With the impending assembly elections in Mizoram scheduled on 28 November, many electoral equations are playing in the field to win the hearts and minds of voters. As the BJP aims to capture this last bastion of the Northeast, negotiations are on in many fronts defying party allegiances. One of thecontentious issuesis the position of minority communities like Bru, Hmar and Chakma,and theirresettlement and citizenship.
The past has seen much ethnic violence against these communities signifying the intolerance of the Mizo community towards them and their non-acceptability in Mizoram. This had forced some such ethnic groups like Bru to flee in thousands to the northern part of neighbouring Tripura, where they are still accommodated in six relief camps in the Kanchanpur and Panisagar subdivisions. To escape persecution in Mizoram, more than 30,000 Brusresiding in Mammit and Kolasib districts had crossed over to Tripura in the mid-1990s. Today they are stateless and marginalised, as Mizos never considered them indigenous to their state.
As expected in such situations, conflicts between the two communities had subsequently led to an armed movement by the militant outfit of the Bru community, the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF). Their political organization, the Bru National Union (BNU) demands an autonomous tribal district in the state. Their demand for a territorial homeland has led the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Students’ Association to create pressure on the Government to delimit their voting rights in Mizoram.
As Tripura was also not overtly sympathetic towards them, the Brus continued to remain stateless and have been battling for their existence as a minority group, despite the fact that Brus were enlisted as one of the 21 scheduled tribes in Tripura. They are also sparsely settled in other states of Northeast like Assam and Manipur, and claim to have their origin in Tibeto-Burmese groups like many other communities in the Northeast.
The political negotiation between the two states led to the first phase of repatriation of 8,573 Brus to Mizoram in 2010, but the process then was stalled due to resistance from Mizo NGOs. As the BJP now aims to resettle them in Mizoram by promising their political and economic rightsas part of their larger agenda of giving citizenship to the minority communities in the region, a fresh wave of negotiation and contestation is on board.
As the Central government is determined on the resettlement issue, an agreement was signed in July 2018 among the Central government, governments of Mizoram and Tripura and the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBBPF) to end the protract problem of the displaced Brus. The government has agreed to provide financial assistance for their rehabilitation in Mizoram and for their security, education, and livelihood.
A financial package of Rs 435 crore was announced for them, where each family would be given a one-time assistance of Rs 4 lakhto be kept in fixed deposit within one month of repatriation. The family would get rights to the deposit after three years of continuous residing in Mizoram. A cash assistance of Rs 5,000 per month would also be given to each family for two years through Direct Benefit Transferalong with free rations for two years. Added to these, Rs 1.5 lakh was promised as house building assistance in three instalments.
Further, for their security, police posts and border outpostswere proposed in Mizoram with central assistance, while Tripura government shared the responsibility ofissuing Aadhaar cards, opening ofbank accounts and updating the ration cards of each Bru migrant. The package also includes a special development project, Eklavya residential schools, access to jhum cultivation land, permanent residential certificates, ST certificates in Mizoram, and their free transportation from Tripura to Mizoram to relocate them in the same villages from where they had been displaced.
With Mizoram’s impending polls, this move isexpected to benefit the BJP with this consolidated vote bank. But the ground realityis a quite complex. Massive protestsfrom about 40,000 Mizo people, who were on the street of Aizwal last week against the outgoing CEO who was trying to address the logistics for the Brus to cast vote in the upcoming election is probably only the beginning of this.
This large-scale protest indicates the consolidation of a new Mizo identityand the marginalization of the minorities that has always dominatedthe politics and life in Mizoram. Thisalso undermines the historical fabrics ofthe ethnic heterogeneity of the Mizo society. The emerging idea of a new Mizo identity revolves around diverse approaches, like the Veng identity based on specificity of locality, as mentioned by Joy L.K. Pachuau(2014), which attempts to accommodate the cross-border migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and complicates the edification of both ethnic identity making and boundary marking. They are seen as Burma-Mi or Kawl-Mi which is different from the common highland identity, termed as Zo or Vai. So making of Mizo identity as explained by Pachuau, has gone through a historical process with the role of colonialism, religion and politics for the last one and half centuries.
The interface of these processes and their outcomes is that the making of Mizo identity, and becomes historical within intrinsically linked social categories. The contemporary idea of ‘being Mizo’ as mentioned byS. B. Chakma (2018)blurssuch historical plurality andis increasingly becoming ethnocentric. So to create the grounds for a peaceful repatriation of Brus and their integration in such an ethnically charged space, the policy challenge is to accommodate the differences within the broader construct of Mizo identity.
Though the local Mizos largely are not in a mood to accept Brusin their state, it is also difficult to deny the natural, geographical and historical mobility and migration in this region, and the subsequent ‘mixing and mingling of people’ over centuries. The issues of identity and homelandand contestation over land and territory reflect the conflicting economic interests and to resolve these the issue should be depoliticized through negotiations at local and regional levels.
With a connected historical geography of this contiguous space, plurality is a natural phenomenon, and the policy negotiation needs a careful and constant effort to bridge the gaps rather than creating walls in the name of identity consolidation and creating an ‘ethnicised citizenship model’.
Mizoram can lead the other states by creatingamodel for accommodation and plurality. After all, Mizoram took the lead in restoring peace and stability way back in 1980s through the historic Mizo Peace Accord. Being one of the most literate states in India, its elite educated group is expected to show the way to end the ‘them-versusus style of politics’.
The writer is on the faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.