The Reang refugees

Print edition : July 18, 1998

Reangs, who fled Mizoram in the wake of inter-community violence and are now housed in refugee camps in Tripura, face an uncertain future.

AS many as 35,000 people of the Reang tribe, who have crossed over from Mizoram to Tripura since October last year following atrocities committed against them allegedly by Mizos, are stranded in eight camps in North Tripura. Their lives are full of uncertainties: a political solution to their problems is nowhere in sight and death and disease stalk the camps.

A view of the Gachiram Para camp in Kanchanpur subdivision in North Tripura district, the biggest of the camps, housing 18,000 refugees.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Enteric diseases have taken a heavy toll of the refugees - men, women and children - over the past two months. Officials of the Tripura Government confirmed 210 deaths. Relief workers said that a virulent attack of diarrhoea claimed an average of 15 lives a day since May 29 in the eight camps situated on the banks of the Deo and Longai rivers in Kanchanpur subdivision, some 220 km from Agartala.

The incidence of diarrhoea reached epidemic proportions in the second half of May. Enteric diseases are common in northeastern India. Conta-minated water and stale food are said to have caused the epidemic.

It was a nightmare for the refugees. Pintu Reang, 10, lost his father and sister within the span of a week. His mother too was sick. "If she dies," Pintu said, "I will be orphaned."

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

"The situation wo-uld not have worsened had the administration taken preventive measures at the initial stages," said Dr. B.C. Das, member of a special medical team which treated about 700 patients. "There were only two doctors and a few bags of medicines to cater to eight camps," said A. Tuisarai Bru, vice-president of the Bru National Union (BNU), in the Gachiram Para camp, which is the biggest camp and which houses 18,000 refugees.

However, the State Health Department and the North Tripura district administration acted after Chief Minister Manik Sarkar reviewed the situation at a high-level meeting. An anxious Chief Minister directed the agencies concerned to tackle the situation on a war-footing. He sent Health Minister Keshab Majumdar to the camps to supervise the functioning of the special medical teams that were sent out after the meeting. Later Manik Sarkar visited the camps.

Another view of the Gachiram Para camp.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

The epidemic was finally brought under control, with medical teams serving patients round the clock. Refugee youth also extended voluntary service to the health teams.

Sudhir Sharma, Principal Secretary to the State Government, said: "We have also arranged to supply 40,000 litres of drinking water every day." According to him, the Tripura Government spent Rs.2 crores on relief work and the Union Government sanctioned Rs.1.2 crore. The Centre had directed the State to provide the same level of relief to Reangs as the Chakma refugees and promised to bear all the expenses, Sharma added. New Delhi spent about Rs.100 crores on the Chakmas over 12 years until their problems were solved through a political settlement in February last.

WHILE the refugees battled against heavy odds, the much-awaited talks between the Reang leaders and the Mizoram Government collapsed. The meeting was convened in Aizawl on June 11 at the initiative of the Union Home Ministry.

Children scooping out water from the bed of a lake.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

At the meeting, the BNU, the apex body of Mizoram Reangs (known in Mizoram as Brus), submitted a memorandum to Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, reiterating its demand for an autonomous district council (ADC) for Reangs in northwest Mizoram along the Tripura-Mizoram-Bangladesh border, under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The other demands of the BNU related to the payment of compensation to Reang families that were affected by the inter-community strife.

Lal Thanhawla rejected the demand for an ADC and said later that the other demands would not be considered unless Reangs withdrew the "false allegations of killing, rape and atrocities". BNU president Soibanga Reang, who led the Reang delegation, refused to do so.

Life at the Gachiram Para camp.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Lal Thanhawla argues that his Government's image has been tarnished by the "false propaganda" unleashed by Reang leaders. He says that Reangs do not inhabit a compact area in Mizoram and as such "they do not have the legitimacy to raise their voice for an ADC since most of them are aliens".

THE Reang refugees arrived in North Tripura over the past nine months. The lack of initiatives by the Mizoram Government to get them to return to their villages and the refugees' stand that they will not go back unless their demands are conceded have worsened the problem.

Observers say that the traditional rivalry between Mizos and Reangs took a turn for the worse with Reangs demanding an ADC. Reangs, the second largest ethnic group in Mizoram, depend on jhum (shifting) cultivation for livelihood. They have a sizable presence in Mizoram - over 85,000 Reangs live across the three districts of Aizawl, Chintepui and Lunglei.

The BNU, formed in 1994 to "protect the rights" of the Reang community, floated the idea of an ADC at its annual convention in September last year, and this invited protests from several Mizo organisations. However, the BNU maintained that an ADC was necessary for the socio-economic development of the backward tribe.

The Tripura Government has arranged to supply 40,000 litres of drinking water daily to the camps, but contaminated water is said to have caused the outbreak of a diarrhoea epidemic. Refugees gather to collect water from tankers.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Countering the Mizoram Government's stand, Bru National Convention of India (BNCI) general secretary Bimal Reang said: "Despite the fact that we constitute the second largest ethnic community in Mizoram, we have been denied all constitutional rights and civic amenities over the years." He said that Reangs had taken Mizo names and many of them had converted to Christianity, the dominant religion among Mizos. Tuisarai Bru said that "many of us adopted Mizo culture as well." He added that "our fate remained the same" in spite of doing all this.

