In Parliament, an old debate has reared its head again. Last week, Jitendra Choudhury, member of Parliament from Tripura, said Arunachal Pradesh should grant citizenship rights to Chakma refugees. On Saturday, Arunachal MP Ninong Ering shot back that it was not possible. Refugees in Arunachal could not ask for citizenship rights.

Behind this back and forth lie decades of politics as well as tangled issues of identity. Ering raised fears that are familiar across states in the North East, of local tribes being “swamped” by outsiders, of ancestral land being taken over, of fragile indigenous cultures being wiped out.

On the other hand, there are the Chakmas, an ethnic and religious minority, facing persecution and fighting for citizenship for over half a century now.

From the ‘Lake of Tears’

The Chakmas fled the Chittagong Hill Tracts of eastern Bangladesh in the 1960s. The largest ethnic group in the hills, they were Buddhist, with their own language and customs. There were two reasons for the exodus.

First, the Kaptai Dam, commissioned in 1962, washed away large swathes of their land. It flooded some 655 square kilometres, including 22,000 hectares of cultivable land. According to environmental researchers, the lake created by the dam displaced 1,00,000 tribal people, 70% of them Chakmas. Parts of Rangamati town, the capital city of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, including the palace of the Chakma Raja, were also submerged. The Chakmas in Chittagong often call the Kaptai reservoir the “Lake of Tears”.

Second, the ethnically, culturally and religiously distinct Chakmas had resisted their inclusion in East Pakistan after Partition, and then in Bangladesh. After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, the Chakmas organised to fight for the rights of indigenous groups living in the hills. In 1972, the Shanti Bahini was formed to gain autonomy for the Chakmas through an armed struggle. Over the decades, waves of violence by the Bangladesh Army would send Chakmas across the border, seeking refuge in India.

A report from 1987 records that 45,000 refugees filtered into Tripura over a fortnight and were housed in cramped, makeshift camps set up by the state government. They brought with them stories of rape, murder and displacement. The Bangladeshi government, according to the report, agreed to take back 24,000 refugees but the Chakmas, certain of death across the border, would not leave. In mid-July 1986, President Hussain Muhammad Ershad told Bangladesh’s parliament that 1,000 people had been killed in the violence in the previous decade. The Shanti Bahini, the 1987 report notes, put the number of dead at 10 times the figure.

In 1997, the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord was signed. The Bangladeshi government agreed to take back the Chakma refugees in Tripura and rehabilitate them. In 2003, however, it was reported that the government had stopped giving rations to 65,000 refugees who had returned from Tripura. They were now internally displaced, refugees once more. Nearly two decades after the accord, a roadmap to implement it is still being discussed.

The Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh still live in miserable conditions, without land rights, ration cards, access to schools after the primary level or jobs. Photo credit: Pronib Das/HT
The Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh still live in miserable conditions, without land rights, ration cards, access to schools after the primary level or jobs. Photo credit: Pronib Das/HT

To the ‘vacant land’

India granted the Chakma refugees entry but chose an imperious policy of resettlement. Thousands of Chakmas arrived through the Lushai Hills in Mizoram, then part of undivided Assam. Some stayed back with the Chakmas already in the Lushai Hills, but thousands were shunted off to Arunachal.

In 1964, Vishnu Sahay, then governor of Assam, shot off a missive to the chief minister: “It occurred to me that we may get trouble between the Mizos and Chakmas in the Mizo district. These Chakmas would be quite suitable people to go into the Tirap division of NEFA [North East Frontier Agency] where there is easily found vacant land.”

So, between 1964 and 1969, the Chakmas were settled in Tirap, Lohit and Subansiri districts of the North East Frontier Agency. This “vacant land”, which would later become Arunachal, protested. But in the absence of a popularly elected government in the frontier agency, nobody listened to the indigenous people’s protests. In his book Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India, Deepak K Singh describes how, with the rise of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union in the 1980s, the indigenous resistance to the Chakma refugees grew stronger.

As the anti-foreigners movement gained ground in the state, and indeed across the North East, it meant no migrant population was welcome. In Arunachal, according to Singh, the students union focused its energies on the Chakmas settled there.

The Chakma refugees left in Assam, Tripura and Mizoram were granted citizenship rights and recognised as a Scheduled Tribe. In Arunachal, citizenship for the Chakmas became tied to the question of land rights. Arunachal enjoys special constitutional protections that ensure that non-indigenous Indians cannot buy land in the state, let alone refugees from other countries.

In a sparsely populated region, moreover, it was feared that granting citizenship rights to the Chakmas would change the demography and influence voting outcomes to the detriment of the indigenous population. The students union mobilised popular support for its demand as it accused the Indian state of using the region as a “dumping ground” for migrants and refugees.

Centre versus state

Inevitably, the question of citizenship for the Chakmas became a political tussle between Arunachal and the Centre. As the students union chanted “Chakma Go Back”, political parties in the state took up the issue with alacrity. In 1995, for instance, the Congress government led by Gegong Apang threatened to resign unless the Centre relocated the refugees from the state. The Centre, however, was content to maintain status quo.

Until now, that is. The Chakmas fate has been absorbed into a new strand of politics that gained ground after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power: the project to ease citizenship for “religious minorities” who have sought refuge in India. Under the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, this included Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – all non-Muslim refugees, in short.

In 2015, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to grant the Chakmas and Hindu Hajong refugees citizenship in Arunachal, fuelling fresh anger in the state. This year, the Centre announced it was all set to grant them citizenship status.

The Chakmas are now caught between competing versions of identity politics, one emanating from the Centre and the other from the region. Apart from Arunachal, there is fresh animosity from indigenous tribes towards the refugees in Mizoram, which created a Chakma Autonomous District Council in 1972. Tribal groups now agitate for the expulsion of all “Chakma foreigners” who entered the state after 1950.

Meanwhile, thousands of Chakmas in Arunachal still live in miserable conditions, without land rights, ration cards, access to schools after the primary level or jobs. The imperious policies of the Centre and the identity politics of the state have extracted a terrible human cost.