The Reangs Forlorn, Forsaken And Forgotten
The slow metre gauge train from Agartala took six hours to make its way to Dharmanagar, just 140 kms away. The jolting and swaying of the coaches not only make the journey both very tiring, and interesting as well. I reached the small and quaint town of Dharmanagar in the dead of the night. My destination was Kanchanpur, a small Sub Divisional Headquarter in North Tripura on the Mizoram border.
In the hilly forests surrounding Kanchanpur, spread over five camps, live the displaced Reangs. The Reangs, also known as the Bru, are a designated Scheduled Tribe spread in the states of Tripura, Mizoram and Assam, along with some scattered presence in the Chittagong hill tracts of neighboring Bangladesh. Because of their dwindling numbers and low socio-economic status, they have been officially classified as a ‘Primitive Tribal Group’, which entitles them to special development and protection measures. The Brus have been categorised as a primitive janjati whereas a majority of them are devout Hindus and followers of Sanatan Dharma in its Vaishnavite form. The culture and tradition of the Brus is unique, and one of the richest and most refined. The Reangs trace their own roots to the legendary Hindu saint Kashyapa and have a oral history and myths regarding their arrival at the waves of migration from the Arakan region of Myanmar (Burma). Reangs, the second largest ethnic group in Mizoram, depend on jhum (shifting) cultivation for livelihood. They lead simple lives, depend on the jungle for their sustenance, and still lead the life of hunters and food-gatherers. Although Mizoram is India’s second most literate state after Kerala, the literacy rate among Reangs is less than one per cent. The community, until now had only five graduates in Mizoram.
According to a very conservative estimate, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at Geneva states that there are currently at least 850,000 Indians who can be considered internally displaced persons (IDPs). This displacement is due to armed conflict, ethnic or communal violence, Maoist incursions, State land grabbing, displacement due to industry or dam projects or in plain speak, just human-rights violations. The situation in India’s North-eastern States is the worst, and the Reangs are perhaps the most neglected in this class. More then 40,000 of this original people have been languishing in inhospitable hillside camps since 1997. Their lives are full of uncertainties: a political solution to their problems is nowhere in sight while death and disease stalk the camps. Reangs, like Kashmiri Hindus, have been hounded out of Mizoram, a Christian majority state, for refusing to convert. The only difference is that tucked away in the farthest small corner of India, their plight and suffering has gone unnoticed since the last fifteen years.
Mizoram is the only Indian state which has unconstitutionally declared itself as a Christian State. The State’s official website mentions this in its home page. No other India state has any official religion. The Presbyterian Church in Mizoram is most dominant over political leaders, the government of Mizoram and Mizo civil society. Nearly 97 per cent of Mizos are Christians. During elections, the Church issues political and electoral diktats for Mizo civil society, deciding whom they should vote for and who should be rejected. Obviously, the Church’s preference is for those who support the Church’s agenda.
The 18-point charter of demands put forth by the mbdpf to the union Home Minister P Chidambaram on February 04, at gachimpara.
- Each and every Bru family should be rehabilitated: The Mizoram Government has refused to take back all the Brus, citing cut off dates.
- Formation of Grouping/Model/Cluster Villages: Contiguous settlement should be made to facilitate access to Government development facilities. This will facilitate speedy recovery for the 15 years lost in relief camps and help preserve the ethnic cultural identity of the Reangs.
- Introduction of the Primitive Group Programme (PGP): Urgent steps should be undertaken for introduction of PGP Mizoram. The PGP program is in force in Tripura and the Centre has identified Bru’s as a primitive tribal group.
- Rehabilitation Package: There must be sufficient allocation of land for the rehabilitated Bru families for practicing their Jhum cultivation. They should be given help for growing cash crops to avoid falling into debt traps of landlords.
- Identification of Rehabilitation Centers and Construction of Houses: Area of rehabilitation centers must be clearly identified and all houses should be constructed by the displaced Brus prior to the commencement of repatriation. They should not be kept for months in transit camps.
