The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates conservatively that at least 650,000 people in India are currently considered internally displaced persons (IDPs), as a result of armed conflict, ethnic or communal violence or human-rights violations. One situation in the Northeast, which has been particularly poorly reported upon, provides a useful demonstration of the challenges in returning India’s IDPs to their homes. In May 2010, about 1115 displaced Reang indigenous people (also known as the Bru) returned home to Mizoram from camps in Tripura; on 3 November, an additional 53 families went home. These first two groups of returnees, it is hoped will be followed by the remaining of the 37,000 Reang, displaced in 1997 following attacks by the ethnic-majority Mizo in Mizoram.
The Reang, also known as the Bru, are a designated Scheduled Tribe spread through Tripura, Mizoram and Bangladesh. Because of their low socio-economic status, in Tripura they have official classification as a ‘Primitive Tribal Group’, which entitles them to special development and protection measures. In September 1997, a meeting was held by Bru political representatives, where the demand was put forward for Autonomous District Council (ADC) status, which would confer significant administrative, judicial and legislative powers to the community. The state’s major parties (all Mizo-dominated) publicly opposed the demand. Mizo civil society, including 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. When the Bru groups refused, the MZP retaliated with thinly veiled threats to leave.
Relations 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, with the BNLF held responsible. The death resulted in what appears to have been well-orchestrated retaliatory violence against Bru communities across Mizoram. While the extent of the violence remains undocumented, it was of a sufficient scale that an estimated 45,000 Bru from across Mizoram left their lands and belongings, and fled, primarily to Tripura and Assam. Eventually, more than 30,000 Bru were given refuge in six relief camps established by the Tripura government. Subsequent attempts to resolve the issue foundered, with officials in the Mizoram capital of Aizawl insisting that most Bru in the Tripura camps were not from Mizoram.
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 – to verify the residence credentials of the former Bru rebels.
In April 2007, the Aizawl government held a series of talks with the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), a civil-society group. 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 request 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.
On 4 November 2009, a meeting was held between representatives of the Mizoram government, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the MBDPF. Although no official agreement was reached, that evening the media reported that Aizawl would begin a repatriation process by the middle of the month. The intent behind the government’s move remains unclear, but it quickly re-ignited tensions between the Mizo and Bru. The MBDPF immediately boycotted the repatriation.
|Ashes and bitterness: The remains of a school burned during anti-Bru attacks in New Eden village, Mizoram|
On 13 November, three days before the repatriation was to begin, a Mizo youth named Zarzokima was murdered in Mamit district. The Mizo authorities blamed the Bru armed group, the BRU. In retaliation, over the next four days some 500 houses in 11 Bru villages were razed by Mizo mobs. That the villages attacked included houses built for members of disbanded BNLF cadres seemed to underline Mizoram’s failure to provide sustainable security guarantees. As a result, nearly 2200 more Bru left for Tripura. Bru groups claimed this was part of longstanding efforts to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Mizoram.
On 20 November 2009, three days after the violence subsided, the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), based in New Delhi, condemned what had taken place and underlined its belief that the government was behind the violence. On 22 November, Mizoram home minister R Lalzirliana called a press conference to respond; AHCR was invited to attend, which it did. In addition, ACHR undertook a fact-finding mission, concluding that the motives behind the murder that sparked the violence were unclear, but that the death was being used to stall repatriation. The Centre also found that the state government had failed to assess the damage to 383 houses that had deliberately been burned down, and that compensation had been inadequate. More damning, the team also found that state officials and security forces were 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. When ACHR presented Mizo demands to the Bru and vice-versa, they found a surprising degree of agreement, though accompanied by strong emotive reluctance to engage in direct dialogue with each other.
On 12 January 2010, Bru leaders wrote to Chief Minister Lalthanhawla and expressed their willingness to return. Lalthanhawla’s government responded by inviting Bru leaders for talks on 22 February. The government again vacillated, however, arguing that New Delhi had not allocated funds to support a return. The following day, the Mizoram police arrested R Laldangliana, vice-president of the MBDPF, alleging that he had been involved in a serious crime. It is difficult not to view the timing of the arrest as politically motivated; Bru leaders withdrew from the negotiations, and since then no further bilateral talks have been held.
