Finally, Victory for the Homeless?
- Last week, a Supreme Court judgement gave citizenship to the Buddhist Chakmas, who settled between 1964-1969 in Arunachal Pradesh
- The Chakmas have been fighting for citizenship for over six decades
- The court order has already triggered protests citing disturbance of “ethnic balance”
- Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijijju remarked that the order will “dilute the constitutional safeguards of the state’s people”
Last week, Subimal Bikash Chakma celebrated the long-awaited Supreme Court judgement bestowing citizenship rights to his Buddhist Chakma community, quietly, in faraway Diyun, a village in frontier Arunachal Pradesh – his home for more than 50 years.
On September 17, the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas (CCRC) – the organisation he founded in 1991 – won a landmark court order, which directed the Arunachal Pradesh government to treat all Chakmas who settled in the state between 1964 and 1969 as Indian citizens. The order, which comes eight years after the petition was filed, has also directed Itanagar to enroll 4,677 citizenship-seeking Chakmas in the electoral list within three months. Subimal who’s now 53, says,
We’ve always believed in democracy. The law of decency exists and we were able to get our rights because of it.
Unsurprisingly, the court order has produced reactions in a state where refugees aren’t welcomed, fearful of the “ethnic balance” getting disturbed. A protest rally is being held today by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (APSU) to press the government to challenge the order.
Arunachal is protected by laws, and outsiders cannot have property in the state. We’re never consulted to give land to refugees.
– APSU General Secretary Biru Nasi to The Quint
Decades-old Struggle for Citizenship
This week, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, remarked that the court order will “dilute the constitutional safeguards of the state’s people”.
CRCC General Secretary Santosh Chakma, however, says the petition was a demand for citizenship, not special privileges like ST rights.
People are going to the moon today but we have no rights after 51 years.
But inequities suffered by this minority community go back several decades.
Subimal was a toddler, two years old, when his parents fled a man-made disaster in Bangladesh.
In 1963, village after village, farm land, a palace and a town went under water when the Kaptai dam was built on the Karnaphuli river in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. The dam was built almost a decade before Bangladesh was born. Many of the affected – an estimated 18,000 people, a majority of them Chakmas, never received compensation. They became landless overnight.
This marked the beginning of ‘Bara Parang’, or the ‘Great Exodus’ to India.
Role of the 1962 Indo-China War
This overwhelming human migration took place at a time when India was facing a huge challenge of resettling refugees flowing in from all directions: In 1959, Tibetans arrived from the north after Chinese occupation of their country. In the east, military crackdown drove the Chins out of Myanmar. In the south, Sri Lanka refused to accept people of Tamil origin under a controversial citizenship law, and India signed a treaty, in 1964, to take some of them back.
And then, there was the 1962 Indo-China War.
Chinese troops marched up to the foothills of Assam, cutting through today’s Arunachal Pradesh, then called the North East Frontier Tract. Without any resistance, they went back the same way they came, spreading panic across India’s North east.
In 1965, in an official communication, PN Luthra, advisor to the Assam governor, wrote to political officers of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), the administrator of this region prior to creation of Arunachal Pradesh:
Resettlement of people in the vacant border areas will help to strengthen our frontiers and their defence....Reports show there are certain areas with vacant land on which there is no direct individuals or claim ownership.
The threat of foreign aggression was real and it was not just the Chakmas who the government wanted to resettle in this far-flung border region near China and Myanmar. Under the plan, Hajongs of Bangladesh, who’ve now joined CCRC to collectively fight for citizenship, and the “ex-army men and ex-Assam Rifles who are engaged in the defence of our country” were also to be given a home here. Of the 14,888 Chakma refugee families, India sent 2,902 to Arunachal Pradesh.
The Stateless People
The government’s strategy worked for a while, but things spun out of control by 1980, when the anti-immigrant stir was peaking in neighbouring Assam. First, “Go back Chakmas” notices started appearing. Then, villages started burning.
- 130 akma homes were burnt in 1983 and 1995, respectively, in Papumpare district
- In 1989, several dozen homes were razed in Changlang district, including Subimal’s home
By a 1991 state order, refugees – Chakmas, Hajongs, Tibetans – stopped receiving food subsidy. This prompted CCRC to knock the doors of the National Human Rights Commission, which moved the Supreme Court. In 1996, the court ordered the state “to protect lives and properties of Chakmas.” The harassment died down, but the Chakmas, whose population is now 65,000, remain rootless, without voting rights and state benefits.
Allegations & Counter-allegations
There are, however, counter-allegations. APSU claims that any back-of-the-envelop calculation of the number of original settlers and the current population would indicate presence of ‘foreign nationals’. It claims that the community indulges in unlawful activities, including “extremist violence, poaching and drug trafficking.”
Kripadhon Karbari is one of the beneficiaries of last week’s court order. After the Kaptai Dam submerged his village, Bagaisuri, he sent his two daughters with their relatives to India. He himself journeyed on foot, with his aged father, two brothers, bags of rice and clothes.
Karbari reached Demagiri, now in Mizoram, after six days. The human chain threaded through the hills, resting at nightfall in relief camps and walking by day. This continued for a fortnight, until they reached Cachar district in Assam. It took several months for the government to formally allow them to proceed to Arunachal Pradesh. Karbari, now aged 80, did not “sneak” into the country. So, the court order brings huge relief to him and his community.
“I’m happy,” he says. “Everybody is happy.”
(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s North east and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues.)