On September 13, the Centre said it would to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees – who had come to India in thousands from Bangladesh starting from the 1960s – but with riders. The refugees, most of whom are settled in Arunachal Pradesh, would neither be granted land rights nor Scheduled Tribe status in that state. This was done to avoid a backlash from indigenous tribes who look at Chakmas and Hajongs as “outsiders” who are diluting the demography of Arunachal Pradesh.

In an open letter to the Union home minister, who chaired the meeting where the citizenship decision was taken – something the Supreme Court had ordered in 2015 – a Chakma living in Arunachal expresses why this is not much more than a token gesture and explains how the media and the central ministry have misreported the issue.

Dear Rajnath Singh,

I am writing this as a concerned Chakma who was born in India and has been flooded with queries about my nationality from friends, colleagues and even strangers they learn that I am a Chakma from Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, a few well-wishers came up to me and congratulated me for this so-called citizenship  that we were recently granted. This, to me is a non-issue, something that has been blown out of proportion, just like the debate over eating beef has become one of sacred vs profane among a naive populace and a TRP-hungry media.

The manner in which the Centre’s decision to confer citizenship to Chakma and Hajong people has been communicated is flawed. There seems to be a gross generalisation that all Chakma and Hajong people in Arunachal are refugees, which is far from the truth. You would be aware of the legal position on this. Multiple verdicts from by Supreme Court and other courts have upheld that Chakmas and Hajongs are eligible for citizenship under section 5(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955  and those who were born in India are already citizens under Section 3(a) of the Act. A majority of the Chakmas fall under this. So why the hype?

These two categories – regfugees and non-refugees –  are to be treated separately and a blanket declaration by the government putting all Chakmas and Hajongs in one bracket baffles me. 

Strings attached

As a common Chakma man, I am also not clear what “limited citizenship” without land rights really means. Nowhere in the world have I heard of this concept. As I think of its implications, I am anxious to know whether we will continue to have ownership rights over land allotted to our parents and forefathers at the time of rehabilitation in the late 1960s. 

I am also surprised by the government’s decision that my Chakma and Hajong brethren and me would need the Inner Line Permit  to travel and work within the state of which I am a native. Isn’t it strange and illogical to apply for the Permit when I am a resident of the state? What outside address do I give when I file the application form for the Permit?

I also read in the press that I would not be entitled to Scheduled Tribes status like my fellow brethren in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and West Bengal. This is unfair because I understand that the primary consideration for inclusion in Scheduled Tribes list has more to do with our primitive tribal characteristics, which I am sure, are not substantially different from my other fellow brethren in other states. We are geographically isolated and have very little contact with outside community at large, and have remained economically backward due to policy of exclusion for so many decades.

Hence, I am not happy with your decision not to grant us Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe status but I can understand the compulsion and the lack of political will. However, I did think that your government, now that it is at the helm of affairs both at the Centre and in Arunachal Pradesh, would be bold enough to stand for equal rights and justice. It will be a travesty of justice if we are treated differently from Chakma and Hajong people elsewhere in India, as we have the same social, ethnic and cultural characteristics as our fellow brothers and sisters in other states. In fact, political deprivation has aggravated our economic condition and left us more backward.

Foreigner fears 

As I reflect upon the xenophobia and fear fuelled by vested interests, I also wonder at the vulnerability of our tribe, which has been facing such stiff resistance since the 1980s. This has happened even as millions of Hindu Bengalis, more than 50,000 Garos and an equal number of Hajongs who came to Assam, Tripura, West Bengal and Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh – after the rumoured theft of the Prophet’s hair, a sacred relic, from Kashmir’s Hazratbal Shrine in 1963 triggered the persecution of Hindus  in erstwhile East Pakistan – were welcomed with open arms and are recognised Indian citizens.

The vulnerable minority of 14,888 Chakma and Hajong people who were rehabilitated in the North East Frontier Agency (which became Arunachal Pradesh) in the late 1960s – which has now grown to a little over 40,000 – now have to choose between limited citizenship and the threat of being declared as foreigners again. This is an untenable position.  

Assam, the gateway to the North East, is where the anti-foreigner sentiment first grew. From 1979 to 1985, the state witnessed a massive movement against immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, who were perceived as foreigners. It is from here that the sentiment spread to neighbouring Arunachal [then a Union territory]. In the hunt for so-called foreigners, with a binary world view that saw everything from the “sons of the soil versus outsiders” frame of reference, the peace-loving Buddhist Chakmas and a microscopic Hajong Hindu tribal community became soft targets. The process of de-recognition, disenfranchisement and withdrawal of rights began when the North East Frontier Agency became a Union Territory in 1972 and subsequently the full-fledged state of Arunachal Pradesh with federal powers in 1987.

