The Central government is reportedly mulling ‘limited citizenship’ to Chakma and Hajong refugees in Aruchal Pradesh, which has triggered more misgivings and unrest in the frontier State. What exactly does the Centre have in mind by a qualified or conditiol kind of citizenship? Basically, it is supposed to mean exclusion of rights enjoyed by scheduled tribes in Aruchal, including ownership of land. It could involve granting only Inner Line permits to the refugees, so that they may enjoy the same rights as outsiders and live and work in the State. Does ‘limited citizenship’ signify a seeking of middle ground in a State fearing demographic change and dilution of indigenous people’s rights if Chakma-Hajong refugees filly get citizenship? In practical terms, the Centre has to implement the Supreme Court’s order handed down in 2015 that the Chakma and Hajong tribals ‘need to be protected and their claims of citizenship be considered as per applicable procedure’, and that they cannot be discrimited against in any manner while their status is pending. But it is being speculated in certain quarters that with the NDA government at the Centre pushing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that aims to confer citizenship to persecuted minorities (read non-Muslim) fleeing neighbouring countries — surely, it would be part of this agenda to make citizens of primarily Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajong refugees in Aruchal. It needs be kept in mind that Chakmas in Tripura are already recognised as a scheduled tribe, while in Mizoram they enjoy ST status and have their own autonomous district council since 1972. As for the Hajong tribe, they have a development council in Assam too. However, there are long-running tensions between Mizos and Chakmas, so they remain insecure even in Mizoram where they have lived for centuries. The crudely drawn boundary line between India and the then East Pakistan put a sizeable number of Chakma tribals in a foreign country. After their ancient homeland in Chittagong Hills Tract was submerged by the Kaptai dam project in the 1960s, followed by the Army moving in to snuff out the Chakma Shanti Bahini’s resistance, the exodus to India’s Northeast began.
In a bid to avoid conflict between Chakma refugees and indigenous tribes in Tripura and the then Lushai Hills of Assam, the powers-be at the Centre had the idea of relocating the refugees to the ‘vacant’ areas bordering Chi to ‘strengthen the defence’ in the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). This was done in the period 1964-69 in the aftermath of Indo-Chi war, but the move to build up a buffer population in unguarded parts of present-day Changlang and Papum Pare districts have yielded bitter fruits. From the nearly 15,000 refugees settled in NEFA initially, their numbers have grown to around 1 lakh by now. There is much angst among indigenous tribes in Aruchal that the refugees spreading out of the settlements into surrounding areas, will eat into their special benefits as indigenous STs. As the refugees grew in numbers, the services guaranteed to them by the State government decreased; besides, they could not get work or trade licenses. As the social and economic boycott grew vice-like, the Chakma refugees organised themselves and petitioned the tiol Human Rights Council (NHRC), which in turn moved the Supreme Court. The apex court’s verdict came in January 1996, committees were formed and talks held, and nearly two decades later in September 2015 the apex court gave a 3-month deadline to grant citizenship to Chakma-Hajong refugees. Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju has now said that the Centre will move the Supreme Court to seek modification of its order, as it could ‘unbalance the social and demographic structure of Aruchal Pradesh’. With political parties in the State closing ranks on the refugees issue following the outcry by student organisations and civil society groups, the BJP government in Itagar will surely be treading with abundant caution. So will Chakma-Hajong refugees, if denied land rights and other benefits under ‘limited citizenship’, seek to try their fortunes by descending into Assam — as stated by the anti-illegal migrants forum Prabrajan Virodhi Manch (PVM)? Unless the Centre devises a clear policy on refugees, it will perpetuate such confusions in a sensitive part of the country where identity politics is taken very seriously. Just as what the Centre means by ‘framework agreement’ with the NSCN(IM) keeps galand’s neighbouring States on tenterhooks, similar hazy terms like ‘limited citizenship’ will only create mystification as to whether this country can have two classes of citizens.