When Lalnunpuia, who lives in Damdiai village in the Mamit district of Mizoram, heard about a mass search operation being organised by the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (Mizo Student Association), he sent his wife and four children away to Assam. He was afraid a crisis was looming; that, like in 1997 and 2009, thousands of Bru tribals would be forced to flee their homes in Mizoram.
“Many people began leaving in early January when tensions started to escalate. The women and children were sent away. Only the men stayed back,” said Lalnunpuia, a former militant with the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF). Lalnunpuia’s story is a common one among Mizoram’s Brus, a people who have been in conflict with the majority Mizos and who, in the last 17 years, have lost their homes, lands, and even the hope of a brighter future for their young.
The latest incident
The latest episode in the ongoing conflict came last November, two days before the Mizoram assembly elections, when Bru militants allegedly belonging to the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram (BDFM) and helped by members of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) abducted three young men. On November 23, Sanglianthanga (27), a Mizo, was driving telecom executive Deep Mondal (25) back to Mamit from Tuipuibari, a Bru village inside the Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram, near the Bangladesh border. After spending the night in the remote village, which is around 80 kms from Mamit, the nearest town, the two men had started back early in the morning. Somewhere between Tuipuibari and Damparengpui, another Bru village inside the dense forest, armed men forced the duo out of their vehicle. They also abducted Lalziamlana, another Mizo driver, on the same stretch of seasonal road that winds through the forest.
The incident reignited the long-standing conflict between the Mizos and the minority Brus — one that has been smouldering for the last 17 years. Enraged by the abduction of the Mizos, several protests spearheaded mostly by the powerful NGOs MZP and the Young Mizo Association (YMA) were organised throughout the state. The MZP and the state’s taxi drivers and the pickup drivers associations also started a remna kawngzawh or peace march from Aizawl to Tuipuibari demanding the release of the three men.
On December 6, the militants demanded a ransom of ` 50 million from the telecom company for which Mondal, a Bengali, works. No ransom demand was made for the Mizo men. Fearing retributive violence and a repeat of the bloody ethnic clashes of 1997 that displaced thousands, over 4000 Brus then fled to neighbouring Assam and Tripura. The incident, like many others in the northeast, hardly made it to the national media’s news tickers.
Brus living in Tuipuibari and Damparengpui allege that around 100 young Mizos accompanied by police officials came to the villages ‘enquiring’ about the abducted Mizos. In early January, Mizo NGOs called for a meeting in Aizawl, the state capital. Subsequently, local village headmen were threatened with dire consequences if they did not ask the militants to release the Mizos. “They said there would be bloodshed,” one of the village leaders said. MZP president C Lalhmachhuana, who met this reporter at his office in Treasury Square, Aizawl, denies that his organisation was involved in the mass search operation or in threatening Bru leaders.
After spending nearly two months in captivity in the jungles of eastern Bangladesh, the two Mizos were released on January 21 this year. Two days later, the YMA warned of a massive search operation if the third captive, Deep Mondal, was not released immediately. Mondal continues to be held captive.
History of the conflict
In a letter dated February 10, sent to the National Human Rights Commission, the Home department of the Mizoram government listed the reasons that led to the original conflict between the Mizos and the Brus. According to the document, the Brus — recognised as Reangs as per the Constitution (Schedule Tribes) Order, 1950 — fled persecution in the erstwhile Tippera kingdom (now divided between Tripura and Bangladesh) to arrive in Mizoram in the early 1940s. “Brus have always been outsiders and can never be a part of the larger Mizo culture,” says Lalmuanpuia Punte, who was MZP’s president in 1997.
The roots of the current conflict can be traced to 1994, when a political party called the Bru National Union (BNU) was formed to promote the tribe’s welfare. In September 1997, at a conference in Saipuilui village in Mamit district, the BNU adopted a resolution to demand for an Autonomous District Council (ADC) for Brus in the western belt of Mizoram. Mizoram is predominantly inhabited by Mizos. Other tribes in the state include the Hmars, the Lai and the Chakmas, each of whom have their own ADC. Interestingly, though the Brus are the largest minority in Mizoram their demand for an ADC went unheeded. “What was wrong with that demand?” asks Elvis Chorkhy, chairman of the Bru Coordination Committee that has been working with the government to repatriate the Brus. “Was it so unconstitutional as to lead to the physical torture and harassment of the Brus?”
