The Chakma and Hajong Question in Arunachal Pradesh

Deepak K. Singh

The current question of the Chakma and Hajong refugees in Arunachal Pradesh is rooted in the conflicts which emerged between the reactionary ruling blocs of India and Pakistan and, subsequently, Bangladesh, which engendered the expulsion of the Chakma and Hajong peoples from their traditional homelands. The Indian government violated the legal provisions which prohibit people from outside Arunachal Pradesh from even entering the state. Moreover it rode roughshod over the wishes of the indigenous tribal peoples of the state who at no time were consulted in the matter of the settlement of the refugees. A democratic solution to the problem has to be sought which satisfies the people of Arunachal Pradesh and which takes into full consideration the humanitarian requirements of the Chakma and Hajong peoples.

The question of the deportation of the Chakmas and Hajongs, the Buddhist and Hindu refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan, from the State has continued to occupy the centre-stage of Arunachal Pradesh politics for quite some time now. The "Refugee Go-Back" movement originally launched by the All-Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU), which has consistently held the view that the refugees are 'foreigners' and Arunachal cannot be made the 'dumping ground', gained momentum in the wake of the 'People's Referendum Rally' held on September 20, 1995 at Naharlagun, Itanagar. It was at this rally that AAPSU and the leaders of all existing political parties in the State including the ruling Congress (I) under Gegong Apang, the Chief Minister of the State since 1979 had set December 31 as the deadline for the centre to evict the refugees from the State. Also the leaders of all existing political parties present at the rally had vowed to resign from the primary membership of their respective parties and form a 'Common Organization of Indigenous People' if their demand was not met by the Central Government before the expiry of the deadline.

What has, however, happened in the post-deadline phase of the movement was only expected. The central Government did intervene at the eleventh hour by announcing the formation of a 'high-level committee' to look into the matter. Acting on a petition filed by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Supreme Court in its recent verdict of January 9, 1996 has ruled out any forcible eviction of the refugees by directing the State Government to seek all possible help from the Central Government to protect the lives of the refugees residing in the State. In opposition to the pronouncement of this verdict by the Supreme Court, a 15-member core committee comprising largely of members from the Apang Ministry and some other important leaders from the opposition parties has been set up to look into the question of deportation of the refugees from the State. Expressing its resentment over the verdict, AAPSU has further hardened its stance on the refugees issue by declaring that they are not bound by the verdict. Protesting against the verdict, AAPSU gave a 10-hour bandh call on Republic Day making its celebration only symbolic in nature.

The existing situation in the State over the refugee issue throws open a series of questions to any casual observer. Does the continuing presence of the refugees in the state really pose that big a threat that it deserves the adoption of such extreme positions as taken by all important political and non-political forces alike at the rally held in September? Who is to be blamed for their continuing presence in the State, anyway? Would it be fair to blame it on to the refugees for where there are today, for it was certainly not they themselves who opted to stay in Arunachal Pradesh? Or, can they simply be blamed for not having a home and seeking refuge in India? After all, what was it that made them seek shelter in India? Moreover, what was it that brought them, of all the places in the country, to the state of Arunachal Pradesh?

The Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs, the innocent victims of partition, originally belonged to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Maimensingh districts respectively, a part of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistan's policy of persistent religious persecution of these Buddhist tribes and the displacement caused by the Kaptai Hydel Power Project forced them to migrate and take refuge in India in 1964.

But what was it that made these refugees finally settle down in Arunachal Pradesh which has been enjoying a 'Special Protected Area' status since the pre-independence period under the provisions of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873? According to this regulation even Indian citizens of other states cannot stay in Arunachal Pradesh permanently. In other words, any Indian citizen from states other than Arunachal Pradesh, as per the rules of the regulation, cannot own any piece of land or develop any permanent stake in the State. Interestingly, following an order issued by the Governor-General in 1876 even the British subjects were prohibited from going beyond the inner-line without a pass under the hand and seal of an authorised political officer. This protectionist policy has been continuing uninterruptedly since then with the objective of safeguarding the indigenous culture and identity of the Arunachalees from the onslaught of external influences. It is, therefore, only natural for the Arunachalees to demand an explanation for the arrival and continuing presence of the refugees in the state despite all these protectionist measures adopted by the Government of India.

Initially, only about 57 families of Chakmas and Hajongs were given shelter in government camps at Ledo in Dibrugarh, Assam in 1964. Thereafter, they were settled in Abhaypur Block of Diyun circle of the erstwhile Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh purely on temporary and humanitarian grounds by the then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) administration which was directly under the control of the Central Government. This idea of temporary settlement of the refugees in this region was basically a result of an understanding in 1964 between the then Governor of Assam, Vishnu Sahay and the then Chief Minister of Assam, B.P. Chaliha. Vishnu Sahay felt that the continuing presence of the Chakmas in the Mizo district might lead to Mizo-Chakma conflict and so he suggested to the then Chief Minister that they be settled temporarily in Tirap division of NEFA which was thinly populated at that time. It is this element of temporariness of their settlement in the state which has now become a bone of contention between the people who are leading the movement and the Central Government.

At present the Chakmas and Hajongs are settled in Chowkham in Lohit district; Miao, Bordumsa and Diyun in Changlang district, and Balijan and Kokila in Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh.

The indigenous people of the state perceive a danger to their identity and culture being posed by an ever-increasing concentration of the Chakmas and Hajongs in the state. According to AAPSU, the population of the refugees has swollen to approximately 60,000 as against the 57 families originally settled in 1966 in Diyun. It may not be fair to blame it on the indigenous people for their increasing assertiveness on the issue of eviction of the refugees from the state for they fear that rapid demographic changes in the three districts since 1951 may soon see them being outnumbered with all its concomitant social, economic and political consequences. For example, according to the figures given in the 1991 census, the indigenous tribal population of the two districts of Lohit and Changlang where the Chakmas and Hajongs are residing, is only 74,000 out of the total population of 202,523 (which includes other Indian citizens also) in these two districts. The total population of the state according to the 1991 census is 858,392.

The issue of granting citizenship to the refugees has also figured prominently in all debates and is being considered seriously by the Central Government. S.B. Chavan's repeated remarks in this respect has met with strong opposition from all quarters in the State. AAPSU has strongly condemned Chavan's insistence on granting citizenship to the refugees and believes that it is an attempt to woo the potential voters at the cost of annoying the indigenous people of the State. Could the grant of citizenship end the helplessness of the refugees? Maybe not as the real issue facing the leaders of the movement is not whether the refugees be granted citizenship or not but that they must be resettled outside the state. The State Government is quite determined that even if the settlers were to be granted citizenship they would have to leave the State.

Though the Chakmas and Hajongs have continued to stay on in the state they have suffered immensely for no fault of theirs as they themselves did not volunteer to come to Arunachal Pradesh but were instead brought here as a matter of policy decision. The withdrawal of basic amenities like employment opportunities, termination of trade licence and confiscation of ration cards have made it quite difficult for the refugees to survive. Faced with frequent quit notices issued by AAPSU and the Centre's insincerity in finding out a long term solution, the refugees find themselves in the midst of uncertainty.

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