A refugee chink in Look East policy - Hindustan Times
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A refugee chink in Look East policy

Dec 07, 2023 10:18 PM IST

New Delhi needs to have a nuanced view of the crisis in the Northeast. A refugee policy is need of the hour

It is heartening to hear the Mizoram chief minister designate Lalduhoma saying that the Chin refugee influx in the state is a humanitarian issue and there will be no change in Aizawl’s policy towards them. The influx of over 6,000 Chin refugees from the Chin state of Myanmar into Mizoram from the second week of November 2023 requires reflection. Public perception in India has it that the Mizoram-Chin state border of Myanmar is the Indo-Myanmar border. The Indo-Myanmar border actually extends across the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Manipur on the Indian side, the Sagaing region and the Chin state of Myanmar, and the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh across the international boundary.

Champhai, Nov 14 (ANI): Refugees eat food at a relief camp after entering from Myanmar into Mizoram's Champhai following clashes between armed resistance forces and the military junta, in Champhai on Tuesday. (ANI Photo)(ANI Pic Service) PREMIUM
Champhai, Nov 14 (ANI): Refugees eat food at a relief camp after entering from Myanmar into Mizoram's Champhai following clashes between armed resistance forces and the military junta, in Champhai on Tuesday. (ANI Photo)(ANI Pic Service)

It is heartening to hear the Mizoram chief minister designate Lalduhoma saying that the Chin refugee influx in the state is a humanitarian issue and there will be no change in Aizawl’s policy towards them. The influx of over 6,000 Chin refugees from the Chin state of Myanmar into Mizoram from the second week of November 2023 requires reflection. Public perception in India has it that the Mizoram-Chin state border of Myanmar is the Indo-Myanmar border. The Indo-Myanmar border actually extends across the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Manipur on the Indian side, the Sagaing region and the Chin state of Myanmar, and the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh across the international boundary.

One would have thought that the Indian State had an enduring institutional memory. Few recall that the initial Mizo insurgency of the 1960s was prompted by the callous approach of the then composite Assam government and New Delhi to famine conditions in the Mizo hills. New Delhi has been impervious to the pleas of Aizawl for assistance in dealing with the over 60,000 Chin refugees currently living in camps there. The local civil society and church have stepped in to help. For a Mizo “Tlawmngaihna” means that all must be hospitable, kind and helpful to others. Yet to expect Mizoram to fend for itself speaks volumes of the lack of empathy and understanding in New Delhi. Hopefully, the new government in Aizawl will be able to draw a favourable response from the Centre.

Mizoram is one of the better-administered states in India. However, its capacity for internal resource mobilisation is limited. In addition to the Chin refugees, it is now saddled with over 12,000 internally displaced Kuki-Zomi people fleeing the internecine conflict in Manipur. The Chakma Autonomous District Council has an uneasy relationship with the Mizos. The failure of the Bru repatriation to Mizoram is testimony to the inept social engineering policies of the Centre.

Lest we forget, Mizoram also hosts a few hundred Kuki-Mizo-Chin refugees from the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh. This followed attacks on their villages by Bangladesh armed forces. The Mizoram-Bangladesh border is manned by the Border Security Force (BSF) while the Mizoram-Myanmar border is manned by the Assam Rifles. Though both are under the administrative control of the Union home ministry, turf wars are not unknown.

The traditional Zo identity, fractured by colonially drawn borders, is once again getting a new resurgence as New Delhi fails to navigate cross-border cultural identities with a walking-on-eggshells approach. Given the nonchalant attitude of New Delhi and Imphal to the concerns of the Kuki and associated hill tribes, the stage is being set for further fissures and fractures, which in the not-too-distant future will have cross-border implications. The inability to resolve the Naga issues, particularly in the Manipur hill districts, does not make anything easier. This may trigger major upheavals in the future. The illusory creation of a Meitei statelet, albeit under Delhi’s control, will have implications that are difficult to fathom at present.

A few broad brush strokes will suffice to emphasise the inadequacy of India’s present migration or refugee policy in the Northeast.

The visit of the Bhutanese King to New Delhi in November 2023 did little to allay New Delhi’s fears of China’s “western development” policy. The test for New Delhi will be if a Chinese ambassador is accredited to Thimphu leading to an eventual settlement of the Bhutan-China border dispute. The Chinese dragon seems to have corralled the Bhutanese Thunder Dragon! It is not just Doklam at stake as many would like us to believe. The line of retreat from North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now Arunachal Pradesh, in 1962 was the roads in eastern Bhutan. Many Sharchops who have been restive under the Drukpa dispensation will not be too happy with increased Chinese influence but are also painfully aware that the Sharchop leader, Rongthong Kunley Dorji, was surreptitiously sought to be illegally extradited to Thimphu with New Delhi’s nod. The few Monpas in eastern Bhutan were encouraged to migrate to the Monpa areas in Arunachal. Over half the Hindu Nepalese subjects were forcibly evicted from southern Bhutan in the 1990s with the acquiescence of New Delhi.

In eastern Arunachal, Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts are Naga-inhabited districts. They are strategically of immense value to India. The Act East policy in this region hinges on them. Despite better living conditions on the Indian side, there is no real migration from the adjoining dirt-poor areas of Myanmar. Both New Delhi and Itanagar are unwilling to implement the Supreme Court decision granting citizenship rights to the Chakmas and Hajongs who resettled there in the 1960s. It is evident that the parlous nature of various demographic pressures inhibits New Delhi’s options. In Assam, despite the present ascendance of the Ahom leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the threatened enactment of the citizenship amendment rules in March 2024 will lead to strife. Given that societal memory and remembrance are not the strongest points in the South Asian psyche, Nellie and its savagery (1983) have been forgotten.

In Nagaland, the villages on the Indian side of the border are much better off. But there is no desire for the consanguineous Naga populations from Myanmar to come to where the grass is greener. They are quite happy to bask in the relative peace that the Naga Self-Administered Area of Myanmar offers, once again underlining that conflict, not economic backwardness, is the main impetus for migration in this region. In Tripura, the tribal consolidation against the Bengalis is ephemeral; geography is a limiting factor.

Delhi could do with some demographers, ethnologists and sociologists in decision-making roles. The people of the Northeast are historically outliers. Bringing them into a young nation-state and more importantly, settled societies, is a work in progress.

Fences and boots on the ground offer no solutions.

Ravi Nair is director, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. The views expressed are personal

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