There have been growing concerns over refugee crises all over the world. Many countries have drawn up policies to deal with the issue but closer to home, the North Eastern state of Mizoram is dealing with its own crisis which involves the displaced Bru tribals who fled from the state in 1997 due to violent ethnic clashes.
In 1995, crisis emerged between the Mizos and the Brus where over 32,000 people of the Bru population were displaced. In 1997, owing to the killing of a Mizo forest guard by armed Bru rebels, thousands had to flee to neighbouring Tripura.
So who are the Bru Tribals?
Bru tribals inhabit parts of Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, and Tripura. In Mizoram, they are largely restricted to Mamit and Kolasib districts.
Mizoram will go to the polls on November 28. Two issues have come to the forefront. One is the deployment of CRPF forces. For a state with a record of conducting peaceful elections, this seems like an overstep by central forces. The other issue is with the Bru tribals living in Tripura. While groups representing the Bru tribals want them to vote from the Tripura camps, the Mizoram government wants them to travel to Mizoram and vote. This is the bone of contention.
Over 20 years have passed since the displacement, and although processes started in 2015 to repatriate the population, progress has been slow. “The verification of Bru migrants by the government of Mizoram was done on the basis of electoral rolls of 1996, last updated in 2014,” Home Ministry joint secretary (Northeast) Satyendra Garg said. “In the past, 8,573 Bru migrants were identified and repatriated in six batches.”
A majority of the Mizo population, including the state government, are opposed to the Election Commission’s proposal for allowing Brus to vote at their camps and want them to return to Mizoram to vote.
There are 11,232 Bru tribals registered as voters in Mizoram. This rather significant number could cause major upsets in a number of seats. An average of 19,000 people vote per seat in the state and with the Bru population, this could definitely cause problems in the 9 seats they are concentrated in. Considering that the population does not live in Mizoram itself, it is understandable why there is pushback from the Mizo population. The Centre has long been trying to rehabilitate and repatriate the displaced population but they have been reluctant to accept the terms citing non fulfilment of security and political demands.
Civil society organizations have urged the Election Commission to disenfranchise all Bru tribal voters who chose to stay in Tripura and not return to Mizoram.
The Election Commission has butted heads with the Mizoram Government and the Election Commission’s Chief Electoral Officer S B Shashank has been the main target. Shashank alleged that the state Home Department was interfering in preparations for the polls. In a letter to the Election Commission, he mentioned how the department was playing an “active role” in interference.
The Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, however, wrote to the Mr. Rajnath Singh, the Central Government Home Minister and alleged that “vested interests” in Tripura camps have been dissuading people from repatriating.
The last few weeks in Mizoram proved a hotbed of political chaos. Besides mainstream media, social media was flooded with calls of #ShashankOut and Save Mizoram pleas. Over 40,000 people took to the streets to protest Shashank and demand his ousting. The protests were however peaceful which case and point shows little need for the proposed CRPF deployment.
Removal of the Chief Electoral Officer is extremely rare. This happens only when the state government consults with the Election Commission. Although, Shashank has now been replaced by Ashish Kundra, the Election Commission has backed their officer stating he was only doing his job.
Kundra has now stated that the Bru tribals will vote at Kanhmun village which is on the border of Mizoram and Tripura.
However despite this, there is resistance. NGO Coordination Committee, an umbrella of civil society organizations in Mizoram has urged all political parties to refrain from arranging transport for the 11,232 voters.
Although things seem to have relatively settled down after Shashank’s ouster, this is just a temporary quick fix to a problem that has plagued the state since 1995. It will be interesting to see what progress will be made in the foreseeable future and if both sides will come to a compromise or a standstill.
Author: Jessica Passah
Jessica Passah is a Staff Writer. She has a B.A in English Literature from Hans Raj College, New Delhi, and an M.A in Public Administration from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.