A week after the Centre decided to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees living in Arunachal Pradesh, old resentments run high. Politicians and activists, cutting across political allegiances in the state, have claimed the move undermines the rights and interests of Arunachal’s indigenous population.

The All Arunachal Students’ Union, which has a long history of anti-Chakma agitations, called a state-wide strike on Tuesday to protest against the Centre’s decision. It led to sporadic violence, with vehicles being set alight, and the state nearly ground to a halt, as government offices, schools and markets remained closed.

Reasons for resentment

The Centre, acting on a 2015 ruling of the Supreme Court, is reportedly considering “limited citizenship” for the refugee communities in the state, implying that they will not get land rights or be recognised as Scheduled Tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.

Those who are not recognised as native residents of the state need an Inner Line Permit to enter it. This special travel document, which Indian citizens from other states require to enter Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland, flows from of the British-era Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873. Today, the permit system is meant to safeguard the land and resources of the tribal populations of these states.

Yet the Supreme Court ruling, citing an earlier Gauhati High Court judgement, categorically states that members of the Chakma and Hajong tribes in Arunachal Pradesh do not “warrant any requirement of inner line permit”. This has given rise to confusion.

Nani Bath , who teaches political science at Arunachal University, said the main reason for resentment among indigenous groups in Arunachal is the Supreme Court’s observation that the Chakma and the Hajong will not need the Inner Line Permit, implying they will also have land rights. “Communities like the Misings and the Nepalis, which are not counted as Scheduled Tribes in the state but have always stayed here need the permit, so the judgement contradicts the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873,” Bath said. The government is adding to the confusion by saying all kinds of things and not communicating properly, he added.

The Arunachal government also agreed that the idea of limited citizenship floated “from some quarters” is problematic. “With the High Court saying they don’t need an ILP [inner line permit], which even other Indians need, it is more a case of them getting super citizenship than limited citizenship,” said Pasang Dorjee Sona, the government spokesperson. “But we have already filed an SLP [special leave petition] challenging the decision, so let’s see.”

Sona said his government is “clear about its stand”. “We are going to oppose any move that is going to distort the demography and infringe upon the rights of the indigenous citizens of Arunachal,” he declared.

‘Onslaught on ingenuous population’

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union has filed a parallel petition challenging the 2015 ruling. Its secretary, Tobom Dai, said they will launch a “non-cooperation movement” if the government does not come up with a solution soon. “Two months back, we had an all-party meeting,” he said. “The chief minister was there, [Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren] Rijiju was there, and we reached a unanimous one-point resolution – that they [Chakmas and Hajongs] have to be deported from Arunachal to other states if they are to be given citizenship. And then this happens.”

Dai described the Centre’s decision as an “onslaught on the ingenuous population of the state”. “We have nothing against them being given citizenship,” he claimed. “But not here. If people are so big-hearted then they should be kept in some other state. If they have their rights, we indigenous people also have our rights.”

The decision, Dai said, is one with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strategy of playing to the gallery. “There seems to be different yardsticks for different refugees,” he pointed out. “The Chakma are Hindus and the Hanjong are Buddhists, so the BJP seems to be okay with giving them citizenship at our cost, but the Muslim Rohingyas are a security threat, it seems.”

Activists of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union protest during the bandh on Tuesday. Photo courtesy: AAPSU/Facebook

Illegal migrants or refugees?

The local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party must now strike a delicate balance. “It must be made very clear that the government is not doing anything on its own,” said Tapir Gao, president of the BJP’s Arunachal unit. “It is only following the orders of the court. So we’re going to pursue the court through the Indian government that they shouldn’t be given the status of an indigenous Arunachali scheduled tribe even if they are given citizenship.”

Gao said since the Supreme Court’s order, around 3,000 Chakmas and Hajongs have approached the Arunachal government with citizenship applications. “But on examination, it was found that they have no refugee cards even,” he claimed. “They are just illegal migrants, so we have referred them to the MHA [Union Ministry of Home Affairs].”

According to the state government’s estimates, Sona said, the total number of Chakmas and Hajongs living in Arunachal is around 60,000. “Only a minuscule number have actually applied for citizenship so far,” he added.

Central government to blame?

Jarjum Ete, a member of the Mahila Congress and a well-known indigenous community leader, said the Centre’s decision was “unfair on the people of Arunachal Pradesh”. “This will create tensions for generations to come,” said Ete. “Will the Supreme Court take responsibility?”

Ete rued the “politicisation” of the matter. “In the all-party meeting, a unanimous resolution was taken,” she said. “The state government was entrusted to take up the matter, and Rijiju was also present, and yet this has happened.”

Bath blamed the Union government for the tension. “The problem was created because the Government of India took a decision without taking into confidence people from the state,” he said. “They should have at least spoken to the civil society organisations and the AAPSU [All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union], and a middle ground could have been found had there been political will.”

Meanwhile, Rijiju claimed on Tuesday that the media had misrepresented his comments. In an about-turn, the minister said the Chakma could not be given citizenship.

The All Arunachal Students’ Union is not convinced. Dai said they will step up their agitation until there is “absolute clarity” on the matter.