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Wheels within wheels

Swati Deb | New Delhi |

Distinctly different from Mizos in more ways than one, the Reangs, now called Brus, are struggling and debating over a proper recognition of a culture of their own, something  which is not only different from that of the Lushais but one that also has an “autonomous administrative unit” for themselves.

The Bru-Mizo conflict originated in October 1997 after an ethnic violence following the killing of a Mizo forest warden by Bru insurgents. The result was exodus of an estimated 40,000 Brus to the adjoining North Tripura district. This episode virtually brought in mutual suspicion between the two Northeastern states.

For most parts, the Centre’s role was that of a silent spectator or at best, sending central forces to help the state control the situation.

For quite some time the Brus mounted pressures on the Centre for adequate protection and what was given out were respectable rehabilitation packages. But things moved very slowly.

However, once the Modi government came to power in 2014 some changes were made to solve the longstanding problem. The reason, however, was not because of administrative or genuine concerns for the displaced Brus but for some supposed political intent.

There are many versions now doing the rounds. One school of thought says both the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had categorical instructions from the RSS leadership to act on the Brus front and ensure their proper rehabilitation in the state. The RSS fountainhead believed the disgruntled Brus can be made use of for BJP’s own political advantage. Otherwise, wedded to hardcore Hindutva ideology, the BJP remains a pariah in Mizoram. 

Even as there is an established BJP unit in Mizoram, political watchers in this tiny Northeastern state often jokingly say that “lotus will never  bloom in the rocks of the Mizo hills”. In 2015, some RSS pracharaks from the region met central leaders and urged speedy rehabilitation of the Brus refugees. On this score, the RSS had even counselled the Union Home Ministry that steps need to be taken to give jobs to the dislocated Brus besides ensuring their “respec-table rehabilitation” in Mizoram.

In such a meeting of RSS pracharaks from the Northeast, Union minister for roads and highways, Nitin Gadkari was the trusted RSS pointman assigned to talk to Rajnath Singh and other Central ministers concerned. Lately, the Union Home Ministry gave its nod to allow the Assam Rifles to initiate recruitment of able-bodied Brus evacuees biding their time in Tripura camps. Such a decision became pertinent as the refugees continue to live in camps even after several attempts to repatriate them.

Sources in Mizoram say even generous monetary offer by the Congress government led by Lal Thanhawla has failed to persuade the Brus to leave the camps. The Congress sources in Mizoram often allege the RSS, or for that matter, even Narendra Modi regime’s love for Reangs is linked to the tribal group’s religious affiliation.

Reangs have been traditionally animists and even as Christianity has penetrated, a large number of them still follow traditional religion and the local religious doctrine is similar to Hinduism in more ways than one .

There are provisions of mantra to be used in socio-religious and cultural occasions. The latent confrontation between forces committed to the spread of Christianity and the traditionalist Brus (or animists) also played a part in widening the difference. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mizos were quite displeased over the presence of “non-Christian Brus” in their land and the church leaders gave unto themselves the assignment to work for the “spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

The church took initiatives by sending out evangelists and missionaries to the areas where Brus were scattered. According to a senior police officer in Mizoram, who worked among the Brus, the work of the Church paid rich dividends as many Brus embraced Christianity within a short span. In the late 1990s, more than 50 per cent of Brus in Mizoram became Christians. The church spread its influence by opening schools in the remotest areas where Brus stayed and even local Bru students were sponsored for higher studies in Aizawl. Strangely, at a later stage, it was found that most of Bru National Liberation Front leaders were the products of these Church-sponsored schools. 
It also needs a reference here that the influx of the Brus in the western belt of Mizoram turned into “a blessing” for some individual politicians and political parties — especially the Congress. These disgruntled section soon turned into a powerful vote-bank  and thus they were enlisted in the electoral rolls too. The local Mizo version is  — the Bru numbers in Mizoram increased manifold in 1970s as a large number of them “migrated”’ from north Tripura in search of greener pastures. Undoubtedly, the economic conditions in Mizoram for Brus were much better off than in Tripura.

Mizos feel ditched and often let down as the Brus resolved in their conference at Saipuilui on 23-24 September 1997 to demand for creation of a separate autonomous district council for themselves inside Mizoram.

Now, on the other plane, the Assam Rifles is a renowned anti-insurgency crack force and the government believes enrolling local tribals from the region would give the force an edge in its military operations. According to official forces, for a start, 75 tribal youths from three of the seven relief camps in North Tripura were selected.

In fact, the Union Home Ministry mandarins feel a good beginning has been made as the selection of these youths now also fulfill the demand of a prominent and influential intra-tribal group of the Brus. The group has been insisting on such packages that also give respect to the “refugees”.

But it ought to be stated here that repatriation and rehabilitation of Brus are not as simple. There are wheels within wheels. For quite some time, despite an ivory tower experts’ approach, it must be admitted that  the  Centre has been trying to help Brus. 
The home minister and his junior, Kiren Rijiju reviewed the Brus repatriation issue with Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at Agartala last year. But Lal Thanhawla gave the meeting a slip. However, Aizawl has had made its position clear that the Mizoram government will not accept any Bru who cannot prove his bona fide  as the resident of Mizoram. There was an agreement on the issue between the government, all political parties and civil societie groups. It was agreed that only those whose names appeared in the voters’ lists of 1995 should be accepted, they say. This is another contentious issue.

In September 2016, the Mizoram government deputed officials to visit relief camps in Tripura and conduct identification process in all the camps to ensure early resumption of the actual repatriation. Identification processes were carried out in Naisingpara, Asapara, Kaskau, Khakchangpara, Hamsapara and Hazacherra relief camps and steps were also taken to resettle Brus evacuees along the Mizoram-Tripura-Bangladesh border in Mamit district.

Now, the official position is, while a number of families have returned, many who remain in the relief camps are merely dictating terms for their return to Mizoram. Employment in paramilitary was one such demand. At least, a beginning has been made. 

(The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance contributor and can be contacted at [email protected])