Image courtesy: Reuters
Bru refugees who had fled Mizoram in 1997, in wake of an ethnic conflict, and come to Tripura, may finally find some closure. The Tripura High Court, in an order passed on September 26, has directed that the names of all eligible voters from among the refugees resettled in various villages be included in the electoral rolls.
This will ensure that they have a voice in the governance of the areas where they are building their lives afresh. But this was an uphill battle, and their potential disenfranchisement was only avoided due to the intervention of the Tripura High Court.
Who are Brus?
Brus, also known as Reangs are tribal people who practice Jhum cultivation. In the late 90s, a movement emerged to create an autonomous Bru territory carved from western Mizoram, parts of Tripura and even Bangladesh. In September 1997 the movement gained momentum and on October 21, 1997, a forest guard was killed in the Dampa Tiger Reserve allegedly by members of the Bru National Liberation Front. This led to clashed with the Mizos, and eventually 37,000 Brus were forced to flee Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei districts of Mizoram. While 5,000 people returned over 9 phases of repatriation since then, but around 32,000 continued to live in six refugee camps in Tripura.
The Jan 2020 agreement
In January 2020, a quadripartite agreement was signed between the Government of India, the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram and Bru representatives. The agreement was signed in the presence of then Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and leaders of Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF), the largest forum of Bru migrants. A Rs 600 crore package was announced for the resettlement of Brus. According to this agreement, the refugees were to be given:
Rs 1.5 lakh housing assistance to the migrants into three instalments
Rs 4 lakh one-time cash assistance for sustenance to be handed over after 3 years
Rs 5,000 monthly cash assistance
Free ration for two years to migrants who wish to be permanently settled in Tripura
But there have been subsequent challenges in ensuring that these resettled Bru people are given the same rights as any other Indian citizen. One of their greatest challenges has been that getting their names enrolled in the voters’ lists of the villages where they have been resettled.
Enrollment of resettled Brus as voters
Village council elections in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) are due in the first week of November. Given how many of the areas where Bru refugees have been resettled fall under ADCs, it is vital to enroll Bru voters in these areas.
On September 16, the State Election Commission published a draft voters list for 2,634 constituencies in 587 village committees, covering 8,86, 334 voters including 4,40,132 women voters. But did not contain names of eligible relocated Bru refugees.
Aggrieved by this, a group of Bru settlers moved the Tripura High Court. Times of India quoted an excerpt from their petition: “The state has 26,000 eligible Bru voters, out of which the names of only 5,000 people have been included in the electoral registers. The rest were left out as they didn’t get permanent houses and were not registered with the Registrar of Ordinary Residents.”
Tripura HC order paves way for voter enrollment
The Tripura High Court then took note of the latest report of the state revenue department. The court noted in its September 26, 2022 order, “As per the latest report received from the State Revenue Department there are 15 designated locations identified for the settlement of Bru migrants. Till date 5009 persons have been enrolled out of approximate 21703 eligible Bru migrants at different location.” The court also noted, “It is further revealed that enrollment of Bru migrants are being done where house constructions are completed and the families have been provided with the RoR which are being done by concerned Block Development Officers. The Electoral Registration Officers are ready to enroll the names of Bru migrants subject to completion of house constructions and where issues like record of residence are solved by the concerned Block Development Officers.”
The court laid emphasis in clause 4.9 of the quadripartite agreement of January 2020 and what it means for resettled Bru voters, and said, “The object of this clause in the Agreement is to treat them as a citizen of the State of Tripura having given their right to exercise their franchise. This object the government sought to be achieved should not be thwarted by the State Election Commission in a casual manner.”
Justice Arindam Lodh then passed an order saying, “I have considered that the election process has not been started. The process of preparing electoral roll is going on. In view of this, I direct the State Election Commission to complete the process of preparing electoral roll expeditiously and hold the election in accordance with law taking into account the grievance of the petitioners and also keeping in mind the 6 observation and direction as made in W.P(C) (PIL) no. 8 of 2022 [titled as Rajesh Debbarma & anr. vs. The State of Tripura & ors].”
