Why Chakmas and Hajongs are India’s nowhere people

The Supreme Court has asked the government to grant citizenship to several thousands of these peoples who fled erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1960s, and were resettled in Arunachal Pradesh.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Published:October 2, 2015 1:06 am
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Who are the Chakmas and Hajongs?

They were inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who had to flee as their land was submerged by the Kaptai dam in the 1960s. Chakmas are Buddhist, Hajongs Hindu — and they also faced religious persecution in East Pakistan. Most of those who came were Chakmas; only about 2,000 were Hajong. They entered India through what was then the Lushai Hills district of Assam (today’s Mizoram). While some stayed back with Chakmas already living in the Lushai Hills, the Indian government moved a majority of the refugees to present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

Why was Arunachal Pradesh chosen?

The Centre told the Supreme Court that the decision was taken after discussions with the NEFA Administration. A white paper published by the Arunachal government quotes Vishnu Sahay, then Governor of Assam, telling then Assam Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha in a letter dated April 10, 1964: “It occurred to me that we may get trouble between the Mizos and Chakmas in the Mizo district. These Chakmas would be quite suitable people to go into the Tirap division of NEFA where there is easily found vacant land…” Arunachal Pradesh was then called North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and was administered by the Ministry of External Affairs through the Assam Governor. P N Luthra, then Adviser to the Governor, informed NEFA officials on April 21, 1965: “Settlement of (these) people in NEFA will also help in developing the pockets that are lying unused and unoccupied… Besides, the presence of stretches of vacant land along the border is strategically not desirable…”

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What was their legal status?

While they were originally treated as refugees, New Delhi decided to grant them citizenship under Section 5(i)(a) of the Citizenship Act following a joint statement by the PMs of India and Bangladesh in 1972. The NEFA/Arunachal government opposed this, and continues to do so. The state told the Supreme Court that it could not permit “outsiders” to settle in its territory — they would affect its demography, and stretch its limited resources.

When did the opposition begin?

NEFA initially had no elected government or representatives. Political parties emerged only after it was made a Union Territory in 1972. Also, until 1972, there was no mention of citizenship. By the time Arunachal Pradesh was made a state in 1987, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) had built up a strong movement against settling the Chakmas and Hajongs there. The refugee population had, meanwhile, been growing, and the 1996 white paper said their numbers had increased more than 300% from the original 14,888 persons of 2,748 families settled in 1964-69 to over 60,000 in 1995.

What about citizenship by birth?

Only about 5,000 of the original 14,888 are alive today. All present-day Chakmas and Hajongs should be citizens by birth. The Supreme Court has said that those born in India could invoke Section 5(i)(a) and apply for citizenship. A total 4,382 people accordingly applied, but they are yet to be granted citizenship. In 2005, the Election Commission issued general guidelines to include the Chakmas and Hajongs in the state’s electoral rolls. AAPSU contested this, but its case was dismissed by the Gauhati High Court in March 2013. Names of 1,497 Chakmas currently appear in Arunachal’s electoral rolls.

What did the Supreme Court say on September 17?

It reiterated earlier orders by the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and Gauhati High Court that the Chakmas and Hajongs needed to be protected, and their claims of citizenship considered “as per applicable procedure”. It ruled they “could not be discriminated against in any manner pending formal conferment of rights of citizenship”.

What is the state’s stand now?

An all-party meeting in Itanagar on September 28 discussed the court’s order, and said they were not against Indian citizenship for Chakmas and Hajongs, but objected to their permanent settlement in Arunachal, and their exclusion from Inner Line Permit provisions. The state government endorsed this view the following day. On September 30, the government decided to file a review petition in the Supreme Court.

All parties are unanimous that permanent settlement would contravene the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, Scheduled District Act, 1874, Assam Frontier Tract Regulation, 1880, Assam Frontier Forest Regulation, 1891, Chin Hills Regulations, 1896, and Assam Frontier (Administration & Justice) Regulation, 1945 (1 of 1945). The AAPSU says the court’s order would dilute the constitutional safeguards for the indigenous communities of the state, and pose a threat to their identity and culture.

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