- Mizo NGO’s must be barred from the identification process: The Brus who have been repatriated had been subjected to re-identification by Mizo NGO’s like the Young Mizo Association (YMA), Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) etc. This has created a nightmare for the Bru returnees as many of them have been denied facilities based on the re-identification by the YMA and MZP. The Government cannot abdicate its responsibility to private organizations.
- The Repatriation process must be well organized and friendly: The Repatriation process organized by the Mizoram government creates a lot of problems for the displaced Brus and the State Government of Tripura. The list of returnees should be finalized and brought to the notice of Tripura Government and MBDPF leaders at least one month before the commencement of every batch of repatriations.
- Setting up of a Joint Monitoring Cell: A Joint Monitoring Cell should be formed involving Central Government, Mizoram, Tripura and the representatives of the Brus for monitoring the development activities.
- Formation of a Permanent Development Project: The Bru community in Mizoram is totally suppressed, oppressed and neglected. The setting up of a permanent development project is necessary.
- Signing of Four Cornered Agreement: The Four Corner Agreement involving Central Government, leaders of MBDPF, the States of Mizoram and Tripura should be signed for the successful implementation of the rehab package.
- Compensation of Rs 1-50 Lacs must be provided to the Bru’s which should be equivalent to the one provided to the 83 Mizo repatriated families: The compensation amount should be equal and without any discrimination, as both Brus and Mizos are equal citizens of the country.
- Appeal of Re-visit of Union Home Minister at the Tripura Releif Camps prior to the rehabilitation: The Home Minister should visit the camps as a confidence building measure.
- To Visit the Bru Rehabilitation Centre at Mizoram: The Home Minister should visit the resettlement centres at Thinglun, Kolalian, Thaidwar and Damidai in Mizoram for assessing the conditions of the rehabilitated Brus.
- There must be two years free rations: The repatriation process will start at the end of the jhum season. Hence free rations should be provided for two years as the returnees will have to cope with one cycle of harvesting.
- The 1995 Electoral Roll for Identification of Mizoram Brus should be scrapped: The 1995 E/Rolls which the Govt. of Mizoram and its NGO’s used for identification of bona file Brus must be withdrawn. All the displaced Brus who have registered in the seven relief camps maintained by the Government of Tripura and the MBDPF must be taken back to Mizoram.
- The Special Development Package should not be implemented unless all the Bru’s have been repatriated: Until the full fledged repatriation takes place, the SDP should not run and the funds will be misutilised by the Mizoram Government.
- Compensation to 116 families of Mizoram Bru’s living in Tripura: There are around 116 families of displaced Bru are who have not settled in the Camps but are scattered in different parts of Tripura. They have not received any relief but have faced many difficulties all these years.
- Cash Dole and other relief material for 2009 Batch displaced persons: 622 Bru families comprising of 2925 persons who fled in November 2009 are presently languishing in Naisu Para relief camp. They are being provided only ration and salt till today. Their repatriation to Mizoram is uncertain as the Mizo Government says that they have fully taken back all those who fled in 2009.
According to the Secretary of the Mizo Bru Displaced People’s Forum, Bruno Mesha, the trouble started when the Reangs demanded an autonomous district council (ADC), under the sixth schedule, to protect and safeguard their language, culture and ethnic identity. The Bru National Union, formed in 1994 to “protect the rights” of the Reang community, floated the idea of an Autonomous District Council at its annual convention in September 1996.
This demand had invited protests from several Mizo organisations. However, the BNU maintained that an ADC was necessary for the socio-economic development of this backward tribe as it would ensure significant administrative, judicial and legislative powers to the community. Many other tribes and groups, with even lesser population, had been given ADCs, but alas the Reangs were the only Hindu, or rather non-Christian group to put up the demand. If Lais, Maras and Chakmas living in Mizoram are able to enjoy the benefits of tribal district councils, why shouldn’t the Brus? If the Chakmas with a population of 60,000 could have their own ADC in Mizoram, why not the Reangs with a population of about 90,000 not have one?
