Mizoram takes steps to repatriate tribal refugees

Aizawl/Agartala : Mizoram has undertaken a fresh initiative to take back the tribal refugees sheltering in neighbouring Tripura for the past 17 years after fleeing from their villages.

“A meeting of the State Level Core Committee on tribal refugee repatriation, chaired by Mizoram Home Minister R. Lalzirliana was held in Aizawl Monday. It was decided in the meeting to resume the repatriation before the counting of votes of the Lok Sabha election May 16,” a Mizoram home department official told reporters.

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The official said the home department would take up the matter with the Election Commission to find out whether the refugee repatriation process would violate the model code of conduct in force for the Lok Sabha polls.

He said the central government has sanctioned Rs.7.87 crore as financial assistance to the repatriated refugees. “Adequate foodgrain has been stored to provide free rations to the repatriated tribal refugees for one year.”

The Election Commission earlier this month made arrangements for the refugees in six of the seven Tripura relief camps cast postal ballots. The poll panel decision aggrieved six NGOs and students’ groups and they called three-day shutdown and a poll boycott in Mizoram.

The Election Commission had deferred the April 9 Lok Sabha polling in Mizoram to April 11 due to the stir.

Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, who is also the state Congress chief, and the six voluntary organisations have been demanding the refugees to be repatriated to their villages in Mizoram and then allowed to cast their votes in the normal process.

Of the over 36,000 Reang tribal refugees living in seven camps in Tripura since October 1997 after fleeing their villages in western Mizoram, 11,500 were on electoral rolls in Mizoram and 71 percent of them voted through postal ballot earlier this month.

“In view of a threat given by NGOs in Mizoram to obstruct counting of postal ballot papers in Aizawl, the Election Commission has decided to count the votes in Kanchanpur (north Tripura) May 16,” Kanchanpur Sub-Divisional Magistrate Nantu Das told IANS.

The Reang tribals – locally known as ‘Bru’ – fled their villages in Mizoram and took shelter in Tripura in October 1997 after an ethnic conflict broke out with majority of Mizos over the killing of a Mizo forest official.

Despite Tripura government’s repeated requests, an initiative of the union home ministry and the Mizoram government to repatriate the refugees to their villages has failed.

Only about 5,000 refugees returned to their homes in the past three-and-half years following continued persuasion by Mizoram, Tripura and the union home ministry officials. The repatriation process was subsequently stopped.

The refugees insist on a written agreement with the Mizoram government assuring them security and economic settlement in their villages in western Mizoram.