The hill tracts of the Mizoram-Tripura border have always been the same as long as one could remember. Roads are hard to find even under the clear skies of late summer. Earlier this year, monsoon rains in July had flooded the forest paths and rendered the territory almost inaccessible. But Bru refugees from Mizoram have been streaming into refugee camps in North Tripura District since 1997, after a conflict with the majority Mizos over land possession.
Divided and dispersed
Over eleven thousand Bru refugees currently live in six refugee camps in North Tripura district. Scarce amenities mark their lives as they refuse government initiatives to be repatriated. They say the government has not fulfilled the promises of proper rehabilitation to the returned Brus. Committees representing the refugees have also been known to discourage and even obstruct the camp inmates to return to their homeland.
The immediate cause of this self-imposed exile was the killing of a Mizo Forest Officer by miscreants which provoked retaliation by the Mizos. The Brus also argue that the demand for an Autonomous District Council raised by their community was resisted by the majority Mizos. Long held grievances between the two communities sprang out into the open and the Brus started crossing over into neighboring Tripura to look for safer sanctuaries. There were more than 30,000 Bru refugees living in the camps located in Kanchanpur sub-division of North Tripura a decade ago.
The Bru, primarily an agrarian community is the second largest tribe in Tripura. They are spread across the states of Mizoram, Assam, Manipur and Bangladesh. They practice jhum cultivation, worship Vishnu and maintain little contact with the majority Bengali people in Tripura.
The Brus are an ethno-linguistic minority in their native Tripura and in their adopted homes in other parts of North East India. Their history is thus an account of dispersion and division. The dislocation suffered by the Brus has from time to time given rise to demands for self-determination. These demands have sometimes taken violent forms. The Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) was formed in 1997 after the clashes with Mizos that sparked the mass displacement to Tripura. Bru militants are still active and a trader was abducted from the Assam-Mizoram border by the militants only last month.
On the other hand, fear of total marginalization led the Brus to raise the demand for an Autonomous District Council in Mizoram in 1997. But the resistance showed by the ethnic Mizos only added to the growing suspicion of the Brus. Then the long-winded exodus followed.
The flipside of the lived experience of the Brus is that they are insecure even in their native Tripura. They fled Mizoram to avoid suppression of their legitimate demands and camped in Tripura where they have no constitutional safeguards to guarantee their rights. Their sociological location in Tripura is not very different from that of Mizoram.
The ballot comes home
The coming Assembly elections in Mizoram have pushed the state administration once again to convince the Brus to return home.
A team comprising officials from the Election Commission and Mizoram poll administrators recently visited the refugee camps in Tripura after the displaced Brus were identified as eligible to vote in the Mizoram Assembly polls. Elections are supposed to be held at the site of the refugee camps according to government officials. The relocation of the ballot to the site of displacement camps is in sync with the displaced people’s marginal location. The ballot has come home for the refugees. They refuse to be repatriated but the government is equally headstrong to ensure the displaced people do not fall outside the electorate.
Skeptics can brush aside this initiative of the Mizoram government as political gimmickry to appease the Brus and other minority communities in Mizoram. But this step will prevent the displaced Brus from being further marginalized. Bringing the ballot home to the Brus will ensure that they would have a say in governance and preserve their right to choose their representatives even while living outside the politico-geographical boundaries of the state.
The interesting thing is that while the entire country goes for the more reliable Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) this time, the Brus will stick to the ballot paper while voting in their temporary home. Nearly 11,311 internally displaced Brus are preparing to cast their vote in the Mizoram Assembly polls.
Come December. How far will the Mizoram government succeed in preventing a displaced people from being disenfranchised?