Across the world, there are currently over 25 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), uprooted by conflict and human rights violations. Of these, India supports over 650,000 people, as per the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Perceptibly, this has emerged as a major challenge for both the authority, as well as advocacy and civil society groups. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has limited operations in the country, the government, the judiciary, and the local rights groups have been supporting the asylum seekers with their limited capacities. Here is an inspiring case where all stakeholders are working together to repatriate a group of IDPs, who fled their home 13 years back.
More than a decade ago, about 35,000 Bru Janajati people (also known as Reang) fled their villages in Mizoram, following an outbreak of violence, and took shelter in northern Tripura. Now, these tribals-mostly Hindus-are being repatriated to Christian-dominated Mizoram, thanks to the joint efforts of the governments and rights group. Most of them had returned home by the end of May 2011.
"The beneficiaries were selected mostly from those affected by the devastating fire in the makeshift camps of Naisingpara in the Kanchanpur subdivision of Tripura on 19 March last year. Thousands of inmates were affected by the fire, and 17 persons were even charred to death," says Suhas Chakma, a proactive human rights activist and Director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), who has been acting as an interlocutor between the Brus and the governments. He further informs that these returnee families are being resettled in five villages of the Mamit district of northern Mizoram.
The sequence of events
The repatriation of Brus, who sought shelter in Tripura in 1997, was suspended in November 2010, following protests by some Bru forums. The ACHR Director Chakma facilitated a dialogue between the pro- and anti-repatriation factions of the displaced Brus at Kanchanpur in December 2010. Both the parties agreed to support the process of repatriation once the central government decided to offer financial aid, under a special project for the sustainable development of the returnee Brus.
Thus emerged the Kanchanpur Agreement. And, along with the central government, the Governments of Tripura and Mizoram, as well as the Union Home Ministry were also involved in the process. The central government has already allocated Rs.9.97 crore for the repatriation process. R R Jha, Joint Secretary (North East) of the Union Home Ministry, in a letter dated 5 January 2011, informed the ACHR Director that along with Rs.80,000 cash assistance, one yearâ€™s free ration will also be provided to each Bru family.
There are about 30,000 remaining Bru (comprising over 5000 families) internally displaced people in the camps. They have already agreed to return to their homes in Mizoram, owing to the assurance given by the central government.
Poor conditions of living
The Brus have been living in miserable conditions in the relief camps in Tripura since October 1997. Over 40,000 Bru Janajati people left their homes due to the violence perpetrated by the majority Mizos. Since then, they are taking shelter in six camps in northern Tripura. The Brus (total population is about 435,000, as per the 2001 census) are spread in Tripura, Mizoram, Assam, as well as in some parts of Bangladesh, and are recognized as Scheduled Tribes. The exodus of Brus was prompted by a demand for an autonomous district council for the socioeconomic and political benefits of Brus in Mizoram. Some politically conscious Brus organized a meeting in September 1997 and raised the demand for an autonomous council in the Bru-inhabited areas of Mizoram, in the hope of getting specific administrative, judicial, and legislative powers.
Mizoram, with nearly one million population, already has three autonomous district councils, under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, namely Lai Autonomous District Council, Mara Autonomous District Council, and Chakma Autonomous District Council. On this basis, the demand for a Bru Autonomous District Council was rejected by both the Mizoram government as well as the Mizo civil society groups. While the majority of the Mizo civil society groups, including Young Mizo Association (YMA) and Mizo Zirlai Pawl, expressed their anger against the Bru community, the Brus maintained their demand. This widened the rift between the two communities. "In Mizoram, most Reangs follow Hindu preaching, and they have proved their patriotism time and again. But, being unorganized, they enjoy little political power. They are even categorized as "primitive". The political leaders are with the Church and continue their efforts to convert the Reangs to Christianity, and sometime, they use harsh steps to convince the Reangs," claims Jagdamba Mall, a social worker based in Nagaland.
Mall also asserts that the Mizoram government has deleted the names of Reangs from the votersâ€™ list to choke their political voices. The village councils of most Reang villages have been dismantled on the basis that the villagers have been living in various refugee camps outside the state.
Meanwhile, the emergence of the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) added more complications to the situation. The armed group started disruptive activities, and was held responsible for murdering a Mizo forest guard in Mamit in October 1997. In retaliation, a section of the Mizo people carried out massive violence against the Brus, which forced thousands of Brus to leave Mizoram. Another 5000 Brus had to flee Mizoram in November 2009, following the alleged murder of a Mizo youth by Bru militants in the same district, and join the makeshift camps in Tripura.
Since then, a series of discussions among various parties, including the BNLF, various forums of displaced Bru people, the Governments of Mizoram and Tripura, central government, and human rights groups, took place from time to time. Following the invitation of the Mizoram government, a fact-finding team of the ACHR visited the affected areas and met political leaders, including Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, high profile officials, and civil society groups. The team-chaired by Milon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, and comprising of Suhas Chakma, ACHR Director; Nava Thakuria, writer of the article; and Bamang Tago, Chief of Arunachal Citizens Rights, as members-completed the mission after visiting Mizoram and Tripura during 8â€“14 December 2009. In February 2010, the Union Home Ministry requested the ACHR to use its good offices to convince the displaced Bru people to return to Mizoram. Finally, the process of repatriation started gaining momentum and success to some extent.
The move has also been welcomed by the most influential Mizo organization, YMA. Speaking from Aizawl, General Secretary of Central YMA Lalbiakzuala said that YMA leaders have already expressed their willingness to cooperate with the government in the ongoing repatriation of Bru refugees. Lalbiakzuala, however, maintained that only indigenous Bru people (from Mizoram) would be accepted for repatriation and "the repatriated Brus should not live in a single village or group. Rather, they should resettle in different villages". Meanwhile, a delegation of Brus met the Mizoram Governor, Lt Gen. M M Lakhera at Raj Bhavan in Aizawl and apprised him about the various grievances of the repatriated Bru families. Led by Elvis Chorkhy, General Secretary of the Bru Coordination Committee, the delegation also requested the Governor to take up some special development projects in the affected western Mizoram localities and open a Central School in the Mamit district. "The resumption of repatriation of Brus is really a welcome move. I believe that the Mizoram government as well as the Union Home Ministry must ensure that these families are immediately resettled in their specified villages," asserted Suhas Chakma, appealing to the Mizo civil society groups to go for continuous interactions with the Bru people.
The rights activist also expressed optimism that if all the stakeholders-the Brus, the Mizoram government, and the Union Government-remain committed, there should not be any further obstacles in the process and, as Chakma says, "if repatriation of all the displaced Brus is completed, this would constitute the largest repatriation of displaced persons of our time, facilitated by a rights group".Nava Thakuria is a freelance writer based in Assam