Last week, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs cleared the proposal of citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees in Arunachal Pradesh on the basis of a Supreme Court directive.
However, the Chakma-Hajong’s are in a precarious situation where the larger boundary of the nation is ready to include them, but the indigenous population of the immediate land they occupy still considers them as outsiders, despite years of coexistence.
Ever since India became Independent in 1947, it has been a safe haven for people running from persecution. Despite that, the country faces many dilemmas because of lack of Immigration/Refugee Policy. Repeated influx of refugee population have cascading impact on the host country which run for decades, stirring the social, economic, political and humanitarian question, not only in context of the displaced people but also for the population which has to make space for the refugees. It is this troubled space the Chakmas and Hajongs, original inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of the former East Pakistan, occupy, both, literally and metaphorically.
The first wave of Chakma and Hajongs, displaced by the construction of Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam on the Karnaphuli River, entered India in early 1960s, through the Lushai Hills district in present day Mizoram.
This was followed by subsequent influx of predominantly Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajongs during late 1960s. They were fleeing religious persecution of East Pakistan. In an attempt to avoid conflict with the indigenous population of Mizoram, the Central government settled the Chakma-Hajong population in the Tirap division of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). It was a sparsely populated area administered by the Assam Governor until the formation of the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh (1972) and subsequent creation of the State of Arunachal Pradesh in 1987. The region occupied by these refugees now lies in Bordumsa-Diyun areas under Changlang district and Kokila area of Papum Pare district, in the State of Arunachal Pradesh. This shifting political status of Arunachal Pradesh along with expansion of the initial Chakma – Hajong population of 14,888 in 1964 to approximately one lakh at present, are the basis for the opposition to grant citizenship to this refugee group.
Chakma Hajongs have been inhabitants of India for more than five decades, but were routinely ignored. The first formal mention of Chakma Hajong was in a Joint Statement issued by Indian and Bangladeshi Prime Ministers in 1972, which stated to confer citizenship to Chakmas under section 5(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act of 1955. The same year the region of NEFA was declared the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh. The people of this newly established territory, in a bid to protect their identity, opposed this idea of giving citizenship to the refugee group whom they considered “outsiders”.
However, the provision of providing citizenship to these refugees lay dormant until the Supreme Court Judgement of 2015. In the meantime, the fault lines between the indigenous population of Arunachal Pradesh and the Refugee population had further widened. With Arunachal Pradesh gaining statehood in 1987, a strong movement gained momentum against the Chakma and Hajong population settled in the region. This movement was spearheaded by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) who claim that the presence of this Refugee group is unfair since it was done without consultation and consent of the people of the State.
The 2015 directive of the Supreme Court of providing Indian citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees is in consonance with The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, proposed by the present BJP government.
This Bill would amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from South Asian Countries, eligible for citizenship. Even though the sensibilities of the Apex Court and the Central government converge on the issue of granting Citizenship of the Chakma and Hajong refugees, there is severe resentment towards the idea in the North-Eastern States.
All political parties of Arunachal Pradesh unanimously oppose the demand of citizenship of the refugee population on the grounds that it would change the demographic composition, and threaten the identity and culture of the indigenous people, besides stretching the available resources. Keeping in view the grievances of the people of Arunachal Pradesh the Government of India proposed “Limited Citizenship” to Chakma – Hajong Refugee population. Under this no landownership rights or Scheduled Tribe status will be provided to the refugees conferred with Indian citizenship.
While the Chakma and Hajongs have submitted to National Human Rights Commission seeking protection of life and liberty against the threat of forceful eviction, AAPSU insists that the presence of the refugees and their proposed citizenship dilutes the Inner Line Permit provisions established by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (1873), and demand their resettlement from the state to other places in the country.
The current situation has arisen because of a lack in India’s policy space regarding the settlement of refugees and their systematic integration into the fabric of the nation. India was born amidst large scale displacement of people yet it does not have a formalised asylum policy. The arbitrariness attached with how the various refugee groups are dealt with in the country creates an environment for uncertainty for the population seeking refuge and for the people of the region in general.
Despite the antipathy between the local population and the refugees, the fact that they have lived together for more than fifty years cannot be denied. Hence slowly building the case for implementing the Supreme Court directive, supplemented with a special economic package for the State with specific focus on students can help iron out the differences.
A more universal mechanism is the need of the hour so that the diverse aspects of such situations can be dealt with according to laid out policy and within a reasonable time frame by the country.
(The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).