The Union government is considering granting citizenship to over a lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees, who have been living in India for over 50 years. This has brought the spotlight back on the refugees. Here is a lowdown on the issue.
Who are Chakmas and Hajongs?
The Chakmas and Hajongs are ethnic people who lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, most of which are located in Bangladesh. Chakmas are predominantly Buddhists, while Hajongs are Hindus. They are found in northeast India, West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
If they are indigenous people, why are they called refugees?
The Chakmas and Hajongs living in India are Indian citizens. Some of them, mostly from Mizoram, live in relief camps in southern Tripura due to tribal conflict with Mizos. These Indian Chakmas living in Tripura take part in Mizoram elections too. The Election Commission sets up polling booths in relief camps.
The Chakmas and Hajongs living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts fled erstwhile East Pakistan in 1964-65, since they lost their land to the development of the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River. In addition, they also faced religious persecution as they were non-Muslims and did not speak Bengali. They eventually sought asylum in India. The Indian government set up relief camps in Arunachal Pradesh and a majority of them continue to live there even after five decades. According to the 2011 census, 47,471 Chakmas live in Arunachal Pradesh alone.
Why does Arunachal Pradeshhave a problem with Chakmas?
In the 1960s, the Chakma refugees were accommodated in the relief camps constructed in the "vacant lands" of Tirap, Lohit and Subansiri districts of the erstwhile North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), a political division governed by the Union government. In 1972, NEFA was renamed Arunachal Pradesh and made a Union Territory, and subsequently, it attained statehood. The locals and regional political parties opposed re-settling refugees in their land fearing that it may change the demography of the State and that they may have to share the limited resources available for them.
What about Bangladesh?
The Chakmas and Hijongs opposed their inclusion in undivided Pakistan during Partition. They later opposed their inclusion in Bangladesh when East Pakistan was fighting the Liberation War with West Pakistan, on grounds that they are an ethnic and religious minority group. A group of Chakmas resorted to armed conflict with Bangladeshi forces under the name 'Shanti Bahini'. The conflict increased the inflow of refugees to India.
In 1997, the Bangladeshi government headed by Sheik Hasina signed a peace accord with the Shanti Bahini, which resulted in the end of the insurgency. According to the accord, the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang and Tanchangya were acknowledged as tribes of Bangladesh entitled for benefits and a Regional Council was set up to govern the Hill Tracts. The agreement also laid out plans for the return of land to displaced natives and an elaborate land survey to be held in the Hill Tracts.
Bangladesh was willing to take back a section of Chakma refugees living in India, but most of them were unwilling, fearing the return of religious persecution.
Why grant citizenship now?
In 2015, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajongs who had migrated from Bangladesh in 1964-69. The order was passed while hearing a plea by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas. Following this, the Centre introduced amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Bill is yet to be passed, as the opposition says the Bill makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion, which is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Union government is keen in implementing the Supreme Court directive now since the BJP is the ruling party in both the Centre and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Union Home Ministry on Wednesday cleared the citizenship for over one lakh Chakma-Hajongs. However, they will not have any land ownership rights in Arunachal Pradesh and will have to apply for Inner Line Permits to reside in the State.