Over 32,000 Bru refugees living in six relief camps in Tripura’s north district are staring at a major food crisis after the central government halted all ration supplies.
“We are counting our days now. We have got some rice from the previous month’s supplies. But that will run out before long. I think these stocks will not last beyond 15 days. Nobody knows what to do after that,” 66-year-old Kongsoram Reang told indianexpress.com. Reang lives with his family of eight at Naisingpara refugee camp in Kanchanpur sub-division of North Tripura district.
His family is among the Bru refugees living in the six relief camps in Tripura since 1997 when they fled their villages in Mizoram following ethnic clashes. Shortly after their arrival, the central government announced a rehabilitation package that included 600 grams of rice for every adult person living in the refugee camps every day and 300 grams of rice for every minor on a daily basis. The package also had provisions for cash dole of Rs. 5 per adult per day, Rs. 2.5 for every minor in a day, one soap in a year, a pair of slippers every year and a mosquito net in every three years. In seven subsequent phases of repatriation, nearly 5,000 refugees went back to Mizoram. But many among them returned to Tripura complaining of poor living standards and insecurity.
On July 3 this year, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre struck an agreement with state governments of Mizoram, Tripura and Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF) – a refugee body. The package offered Rs. 1.5 lakh housing assistance to refugees in three installments, Rs 4 lakh assistance for sustenance which would be handed over after three years, Rs 5,000 monthly cash assistance and free ration for two years.
However, there were not many takers and after the announced period ran out, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order to halt cash dole and ration supplies in six camps.
Kanchanpur Sub-Divisional Magistrate Abhedananda Baidya on Tuesday said that cash dole and ration supplies were stopped from October 1 as per an instruction from MHA. A similar decision was announced by Lalmunmuni Darlong, Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Panisagar. Speaking to indianexpress.com, SDM L. Darlong said, “We simply execute orders. MHA instructed to us to halt supplies and cash dole to the refugee camps and we did so. There is no further instruction regarding our approach towards the refugees”.
In Naisingpara camp, Reang said returning home without assurance of cluster habitation is as bad as starving to death. “We had to flee our homes 21 years back due to ethnic clashes with people from the Mizo community. There is no reason to believe that things have changed much because they have been opposing our legitimate demands like regrouped villages after repatriation. If we can’t stick together, we will be still living in risk,” he added. His 55-year-old wife Bodirung Reang points to a large pitcher in her kitchen and says the contents of it are all that remains from last month’s ration supplies. Her kitchen is a corner of their 10×12 ft thatched hut. “We are hoping to be able to eat for 15 days with this rice,” she said.
About 32,000 people of the Bru communities fled Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei districts of Mizoram during ethnic clashes in October 1997. They were sheltered in six relief camps in Kanchanpur and Panisagar sub-divisions of North Tripura district.
For Siloni Bru, a 43-year-old refugee at Kaskao camp, the rice stocks are even less. The Kaskao camp is located in Panisagar sub-division, a few Km away from the Tripura-Mizoram border at Damcherra area. “I have some rice from the supplies of September. They will go on for 10 more days,” she said. Her husband Nakuljoy Reang, 45, tries to earn extra money from odd jobs, but a paralysed leg limits his ability to provide for their four children.
The sentiment is shared by refugees of all age. A. Vanlalveka, a 28-year-old soccer-lover from Ashapara camp, said he wants dignity as an Indian citizen. “This repatriation package is conducted by force. We stayed here for 21 years to achieve dignity. People of Chakma community are way less than Bru community. But Chakmas got an ADC, we were denied even an area development council,” he argued. He said all refugees living in Tripura share the sentiment that they wouldn’t go back to their ancestral villages unless the central government assured them proper security, cluster villages, proper compensation and an Area Development Council (ADC).
The demand of autonomy has come between Bru refugee and their repatriation several times in last two decades. Their exodus from Mizoram was preceded by two incidents – murder of a Mizo forest guard at Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mamit district and a demand of a Bru ADC.
Mizo leaders haven’t welcomed the resurfacing of demand for an ADC. Young Mizo Association (YMA) president Vanlalruata said he wouldn’t welcome ‘separatist demands’ like forming ADC in Mizoram. “We welcome the Brus in Mizoram. But only those citizens who belong to Mizoram can come. No outsiders will be allowed here. Those whose names are there in 1995 electoral rolls can return,” Vanlalruata said.
The 1995 electoral rolls are the base document for repatriation. However, Bru leaders like Bruno Msha feel that names of nearly 1000 Bru families were deliberately deleted from the 1995 rolls. He alleged the YMA has stuck to 1995 electoral rolls as identifying document for repatriation since they don’t want Bru refugees to go home.
Meanwhile, the refugee leadership has also splintered. The MBDPF, which used to be the lone voice of Bru refugees over the last two decades, is now facing a challenge from the new Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Coordination Committee (MBDPCC) formed this July. “The MBDPF might have signed agreement on behalf of Bru refugees, but they have failed to reflect aspirations of the common refugees. They have betrayed the hopes of the displaced Brus,” MBDPCC president L. Laldinliana told this correspondent. He also claimed the support of 80 per cent of all Bru refugees. The MBDPCC plans to start a “major agitation”. “It’s only a matter of time before severe crisis of food hits the refugee camps. We shall start our movement then,” Laldinliana said.
The MBDPF, which signed the repatriation agreement with Government of India, also feel that package offered by New Delhi is insufficient. John Reang, Charlie Bru, A. Lalbiakthanga and others from MBDPF’s Kaskau camp leadership have said they want the repatriation agreement revised. They want cluster village and settlement in a single location at Mamit district. “Until the agreement is revised, we can’t go back”, he too reiterated.
Bruno Msha and Apeto Sawibunga, who were instrumental in signing the agreement with central government, have also admitted their agreement has failed to win over the refugees with its sops. “If majority of the refugees want it changed, I guess it should be changed,” MBDPF secretary Bruno Msha said.
Meanwhile, the refugees have started collecting wild potatoes, arum shoots, tubers to brace for the impending food crisis. Jehanti Reang, 60, shows marks of an old wound suffered during the 1997clashes. “We don’t have enough food to last long. We are collecting wild forest products to tide over the crisis. But this is not sufficient,” she said.
The refugee leaders are planning to write to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh on the situation. MBDPF leaders hope to visit New Delhi later this month and meet the PM to seek continued ration supplies.