Northeastern View | The fear of being unsettled haunts the Chakmas, Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | The fear of being unsettled haunts the Chakmas, Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh

Apr 24, 2024 11:15 PM IST

The Chakmas and Hajongs continue to be treated like political tools by all parties, rather than victims of xenophobic majoritarianism and discrimination.

On April 22, Union minister from the BJP, Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, indicated at a press conference in Itanagar that members of the Chakma and Hajong communities living in the state could soon be resettled in Assam. The very next day, the BJP chief minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma dismissed Rijiju’s claims. “There have been no talks with the Centre on this issue yet,” he told the media.

North Tripura: Chakma community members perform rituals at the Deo River during Biju festival celebrations at Pencharthal, in North Tripura, Friday, April 12, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_12_2024_000019B)(PTI) PREMIUM
North Tripura: Chakma community members perform rituals at the Deo River during Biju festival celebrations at Pencharthal, in North Tripura, Friday, April 12, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_12_2024_000019B)(PTI)

Along with Rijiju, who is seeking a fourth term from the Arunachal West Lok Sabha seat, the state’s BJP chief minister, Pema Khandu, too has sought the relocation of the Chakmas and Hajongs to other states. But, why do Arunachali leaders want their resettlement? Why is there no consensus within the BJP on the issue, especially on relocation to Assam?

Politics of indigeneity in Arunachal Pradesh

In 1962, the Pakistani government in what was then East Pakistan – Bangladesh today – completed the construction of a large dam across the Karnafuli River in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region. Known as the Kaptai Dam, it ended up flooding some 1036 sq km of habitable land, including large parts of Rangamati town. Among the approximately 100,000 indigenous people displaced by the dam, were some 40,000 Chakmas and 2,000 Hajongs who fled across the border to India through the Lushai Hills, which is now the state of Mizoram.

While the Chakmas are mostly Buddhists, the Hajongs follow a mix of Hindu and animist religious practices. They faced religious persecution in Muslim-majority East Pakistan, which forced several more to flee to India until the late 1960s. Most of them settled in Mizoram, Assam and Tripura, but the bulk of them were eventually resettled in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which later became the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

However, dominant Arunachali tribal groups have never embraced the Chakmas and Hajongs as one of their own. They projected the two communities as “guests” at best and “illegal immigrants” at worst. This hindered the process of the two communities becoming equal members of Arunachali society.

Despite living in India for more than five decades now, they continue to be labelled as “outsiders”, “refugees” and “demographic threats” to local communities who stake exclusive claims on indigeneity. Local Arunachali organisations are particularly opposed to the two communities getting land rights.

Yet, naturalisation provisions in India’s citizenship law and the ‘citizenship by birth’ doctrine that existed until 1986 have allowed many of them to gain Indian citizenship and vote in elections. In 1996 and 2015, in what became remarkable legal precedents to prevent mass statelessness, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the two communities should be given Indian citizenship.

But the Narendra Modi government has dragged its feet on the application of the apex court’s directions by limiting its spectrum of rights to assuage local “indigenous” groups. In fact, in 2020, the Arunachal Pradesh government revealed that just 7.73% of the Chakmas had voting rights.

Opposition to relocation

In response to Rijiju’s latest statement, Akhil Gogoi, the influential leader of Raijor Dal, one of Assam’s key opposition parties, claimed that the BJP wanted to settle a “large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh” in Assam and give them citizenship through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Gogoi’s retort captures the congruent xenophobic narratives that dominant civil society organisations in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam deploy to otherise communities that they see as “non-indigenous” to their states.

Assamese nationalist groups are already suspicious of the BJP’s plan to regularise “illegal” Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh through the CAA. Those like Raijor Dal see the Chakmas and Hajongs as additional beneficiaries of the act and in turn, threats to Assam’s demographic sanctity. This puts the BJP high command in New Delhi, a neutral arbiter between its own state governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, in a tight spot. It cannot possibly placate Arunachali ethnonationalists without provoking their Assamese compatriots, and vice-versa.

Sarma’s dismissal of Rijiju’s claims also brings to sharp relief longstanding tensions between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over a range of issues, including a decades-long border dispute that was nominally resolved in 2023 through a formal agreement but continues to generate friction among local communities. In turn, the issue shows the limits of BJP’s political persuasions in the Northeast.

However, the most crucial part of this story is the Chakmas and Hajongs themselves who continue to be treated like political tools by all parties, rather than victims of xenophobic majoritarianism and social discrimination. It has been more than half a century since most of them came to India, and there is no argument in favour of tossing them around from one state to another. The Modi government should, therefore, ensure that their well-being and security are not sacrificed at the altar of nativist politics.

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow with the Centre for Policy Research and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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