In a letter to Home Minister P Chidambaram, ACHR formally protested the arrest, urging the ministry to put the negotiations back on track. But ministry officials refused to enter into dialogue with the Bru leaders, alleging their involvement in a murder to sabotage the repatriation process. In turn, Bru leaders refused to talk with the government until Laldangliana was released unconditionally. Eventually, the ministry proposed that ACHR itself could play a role, as facilitator, and it was agreed that the Bru and the ministry would communicate through ACHR. On 15 February, ACHR held talks with the Bru leadership, which committed to return home if its demands relating to development assistance and security were met.
In the meantime, the Home Ministry began talks with Aizawl based on these communications. On 20 April, the ministry sent ACHR a written commitment to the rehabilitation and security of Bru who returned home, backed by more than INR 24.3 million for rehabilitation. ACHR communicated the ministry’s proposal to Bru representatives, who agreed to begin the repatriation process. It was subsequently decided that repatriation would begin on 11 May, though this quickly failed when Aizawl refused to provide vehicles to transport the returnees. Mizoram officials instead suggested the displaced should return on their own, for which they would be reimbursed; this was rejected by the Bru leadership. Through ACHR, the Home Ministry eventually agreed to underwrite the costs of repatriation and, on 21 May, the process of repatriation began. Over the course of the following five days, some 1115 displaced Bru returned home to Mizoram, accompanied by state police.
This first phase of repatriation was seen as a confidence-building measure to restart the stalled dialogue. The Home Ministry has added to this by committing to provide significant housing support, cash grants and food rations. In a late-May visit to the state, Home Minister Chidambaram publicly asked the state government to complete the repatriation process within six months. Everything seemed, finally, to be moving along relatively smoothly. With the arrival of the monsoon, however, repatriation was suspended, and since then direct talks have failed to restart.
From to 7 June to 15 August, Bru leaders again surveyed Bru IDPs to verify their residence claims, submitting their findings to the Aizawl government. From 22 to 29 September, with full cooperation of the state government’s Home Department, three leaders of the Bru Coordination Committee (BCC) conducted spot verification of resettlement sites. The repatriation was scheduled to restart on 28 October, but in the interim differences over the repatriation had emerged amongst the Bru leadership, and the repatriation process was temporarily cancelled, with a new date set for 3 November. ACHR held prolonged talks with the Bru leadership and, on that date, an additional 53 displaced families returned to Mizoram.
Learning for the future
The state government’s actions continue to raise concerns about its commitment to a sustainable return. As such, if New Delhi does not apply sufficient pressure on the state government to act, it appears that no amount of NGO action will change Mizoram’s limited commitment. Similarly, arbitration has clear limits: ACHR has been a catalyst to unlock the 23-year impasse, but now is the time for Aizawl and New Delhi to hold direct talks with the Bru representatives.
This situation is also indicative of the national picture. Conflict-induced IDPs can rarely access their rights in today’s India. The responsibility to protect is generally left to state authorities who are generally unaware of their obligations. There remain insufficient mechanisms to monitor IDPs and state responses, or to oblige the states to act on their obligations. The beginnings of a response might be found in India’s increasingly proactive National Human Rights Commission, which can issue directives obliging state action on rights issues. But there are powerful obstacles to this, with the NHRC experiencing real restrictions on its powers, particularly with regard to monitoring security forces in conflict-afflicted areas. These restrictions need to be lifted.
Similarly, the Indian government needs to consider the costs of its increasingly conservative tone with regard to NGOs. ACHR took a clear line underlining the state’s failure to protect the Bru in Mizoram. But had the IDPs been in an area of Maoist activity, for instance, it is interesting to speculate how ACHR’s actions would have been labelled. One way or another, if there are to be sustainable returns for India’s growing IDP population, there must be public debate leading to a coherent national policy: IDPs in India need to be recognised.
~ Ben Schonveld is a human-rights and conflict expert based in Asia.