Chakma Issue Roils Arunachal as Supreme Court Decrees End to Their Statelessness

The ongoing government vs. governor face-off aside, another conflict is threatening to erupt in Arunachal Pradesh – one triggered by a recent SC order on citizenship for Chakmas

New Delhi: Unease is growing in Arunachal Pradesh, and it has nothing to do with the ongoing tussle between the state’s governor and the Congress-led government of Chief Minister Nabam Tuki. Rather, it is a 51-year-old dormant issue that is now threatening to erupt into an ugly ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict – something that the north-eastern state last saw three decades ago.

The latest provocation is a September 17 order by the Supreme Court. Responding to a petition by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas (CCRS) of Arunachal Pradesh, the apex court directed the Centre and the state government to complete – within three months – the process of granting citizenship to about 7000 Chakmas and Hajongs. These refugees from present-day Bangladesh were settled in Arunachal between 1964 and 1969 by the then Assam governor Vishnu Sahay as per the directions of the Centre. The SC order is a follow-up to its 1996 judgement that granted citizenship to these refugees, who settled in what was then known as NEFA, or the North East Frontier Agency, either because they faced post-Partition religious discrimination (Chakmas are Buddhist and Hajongs are Hindus) or displacement due to the construction of the Kaptai Dam in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The present SC order that comes with the deadline of December 18 has certainly come as a huge relief to the refugees who have been stateless for the last 51 years. However, it has also once again raised the prickly issue of Chakmas and Hajongs supposedly posing a threat to the ethnic identity of the Arunachalis – an issue that led to violent bandhs and protests through the 1980s and the ’90s  under the aegis of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU).

Of the original 14,888 Chakmas and Hajongs brought to Arunachal, about 7,000 are alive today, in whose favour the SC has given its directive. As per the 2011 Census, their overall numbers have grown to 47,471. Most meet their ends by farming. While the Chakmas are scattered in three of the state’s 19 districts – Namsai, Changlang and Papumpare – the Hajongs have settled only in Changlang. Though their children born before 1987 are eligible for citizenship by birth under the Citizenship Act and all others are eligible for citizenship by naturalisation, only 1497 have so far become Indian citizens. None have contested an election. Most Chakmas/Hajongs are reportedly so poor that they may not be able to furnish the Rs. 5000 citizenship processing fee even after the SC order. Local Chakma leaders have, therefore, requested the Centre to waive it off.

What Arunachalis fear

However impoverished they may be, most Arunachalis, including the state government, have always looked at them as a threat. An all-party meet called by Tuki in response to the court order unanimously decided to appeal to the Centre “to extend support to the cause of the state.” The AAPSU at once resumed its movement against the refugees by yet again staging street protests in Itanagar, and even one in New Delhi on October 16.

Speaking to The Wire from Itanagar, AAPSU general secretary Biru Nasi describes his organisation’s stand. “We are not opposed to the SC granting them citizenship. What we have been opposing is the decision to allow them to settle down in our land as it indirectly makes them Arunachalis. Like all non-tribal Indian citizens living in Arunachal, we demand that they should also be issued an Inner Line Permit (ILP) as per the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, which was implemented in Arunachal to protect the rights of ethnic Arunachalis over their land.” The ILP allows non-tribals to vote in Arunachal but debars them from buying land or doing business without a local partner.

Nasi adds, “Arunachal may seem to have a lot of land, but most of it is mountainous and forested, and is uninhabitable. Our population is growing. Soon, we will face a shortage of land for ourselves. So outsiders should not be allowed to buy our land.”

On October 16, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) called a four-party meeting in New Delhi to break the impasse. Besides top bureaucrats from the state and the MHA, Nasi was present with fellow leader Gumjum Haider, as well as representatives from the Hajongs and Chakmas, and from the Khamti tribe which has been living alongside the refugees in some areas. The representatives met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh too. But the impasse continues.

Dispute over numbers

Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), offers statistics to counter AAPSU’s point that the Chakmas/Hajongs can pose a threat to ethnic Arunachalis.

“In 47 years, the Chakma/Hajong population has risen only by 218%.  They are minorities in the three districts. In comparison, the non-tribal population, like the Adivasis, Assamese, Nepalese, Muslims, Marwaris, Biharis, etc. has increased by 955% in the state during the same period i.e. from 36,614 persons in 1961 to 3,84,435 in 2011 as per the Census.” He also points out that the tribal status of the Chakmas/Hajongs means they have more common ground with the Arunachalis than the non-tribals. “They have similar rituals,” he says.

