Chakma and Hajong residents of Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district – many of them refugees – ended 2022 with an eight-day “non-cooperation movement”.
The stir capped off a year of protest for the two communities. Their grouse: the state government’s decision last year to suspend the issuing of residential proof certificates to members of the communities. These certificates are is often the only document that lets them establish their credentials, especially when it comes to accessing educational opportunities and jobs across India.
Months of agitation have, however, yielded little success. Now, the protest is heading to Delhi where Chakma and Hajong residents from the capital region will hold a demonstration outside the Jantar Mantar on January 8.
The Chakmas, mostly Buddhists, settled in Arunachal Pradesh in the 1960s when parts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where they originally lived were submerged by a dam.
The Hindu Hajongs had migrated from East Pakistan around the same time because of alleged religious persecution.
Last August, the Arunachal Pradesh government announced that it would no longer be issuing “residence proof certificates” to the state’s Chakma and Hajong refugees.
As the name suggests, these documents attest to people’s place of residence. Many Chakmas and Hajongs in Arunachal Pradesh are not Indian citizens and, therefore, ineligible for official identification documents. These certificates are usually issued by the district administration on a case-to-case basis on the request of Chakma-Hajong refugees.
The state government’s decision to suspend the issuance of these certificates was an outcome of a stir by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union or AAPSU. The union is a nativist outfit claiming to represent the indigenous communities of the state. It considers the Chakmas and Hajongs outsiders and wants them expelled from the state.
In an interview with Scroll.in, the union’s president Dozi Tana Tara said they protested against the Chakmas and Hajongs being issued the residential proof certificates because “they are not residents of Arunachal Pradesh”. “So why were they given [the certificates]?” he asked.
The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union’s stir demanding that the rights of the Chakma-Hajongs be curtailed was not new. The state’s meek capitulation, too, was part of a pattern.
For years now, nativist groups in Arunachal Pradesh have targetted the Chakma and Hajong refugees as “illegal migrants’’. The Supreme Court, in two separate orders in 1996 and 2015, have ruled in favour of granting citizenship to the members of the two communities. But popular support for the sentiment in the state has meant that the Arunachal Pradesh government has shied away from processing the citizenship requests.
In 2022, before the suspension of the residential proof certificates, the Arunachal government had announced a special census of the two communities. This, too, was in response to a demand by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union.
Currently, there are around 65,000 of them in Arunachal Pradesh, constantly having to navigate a tricky terrain of hostility from natives and the indifference of the government.
“There has been a systematic effort of the government to take away the basic rights of the two communities over the last four decades, leading to suffering and hardship,” said Drishya Muni Chakma, the president of the Arunachal Pradesh Chakma Students’ Union.
An important piece of paper
Chakma said the suspension of the residential proof certificates stemmed from the same “majoritarian appeasement and vote-bank politics”.
“The state government succumbed to the pressure of AAPSU,” he said.
The two communities used these documents while applying for central government jobs, particularly in the paramilitary and defence forces, in addition to higher education outside the state.
Tejang Chakma, Delhi-NCR convenor of the Chakma Hajong Rights Alliance, said the stopping the issuing of the certificates was “completely illegal”, alleging the move was based on “racial grounds”.
“They think that we are outsiders,” said Tejang Chakma. “We are not given ration cards and are ineligible for so many government schemes. The fact that the order of cancellation is against only two communities amounts to racial discrimination.”
Persistent protests by the groups representing the two communities led to the state government announcing in December that the residential proof certificates would be replaced by temporary settlement certificates.
However, the agitators refused to budge – and, hence, the non- cooperation movement. Hundreds of students from the communities boycotted their classes, and markets and commercial establishments run by the community in Changlang remained shut in the period.
Observers say the stalemate is likely to continue as the state government cannot publicly oppose the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union’s main contention: that the Chakma and Hajong residents are refugees.
“The stand of the AAPSU is clear from day one,” said Nani Bath, who teaches political science at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University. “On the issue, the state government could not ignore AAPSU’s demand. The opposition parties would have taken advantage, if the residential proof certificates were not revoked.”