In his Independence Day speech, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu claimed that members of the Chakma and Hajong communities were “illegal migrants” who needed to be shifted out of the state because they were not tribals.

The Chakmas and Hajongs were displaced by the construction of the Kaptai Dam in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh in 1957. In the 1960s, the Indian state settled them legally in the territory now known as Arunachal Pradesh. The local people treated them like any other indigenous people of the state.

Despite this, Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju has expressed the same sentiment as Khandu in public gatherings and TV interviews. Rijiju has even claimed that the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 by the Central government has annulled Supreme Court judgements of 1996 and 2015 that favoured granting citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs.

Rights taken away

Till 1980, Chakmas and Hajongs could get government jobs, ration cards and access other rights and privileges just like Indian citizens. They were also given trading licences, agricultural assistance and more.

But that year, their rights were taken away. From the 1990s, they were branded as illegal migrants. In September 1994, Gegong Apang, the Arunachal chief minister at the time, tried to settle members of these groups but was not successful.

To understand the predicament of the Chakmas and Hajongs, who were living harmoniously with the local communities until a few decades ago, it is essential to recall the bitterness of the Assamese movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After the partition of India-Pakistan, the fear of atrocities and persecution prompted many non-Muslims – mainly the Hindus – from the region known as East Pakistan to take refuge in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. After the liberation war of 1971, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh.

In Assam, the migrants were seen as a threat to Assamese culture. They were also accused of occupying land belonging to locals. In 1979, the Assamese movement against the “others” led by the All Assam Students Union started. But this movement polarised communities across the North East, creating a sense of natives being pitted against outsiders.

This resulted in communal profiling, labelling and racial discrimination. The region witnessed frequent ethnic clashes. Among the worst was the infamous Nellie massacre on February 14, 1983, in Assam’s Nagaon district in which 4,000 Bengali Muslims were murdered by Lalung tribes.

Assam Accord

Eventually, on August 15, 1985, the Assam Accord was signed between the government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement. The Accord promised to “protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” The year 1971 was agreed as the benchmark: anyone from Bangladesh who had entered Assam after the start of the Bangladesh Liberation War could be deported.

The Assamese movement has had an influence on all of the North East and overshadowed the long history of coexistence among the region’s myriad ethnic groups. As a consequence, the region has experienced several ethnic conflicts. Among them: in Manipur between Nagas and Kukis, and Nagas and Meiteis; in Assam between Karbis and Kacharis, and Kacharis and Hmars; in Mizoram, between Mizos and Brus, and Mizos and Chakmas; in Tripura between tribals and Bengalis.

Today, consciousness about ethnic identities has became very strong – and volatile. The foremost argument is that the identity, culture, and land of the indigenous peoples must be protected. However, historically, the attachment to a particular geography or area was absent for indigenous peoples here. It developed only during colonial times.

People kept moving from one place to another because of environmental disasters, inter-tribal conflicts and the conduciveness for habitation based on their socio-cultural beliefs and practices.

That is why members of ethnic groups in the region can be found in more than one state and country. For example, members of many indigenous communities of India’s North East can also be found in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

However, ethnic sentiment and nationalism have now become a tool for political, social, and religious mobilisation. This is often exploited by local social organisations and the regional and national political parties to strengthen their positions. What is more worrying is that it is becoming a political trend in the region.

Exploiting ethnic divisions

The recent incident of Assam and Mizoram border disputes can be best understood from this perspective. The Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswas Sharma himself was a leader of the All Assam Students’ Union in 1979 who led the Assamese movement, and exploited the border dispute to strengthen his political position in the state.

The exploitation of such ethnic sentiment by politicians results in minority groups being branded as illegal migrants and are identified as enemies or threats. Consequently, these ethnic minorities face systematic and state-sponsored discrimination. The Indian state’s failure to understand the region and its societies resulted in arms rebellions against imposing dominant and colonial ideas of nation state.

This parochial perspective of ethnic conflicts and politics based on an exclusive and antagonistic framework of ethnic nationalism will only deepen the prolonged ethnic conflicts of the region.

Shyamal Bikash Chakma is a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.