Although Mizoram is India's second most literate State after Kerala, the literacy rate among Reangs is less than one per cent. The community has until now had only five graduates in Mizoram.

Tuisarai Bru stated: "Against this backdrop, we wanted to free ourselves from the domination of Mizos and raised our voice for constitutional provisions to become civilised citizens."

THE immediate cause of the exodus of Reangs to Tripura was violent clashes in the Mamith subdivision, a Reang-dominated area in northwest Mizoram, after the BNU raised the demand for an ADC. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), a students' organisation, and the Young Mizo Association (YMA) vehemently opposed the demand. 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."

Tension between the two communities escalated. Activists of the MZP and the YMA allegedly attacked Reang hamlets on October 13, 1997 and hundreds of Reangs fled the State. The situation worsened with the killing of a Mizo forest official on October 18, allegedly by Reang militants. Tuisarai Bru said: "After the body of the forest official was recovered inside the Dampa wildlife sanctuary, we were subjected to systematic attacks by Mizo youth. Five of our men were hacked to death, many were injured, at least 15 women were gangraped and hundreds of houses destroyed in a series of attacks." He alleged that the Mizoram police remained a silent spectator to the attacks.

The Mizoram Government repeatedly denied reports of atrocities on Reangs and stated that "a few thousand Reangs fled the State following some untoward incidents." The authorities also brushed aside reports that members of the Reang community were killed in the violence.

BNU leaders allege that MZP and YMA activists struck terror among Reangs, killing innocent people, torching homes and raping women. They claim to have listed 152 definite cases of rape and countless incidents of molestation. The Government in Aizawl described these allegations as false. However, trouble between the two communities continued, and so did the flow of Reangs to Tripura. By mid-June, according to official figures, 35,000 Reangs had taken shelter in north Tripura and still the influx remained unabated. A batch of some 7,000 Reangs arrived in the southwestern part of Hailakandi district of Assam during the same period.

Soibanga Reang insisted that the violence was part of a calculated move for ethnic cleansing. He alleged that first the names of 20,000 Reangs were deleted from the voters' list. "Next, there were state-sponsored atrocities."

At a health camp.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Lal Thanhawla denied these charges but admitted that "some houses were torched by some Mizo youth." Making an indirect reference to the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), he accused a section of Reangs of taking up arms and "threatening their own people" to leave the State in order to manipulate the refugee issue and gain political mileage.

LEADERS of the tribal people in Tripura want the Mizoram Government to concede the demand of Reangs since an ADC is a constitutional provision that would help the allround development of the tribal people. Prominent tribal leader and Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) MLA Shyma Charan Tripura said that Reangs were the most backward people among the tribal communities and it was the responsibility of the Mizoram Government to ensure their development through constitutional means.

"If the 60,000 Chakmas can have their own ADC in Mizoram, why not Reangs with a population of about 90,000?" he asked.

Reangs, one of the Tripuri clans, are considered to be the original inhabitants of Mizoram as the State was part of the Tripura kingdom until 1872, Shyma Charan said, quoting from a document. "In 1872, the British took control of the state from the Maharaja (king) of Tripura and it became a district of Assam," he added, brushing aside Lal Thanhawla's claim that Reangs were aliens. The community has a large presence in Tripura and the State's strongest insurgent group, the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), is dominated by Reangs. On several occasions in the past, Aizawl has accused the NLFT of providing arms and training to BNLF cadres to carry out an armed struggle against the State's government. What worries the authorities is the increasing restlessness among Reang youth as the Mizoram Government showed no indication that it is prepared to budge. The BNLF has been reportedly luring Reang youth from among the refugees for training in militancy-related activities. The Tripura Government, however, has made it clear to the refugees' leaders that it will not allow any subversive activities on its soil.

A patient being taken to a health centre in the Gachiram Para Camp. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, a front organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been accused of ''fanning trouble'' over the Reang issue.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

A SIGNIFICANT allegation made by Lal Thanhawla is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is "fanning trouble" in his State. The Chief Minister said that the RSS took up the cause of Reangs with the claim that they (Reangs) are Hindus and supported the false propaganda against his Government. He claimed: "Reangs are nomads and thus they are not Hindus, but animists." Lal Thanhawla has reasons to be concerned over RSS involvement in the problem.

The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS front organisation, has made an appearance at the refugee camps ostensibly to "help the distressed". It is also raising the Reang issue at various forums outside the region. RSS leaders under the banner of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram met President K.R. Narayanan in January and urged him to direct the Union Government to grant an ADC for Reangs in Mizoram.

As vested interests try to cash in on Reangs' problems, the refugees wait for a solution. Their leaders estimate that more than 500 of them have succumbed to disease, hunger and cold since they arrived in Tripura in October last. BNU leaders believe that the refugee problem, and the political crisis in northwest Mizoram, cannot be solved unless the political aspirations of the community are met.

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