At a time when Assam is in a ferment over the Centre’s move to regularise ‘minority’ (primarily Hindu) refugees from Bangladesh, the five-decade old Chakma-Hajong refugee question is again rocking Aruchal Pradesh. This brings into focus the Government of India’s timidity in formulating a sound, consistent policy and ecting a comprehensive law on refugees. The Northeast in particular is paying dearly for the absence of a refugee-specific legislation which has spawned ad-hocism and differential treatment of refugees, with Aruchal again falling victim. After the Supreme Court directed the Centre and Aruchal government last week to grant citizenship to Chakma-Hajong refugees within three months, the entire issue has gained a new urgency. The All Aruchal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) and other groups are up in protest, pressing upon the State government to challenge the apex court’s verdict through a review petition. Very difficult questions have already arisen from both sides of the Chakma-Hajong versus indigenous Aruchalee divide. In their petition to the Supreme Court which brought forth its latest verdict, the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas (CCRC) pointed out that they were still being treated as foreigners despite living for more than 50 years in Aruchal. They have no access to various social welfare schemes and ration cards under the public distribution system. They are not eligible for government service, while other job opportunities are severely limited. Working their small plots is the only way for such refugees to eke out a precarious existence.
Back in 1964, the Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs were uprooted from their origil homeland in Chittagong hill tracts and Maimensingh district in what was then East Pakistan, due to religious persecution and displacement caused by the Kaptai hydropower project. Present day Mizoram state was then a part of Assam in the Lushai hills district, and the state government feared a conflict between the incoming Chakma-Hajongs and the Mizos. So the refugees were taken through Tinsukia district to be settled temporarily in thinly populated Tirap division of what was then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) under Central administration. It is this ‘temporary arrangement’ that became permanent over the decades, as a consequence of the Centre’s ad-hoc policy — even as Aruchal Pradesh became a full-fledged state in 1987. The Chakma-Hajongs may legitimately ask — was it their fault that they were so brutally displaced, did they ask to be relocated to distant Aruchal, do they have to languish for over five decades as stateless people without basic rights and amenities? In turn, the indigenous people of Aruchal may equally legitimately ask — was not their homeland a ‘special protected area’ in which outsiders were legally prohibited to settle even during the British Raj under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873? After independence, if the Indian government thought it fit to continue an inner-line policy to safeguard indigenous culture and identity, then why was an exception made in case of Chakma-Hajong refugees without taking the indigenous people into confidence?
Aruchal Pradesh is still a sparsely populated state, with a population density of about 17 per square kilometre as per the 2011 census. Any population group numbering a few thousands may change the demographic, and hence political, balance in any district of this sensitive frontier state. Over the years, there has been much disquiet among indigenous tribes that the number of Chakma-Hajong refugees has swelled to about 60,000, settled as they are primarily in the three districts of Lohit, Changlang and Papum Pare. After the refugees are granted citizenship and settlement rights, is that day looming when they will reduce the indigenous tribal communities to a minority, taking away all opportunities currently available to the ‘sons of the soil’? Surely these are the sort of questions the Government of India ought to answer with sagacity and long-term view. But there seems little urgency at the Centre to address fears of indigenous communities about domition by Chakma-Hajongs in the east, by Tibetans-Bhutanese-Nepalese in the west, and by a floating population of Bangladeshis in central Aruchal. The Supreme Court has now ruled that Chakma-Hajong refugees have a right to be granted citizenship subject to the procedure being followed, and they cannot be discrimited against in any manner. In an earlier judgment in 1996, the Supreme Court had directed the Aruchal government to ensure life and liberty of every Chakma refugee residing within the state. It had also directed that applications for Indian citizenship by such refugees be registered, but very little has moved on the ground since then. The NDA constituted a task force in September last year to deal with the granting of citizenship and long-term visa for Hindu applicants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Considering the gravity of the refugee problem in different parts of the country, the Central government has to take a wider perspective than the religion angle, and push for a comprehensive law on refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants.