The Centre has attempted a tricky balancing act in Arunachal Pradesh. It will grant “limited citizenship” to Chakma and Hajong refugees who fled Bangladesh decades ago, according to a decision taken on Wednesday. The two communities will not get land rights or be recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in the state, to ensure that “indigenous people’s rights won’t be diluted”, said Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju.

Chakmas, who are mainly Buddhist, and Hajongs, mostly Hindu, fit into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s project to grant citizenship to non-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries, articulated in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide in Myanmar, for instance, are not so lucky.

But the BJP’s search for a “middle ground” in Arunachal Pradesh, where it formed a government last year, is also dictated by that state’s politics. Chakmas are the chosen target of political anger in Arunachal, the outsiders against whom student groups have marched and party leaders have railed in the past.

These sentiments are embedded in a larger politics that prevails across the North East, where regional identities have often spawned subnationalisms, where citizenship is often imagined as belonging to a particular state rather than the entire country. And who belongs to a tribal state is often decided by the question of who is indigenous to it. In some states, Chakmas are already recognised as citizens.

Scholars Zhoto Tunyi and Jelle JP Wouters imagine the North East as not just an “extreme borderland” of the country but also an “internal borderland”, traversed by faultlines between states and communities, and within states and communities. These domestic borders and complexities have perhaps given the BJP room to find a “middle ground”. But what does it mean for the beneficiaries of “limited citizenship”?

The Chakmas in Arunachal

Chakma refugees started arriving in India from Bangladesh in the 1960s, as their homes were swept away by the newly built Kaptai dam. Over the next few decades, there would be more waves of migration, as they fled religious persecution by the Bangladesh government and its Army. When the Chakmas organised themselves as the Shanti Bahini to fight persecution, the Army crackdowns intensified.

The stories of Chakma persecution are not unlike the reports pouring out of Myanmar right now, where the Rohingya, branded illegal Bengali settlers, are being hounded out by the military junta. A report from 1987 records how 45,000 Chakmas filtered into Tripura over a fortnight, bringing with them stories of rape and murder.

In India, they poured into several parts of the North East, including Tripura and what would later become Mizoram. The Lushai Hills of Mizoram already had a population of Chakmas. But the Union government, anxious to avoid conflict between Mizos and Chakmas, decided to relocate a large number of them to “vacant land”. This land was the North East Frontier Agency, which would become Arunachal Pradesh in 1987. Mizoram and Tripura, however, still had sizeable Chakma populations.

‘Indigenous’ or ‘illegal’?

In the decades during which Chakmas were seeking refuge, the North East saw various movements of indigeneity. Manipur saw several armed movements, each seeking a homeland for a particular ethnic group. So did Assam, where ethnic nationalisms were directed against foreigners or Bangladeshi immigrants, and which rang with the slogan “divide Assam 50-50” through the 1980s. Mizoram, after years of armed conflict, broke away from Assam to become a Union territory in 1972 and a state in 1987.

In recent years, as these armed struggles grew quiet, ethnic nationalisms have been replaced by projects of citizenship or proto-citizenship reaching deep into history in its search for the indigenous. Assam has decided to update its National Register of Citizens for the first time since 1951, in order to document the “original inhabitants” of the state and weed out “illegal immigrants”. Manipur has seen a renewed demand for the Inner Line Permit system, a bureaucratic arrangement under which people outside the state would need a special permit to enter it. In response, the state government passed three contentious bills to protect the indigenous people of Manipur, making it difficult for people outside the state to buy land, settle down or set up business there. These bills, which were returned for reconsideration by the Centre, are now hanging fire in the state.

Meanwhile, states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, still called protected areas under the Inner Line Permit, fiercely guard the special rights guaranteed to those recognised as indigenous Scheduled Tribes. Such protections are not peculiar to the North East, of course. States like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, forged out of tribal agitations for greater rights to their land, also have restrictions on non-local inhabitants owning property.

Chakmas, spread across the states of the North East, are accorded varying levels of indigeneity. In Tripura, were they formed 6.5% of the population, according to the 2001 census, they are recognised as one of the Scheduled Tribes of the state. In Mizoram, where Chakmas have lived for centuries, they are also recognised as a Scheduled Tribe and were given their own autonomous district council in 1972. But the majority of the state’s Chakmas, living outside the district council areas, did not get the rights and resources available to those in the district council areas.

Outsiders no more?

In Arunachal, Chakma and Hajong refugees were initially granted 10,799 acres of land, but as their numbers grew, they spread out into surrounding areas. Since then, they have lived with a shrinking pool of services guaranteed by the state and with no rights to the land they inhabited. Over the last few decades, they have been banned from government jobs, and have not been issued trade licences or ration cards. Apart from these structural deprivations, student groups claiming to represent indigenous communities have launched an economic blockade against the refugees, forbidding other residents from buying goods from the foreigners. In 1994, according to a report, the state government started burning down schools in Chakma areas. Health facilities there were already missing.

Limited citizenship, presumably, means Chakma refugees will have roughly the same rights and benefits as an outsider from any other Indian state. The question is, have Chakmas with citizenship in other states fared much better? In Mizoram, the community speaks of the same bouts of violence and long-running discrimination, with slim representation in government and limited opportunities for education. The latest controversy broke out in August over the alleged denial of medical seats – which the state government would reserve for Mizo tribes – to four Chakma candidates.

Granting citizenship in such a politically fraught region will not, on its own, mean greater rights and dignity for Chakma refugees. Unless the government can assure these, its move to give them “limited citizenship” will remain a petty political gesture, aimed at demonstrating which refugees are welcome in India and which are not.