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BJP’s Arunachal ‘test case’ for citizenship to non-Muslims runs into rough weather

Modi government’s decision to grant citizenship to non-Muslims who fled or are fleeing Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has stoked anger in the state.

india Updated: May 30, 2017 06:53 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times, Guwahati
Narendra Modi,BJP,Arunachal Pradesh
The Buddhist Chakmas (in pic) and Hindu Hajongs began trickling into India in the early 1960s after the Kaptai dam project submerged their land in Chittagong Hill Tracts. (Pronib Das/HT Photo)

The BJP’s “test case” for granting citizenship to non-Muslims who fled or are fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has run into rough weather in Arunachal Pradesh.

Much before the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh hit turbulence in Assam in 1979, Arunachal Pradesh grappled with Chakma and Hajong refugees displaced from erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1960s.

The Narendra Modi government’s decision to grant the Chakmas and Hajongs citizenship to honour a 2015 Supreme Court directive has stoked anger in the frontier state. Several NGOs have threatened to oppose the move.

Last Saturday, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), the apex students’ body of the state, organised a consultative meeting of NGOs representing indigenous communities who fear being affected by Delhi’s decision.

“The Union home ministry took this decision despite assuring us otherwise. We vehemently oppose the move to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees,” said AAPSU president Hawa Bagang. “We called an all-party meeting, where the presence of all 60 Arunachal MLAs and the state’s three MPs is mandatory.” The meeting is scheduled within a week, he said.

The students’ body, which launched the movement against the refugees in 1990, fears citizenship would reduce indigenous tribes such as Tai-Khampti, Singpho and Mishmi to a minority, besides robbing them of beneficiary schemes.

“Unlike the Tibetan refugees, who stay in designated camps, the Chakmas and Hajongs have spread out and established settlements by encroaching upon forest areas,” Bagang said.

The population of Chakmas and Hajongs was about 5,000 when Delhi had them moved to southern Arunachal Pradesh between 1964 and 1969. Their population is now about 100,000.

The AAPSU said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could be using the Chakma and Hajong refugees as a “test case for its Hindutva-centric plan to embrace non-Muslims from India’s neighbourhood, specifically Hindus from Bangladesh”.

Displaced by dam, religious persecution

Members of the Singpho tribe. Singphos and Tangsas are indigenous tribes of southern Arunachal Pradesh in whose area the Chakma and Hajong refugees were settled. ( Pronib Das/HT Photo )

The Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajong refugees began trickling into India in the early 1960s via present-day Mizoram — then the Lushai Hills district of Assam — after the Kaptai dam project submerged their land in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

A simultaneous move by East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was called before independence in 1971, to settle Muslims in CHT also forced many Chakmas and Hajongs out. The government in Delhi decided to shift the refugees to the sparely populated southern part of North East Frontier Agency, which later became Arunachal Pradesh.

“The settlement of Chakmas and Hajongs in our land was done by keeping our people in the dark,” Thingnong Umbu, chief adviser of All Tai-Khampti Singpho Students’ Union, said. He added that Delhi had initially allowed the refugees to stay temporarily for five to 10 years.

The AAPSU said the issue of Chakmas and Hajongs or their repatriation was left out when former prime minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh signed the treaty of peace and friendship on March 19, 1972.

Bagang said, “Former MPs and people in areas where Chakmas and Hajongs have been settled kept appealing to Delhi to either confine them in designated camps or shift them out. Finally, AAPSU mobilised all political parties and organised a people’s referendum rally on September 20, 1995 for total removal of Chakmas and Hajongs from Arunachal Pradesh.”

But the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh (CCRCHAP), whose petition made Supreme Court rule in favour of their citizenship in 2015, said the two communities deserve to become Indians after more than 50 years of stay.

When the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh joined the campaign to oust Chakmas and Hajongs, CCRCHAP reminded the party’s state unit president, Takam Sanjoy, of the Congress’s stand on the issue.

“Successive Congress-led governments at the Centre recommended granting of citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh in 1972, 1982, 1992 and in 1994, and we expect that the Arunachal PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) will honour the decisions of their previous governments,” said CCRCHAP general secretary Santosh Chakma.

Reports citing the Ministry of Home Affairs said Delhi is trying to find a way out of the complication by proposing measures such as requiring the Chakmas and Hajongs — like other Indians not residing in Arunachal Pradesh — to possess extendable inner-line permit and not granting them rights to purchase land.

Members of the Tangsa tribe. The population of Chakmas and Hajongs was about 5,000 when Delhi had them moved to southern Arunachal Pradesh between 1964 and 1969. Their population is now about 100,000. ( Pronib Das/HT Photo )

Apprehensive Assam

NGOs such as All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) are apprehensive of the move to give Chakmas and Hajongs citizenship status in Arunachal Pradesh. The AASU had spearheaded the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation from 1979-1985.

The prime reason for this apprehension is the Modi government’s move to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees who had fled persecution in India’s neighbourhood.

The Modi government had in December 2014 proposed to revise the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 1955 for granting Indian citizenship to all Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who are “seeking refuge due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution”.

The bill envisages reducing the period of stay of such refugees in India from 11 years to six years to become citizens.

Assam is particularly worried about 1.5 lakh undocumented Hindu refugees who came from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, the cut-off date for detecting, detaining and deporting illegal immigrants as per the Assam Accord of 1985 that ended the six-year Assam Agitation.

“The move is contradictory to the Assam Accord that says any person, whether a Hindu or Muslim, would be deemed illegal if found entering the state from Bangladesh after the cut-off date. We will not allow this to happen,” said AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharyya.

Clause 6A of Assam Accord, which specifies the status of refugees or infiltrators after the cut-off date, was inserted by the Rajiv Gandhi government. The indigenous Assamese, who threw their weight behind the anti-foreigners’ stir, consider the accord as an inviolable official and legal document that ensures protection of their land, language and culture.

Protection of land, language and culture was the plank that made the BJP-led coalition come to power in Assam a year ago.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is quiet on the issue. But finance and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, virtually the second-in-command, said granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis would benefit Assam as it would prevent Muslims from becoming the majority community.

“Hindus are 68% of the state’s population. Because of rapid population growth, the immigrant Muslims are set to become a majority in the state in the coming days. Under such circumstances, granting citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will prevent Assam from becoming a Muslim-dominated state,” Sarma said a few weeks ago.

Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the BJP’s ruling ally, has not taken any stand against the move, but party leader and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has been vocal. “It is the duty of AGP to ensure the Assam Accord is not diluted. They party has direct links to it,” he said.

The AGP, of which Sonowal was a leader until he joined BJP in 2011, was born out of the accord.

Sonowal became the ‘jatiyo nayak’ (community hero) after he — on behalf of AGP — won a long-drawn Supreme Court battle to scrap the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 that was perceived to be heavily loaded in favour of illegal immigrants in Assam.

First Published: May 30, 2017 06:53 IST