The court essentially directed the State Election Commission to include names of all eligible voters from among Bru settlers in the electoral rolls of Tripura, irrespective of their names being registered in the Register of Ordinary Residents (RoR). Now the SEC is scrambling to meet the HC’s deadline.
The entire judgment may be read here:
The wider problem of Bru resettlement
Meanwhile, the Central Government has given the state more time to deal with the wider issue of resettlement itself. Out of the over 32,000 eligible people, only a little over 3,000 have been successfully resettled so far. While the Central government has not set a deadline, it has granted the state government more time to complete the process.
There have been a few hick-ups in the resettlement process, the most notable being the outbreak of violence on November 21, 2020 when one person was killed and over 30 injured in police firing at a protest in North Tripura.
As per provisions of the January 2020 agreement, as many as 5,000 Bru refugees were to be resettled in Tripura’s North District. But the Joint Movement Committee (JMC) that comprises different groups such as Nagarik Suraksha Mancha and Mizo Convention, were opposed to this as they feared this influx of refugees would change the demography of the region.
This led to a call for a highway blockade, and over 3,000 people gathered at Chamtila in Panisagar subdivision to stop traffic on National Highway 8 that connects Tripura to Assam. While protesters maintained that their demonstrations were non-violent, police claimed that they were forced to open fire after exhausting all other non-lethal means to control the violent protesters.
Disenfranchisement of migrants and refugees
Democracy cannot thrive unless all voices are represented. However, the disenfranchisement of refugees and migrants has remained a persistent issue in many parts of India. While economic migrants struggle to cast their votes, due to inability to travel to their home states, the plight of people who are victims of forced migration, such as conflict affected people, climate refugees and other displaced people is worse.
Let us not forget that in the North East itself, climate refugees in Assam face hostility from people in their own state, despite being enrolled as voters. Bengali speaking Muslims who were forced to migrate downstream along the Brahmaputra as river erosion washed away their agricultural fields, and even entire villages, are often viewed as “outsiders” and “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. They live under the constant fear of receiving notices from Assam’s Border Police asking them to prove their citizenship before the state’s infamous Foreigners’ Tribunals. There is also the looming threat of their settlements being bulldozed to clear “encroachment”, as the state government itself questions their antecedents and citizenship. One such eviction and demolition drive in Gorukhuti turned violent on September 23, when police opened fire on people protesting demolition of their huts. Two people, Maynal Haque and Sheikh Farid, were killed in the firing. While Maynal Haque was a 28-year-old daily-wage labourer who left behind aging parents, a widow and four children, Sheikh Farid was a 12-year-old boy who was merely passing by the scene of the firing on his way back from a local Aadhaar card centre.
Let Migrants Vote
Migrant workers too face challenges in exercising their right to vote as they often hail from faraway feeder states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, but work in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and the national capital of New Delhi.
Even though employers are legally obligated to declare election day (during Parliamentary elections) as a holiday so that workers can cast their vote, often just one day is insufficient for migrant workers to travel to their home states and cast their vote. This does not however, enable migrants to vote in state, municipal, panchayat and other local body elections in their home states.
As most migrant workers are constantly on the move and they live in temporary accommodations along job sites, they also do not have any permanent address in the states where they work, and therefore cannot enroll as voters there.
The problem has many layers, as there are temporary migrants and permanent migrants. The challenges posed by circular migration require a more nuanced approach to problem solving. Circular migration accounts for those migrants that have not permanently relocated to host cities, and instead circulate between host and home cities.
According to the 2011 census, the number of internal migrants stands at 45 crores, a 45% surge from the earlier census of 2001. Among these, 26% of the migration, i.e., 11.7 crores, occurs inter-district within the same state, while 12% of the migration, i.e., 5.4 crores, occurs inter-state.
SabrangIndia’s sister organization Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has been advocating for migrant workers’ right to vote as part of its Let Migrants Vote campaign.