Mizoram has always been projected as an island of peace in the northeast. However, the establishment of the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) led to growing militancy in the post-1997 period. In the eight years of its existence, the BNLF was involved in extortion, abducting several Mizos and killing security personnel. Things came to a head with the murder of a Mizo forest official in the Dampa Tiger Reserve. Widespread ethnic violence followed, with reports of arson, killing and rape by the Mizos. The brutality forced about 50,000 Brus to flee to Tripura.
The Mizos say the Bru exodus of 1997 can be traced to a ‘circular’ signed by Bruno Msha, who was then the Bru Student Union president and is currently the general secretary of the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples’ Forum (MBDPF). Dated March 1998, the ‘circular’ asks all Bru headmen to evacuate their villages and leave Mizoram because of a possible clash between Bru militants and Mizoram security personnel. Msha, who denies signing any such document, claims the story is a Mizo attempt to blame Bru militants for the exodus.
Each side might apportion blame to the other but ultimately, the ethnic violence of 1997 pushed many Brus into relief camps in a remote part of Tripura that borders Mizoram and Bangladesh.
Militancy was finally contained when BNLF’s 195 cadres surrendered in 2005. The laying down of arms came after the Mizoram government — dominated by Mizos — promised to repatriate Bru refugees. “With security concerns of our officials and the locals, we couldn’t start the repatriation process early. We had to wait till the Bru insurgency ceased,” said Lalbiakzama, joint secretary of the home department overseeing Bru rehabilitation.
The state government met with more success when they convinced 804 cadres of the breakaway faction Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram (BLFM) to surrender. The BDFM still exists but the government refuses to accept that it is a legitimate body, choosing instead to call its members Bru goons.
Hurdles to repatriation
Though the state government acted swiftly to rehabilitate militants who surrendered, the process to bring back displaced Brus took much longer. The first Road Map was chalked out only in 2009, four years after the militants kept their side of the promise. A meeting held in November 2009 to discuss the implementation of the road map, attended by representatives of MBDPF and surrendered BNLF and BLFM members was a failure. “The Bru leaders made impossible demands. They wanted cluster settlement in large Bru villages with at least 500 households and the settlement of all families in Mamit district, which the state government couldn’t agree to,” said Lalbiakzama.
Then, on November 13, three days before the process began, suspected Bru militants shot dead a 17-year-old Mizo boy from Mamit. A fresh spate of ethnic attacks ensued in which the Mizos reportedly burnt down around 500 Bru houses in 11 villages across two districts. Some Bru villagers say Mizoram police personnel instigated the mob to attack them. The incident pushed around 5,000 Brus to flee with more than 2,500 taking shelter in Tripura’s camps. MZP and YMA leaders allege that the Brus burned their own houses to defame the Mizos.
After the derailment of the first repatriation attempt, the Mizoram government prepared Road Map II to rehabilitate the fresh migrants after the 2009 incident. A visit by the then home minister P Chidambaram to the camps in 2010 expedited the process. “I will be coming again to ensure that all of you return to Mizoram,” he said before leaving.
Things, however, continue to look bleak for over 35,000 people still stuck in the forgotten camps of Tripura.
The delayed homecoming of the Brus
The sleepy town of Kanchanpur in northern Tripura lies about 45 kms from the Mizoram border. 17 years ago, thousands of Brus fleeing attacks from Mizos took refuge here. Many crossed the border on foot. The displaced Brus put up temporary shelters on the lower tracts of the Jampui hills that separate Tripura from Mizoram and Bangladesh. Today, there are over 35,000 Internally Displaced Persons languishing in the seven camps spread over the region. Here, scores live amidst filth and human waste with small mountain streams being the only source of drinking water.
A report by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network says ‘The ration quota is so inadequate that Brus do not report deaths as it means a further reduction of the rations’. The abject conditions and the lack of employment and education have made the camps a good recruiting ground for militants. Many young Brus have missed out on education and cannot even get job cards under central government schemes. “This is why we are asking for a Primitive Group Program and a development council which will look after the upliftment of the community once it is repatriated,” says Bruno Msha of the MBDPF.
Adults get a cash dole of Rs. 150 per month and 600 gms of rice per day while minors get half that amount. This is much less than other internally displaced groups like the Kashmiri Pandits and even the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu have received in the past. Leaders of the MBDPF maintain that unless compensation is increased, no one will go back. Both the home department and Mizo organisations, allege that any attempts at repatriation are foiled by the staging of untoward incidents. The Bru side alleges that it is a conspiracy by Mizos who don’t want Brus to return. With only 5,627 people rehabilitated until last October, the Mizoram government has a mammoth task on its hands. “It has become necessary to remove those camps and resettle the displaced. We are losing precious time and a generation of kids is losing their future. The process needs to be expedited,” said Chorkhy.