At a meeting of the Bru political representatives in September 1997, the demand was once again reiterated. The state’s major parties (all Mizo-dominated and Christians) publicly opposed this demand of the Reangs. Organisations like the Young Mizo Association (YMA) and the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (Mizo Students Union, or MZP), began to aggressively demand that the Bru withdraw their request for ADC status. Pressure was exerted in various forms. The contention of the Mizos was that the Reangs did not inhabit a compact area in Mizoram and as such “they did not have the legitimacy to raise the voice for an ADC since most of them were aliens”. According to them, Reangs comprised less than 30 per cent of the population of the area and their demand was “part of a conspiracy to divide Mizoram.”
When the Bru groups refused, the MZP retaliated with thinly veiled threats to leave the State. As a result, relations between the Reangs and the Mizos deteriorated quickly. Radical elements of the Bru formed an underground organisation, the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF). Events came to a head in October 1997, when a Mizo forest guard in Mamit was murdered, and the BNLF held responsible. The death resulted in what appears to have been a well-orchestrated retaliatory violence against Bru communities across Mizoram. While the extent of the violence remains undocumented, the scale was sufficient enough to force an estimated 45,000 Reangs to leave their lands and belongings in Mizoram, and flee to neighboring Tripura and Assam. There was widespread arson, looting and rape.
EVERYBODY LOVES A MISERABLE REFUGEE CAMP
Nearly 20 per cent of the Reangs at the Camps are Christians, who either converted before or after the 1997 massacre. Even they acknowledge that the bone of contention is the Hindu religion of the majority of the Reangs.
Church Groups followed the Reangs to the Camps. In the two days I stayed there I found at least a dozen church groups active there. While interviewing the MBDPF representatives in the office at Naisinghpara, I could hear the sonorous chanting and the beating of the drums from the Seventh Day Adventists Church downhill. The Bru Baptist Church dominates the camps, but many other groups like the Presbyterian Church, Beleiver Church of India, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church etc. have set up makeshift prayer halls.
Interestingly, the Tableek-e-Jamaiti from neighbouring Bangladesh too had made inroads, but as most of the Reangs eat pork they beat a hasty retreat.
Rosno Meska of the Shiv Mondoli told me that the Mizoram government, through these Church groups, sends out feelers to the Reangs to convert as this would ease their passage home. Birmohan Wairam of the Ram Mandali Committee says that few Hindu organizations, except for the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and the Banswara Group have shown any interest in the plight of the distressed Hindus. The only solace for the Hindus in the camps is that they can now cremate their dead, while in Mizoram they were forced to bury them as the Mizos did not allow cremation.
At the Ashapara Camp I met Ringku Reang, a frail thirty five year old who looked well past middle age. She was once a happy resident of Bhangmun, a picturesque hilltop hamlet in West Mizoram, and is now a refugee in her own land. One winter night 15 years ago, hundreds of Mizo youth armed with machetes and guns, accompanied with a group of Mizoram armed police, attacked her village, torching houses, killing people, and raping women.
“They broke into my house, raped me and hacked my husband to death. They threatened us with dire consequences if we did not leave our village,” Ringku says with tears in her eyes. “The young men and members of the armed forces looted our chickens and pigs and the grain that we had stored.”
When the villagers went to lodge a complaint with the police at the Kawrthah police station in Mamit district, the officer in charge, who happened to be a Reang himself, advised them to leave Mizoram, saying they could be attacked again.
I met Lalfakawmi, President of the Bru Displaced Women’s Welfare Committee at the Hamsapara Camp. Recalling the nights of horror, she told me that nearly 150 Reang women were raped in the 44 villages that were attacked. The orgy continued for a fortnight, with many young girls being forcibly taken away.
