When he voted for the first time in the 1998 assembly polls, Lalramthanga was one of the 5,000 Bru tribals who had exercised their franchise through postal ballots. These were put in drop boxes that election officials from Mizoram had carried to their relief camps in Tripura, across the river Langkai dividing the two states. As a voter, this assembly election will be Lalramthanga’s fourth. For the small-time farmer, it will also be his first — on home soil.
Lalramthanga is a resident of Rengdil village in Mamit district of Mizoram. Last month, his was one of the ninety-eight families that left the refugee camps to return home. “I can now cast my vote in my place of birth,” he said, beaming.
Mizoram has 11,301 Bru voters across nine assembly constituencies in the western districts of Kolasib, Mamit and Lunglei. A majority of them are in the Hachhek constituency, where Rengdil, 180km northwest of Aizawl, the capital, is situated. Almost half the Bru voters and their dependants, numbering 37,000, had fled to Tripura in 1997 after Mizo tribal miscreants unleashed an ethnic cleansing drive. The killing of a Mizo forest guard, allegedly by Bru militants, had triggered the animosity that had been on the boil since the Brus raised the demand for an autonomous council, which the majority Mizos viewed as separatism.
The repatriation process, often derailed, began in 2010. A ministry of home affairs package promised `85,000 as compensation, `5,500 for transportation and free rations for a year. Till September 30 this year, 1,035 Bru families have been resettled in 35 villages of Mizoram.
But many are still not convinced. “The security of our people is in doubt. Besides, the government is unclear about returning our land that was later sold to wealthy Mizos. The rehabilitation package too, needs to be increased to `150,000 and free rations extended by another year,” said A Sawibung, president of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), based in the Naisingpara relief camp in Tripura.
The pro-repatriation Bru Coordination Committee, however, is upbeat about the homecoming. “Certain things such as the identification of bona fide Brus need to be simplified, but the government has agreed to consider the latest electoral rolls instead of the controversial 1995 one, which left out more than 90% Bru inhabitants,” said the committee’s general secretary, Elvis Chorkhy.
According to Lalbiakzama, joint secretary, home department, Mizoram, the government has allowed the refugees to resettle in the villages of their choice.The repatriation push — a pre-poll exercise, as MBDPF calls it — has given the ruling Congress government an opportunity to show its ‘humanitarian face’. "What matters most now is to let bygones be bygones and work together to bail our area out of backwardness," said Krisnajoy, 86, of Rengdil village.