Just as Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were reduced to scraps of paper without value after the note ban was announced last year, the Chakmas and Hajongs lost their value and identity as citizens and were stripped of all rights  by the Arunachal government one by one –  employment banned in 1980, trade licenses revoked, issuance of ration card stopped in 1991 and order of appointment of the post of Gaon Burah or to the Panchayat revoked in 1994, on the mere suspicion that we were foreigners or refugees. But for the timely intervention of the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court in 1996, which directed the Arunachal government to protect the life of Chakmas and laid down some criteria for citizenship, the fate of the community would have taken a turn for the worst. 

Dream deferred 

It has been the dream of the Chakma community to be part of India. During the Partition in 1947, Chakmas hoisted the Indian flag for six days  when their homeland, the Chittagong Hill Tracts with a 98% non-Muslim population, was declared a part of East Pakistan. My father, who was born in 1942 as an Indian, lost his Indian citizenship at the age of five. Then, in 1964, he became a refugee in his motherland, as he, along with thousands of Chakmas and Hajongs, migrated from East Pakistan to India. In 1969, he jumped with joy, thinking he had got back his nationality, when he was rehabilitated in the North East Frontier Agency with full state assistance. Little did he realise that it was not to be.

One wonders then, what does citizenship truly mean? When does a period of refugee-hood begin and end, and when does one fully become a citizen? Is it simply acceptance or a mere geographical boundary change due to political conditions beyond one’s control? Is it consistent with the western notion of nationalism and citizenship?

As the politics of fear and xenophobia and frayed tempers circulate in the media to no end, I am also dismayed by the lack of any serious and nuanced discussion on the subject. Even the official version reportedly shows about one lakh Chakma and Hajong  are being granted citizenship, while the actual number of, as per the 2011 census, is just 47,471. Scattered across three districts in Changlang, Lohit and Papumpare, they constitute a little over 3% of the total population – an insignificant minority that would have hardly any demographic or political impact for people to worry.

I am also aghast at the timing of the announcement, as there is already a lot of anti-migrant sentiment over to the recent Rohingya refugee crisis. It adds chaos and confusion to an already vitiated negative atmosphere.

Already citizens 

I don’t know what motivated the events leading to the present but I must say, it is a masterstroke by the government. The Centre has effectively killed five birds with one stone. First, it has neutralised some of the damage done to India’s image over its decision to deport Rohingya refugees even as they are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Second, it has satisfied the innocent Chakma and Hajong people by claiming it is giving them citizenship. Third, it has assuaged those with anti-refugee sentiments by saying that the Chakmas would require Inner Line Permits (and would be as good as outsiders because land rights and Scheduled Tribe status has not been granted). Fourth, it has thwarted potential embarrassment before the Supreme Court as the next hearing on the citizen issue is scheduled for December 11 and finally, it has scored political mileage over Opposition parties by claiming to have solved a very complicated issue created by the previous Congress government.

The truth is that Chakmas are already Indian citizens – 90% of them by birth and 10% by the very fact that they were put up in refugee  camps initially but finally rehabilitated as Indian nationals (hence citizenship was implicitly granted). If they had to be repatriated, they would not have been sponsored by the government and taken 1,200 kilometers away from the Indo- Bangladesh border into the deep interiors of North-East Frontier Agency and resettled there, not in relief camps, but in 45 planned villages. 

Citizenship was also implied when Chakmas were given migration certificates by the government during the rehabilitation along with five acres of cultivable land.

In the light of above, it will be redundant to confer Indian citizenship on those who are already Indian citizens. What is required is the restoration of all of their rights as citizens that they once enjoyed.  

A paradigm shift and a truth-based approach is required to resolve the issue. A compassionate approach that recognises our shared history, unique circumstances and pre-existing rights is needed. 

With most tribal families dependent on agriculture, it is only land rights that will secure their basic livelihood. Imposition of the Inner Line Permit will only increase their woes and complicate matters.

As difficult as a resolution may seem, there is no problem in the world that defies a solution for long. In general, there has been peace, amity and harmony and I express my deep gratitude to local chiefs and Chakma and Hajong people for their mutual understanding, tolerance and peaceful co-existence. It is time to leave the past behind and look forward to a bright future focusing on real issues like development.

I hope the decisions you take as home minister in the coming months will bridge this gap and you will uphold the primacy of rule of law and the Constitution.

Personally, I am not too keen to have this so-called citizenship that takes away my land rights and deprives me of Scheduled Tribe status. It is too little, too late. But for all the suffering and discrimination I have faced over the issue of citizenship, I will always remain a loyal, proud but unrecognised Indian Chakma.

Mahendra Chakma

Mahendra Chakma is president of an NGO called the Right Cause Society in Bangalore.