AAPSU doesn’t buy the argument. “Arunachal comprises of 26 major tribes. Chakmas and Hajongs are not among them,” Nasi says categorically.

AAPSU and the state’s political leaders also don’t consider the 2011 Census report on the Chakmas/Hajongs as accurate. Says Nasi, “Even Chakma leaders openly say that they are about 51,000. We think they are over a lakh. This is because of their continuous influx not only from Assam, Mizoram and Tripura [ where they were also settled by the Centre in in the 1960s] but also from Bangladesh. Our question to the Centre is, what happens to those Chakmas/Hajongs who have entered Arunachal after 1969? We need to have a proper count to check illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”

Chakma refugees attending a Buddha puja in Arunachal. Credit: Special Arrangement

Chakma refugees attending a Buddha puja in Arunachal. Credit: Special Arrangement

Counters Suhas, a Chakma from Tripura, “Why would Chakmas migrate to Arunachal from these states? They are citizens there and also enjoy Scheduled Tribe status.” Nasi adds to the argument, “If they are allowed to settle in Arunachal without an ILP, it is a matter of time before they demand ST status here too.”

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member and Eastern Sentinel Editor Jarpum Gamlin points at a white paper that the Gegong Apang government brought out in 1995. “It said their numbers had increased more than 300% – from the original 14,888 persons of 2,748 families to over 60,000 in 1995.” Gamlin also alleges, “Many of them are into criminal activities. It is on police record. We have Tibetan refugees too but have no problem with them.” It was during the tenure of his brother, the former chief minister Jarbom Gamlin (as AAPSU president), that the student body began its anti-Chakma/Hajong movement in the 1980s, inspired by the anti-immigrants’ movement in neighbouring Assam.

Now that the Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju is from Arunachal, the present AAPSU dispensation is “hopeful of a favourable solution”. Some from the local BJP cadre seem a bit miffed with Rijijiu though. “The MHA was the first respondent of the case. He should answer why no MHA representative was present in the court on September 17,” says a local BJP source.

The Congress government in the state also failed to send its representative to the Supreme Court that day. It, however, filed a review petition on October 24 seeking time to present additional facts on the issue. The SC rejected this on November 19. The AAPSU review petition of October 16 too met the same response.

The burden of statelessness

CCRC president Subimal Bikash Chakma says his organisation filed its petition in 2007 because the state continued to stall the citizenship process. “In 1995, when AAPSU asked us to leave Arunachal, the National Human Rights Commission filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the state government for repeatedly failing to respect its directives to protect us. In 1996, the SC directed the state to not only protect us but expedite our citizenship applications. But nothing happened. CCRC submitted over 4,000 pleas to the Centre in this regard. In 2000, the Delhi HC, responding to a joint petition by the People’ Union for Civil Liberties and CCRC also ordered registration of eligible voters.”

Bikash lives in the Bordumsa-Diyun assembly constituency, which has the largest number of Chakmas/Hajongs in the state – 30,619 out of the total population of 61,051. “Most are not voters,” he points out. The SC directive has raised their hopes though. “It will at least help people like us get an identity card,” says the 52-year-old.

Fellow committee official Bimal Kanti too sounds happy on the phone from Miao, a constituency which has the second largest number of Chakmas/ Hajongs at 10,388. Bimal came to Arunachal as a two-year-old and has no memory of living anywhere other than the state.

“I am 58 now. My parents died awaiting citizenship. So did two of my siblings,” he says. In 2004, his three children became citizens by birth and could vote in the Lok Sabha elections that year. “It was a great day for us. I accompanied them to the booth. But my youngest’s son application was rejected. It defies logic that his siblings who went to the same school got it on the basis of it,” he says. Both Bikash and Bimal allege that the children of most Chakmas/Hajongs “are barred from becoming citizens by the state administration” even though they are born in India.

Bimal though is now happy having received a phone call from the local ADC’s office asking him and his wife “to bring necessary documents” to take forward their citizenship application filed in 1996.

He is thinking of the next step though, “This time, if the state doesn’t fully comply with the order, we will have to move a contempt of court petition against it. It’s been 51 years. The Chakmas and Hajongs opted for India during Partition but we were not heard. It is the same now.”

Meanwhile, the AAPSU and the state are preparing to file a curative petition in the Supreme Court  “to protect the rights of ethnic Arunachalis.”

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