Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh: Kripadhan Karbari was 26 years old in the summer of 1964, when water from the reservoir of the Kaptai dam permanently flooded the homes and farms of about 100,000 from his tribe in what was then East Pakistan.
From their home in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, or CHT as he called it, in what is now southeastern Bangladesh, Karbari and thousands from his Chakma tribe began walking, crossed the Indian border through the Lushai Hills in what is today Mizoram and sought asylum.
“We walked for a week,” said Karbari, now 86, a slightly built, hunched, unsmiling man with a shock of white hair. “We were initially skeptical about moving to India, but I heard on the radio that the migrants coming from CHT would be given refugee status and rehabilitation.”
About 18,000 homes and more than 1,000 sq km of land were submerged by the Kaptai, permanently displacing a quarter of what are called the Jumma people, the collective term used for about 11 indegenious tribes, among them the Chakma, who are Buddhist. With the Chakma came the Hajong, who follow a folk religion mixed with Hinduism.
Karbari and his fellow Chakma reached a refugee camp called Demagiri, where Indian officials made a record of their arrival and gave them food and cash. When Assam expressed inability to shelter the Chakma, alternatives were sought in the sparsely populated land to its north.
‘A 4-Day Walk, 19 Camps Before Finding A Home’
Over nine months, they were moved from camp to camp until their final destination, 1,000 km to the northeast of their original home, to what was then India’s North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, run directly by New Delhi, which did not consult the tribes of the region before resettling the Chakma in areas then largely unpopulated.
“We crossed 19 camps until we reached NEFA,” said Karbari, one of 14,888 Chakma and Hajong taken to the region. Once part of Assam, the NEFA was declared a union territory in 1972 and in 1987 emerged as the state of Arunachal Pradesh, home to 50,000 or more Chakma today.
Karbari remembers walking for four days from Ledo in Assam, after they were told the union government had allotted the Chakma land in what is now the picturesque southeastern Arunachal district of Changlang. The area was mostly forest. They began farming, building homes and expanding into other professions.
Karbari was a contractor in the settlement area and set up a small grocery store. “By 1980, I had enough to build a home,” he said. “My children went out to Arunachal to work, so they contributed to it. We gradually expanded and added a backyard.”
Sitting in the backyard of the one-story house he built in a village now called Rajnagar, Karbari spoke to Article 14 of the hardship his family endured during their migration 57 years ago: first, the floods, then the communal clashes.
“To escape the floods, we took shelter in the hilly areas of CHT but the Bangladeshi Muslims harassed us, and there were riots,” said Karbari. “Due to shortage of food, many died of hunger as well.”
Today, more than half a century after their great migration, the Chakma—the overwhelming majority born in India—are again threatened with displacement, victims of nativist sentiment , which, apart from Arunachal Pradesh, they also face in Mizoram and Tripura, some of the other states that host them.
But those in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and West Bengal have been given the status of scheduled tribes (STs), which allows them access to reserved government jobs and educational opportunities. Arunachal refuses them ST status.
What Was Given Is Taken Away
While the Chakma were given or allowed to build homes, they were never granted citizenship over the 57 years of their arrival, leaving them vulnerable to populist declarations, xenophobic violence and arbitrary displacement.
The union government, in a region then administered directly from New Delhi, initially granted ration cards, trade permits, employment, even gun licenses, but these were, over the years, taken away by the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which came into being 23 years after their migration.
The state government disapproved (here and here) of many facilities initially sponsored by the union government. As the fight for citizenship and other legal recognition continued, the Chakma were deprived of ration cards, employment and trade licences.
Resentment against the Chakma began in Arunachal in early 1980, when a two-day shutdown was announced by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU), which demanded their expulsion, inspired by demands for the removal of illegal immigrants by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in neighbouring Assam.
In 1994, many Chakma schools were closed, the Chakma received “quit-Arunachal” notices, and a year later the AAPSU called for an “economic blockade” and boycott of their businesses.
For their part, the AAPSU said the Chakma were encroaching on forest areas, and depriving indigeneous tribes of opportunities. The AAPSU stand has been that the union government could certainly grant citizenship to the Chakma, but they could not live in Arunachal because they were outsiders who competed for resources, were building monasteries on land of other tribes and would alter the state’s demographic profile.
Supreme Court Orders Never Implemented
India agreed to take responsibility for migrants who entered India before 25 March 1971 and grant citizenship to the Chakma community, according to what is called the 1972 Indira-Mujib agreement between India and Bangladesh.