Today, thousands of thatched huts dot hill after hill in the settlement region. Obviously there are no schools or hospitals. In the Camps they live in small huts made of bamboo and straw which they collect from the nearby jungles. Families with half a dozen members stay huddled in one hut and the psychological scars of these once happy people can be seen in their eyes. There are electric pylons right in front of the Office of the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum, but ill-fated as they are, the electricity is not for them but for the tourist resort at Jampui Hills on the far horizon. They shiver in winter and sweat it out in summer. And monsoons are the worst, because they do not know when their flimsy houses would be battered or washed away by the sudden downpours.
Needless to say, conditions in the refugee camps are pathetic. The refugees suffer from acute malnutrition and diseases. Enteric fever, malaria and gastroenteritis are rampant. Last year, an epidemic broke out and more than 200 people died in the Naisinghpara camp itself. Tarun Reang of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram told me that the doctors abandoned the makeshift hospitals, and it was the volunteers of the Ashram who rushed in medical aid. I wanted to visit the Ashram School at Kanchanpur, but a bridge had collapsed and it would have meant traversing down the stream and then a steep climb which would have been difficult for a city slicker like me.
The devastating fire at Naisinghpara Camp in March 2011, in which 21 Reangs died and more than 1000 homes were burnt evoked little response from the Centre. The State Government of Tripura rushed relief and the people still speak of the District Collector Saumya Gupta who camped in the area for more than a week providing succor. The representatives from the European Union along with Church workers visited the Naisinghpara Camp and promised help. But nothing ever reached them. The Bru leaders understood, rather belatedly, that they shouldn’t expect anything from these international bodies as they were predominantly non-Christians while their tormentors were the Christian Mizos.
Contrast this with the way the Centre and the Odisha State Government groveled and whimpered when the EU Commission visited Kandhamal post the riots in February 2010. When asked to bend, the State administration Knelt. The commission was allowed a full run of the district in spite of protests that it was an internal matter of the nation, and no foreign external agency was needed to look into our affairs. The EU announced a 15 million Euro grant for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the Christian displaced. The largesse that flowed in and is still flowing in from Church groups post the EU visit is there for all to see.
The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been rendering yeoman service to the Brus. The Ashram educates youngsters from the Camps, who are later sent back to teach in the makeshift schools. I met Ajit Reang, who could have been a very young school master or a very old schoolboy. He told me about the misery in the camps.
Swapan Deb of the Bharatiya Jan Sewa Prathisthan of Banswara has been working in the camps for the last few years. They provide vocational training to the young girls in the camps. He told me that the Bru’s are nobody’s people. The Tripura government just renders lip service and whatever help is extended is mainly due to the largesse that is bestowed by the Centre. There is adequate Reang representation both in parliament and the State Assembly. In Tripura, Bajuban Reang is MP (Lok Sabha) and two MLAs Rajendra Reang and Manindra Reang are in the State Assembly. All the three political representatives are from the Communist Party and toe the official party line. They have never raised their voice for their fraternal homeless cousins.
Camp residents face acute drinking water problems as the tube wells dry up in summers. Residents are forced to trudge three to four kilometers for water. I saw many old women carrying water in plastic bottles loaded in baskets strapped to their bent backs. On the way to the different camps, I saw children climbing down the deep ravines to dig pits in the stream beds to collect water. Coming up is even more dangerous and difficult.
Cut away from their traditional lifestyle, the Reangs sit listlessly in the doorways. I found many of the people staring vacantly out of the windows at the Jampui hills on the Mizo border, which was home to them since millennia. The acute transition from their semi nomadic existence has resulted in a huge baby boom in the camps. Traditionally Reangs just had one or two children, but in the camps I saw a large number of malnourished children everywhere.
For a living they depend mostly on the forests in the region. Able men and women venture into the forests and fetch firewood or teak and sell it in the nearby town to make some earning. But that too is not possible during the monsoons and in any case very few among the refugees can endure such physical labour as they live under such unhealthy conditions. Many of them still make their way into the forests, foraging for edible leaves, roots and tubers. Most of them have given up their traditional occupations and now work as day labourers in construction sites and road projects. The President of the Bru Displaced Forum at Kaskaopara Camp, A. Lalbiakthanga, told me that the Bru’s are severely discriminated and only get just half the amount of wages that the other laborers are paid.
