The NHRC has done the right thing in directing the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Arunachal Pradesh government to submit an action taken report against the racial profiling and relocation of the Chakma and Hajong communities in the northeastern State. They had fled their homes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in erstwhile East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) after losing land to the construction of the Kaptai dam on the Karnaphuli river in the early 1960s. They had sought asylum in India and were settled in relief camps in Arunachal Pradesh. Since then they have been well integrated in villages in the southern and south-eastern parts of the State. In 2015, the Supreme Court directed the State to grant them citizenship, but this had not yet been implemented. In a judgment in 1996, the Court had stated that the “life and personal liberty of every Chakma residing within the State shall be protected”. In light of these orders and given that most of the Chakma/Hajong community members were born in the State and have been living peacefully, the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s announcement, in August 2021, that they would be relocated outside the State and that steps would be taken for a “census” of the communities was clearly unwarranted. The so-called State-driven census would have amounted to a racial profiling of the two communities that have also been the subject of an antagonist and nativist campaign by organisations such as the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. The issue has not been helped either by statements made earlier by the Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, about relocation.
It is difficult, but not impossible, for any State government in the northeast to balance the interests of native tribal communities and those of legitimately settled refugees and their progeny. Special rights guaranteed in the Indian Constitution in these States in order to protect the tribal people, their habitat and their livelihoods, have more than occasionally been misinterpreted as favouring tribal nativism with overblown demographic fears fanning hatred for communities such as the Chakma/Hajong in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Unfortunately, political forces have also limited themselves to using ethnic fissures for power and sustenance. Uprooting communities that fled their homelands under duress and have since been well settled in their adopted areas, contributing to the diversity of culture and the economy, would be a violation of their rights and repeating a historic wrong. A dialogue between the State government, civil society and those of the Chakma/Hajong communities would go a long way in addressing concerns in implementing the Court judgment of 2015, rather than the course currently adopted by Itanagar. Implementing the NHRC directive should be a step in the process to reverse that course.