a designated Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
As the demographic goes, 95% of households in Mizoram have household heads who belong to a scheduled tribe and 3% belong to scheduled caste, as per the National Family and Health Survey, 2019-2021. However, Brus are a small minority within STs.
The Brus are spread across Tripura, Mizoram and southern Assam. In Mizoram, they are scattered in Kolasib, Lunglei and Mamit districts.
While many Brus of Assam and Tripura are Hindu, the Brus of Mizoram converted to Christianity over the years.
Most Brus who are residing in Tripura today have suffered over two decades of internal displacement from Mizoram.
It all started in 1995 when certain Mizo organisations demanded that Brus be eliminated from Mizoram's electoral rolls as they were 'not indigenous inhabitants.'
Things went south when the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) killed a Mizo forest official in October 1997. The retaliatory ethnic violence saw more than thousands of Brus fleeing to Tripura.
Approximately 30,000 (5,000 families) Bru migrants were given shelter in six relief camps set-up in Kanchanpur district of North Tripura.
Brus had also demanded for an Autonomous District Council (ADC), under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution, in western Mizoram, where they were the more dominant lot, outnumbering the ethnic Mizo population.
Rocky Road to Repatriation
The Centre and the two state governments of Mizoram and Tripura have made nine attempts from 1997 to 2018 to facilitate the community's repatriation.
The repatriation of Brus to Mizoram was started in 2010 and till 2014.
Approximately 1,622 Bru families (8,573 people) were repatriated in six batches and resettled in Mizoram.
Protests by Mizo NGOs, primarily the Young Mizo Association, stalled the process in 2011, 2012 and 2015.
The Bru refugees started demanding relief on par with what is given to Kashmiri Pandits and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.
The Centre spent close to ₹500 crore for relief and rehabilitation until the last peace deal was brokered over three years since 2015.
In July 2018, a final package of ₹435 crore was granted and it involved Mizo NGOs besides the governments concerned.
These efforts were by and large unsuccessful as according to Elvis Chorkhy, former president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum, around 5,000 Brus returned to Mizoram in phases over these years, but thousands more remained in Tripura.
In February this year, the resettled Bru refugees voted for the first time in Tripura Assembly elections. The Tripura High Court granted them voting rights in October 2022.
The Rehabilitation Journey
A major breakthrough came when a new agreement was signed by the Centre, state governments of Tripura and Mizoram with the representatives of Bru migrants on 16 January 2020 for permanent settlement of 6,959 Bru families.
This was done with a financial assistance of around Rs. 661 crores.
As per the agreement, each resettled Bru family would be given 30x40 sq. ft. of land & Rs. 1.5 lakhs for construction of house, fixed deposit of Rs. 4 lakhs, Rs. 5,000/- cash assistance per month for two years and free ration for two years.
'Bru Accord is a Mixed Bag For Us'
Charles said that Brus had tried to live in Mizoram peacefully, but could not because of skirmishes with the majority Mizo community, reported PTI.
"We are happy that the refugee status no longer haunts us. Now, the Brus are permanent residents of Tripura. We are not concerned about Mizoram at all, but are focused on the future of thousands of Bru brothers and sisters," he said.
Nishikanta Reang, a father of five and another member of the community stated that they don't have time to think about the Mizoram polls.
"Let them rule Mizoram as per their wish because we could not become part of the state even after being born there," he said.
However, Nishikanta added, "The Bru accord is a mixed bag for us. We are now permanent residents of Tripura and the Centre has been giving some benefits to restart our lives. But some aspects still need to be sorted out for permanent solution of Bru rehabilitation."
On the other hand, in September this year, many Bru migrants, now permanently settled in Tripura, had requested the ECI to retain their names on the electoral rolls until the upcoming elections due to unresolved practical issues, as reported by East Mojo.
The General Secretary of the Bru Displaced People’s Forum, Bruno Msha wrote to the CEC emphasising that 652 families were yet to be registered in the electoral role of Tripura.
"..And approximately 478 families who were left out during the population census conducted by the Government of Tripura in June-August 2020 but who have the population census slip from the census conducted by the Government of Mizoram in 2016 & 2019,” the letter read.
Meanwhile, Nishikanta stated concerns with the agreement too. "The Centre will give Rs 5,000 per month to each Bru family for two years. But what will happen after that? I am really worried about the future. The state government must provide land for cultivation and animal rearing in the resettled villagers," he added.