The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), based in New Delhi, conducted an investigation into the 1997 carnage. Condemning what had taken place, it underlined its belief that the Mizoram government was behind the violence. The Centre also found that the state government had failed to control the mayhem, and there was tacit support by state officials and security forces. Not only were they present during many of the attacks, but had been interested in appeasing the mob rather than preventing the attacks. Ultimately, ACHR concluded that the Aizawl government had failed in its obligations to protect its own citizens.
The BNLF kept on its underground activities both in Mizoram and the neighboring Tripura. It was a thorn in the flesh, and hence in April 2005, an agreement was signed between the BNLF and the Mizoram government, with the latter acknowledging its obligation to take back and resettle the Bru who had fled, while simultaneously maintaining a right to question the residence status of the IDPs. The BNLF had already dropped the demand for an ADC, and agreed to disband. An estimated 1000 BNLF cadres laid down their arms, and the authorities provided rehabilitation assistance for the fighters and their families in Mizoram. However, this agreement covered only insurgents, was signed without consultation with the Bru in the camps, and offered no guarantee that ethnic violence would not be repeated. Such fears were underlined when the Mizoram government later appointed three Mizo groups including, astoundingly, the YMA and MZP, the very groups who had initiated the 1997 atrocities to verify the residence credentials of the former Bru inhabitants. It is apparent that those who opted for the gun had been won over by the Mizoram Government through various offers and a MoU, while those who wanted a peaceful and democratic settlement faced the brunt of it by way of sidelining of the real problem that the refugees face.
Under pressure from the Centre, the Aizawl government held a series of talks with the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum in April 2007. But the authorities continued to exploit ethnic tensions. When an NGO, the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network, attempted to file a writ petition before the Supreme Court requesting that the government repatriate the IDPs, the home secretary of Mizoram, C. Ropianga, warned Bru leaders that such a move might provoke ‘serious repercussion among the general public’, and would delay repatriation. In late 2007, the MBDPF decided to challenge the Aizawl government’s claims regarding how many of the Bru in the Tripura camps had come from Mizoram. The subsequent investigation suggested that more than 94 percent could prove former residence in Mizoram. Today, almost all names of Reangs are deleted from voters list in Mizoram to choke their political voice, whatever little they had. At Hazacherra, the Camp President Vanlalvena told me that the refugees had all cast postal ballots in the last elections, but the fate of their mandate is still unknown.
The Displaced Forum Chiefs met the Home Minister P Chidambaram at the Gachimpara Camp in Kanchanpur on the 24th of February this year. They handed over a list of eighteen demands which were to be fulfilled for the peaceful and successful repatriation. The Home Minister told them in clear terms that things would only happen if they agree to go back. “This is not your home. I cannot do anything for you here. Go back to Mizoram and we shall extend all help”. The delegation came back with mixed feelings. The Home Minister adopted the classic tactic of hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. He could not displease the Congress-led Mizoram government and the CPM led Tripura Government would be only too happy to see the last of the Reangs.
The fourth phase of repatriation would have begun on the April 26th 2012. About 2000 Brus from 669 families were to be sent back. Both the Tripura and Manipur officials had descended on the Camps will full security, but not a single Reang went back. They were still awaiting the written commitment that the Union Home Minister had promised. The District Magistrate even tried a force them threatening them that their rations would be cut off. The authorities warned the MBDPF that it would arrest the leaders if they were an impediment in the repatriation process. Government has informed the Forum that the names of these repatriated families would be struck off the Camp rolls and their dole and ration cards cancelled. The Forum has also been asked to ensure that the abandoned houses are destroyed.
This situation is also indicative of the national picture. Conflict-induced IDPs can rarely access their rights in today’s India. The responsibility for their protection is generally left to state authorities, who in many cases are the initiators of the conflict.
By Anil Dhir from Kanchanpur on the Tripura-Mizoram Border