New Delhi: Soon after the news spread on September 13 that the Narendra Modi government – as per a Supreme Court directive in 2015 – would finally be granting Indian citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs who fled the erstwhile East Pakistan and have been residing in Arunachal Pradesh since the mid 1960s, Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju tried giving a “Congress” spin to the decision.
After a meeting with Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu and Union home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi on the citizenship issue, Rijiju, a member of the parliament from Arunachal West constituency, said, “The Congress made a mistake by settling them in Arunachal without taking approval of the local community. They should have settled them somewhere else.”
In a Facebook post too, Rijiju took the same line: “[The] Congress government made a mistake by settling Chakmas and Hajongs in Arunachal Pradesh since 1964. These unfortunate refugees from Bangladesh should have been settled in areas which are non-protected.”
The “mistake” of settling the Chakma-Hajong refugees in the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) may have been made by the Congress central regime of the 1960s. But contrary to what Rijiju tried to convey to the national media, it is from the Bharatiya Janata Party that these refugees living in Arunachal got maximum political benefit.
Be it the right of the Chakma and Hajong youth in Arunachal to vote in 2004 (during the tenure of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government) as naturalised citizens of the country, or the recommendation from the Rajya Sabha’s committee of petitions to not only grant them citizenship but also scheduled tribe (ST) status in Arunachal or the present decision of the Narendra Modi government to finally grant them citizenship, it is the BJP which has wholeheartedly responded to what it now called Congress’s “mistake.” The fact is that the Congress always tip-toed around the issue in keeping with the majority sentiment in Arunachal Pradesh.
Following the Supreme Court’s order in January 1996 which, for the first time, asked the then Congress government in Arunachal to stop evicting the Chakma-Hajongs and instead “look into” their citizenship application and forward this to the central government, the 105th report of the Rajya Sabha’s committee on petitions was prepared under the leadership of his party’s senior MPs. The committee was first headed by Sushma Swaraj and later O. Rajagopal, the BJP’s first MP from Kerala.
Submitted to the Rajya Sabha on August 14, 1997, the report, which dealt with problems faced by the Chakmas in Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal, was based on the petition submitted by one Snehadini Talukdar of Mizoram and Subimal Chakma of Delhi. Besides quoting the Supreme Court’s order in favour of the Chakmas, the committee made the case for their citizenship by highlighting a clause of the Indira-Mujib Accord which stated that the refugees who entered India from East Pakistan by March 25, 1971, would be given Indian citizenship. To quote verbatim, it further stated, “The committee also recommends that Chakmas be considered for granting them the status of STs at the time of granting Indian citizenship.”
The final report of Rajagopal’s committee also clearly stated the stand of the then Gegong Apang-led Congress government of Arunachal, “The Chakmas in Arunachal may be shifted to places other than the state of Arunachal Pradesh.”
The BJP’s soft stand towards the Chakmas and Hajongs springs from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s view that they be given Indian citizenship because they are Hindus and Buddhists but the party is having a difficult time convincing Arunachal public opinion about the correctness of this decision.
While the Chakmas are Buddhists from the Chittagong Hill Tracks (CHT) of present-day Bangladesh, the Hajongs are Hindus from that country’s Mymensingh district. Following Partition, thousands of Chakmas poured into northeastern states like Mizoram, Tripura and Assam besides going to places like Gaya in Bihar. Some Chakmas entered India again in the early 1960s along with Hajongs, after losing their arable land to the Kaptai dam constructed by the then East Pakistan government across the Karnaphul river.
Also read: In Illustrations: The Story of the Chakmas
As their numbers grew, the then Assam governor Vishnu Sahay got as many as 14,888 Chakmas and Hajongs shifted from the then Mizo district (Mizoram was then a part of Assam) between 1964 and 1969 to NEFA (present-day Arunachal), as per the directions of Congress government at the Centre.
Rijiju is correct when he said the local community was not consulted then. However, an article, ‘Students’ Movement in Arunachal and the Chakma-Hajong Refugee Problem‘, written in April 2007 by academic-researcher Chunnu Prasad Nag in Economic and Political Weekly, pointed out, “Unlike the past (meaning their exodus during Partition), however, India viewed this wave of influx (in the 1960s) with some apprehension. Though not demanding their repatriation into East Pakistan, it sought to minimise the friction between the immigrants and the local population of Tripura and Mizoram. If the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 prevented the repatriation of Chakmas into CHT, the onset of insurgency in Mizoram created problems for their continued presence in Mizoram and Tripura.”
Prasad further noted, “U. Chakma, the political officer of Pasighat (East Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh), with the intention to rehabilitate his Chakma refugee brethren in Tirap division on permanent footing, submitted a note on May 26, 1964, regarding (the) scheme of resettlement of Chakmas refugees in Vijoy Nagar Valley. He befooled the governor of Assam when he had written, “I have met various headman of the locals who welcome Buddhists and requested me to send them for settlement in their area as early as possible”. He himself suggested that, “If it is decided that the Chakma tribes are to be settled in these areas, Shri U. Chakma, political officer, Pasighat, may be made settlement officer-cum-additional political officer of Changlang district in addition to his present duties”.