As the AAPSU action against the Chakma intensified, the issue landed up in the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that “the State of Arunachal Pradesh shall ensure that the life and personal liberty of each and every Chakma residing within the State shall be protected and any attempt to forcibly evict or drive them out of the State by organized groups, such as, AAPSU, shall be repelled”.
The Supreme Court confirmed citizenship to the Chakma twice, first in 1996 and again in 2015, but Arunachal Pradesh did nothing to begin or help the process.
In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 100,000 Chakma living in India, in accordance with the Supreme Court order, be granted citizenship. The catch: this would not apply to the states of Mizoram, Arunachal and Nagaland.
None have got citizenship since.
The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which opens a path to citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—and criticised for that reason as being discriminatory—should benefit the Chakma and Hajong.
But the CAA is inapplicable to the ‘Inner Line Permit’ states under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873; that includes Arunachal, Nagaland and This and two other colonial-era laws prohibit non-locals and non-residents from acquiring interest in land, prohibit “outsiders” from acquiring forest land and allow state governments to extern anyone whose presence is considered to be harmful to local interest.
“All the illegal immigrant Chakmas will be re-settled out of Arunachal with honor, as per (sic) Constitution,” said Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu on 15 August 2021.
Article 14 sought comment from BJP member of the legislative assembly Zingnu Namchoom of the Namsai constituency, of which Changlang is a part, and president of the opposition Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee and former chief minister Nabam Tuki. Despite several attempts over the phone and whatsapp, there was no response. We will add their views if they respond.
“The state government and other non-political actors are playing to the gallery and then trying to project citizenship as the core issue”, said Mahendra Chakma, president of Chakma Rights and Development Organization (CRDO), an advocacy group created in April 2018 to lobby for the Chakma and Hajong tribes.
The core issues, he said, included the restoration of ration cards, access to employment, education and government programmes, birth certificates, and establishment of medical centres.
“Under section 3 of the Indian Citizenship Act , the (citizenship) issue is concerned with only 5% of the migrated population and has to be distinguished from those Chakmas who are citizens of India by birth, which is 90% to 95% of the total population,” said Mahendra.
Living In ‘Perpetual Fear’
“Go back Chakmas,” was the slogan that first intimidated the Chakma, escalating into protests, strikes and pushing the community out of their camps in the mid 1980s.
“Since then we have been harassed,” said Punyadhan Chakma, 74, who was 12 years old when he made the long march to India. “There were strikes. They closed down schools, and pushed us out of the camps we lived in.”
Karbari spoke about the “perpetual fear” that thousands of refugees had endured since a year after their arrival, “when ration was stopped”.
“We had to do everything on our own,” said Karbari. “The central government gave 5 acres of land per family, and after three years, the land was given to us on lease for the next five years from 1978 to 1982.”
It was by the 1980s that the Chakma became visible because of relative prosperity: their own businesses and permanent homes. Retaliation came quick enough: in 1993, citing a master plan to develop roads—that were never built—in the town of Diyun in Changlang, for instance, many businesses were closed.
Pravassor Chakma, 30, son of Punyadhan, said the second generation of Chakma faced harassment in schools because of which many pursued higher education outside Arunachal Pradesh.
“There were just two schools in our village of Innao in 2011 and around 300 students in each classroom,” said Pravassor. “Although we got our admission, there often used to be clashes between children from Chakma community and other tribes, especially during elections.”
“A very peculiar anomaly is created due to the misleading perception—because of (lack of) citizenship Chakmas are denied rights, which is not the reality,” said Mahendra, the president of the CRDO. “The truth is that, it is a systematic denial, deprivation and discrimination in the name of citizenship.”
Kiren Rijiju, appointed the union law and justice minister in 2021, said in January 2022 that “under CAA, no refugee can claim tribal rights in Arunachal Pradesh. The government has sent a clear message to the Chakma refugees to look for alternatives”, a reference to moving outside the state.
“I fail to understand how Kiren Rijiju, who was just appointed as cabinet minister, openly talked about a microscopic community of 50,000 Chakmas, who are anyway vulnerable and marginalised,” said Mahendra.
‘They Should First Be Removed From Arunachal’
One of the arguments used in Arunachal—which has India’s lowest population density—against the Chakma is their population, which they said had been misrepresented.
According to government data, the numbers of Chakma settled in Arunachal Pradesh had grown from 14,888 in 1969 to 47,471 in 2011 (including a small number of Hajong).
