A Tireless Battle for Existence

The Reangs of Northeast India

Young Reang women in traditional ornaments

Young Reang women in traditional ornaments greet guests during a community function. (Photo courtesy of Bapi Roy Chouhdury)

For scholars and other researchers of the varied and exotic ethnic mosaic in northeast India, an area aptly described as an anthropological museum, the Reangs present an enigma. Scattered over Tripura, Mizoram and the forested areas of the district of Karimganj in Assam, the Reangs cling to their traditional way of life as shifting cultivators.

The erstwhile king of Tripura, Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, who ruled the state before it merged with the Indian Union on October 15, 1949, included the Reangs in his official list of the five privileged tribes of Tripura along with the Debbarmans, Jamatyas, Noatias and Halams. Today, the Indian government lists the Reang’s as the lone “primitive group” in the state of Tripura.

The Reangs form the second largest tribal group in Tripura, as well as in the neighboring state of Mizoram. Before the union, their legacy was one of periodic revolts against their princely rulers. They have always sought to distinguish themselves from the other major tribes.

Scholarly opinion varies on the arrival of Reangs in Tripura. Until the 20th century, the tribes of Tripura were thought to have parted ways from the Bodo ethnic group in the state of Assam, which slowly made its way into Tripura during the 8th or 9th century before setting up a full-fledged kingdom by the 15th century.

But the Reangs trace their own roots to the legendary Hindu saint Kashyapa and a myth regarding their arrival into the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeastern Bangladesh and through waves of migration from the Arakan region of Myanmar (Burma). The Reangs’ claim to an identity distinct from that of other ethnic groups in the region is based on the fact that they prefer to call themselves Brus, not Boroks, and their language Kai bru, not Kokborok, which is the lingua franca among tribes-people in Tripura.

So on the eve of the last census, which was held in February 2001, when a banned tribal separatist outfit, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (N.L.F.T.), issued a diktat that all tribes-people in Tripura must uniformly register themselves as Borok people and their language as Kokborok in order to demonstrate or prove a single ethnic identity, the Reangs resisted. Clashes ensued between the N.L.F.T and the Bru National Liberation Front (B.N.L.F.), the Reang-dominated rebel outfit. The feud resulted in the death of twelve B.N.L.F. activists in a pre-emptive strike by their rivals.

Tension increased when the Bru National Union, a political party of Reangs, or Brus, formed in the early 90’s, demanded autonomy within Mizoram. There was a tough response from the Mizo Students’ Federation (M.Z.P.): “If the Reangs wanted to divide or disintegrate Mizoram further, it would be better that they go away. The demand for an Autonomous District Council could not be accepted by Mizos.” The M.Z.P. further warned that since Mizoram is the only land Mizos have, it could not be lost to “foreigners or other communities.”

In October, an estimated 35,000 panic-stricken Reangs fled into northern Tripura.

As reported in Bangalore’s Deccan Herald (Aug. 17, 2003): “The Reangs, second largest tribal group of Mizoram, had long been demanding setting up of an Autonomous District Council (ADC) based on the 6th Schedule of the (Indian) Constitution in Reang-dominated areas of Southern Mizoram. The demand had been raised under the banner of a new party called Reang Democratic Party (R.D.P.). Long accustomed to treating Reangs as ‘bonded laborers and slaves’, the majority Mizo tribesmen have looked upon the Reang demand with deep hostility.”

The Reangs who fled to Mizoram in October 1997, alleged facing intimidation, repression and targeted attacks that followed the killing of 10 Reangs in September, allegedly by Mizo hardliners. The influx continued unabated, particularly after the murder of a Mizo forest warden, allegedly by the Bru National Liberation Front.

Bru leaders also alleged that their cultural practices were being thwarted and that they were being forced to adopt Mizo names and Mizo languages as their medium of instruction, instead of the native Kokborok. The names of about 20,000 Reangs were deleted from the electoral rolls.

The Mizos have always lived in isolation and they have a very strong attachment to their homeland, thus they become emotive and frenzied when any minority tribal group starts talking of autonomy and a separate political set up.

The refugee problem has only heightened the uncertainty of existence looming large over the tribal group. What illustrates the predicament of the Reangs best is that neither the federal government at New Delhi nor provincial governments appear to be moved by the plight of the refugees who have been living in sub-human conditions in six refugee camps in northern Tripura.

The signing of an agreement between the Mizoram state government and the B.N.L.F. on April 26, 2005, has been attributed as a step toward ending a tiresome decade-long tension between both parties. The memorandum of understanding, containing ten points of compliance, was signed after the 12th round of peace talks by the chief secretary, Mizoram’s top bureaucrat, and the president of the militant outfit.

The Mizoram government agreed to resettle Bru evacuees, to take measures to include the names of eligible tribe members in the electoral rolls and to start development activity in Bru-inhabited areas, but it did not comply with the main demand of the B.N.L.F., the creation of an autonomous council. B.N.L.F., on the other hand, promised to shun violence, surrender its weapons and join the mainstream of social and political life.

A sizeable number of Bru leaders understand that the crisis has been an offshoot of their political aspirations and that unless the situation is resolved politically, a permanent solution cannot be achieved.

Syed Sajjad Ali is an Indian journalist.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Syed Sajjad Ali.