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Arunachal’s high-stakes unrest


wasbir hussain

It is rare for indigenous tribes-people in the Arunachal Pradesh frontier to be in ferment. But this time round, they are agitated over the September 17 Supreme Court ruling that the Chakma and Hajong refugees in the state, numbering more than 50,000, be granted citizenship within three months. While the Buddhist Chakmas and the Hajongs — who had fled present-day Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) between 1964 and 1969 — are celebrating the judgment of the apex court, Arunachal’s 20 major tribal groups are out protesting the decision through rallies across the state and in New Delhi. The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), that is at the forefront of this protest, is not against granting of citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees, but opposed to these people settling down in the state.

The native versus alien debate may be common in Northeast India largely because the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh continues to be a live subject, but the dissent in the highly sensitive frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh, that shares a 1,126 km long border with China, is something that can make New Delhi extremely worried. There is reason to be uneasy because China has made it a point to reiterate its claim over Arunachal Pradesh on and off, and any restiveness among the indigenous population may make the Chinese happy. The protesters too seem to be aware that the authorities cannot ignore their plea for obvious reasons. For instance, placards during the AAPSU protest rally in New Delhi recently read: “Is Arunachal dumping ground for foreigners?”; “If Arunachal is part of India, listen to the voice of Arunachalees”; and “Despite China’s repeated claims, we have shown our patriotism, now where do we go?”

There have been anti-refugee (read Chakma and Hajong settlers) stirs in Arunachal Pradesh in 1983, 1989 and 1995, during which dozens of settler homes were torched, but the Modi government would not like the situation to go out of hand this time. After all, New Delhi, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is on a foreign policy overdrive to boost ties with the international community, and, would, therefore, not want global attention turn to Arunachal for the wrong reasons. Moreover, the Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh’s CHT are a global community, settled in India and elsewhere, and any atrocity or discrimination against them can project any government in a poor light.

That New Delhi is on a sticky wicket on the issue was evident with the response of Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijijju, an Arunachalee himself, who said that the Supreme Court order will “dilute the constitutional safeguards of the state’s people.” Groups like the AAPSU have claimed that the refugee population has grown from around 15,000 in the mid-’60s to around 60,000 now, and could alter the “ethnic balance” in the state. The “Bara Parang” or the great exodus of these refugees to India followed their displacement in the wake of the construction of the Kaptai dam in 1963 in Bangladesh’s CHT.

Alleged persecution, beginning with the Partition of India, too, was believed to have aided the exodus. Granting of citizenship to the Chakmas and the Hajongs can have a huge impact on local politics in the state. All political parties in Arunachal Pradesh, including the ruling Congress, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and others, have called upon the state government to take legal recourse and challenge the Supreme Court ruling. The state Cabinet has already initiated steps in this direction. The AAPSU on its part has moved the Supreme Court demanding it be made a party to the process concerning the issue of granting citizenship to the refugees. The AAPSU while demanding that these refugees should not be allowed to settle down for good in Arunachal Pradesh said that the Centre should bring these people under the purview of the “Inner Line” regulations, meaning they should also be required to obtain an entry permit to the state like other non-Arunachalees.

The matter is tricky and may not be that easy for the executive to ignore the Supreme Court ruling and sit tight. The Supreme Court, for instance, had gone into various official documents before coming up with the ruling and cited the joint statement issued by the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh in 1972 to confer citizenship on the Bangladeshi refugees under Section 5 (1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955.

This, of course, is contested like many other apparent commitments on the subject. Some say Article 5 of the Constitution is not applicable in this case as these refugees came much after 1950.

As per the Supreme Court order, the 1964-1969 stream of refugees are to be granted citizenship. But an unspecified number of Chakma and Hajong refugees had entered Arunachal Pradesh much after the first stream of their kinfolk arrived in the state. Therefore, it is not really possible to grant wholesale citizenship to every refugee without determining if they or their children belong to the 1964-1969 lot, that too within a span of three months.

The Centre will certainly find it challenging to deal with the issue — on one hand it will be bound to implement the Supreme Court order, unless the government itself decides to challenge it, while on the other hand it will have to deal with protests by indigenous Arunachalees as well as the expectations of the Chakma and Hajong refugees.

For the record, the settlers had already won round one on October 3, 2007, when the Election Commission of India issued guidelines for revision of electoral rolls for the inclusion of Chakmas and Hajongs with January 1, 2007, as the qualifying date. On this basis, perhaps, the Supreme Court, in its September 17 ruling, also ordered the authorities to include the names of 4,677 citizenship-seeking Chakmas in the electoral rolls within three months. The dispute over citizenship promises to keep Arunachal on the boil in the days ahead. (courtesy: The Asian Age)