The AAPSU contended that this is an undercount and does not account for Chakma who have come in from Bangladesh over the years after the initial migration and moved into new areas.
“AAPSU and people of Arunachal are not against the citizenship of Chakma and Hajong communities; citizenship is a union subject, but our contention (sic) is their continued presence in… Arunachal Pradesh,” said Tobom Dai, general secretary of the AAPSU. “Our relentless demand is that before granting them citizenship they should be first removed from the soil (of Arunachal).”
Dai said the Chakma and Hajong communities had “strayed out” from government allotted land and had “usurped large swathes of tribal people's land and they are more prosperous than many tribal communities of the state”.
“The demographic changes they have brought are real and impacting [our] limited resources,” said Dai. “The AAPSU and indigenous people of Arunachal wholeheartedly welcome the relocation proposal moved by both the state and central government. It will finally address one of the long pending demand of the people of the state.”
Several Chakma refugees told Article 14, on condition of anonymity, that they had become victims of “propaganda” and nativist fears and aggression.
“This (Chakma population) is an artificially and politically constructed narrative because the government wants to stay in power,” said Mahendra, the CRDO president. “There are only two issues that sell in Arunachal Pradesh, the China issue and Chakma issue.”
Mahendra said the Chakma were resettled near the China order after India’s “humiliating defeat” in the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
“There was a need for people to be transported there to act as a shield, and Chakmas were taken there,” said Mahendra. “Since they wanted some buffer, some set of loyal people were sent to act as a bulwark against future Chinese aggression.”
Today, Chakma representatives said, the past had been forgotten, and state government non-cooperation so marked that even birth certificates were hard to get from the local administration, which contends that all Chakma midwives are not registered. Many depend on midwives because there are few hospitals in Chakma settlements.
“If we raise the birth certificate issue, people think we have high birth rates, and if we don't, then we are declared as foreigners,” said Mahendra. “Because then, we don't have any evidence to show that we are citizens by birth. This is a double trap and institutional discrimination that needs to be stopped.”
‘An Act Of Racial Profiling’
Mahendra said Chakma issues found little or no representation in the media, especially local media.
“There is very little authenticity on what is being written in mainstream or regional media because most media organisations are toeing the line of the state government, which is against us,” said Mahendra.
In December 2021, the Arunachal government considered a controversial special census for the Chakma, but the Changlang district administration said there was no immediate plan to count the tribals.
The spokesperson of the Delhi-based Chakma Development Foundation of India (CDFI), Suhas Chakma, called on Modi to stop the census, which he called “an act of racial profiling” since it was only for the Chakma and Hajong.
“Arunachal Pradesh shares a border with China and Myanmar, from where illegal migration of population has been taking place since Independence,” said Suhas.
“Further illegal immigration and settlement of people without Inner Line Permit [a requirement for outsiders] has been taking place regularly and their settlements are visible in most parts of Arunachal Pradesh,” said Suhas. “Yet, the state government is targeting only Chakmas and Hajongs in clear violation of the Constitution of India.”
No Moving Out Of Arunachal
On 24 August 2021, five major Chakma and Hajong organisations—the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh, the CRDA, Chakma Students Union, Chakma Youth Federation of Arunachal and Chakma Women Welfare Society—released a joint statement that put forth a list of demands.
That solution included a rejection of the idea that the Chakma and Hajong move out of Arunachal, that “full rights” as Indian citizens be provided, that “compassion and sensitivity” be used to deal with them; and restoration of voting, panchayati, scholarship, subsidised food and other rights rescinded since the 1980s.
“We demand that the government of India, the state government of Arunachal Pradesh fully respect and implement the rulings of the Supreme Court in the NHRC vs State of Arunachal Pradesh (1996) & others wherein the direction was issued for processing of the citizenship application of the Chakmas and Hajong,” said the statement. “The unconditional withdrawal of statements made in this regard have caused enormous fear and insecurity in the minds of the people.”
The Chakma and Hajong argued that if they were singled out for discrimination in multi-ethnic Arunachal, it might consume the state in the future.
“At present there are 26 major tribes and more than 100 minor tribes in the region; if one starts dominating, that implies depriving 25 others of their rights and entitlement,” said the statement. “Therefore, bringing in ethnocentric nationalism as the guiding principle is going to create another set of problems.”
“Many of us foresee the plausible solution for the crisis, a mere embracing of multiculturalism in Arunachal Pradesh, wherein one gets to practice and preach freely,” said Mahendra. “Is that too much to ask?”
(Aparajita Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She covers human rights, minorities and cultures.)