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Granting Citizenship Rights to Chakma and Hajong Refugees: All You Need to Know

Context:

The Indian Government’s has taken the initiative to grant citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees

Who are the Chakma and Hajongs?

Origins:

  • The Chakma and Hajongs were inhabitants of the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).

Religion:

  • Chakmas are Buddhists
  • Hajongs are Hindus

Language:

  • Chakmas’ language is close to Bengali-Assamese
  • Hajongs speak a Tibeto-Burman tongue written in Assamese

When and why did they come to India?

  • The Chakma and Hajongs had come to India after their land was submerged by the Kaptai Dam (Karnaphuli River) in the 1960’s.
  • They had also faced religious persecution in erstwhile East Pakistan as they were non-Muslims and did not speak Bengali.

Where in India are the Chakma and Hajongs settled?

  • The Chakma and Hajongs had entered India through the then Lushai Hills district of Assam (presently Mizoram).
  • 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)

Why was Arunachal Pradesh chosen?

  • Arunachal Pradesh was called North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and was administered by the Ministry of External Affairs through the Assam Governor.
  • The decision to settle the Chakma and Hajong refugees in NEFA (present Arunachal Pradesh) was taken after discussion with the NEFA administration.

3 reasons:

  • There was a fear of conflict between the Mizo tribe and the refugees. Though some settled in the Lushai Hills, majority of them were moved to NEFA
  • It was advocated that the settlement of the Chakma and Hajong refugees in NEFA would help develop the pockets that were lying uninhabited and unused.
  • Besides, the presence of stretches of vacant land along the border was strategically not desirable and hence it was a desirable option to settle the refugees there.

The number of Chakma and Hajong Refugees at a glance:

According to a 1996 white paper:

  • 1964-69: 4,888 persons of 2,748 families settled
  • 1995: More than 60,000-Number increased 300% from the originals
  • According to the 2011 census, 47,471 Chakmas live in Arunachal Pradesh alone.

How has been the relation of the Chakma and Hajongs with Bangladesh?

  • The Chakma and Hajongs had opposed the inclusion of the Chittagong hill tracts to erstwhile East Pakistan in 1947.
  • They later opposed their inclusion in Bangladesh during East Pakistan’s Liberation War with West Pakistan in 1971, on the grounds that they are ethnic and religious minority group.
  • An armed struggle “Shanti Bahini” was launched for gaining autonomy. The conflict increased the flow of refugees to India.
  • In 1997, the insurgency ended with signing of a peace accord between the Bangladesh government and Shanti Bahini
  • According to the accord, the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang and Tanchangya were acknowledged as tribes of Bangladesh
  • These tribes were entitled for benefits.
  • A Regional Council was also set up to govern the Hill Tracts.
  • Bangladesh had proposed to bring back the Chakma refugees settled in India. However, Chakmas did not return fearing religious persecution.

What is the legal status of the Chakmas and Hajongs?

  • Originally treated as refugees
  • In 1972, the government of India decided to grant the Chakma and Hajong refugees citizenship under section 5(i) (a) of the Citizenship Act after a joint statement of the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh
  • At present, they don’t have citizenship and land rights but are provided basic amenities by the state government.
  • In 2005, Election Commission issued guidelines to include Chakmas and Hajongs in Arunachal Pradesh’s electoral rolls
  • Complying with the Supreme Court order of 2015, the Centre in September 2017 had decided to grant “limited citizenship” to the Chakma and Hajong refugees living in Arunachal Pradesh

So, why grant citizenship now?

  • In 2015, the Supreme Court had ordered the central Government to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajongs. This order was passed while hearing a plea by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh (CCRCAP)
  • After this the Central government introduced amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955. –The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

What is this Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016?

  • The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to allow illegal migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, and Parsi or Christian religious communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan to be not to be imprisoned or deported.
  • It also appeals for the minimum years of residency in India to apply for citizenship to be lessened from 11 years to 6 years for such migrants.
  • The Bill however does not extend to illegal Muslim migrants.
  • A major criticism of the Bill is that it makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion, which is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.

Why does Arunachal Pradesh have a problem with Chakma and Hajong refugees?

  1. Affect on the demography- the indigenous tribal people would be reduced to a minority
  2. Stress on the limited resources
  3. The indigenous tribal people fear that they would be deprived of opportunities if the refugees are given equal rights.
  4. The local population also fear that the Chakmas and Hajongs are a threat to their cultural identity and social fabric.

When did the Opposition begin and what is the present status?

  • NEFA had no elected government or representatives and initially there was no opposition
  • Political parties emerged only after 1972, when it was made a union territory and named Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh later received statehood in 1987
  • Opposition began after government of India’s decision o grant them citizenship in 1972
  • The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) had built up a strong movement against settling the Chakmas and Hajongs since the 1980s and the opposition continues.
  • Several organisations and the civil society in Arunachal Pradesh have opposed Centre’s recent decision to grant citizenship to the Chakma and Hajongs. There have been widespread protests across Arunachal Pradesh.

So what’s next?

  • The Centre is trying to put forward a “workable solution”
  • It has been proposed that the refugees would not be given rights such as the land ownership as enjoyed by the Scheduled tribes in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • However, Inner Line Permit might be provided to the refugees. The Inner Line Permit required for non-local people in Arunachal Pradesh to travel and work.

Concluding Remarks

  • The Government must stand firm on its initiative to grant citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong Tribes.
  • It should take initiatives to eradicate the fear that Chakmas and Hajongs are a threat to their cultural identity and social fabric of the local people.
  • Social tension between indigenous population and migrants are often triggered due to competition for economic resources, especially land, and lack of employment opportunities- steps should be taken to expand the economy.
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