Bru community: Mizoram's tribals who fled to Tripura 21 years ago over ethnic strife are struggling in refugee camps

The exit polls for Mizoram Assembly elections on 7 December predicted a win for the Mizo National Front (MNF), unseating the ruling Congress party. According to the surveys, MNF, Congress’ main rival, could make inroads into the 40-member Assembly, bagging 16-20 seats.

Ahead of the polls, the place of voting for members of the Bru community has been the most controversial topic, triggering various protests in the Congress-ruled state. The issue led to the appointment IAS officer Ashish Kundra as the new chief electoral officer (CEO), in place of SB Shashank just two weeks before the polling.

The demand of the Brus

Following ethnic tension in 1997, thousands of Bru (or Reang) families fled Mizoram and have since been staying in Tripura's Kanchanpur and Panisagar sub-divisions. Over 30,000 tribals have been lodged in Tripura refugee camps for over 21 years, and have demanded setting up of polling stations near them so that they could cast their votes. However, the Mizoram government wants them to travel to Mizoram and exercise their franchise.

A total of 11,232 Bru tribals are eligible to cast their votes in the 28 November polls.

Why did they flee?

According to The Indian Express, the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Students’ Association had sought the removal of Brus from the electoral rolls in 1997, alleging that they weren't an indigenous tribe.

Militant outfit Bru National Liberation Front was formed in response, and on 21 October, 1997, a Mizo forest official was killed allegedly by the front's militants. This led to retaliatory violence, following which many Bru families fled to north Tripura.

File image of Bru voters waiting to cast their ballots during the 2014 election for Mizoram's lone Lok Sabha seat.

File image of Bru voters waiting to cast their ballots during the 2014 election for Mizoram's lone Lok Sabha seat.

Problems faced by the community 

A report by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights based on research conducted by Quality Council of India noted that the families living in the camps do not have access to necessities of life such as clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, and electricity.

When households were surveyed, most of respondents (77%) said that they do not have Aadhaar cards which prevents them access to financial and banking services among others.

"The residents of the camps are not receiving any benefits of various state subsidised schemes and programs, such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREGA) etc. Several members of the community do not have proper identification documents such as Aadhaar card, voter ID card, birth certificate etc. due to which they face various problems in their daily lives and in accessing financial and banking services," the report said.

Access to healthcare facilities is also an issue at the refugee camps. According to the report, only two primary health centres are functional and available for the total population of the community living in all six camps of north Tripura.

Majority of the parents are unskilled, and work as daily wage labourers or rely on the forests for their livelihood, while almost one in every 10 children is consuming alcohol, tobacco, and in some cases, even drugs, said the report.

The repatriation process

The agreement to repatriate the total 32,876 people belonging to the Bru community, who have been living in relief camps in Tripura was signed by the Centre and the governments of Mizoram and Tripura on 3 July. Only 40 of the 5,407 Bru refugee families returned to Mizoram from the six refugee camps in Tripura during the stipulated one month of repatriation process that ended on 30 September.

The Mizoram chief minister, however, wrote to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, alleging that “vested interests” in Tripura camps had dissuaded people from repatriating. Bru members, however, cited "unsatisfactory repatriation package" as reason for not returning to their home state.

A voting space for Brus

The Election Commission will set up polling stations at Kanhmun, a village along the Mizoram-Tripura border, to facilitate voting by the tribal refugees. The refugee leaders, however, said that they would discuss the Election Commission's decision (to set up polling stations at Kanhmun village) on 23 November and take the final decision whether to cast votes in the new locations.

"We have been asked by the Election Commission to set up 15 polling stations at compact locations at the border village Kanhmun inside Mizoram territory under Mamit district," Mizoram's Joint Chief Electoral Officer Zorammuana told IANS. He said: "Tripura government would be requested to provide security and transportation to ferry the refugee voters to Kanhmun village from the six refugee camps. We would bear the expenditure of the vehicles."

The new CEO Ashish Kundra visited the Kanhmun village on 20 November to assess the arrangements for the voting by the refugees.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 22:06:09 IST

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