As cash dole, ration and other sustenance supplies for Bru refugees living in Tripura were suspended from Wednesday, preparations for the ninth phase of their repatriation is underway in six relief camps at Kanchanpur and Panisagar of North Tripura district.
The repatriation process is scheduled to start from 5 am Thursday. However, the government hasn’t found any takers among the refugees yet.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Kanchanpur sub-divisional magistrate Abhedananda Baidya informed that as per instruction from the Government of India, all preparations were made for smooth repatriation of Bru refugees living in relief camps in the state. Vehicles were arranged and officials of the Government of Mizoram are stationed in all Bru relief camps to facilitate the repatriation process.
However, no one showed up to register themselves in the list of the ongoing repatriation process.
“Officials of the Government of Mizoram have arrived and are stationed in all camps of Tripura. But no one has shown up register themselves till now. However, we are keeping all arrangements ready,” the official said.
Panisagar SDM L Darlong spoke in a similar voice and said officials of Tripura and Mizoram are in the camps, trying to understand the mood of the people about repatriation. While she admitted that no one has registered their name for going back as part of repatriation process starting tomorrow, she reasoned that they are “keen to return”.
At least 37,000 people from 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.
In eight phases of repatriation since 2009, nearly 5,000 refugees went back to Mizoram. But many among them returned to Tripura complaining of poor living standards and insecurity.
As per government records, 32,000 Brus still live in six relief camps in Tripura’s north district as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). But not all of them are recognised by the Government of Mizoram and thousands are going to be left behind, even if the repatriation process succeeds.
An identification drive carried out by the Government of Mizoram in six Bru transit camps of Tripura in August decided that all Bru IDPs living in Tripura would have to return to Mizoram in a final phase of repatriation starting October 3, after which there would be no further benefits coming from the central or state governments.
In the previous identification drive held in 2016, nearly 1,000 families from all six camps were excluded from the identified list, Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF) president Apeto Sawibunga said. It meant they wouldn’t get to return to Mizoram and stay in limbo for the rest of their lives.
A fresh identification drive was held from August 27 this year in the camps and the un-identified were given a chance to count themselves in. But roughly 350 families did not find their names in the identified list.
Only Electors Photo Identity Cards (EPIC) were accepted as valid identity document by Mizoram officials during this identification.
At least 3,500 families were identified across the Bru camps during this identification process. But 1,200 families comprising 7000-8000 people didn’t make it in the list and there is no word about their fate. Even if this repatriation process kicks off successfully, there is no way they could join it, neither are they residents of Tripura.
Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF), a refugee organisation, has been the sole reorganised body representing Brus living in Tripura since their exodus from Mizoram in 1997. On July 3, 2018, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre struck an agreement with state governments of Mizoram, Tripura and MBDPF. The package offered Rs 1.5 lakh housing assistance to refugees in three installments, Rs 4 lakh for sustenance which would be handed over after 3 years, Rs 5,000 monthly cash assistance and free ration for two years.
The agreement offered by the Centre was met with severe resentment in the camps, where Brus rejected it citing grounds of insecurity and risk of ethnic crises.
MBDPF suffered splits and new groups emerged like the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Coordination Committee, Mizoram Bru Indigenous Democratic Movement, Shiv Committee, many of which went on to demand a Bru ADC in Mizoram after repatriation.
MBDPF general secretary Bruno Msha said they placed forth a few demands before the Joint Monitoring Group (JMG) for Bru repatriation at a meeting held in New Delhi in September this year. The demands included land allotted to the refugees back in Mizoram prior to repatriation, one-time payment of cash awards promised in repatriation package and cluster villages. Msha said these were solely to reassure Brus living in camps about safety and security of return.
However, he said the demands were not accepted and now the leaders are finding it hard to convince the refugees to return home.
Kanchanpur SDM Abhedananda Baidya said that food, ration supplies and cash dole were stopped to the Bru camps from October 1 as per the instructions from the Home Ministry.
“The supplies were supposed to continue till September 30 as per instruction from the MHA. We have not received any new directive. So, everything is going on as per orders,” he said.
Shortly after their arrival in Tripura in 1997, the central government had announced a rehabilitation package for Brus that included a daily supply of 600 grams of rice for adults and 300 grams for minors. The package also had provisions for monetary assistance of Rs 5 per day for adults, Rs 2.5 for minors, one soap in a year, a pair of slippers every year and a mosquito net in every three years.
These meagre supplies were stopped by the government in order to convince the refugees to return home. The desperation was further fuelled by Tripura’s attitude, which viewed the refugees as a liability – a huge population occupying land, consuming resources without generating any returns.
The last phase of repatriation commenced from August 25, 2018. Only 150 migrants from 42 families went back during the repatriation process. In response to their rejection of repatriation offer, MHA halted all relief supplies from October 1, 2018. Supplies resumed 21 days later as severe food crisis started in the Bru camps.
The resumption orders came in phases, till January 15, 2019, March 31, 2019 and finally till September 30. Meanwhile, coercion to return has continued.
The four corner meeting of Joint (repatriation) Monitoring Group chaired by MHA Special Secretary (Internal Security) AP Maheshwari on September 6, concluded that no further delay would be entertained and Bru migrants must return to their native state in the 9th and final phase of repatriation starting from October 1.
“They said there would be no excuse after September. Those who wish to return, can do so from October 01. If anyone wishes to stay, they can do so at their own risk. Government of India will not take their responsibility, they told us”, informed MBDPF general secretary Bruno Msha, who joined the meeting on behalf of Bru migrants.
The Bru refugees feel this repatriation is nothing but desperate coercion, forcing 32,000 people to unconditionally return after a two-decade-long life in limbo in sub-human conditions at an unknown state. Rejecting the offer, refugees said without any guarantees of staying together in cluster villages, life back home will be ‘uncertain’, ‘risky’, and devoid of livelihood opportunities.
“We want to go back to Mizoram. That’s our homeland. But we need to make sure new villages are created for rehabilitation and some rehabilitation centers are rearranged. Repatriated families must have freedom to settle in either of Mamit, Lunglei or Kolasib districts for their convenience and the Government of Mizoram should accept Brus who were forced to flee the state in renewed violence in 2009,” Lalmuanpuia Reang of Naisinghpara Bru camp told indianexpress.com.
Another refugee Achaksa Reang said if the central government did not consider their demands, they would not go back, come what may.
“We fled from violence and death 21 years back. We shall not return if we are not sure it wouldn’t happen again. Our demands are legitimate. If they are not met, we shall not go,” Achaksa said.