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How Chakmas and Hajongs settled in North East, why Arunachal worries about citizenship

Following Centre’s decision to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees settled in Northeast, Samudra Gupta Kashyap looks at both sides of the debate, when and how the refugees arrived from Bangladesh, what has happened in the 50 years since.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap |
Updated: September 20, 2017 10:08:12 am
chakma tribe, hajong tribe, arunachal pradesh, north east tribes, citizenship, india, indian express news Chakmas, Buddhist by faith, give alms to monks at a settlement in Changalang district of Arunachal Pradesh.

Who are the Chakmas and Hajongs?

They were originally inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who were systematically forced out of that country. First they were displaced from their original homesteads because of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam on the Karnaphuli river in the early 1960s, and there was no rehabilitation and compensation. Later, they became victims of religious persecution in East Pakistan, and fled to India. While the Chakmas are Buddhists, the Hajongs are Hindus.

Why were they sent to Arunachal Pradesh?

They had initially crossed over to the then Lushai Hills district of Assam (now Mizoram). But fearing trouble between the Mizos and the Chakmas, the Assam government sent them to the Tirap division of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, present-day Arunachal Pradesh), which 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.” Altogether 14,888 persons of 2,748 families were settled in NEFA in 1964-69.

Have they remained refugees?

Not all. Although all of them were treated as refugees originally, the Government of India decided to grant them citizenship under Section 5(i)(a) of the Citizenship Act on the basis of a joint statement by the PMs of India and Bangladesh in 1972. Arunachal Pradesh, which came into being the same year as a Union Territory, immediately opposed this, and continues to do so. The state has been repeatedly saying that it could not permit “outsiders” to settle on its territory because that would adversely affect its demography, and stretch its limited resources. Despite the opposition, however, about 1,500 Chakmas have their names in the state’s electoral rolls.

Why didn’t NEFA oppose it in the beginning?

As long as the region was NEFA, there was no elected government there, and it was run by a handful of officers. When the birth of Arunachal Pradesh coincided with the joint statement of the PMs of India and Bangladesh, political parties emerging in the new state immediately identified it as a potential threat to their demography. By the time Arunachal Pradesh attained full statehood in 1987, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) had already built a strong movement against settling Chakmas and Hajongs there. “They were sent to our state without our consent and knowledge. We did not have an assembly in those days,” says AAPSU general secretary Tobom Dai.

What are their numbers now?

Only about 5,000 of the original 14,888 who were sent to the then NEFA are alive today. As for later generations, a white paper published by the state government in1996 said their numbers had increased more than 300% from the original 14,888 persons settled in 1964-69 to over 60,000 in 1995. According to the Supreme Court, all those born in India could invoke Section 5(i)(a) and apply for citizenship. So far, about 5,000 people have 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. Though the AAPSU contested this, Gauhati High Court dismissed its plea in March 2013. The names of about 3,200 Chakmas currently appear in Arunachal’s electoral rolls.

How do they sustain themselves?

Though refugees, each of the 2,748 families was allotted five acres of land in Changlang district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh which they continue to use for cultivation. They also do various odd jobs in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The younger generation has moved out for education and jobs, but face problems because of lack of citizenship status. The state government provides them basic amenities such as education, healthcare, sanitation and rations.

What has been decided now?

Last week, the Centre decided it would grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees living in the Northeast while ensuring that the rights of indigenous people are not diluted. The issue had been discussed at a meeting convened by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and attended, among others, by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, Union minister Kiren Rijiju and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, said later that the Centre will urge the Supreme Court to modify its order granting citizenship to Chakma-Hajong refugees so that the rights of the indigenous people of Arunachal Pradesh are not diluted.

How does the Arunachal Pradesh government stand on this?

The BJP government of Khandu — who attended the meeting that took the decision last week — has now made it clear to the Centre that it stood with the people of the state who were not ready to accept any infringement on the constitutional protection given to them. On Monday, Khandu wrote to Rajnath Singh: “I reiterate that the people of my state are not ready to accept any infringement on the constitutional protection bestowed on the tribals of Arunachal Pradesh and want to ensure that the ethnic composition and the special rights enjoyed by the tribes of my state are safeguarded at all cost.”

What about other political parties in Arunachal Pradesh?

All parties in the state are unanimous in the view that granting citizenship to the Chakmas would seriously affect the demographic structure of the state where most of the tribes are less in number in comparison to the growing Chakma population. Moreover, the last all-party meeting held in June 2017 said granting citizenship would contravene various laws such as 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).

What is the AAPSU’s current stance?

On Wednesday last week, the AAPSU said granting citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees in Arunachal Pradesh would not only grant them political rights, but also have far-reaching ramifications to the state’s social fabric. It would dilute the constitutional safeguards for the indigenous communities, pose a threat to their identity and culture, and flare up social unrest unless the rights of the indigenous people are adequately protected and safeguarded, AAPSU leader Dai said.

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