The discontent arising from non-consultation with the local tribes inhabiting the areas where the Chakma-Hajongs were settled, however, continued to simmer, making the Chakma-Hajongs increasingly feel unwelcome throughout the state. In 1979, after Arunachal Pradesh became a union territory, the nascent All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU), among other issues, demanded “detection and deportation of foreign nationals from the state.” In 1980, for the first time, AAPSU called a two-day bandh in support of their demand. The issue received a huge fillip from the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The Assam Accord gave AAPSU much-needed hope for meeting their demand on foreign nationals from the Centre. In May 1994, as many as 400 AAPSU members came to New Delhi for the first time to meet the central leaders on the issue of the Chakma-Hajongs.
In the run-up to the 1995 assembly elections, the Congress promised AAPSU that it would try and solve the problem. Since then, umpteen street protests and a long winding legal battle, of which the state government is a party besides AAPSU and some others, have gone on around the issue, thus pushing the Congress to tread cautiously, at the suggestion of the state leadership.
“However, unlike before, what we see now is that the BJP leaders both in the state and the ministers of state (MoS), in spite of belonging to Arunachal Pradesh, have not been able to convince their central leadership about the sentiments of the indigenous people. This blame game by Rijiju and others is meaningless,” Dai Tobom, general secretary of AAPSU, told The Wire from Itanagar.
Dai stated, “Our position on the issue has been clear from the beginning and the state governments have always been on the same page with us on this. We are not opposed to granting citizenship to the Chakma-Hajongs but our condition is that they should be settled elsewhere in the country. There are two main reasons for this stand. One, Arunachal has been kept as a protected area by the Indian government not for nothing; any outsider entering the state needs an Inner Line Permit (ILP), even if he/she is an Indian national. So granting citizenship to people who are outsiders in a protected area should not be allowed. Two, if they are granted citizenship, then the demography of the state will change and the indigenous people will suffer in the long run. The immediate effect of it will be seen in the Bordumsa-Dayun assembly constituency, which is in the general category. The refugees are in large number there, they will suddenly be in majority while the indigenous people of that land will have little say in the political process.”
Former AAPSU president Gumjum Haider, who has long been associated with the agitation against the Chakma-Hajongs, told this correspondent, “Presently, the Chakma-Hajongs are settled temporarily in Dayun and Bordumsa in Changlang district which is Thangsa and Singpho tribes’ ancestral land, Chongkham in Namsai district which is Khampti community’s land and Kokila in Papum Pare district which is the land of the Nyishi community. They have been allowed to live on these areas purely on humanitarian ground empathising with the situation. But our concern is, there are 26 major tribes or communities in Arunachal. If the central government grant the Chakma-Hajongs citizenship and settle them in the state, then they will become the fourth largest community of the state, which would directly affect the indigenous people. Therefore, we strongly feel that they should be settled outside of Arunachal, we are not opposed to their citizenship, only opposed to them settling permanently in the state.”
That the Modi government would grant the refugees limited citizenship, such as issuing them ILP and denying them land rights in the state and also the ST status that they enjoy in states like Mizoram, would help little, the student leaders say. “We look at the limited citizenship offer as an attempt to dilute the special status granted to Arunachal,” Dai said.
On September 19, the AAPSU called a dawn to dusk state-wide bandh demanding that the refugees be settled outside of Arunachal Pradesh. “This is just the beginning, we will do everything possible to protect the rights of our people,” he said.
Though the Modi government has already announced its decision, a verdict on the curative petition filed by the AAPSU and the state government following the September 2015 Supreme Court decision on the Chakma-Hajongs is pending. The AAPSU general secretary asked, “The next hearing is on October 1. So what was the hurry? The Centre could have waited for the final judgment on our petition.”
Well-known political observer from the state, Nani Bath, too asked on social media, “Why is the government hurrying the citizenship issue? Did it not know that the matter is still pending in the Supreme Court? That as per the order of the Supreme Court, determination of genuine Chakmas and Hajongs is in the process? That there has to be consultations with the affected indigenous communities? Were these facts not known to our chief minister and the minister of state [Kiren Rijiju]?”
Rijiju’s September 13 statement blaming the Congress for the BJP government’s action is a clear acknowledgement of this rising public anger against him and his party in his home state on the issue. But he also knows his limited say in the matter considering that his party is looking at the Chakma issue not from the viewpoint of Arunachal alone but also to make headway in Mizoram. The battle lines between the BJP and its bête noire, the Congress, has already been drawn in Mizoram around the rights of the Chakmas, keeping the 2018 assembly polls in mind.
Though assembly polls are a good two years away in Arunachal, Rijiju’s September 13 statement (followed by a few more on similar lines on Facebook) is also aimed at quelling possible trouble in the state in coming times. Chief minister Pema Khandu’s letter to Rajnath Singh a day before the AAPSU bandh, describing the matter as one of “deep emotional concern”, is also aimed at the same electoral goal. Though there is a BJP government in Arunachal, it is a regime cobbled together only by engineering the defection of MLAs from the Congress. The mid 2019 polls are when the BJP will face its first litmus test. The party certainly doesn’t want its apple cart to be toppled by the strong public sentiment against the Chakma-Hajong citizenship issue, at least not by the party it is trying to wipe off from the northeast – the Congress.