State of denial

Published : Aug 29, 2008 00:00 IST

The story of the Chakma and Hajong refugees is replete with endless conflicts and harsh struggles for existence.

in Diyun and Miao

RELAXING in the chana the open space in front of a traditional Chakma dwelling on a raised bamboo platform after lunch, 95-year-old Kinyaram Chakma, the oldest resident of Dumpani village in the Diyun revenue circle of Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh, tried to put together fragmented memories of his journey from the Bagachadar area in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India, way back in 1964.

After walking for several days with his ailing mother, wife and six children in tow and carrying whatever belongings that a refugee family could gather before an uncertain journey, Kinyaram, along with a group of people from his village, reached the Demagri refugee camp, set up by the Government of India in the Mizo district (now Mizoram) of Assam. The moment they registered their names in the refugee list of the camp, their fate as Chakma refugees in India was sealed.

The journey was, however, yet to end. Soon they had to proceed to Badarpur in southern Assam, again on foot, under police escort, in batches. They used to walk for six hours a day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., to reach the next temporary camp set up on roadsides, to rest for the night. The journey would resume the next morning. They stayed in the Badarpur refugee camp for several months before they were taken to Ledo in Upper Assam; but this time, they were lucky enough to board a passenger train to continue the journey.

By the time the refugees belonging to the Chakma and Hajong communities, who fled to India because of the submergence of their age-old habitation following the construction of the Kaptai Dam in the CHT and owing to religious persecution in Myemensingh district of East Pakistan, reached Ledo, there were hectic parleys at the highest administrative level on where and how to accommodate them. Finally, it was decided to settle them in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which was administrated by the Ministry of External Affairs with the Governor of Assam acting as agent to the President of India. The administrative head of NEFA was the Adviser to the Governor. (NEFA became a Union Territory and came to be known as Arunachal Pradesh in 1972 and became a full-fledged State in 1987.)

Vishnu Sahay, the then Governor of Assam, in his letter No. GA-71/64, dated April 10, 1964, addressed to the then Chief Minister of Assam, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, said: It occurred to me that we may get trouble between the Mizos and Chakmas in the Mizo district. These Chakmas would be quite suitable people to go into the Tirap division of NEFA where there is easily found vacant land in the area about which you and I have often spoken. This is mentioned in the White Paper on Chakma and Hajong Refugee Issue, published by the Government of Arunachal Pradesh in 1996.

It was decided that 14,888 persons belonging to 2,748 families of Chakma and Hajong communities, including Kinyaram, would be settled in Lohit, Subansiri (now in Papum Pare) and Tirap (now in Changlang) districts. The 1981 Census recorded 24,083 Chakmas and 1,433 Hajongs in the State; the numbers increased to 30,062 and 2,134 respectively in 1991. The combined figure has now increased to around 65,000.

Kinyaram, who follows the Hinayana sect of Buddhism, was among those who were settled in the Diyun circle of Tirap district, in Block No 6, one of the six blocks that were allotted to the refugees. Each family was given five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of virgin land in dense forest. It took him almost five years of hard labour to clear the forest cover. After this, Kinyaram, along with his fellow farmers, started to grow paddy. The virgin soil rewarded him with surplus food.

Today the Diyun revenue circle has the largest concentration of refugees around 30,000 people spread over 14 villages.

According to the White Paper, P.N. Luthra, the then Adviser to the Governor of Assam, in his letter No.RR.17/64 dated April 21, 1965, addressed to All Political Officers and Additional Political Officers, NEFA, wrote:

The settlement of people in NEFA will also help in developing the pockets that are lying unused and unoccupied by the local population. Besides, the presence of stretches of vacant land along the border is strategically not desirable and the last emergency had highlighted this problem. Resettlement of people in the vacant border areas will help to strengthen our frontiers and their defence.

However, behind this apparent success story there are tales of endless disputes, conflicts with local people, and harsh struggles for existence, which turned Kinyaram Chakma, an unrecognised freedom-fighter in undivided India, a stateless person. The issue of granting citizenship rights to these refugees still hangs in the balance owing to constant opposition from the State government and the powerful All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU).

The government and the local organisations oppose this on the grounds that in the opinion of indigenous tribal people, their customary laws have been violated and traditional rights have been encroached upon by allowing settlement of Chakma and Hajong refugees by the Central government much against their wishes as well as damage done by them [the refugees] and their ethnicity by criminal misconduct, territorial expansion, and unbridled growth of refugee population, according to the White Paper.

The opposition of the State government to accommodate them as citizens has allegedly led to the gross denial of basic rights, including health care, education facilities, job opportunities and livelihood support.

The Diyun Secondary School, the only secondary school in the revenue circle meant for these refugees, lacks proper infrastructure and is overcrowded. There are only 18 teachers for 1,350 pupils. For instance, Class VII accommodates 214 children in a single room.

The basic facilities and amenities such as educational and health care facilities and the right to employment earlier withdrawn by the State government have not been restored. As a result, the socio-economic conditions of the Chakmas and Hajongs remained highly pathetic, the Asian Centre for Human Rights points out in its Indian Human Rights Report 2007.

A seven-bed primary health centre (PHC), the only health care facility available to the refugees and also other local residents belonging to the Singpho and Tangsa Naga tribes, is run by a homoeopathic doctor and three nurses, says Adesh Kr. Hajong, the headman of Madhupur village. The area is prone to malaria. There is also a severe livelihood crisis. The plot of land allotted to the refugees originally has now been divided among the offspring of the beneficiaries. Further, the refugees are not eligible to work in any government or reputed private farms without having citizenship rights.

Erosion in some pockets caused by the river Noa-Dihing has added to the problem of paucity of land for the increasing refugee population. Visitors to Maitripur village, on the bank of the Noa-Dihing, are taken aback by a huge minar-like structure in the midst of the river, about 150 metres away from the bank. The villagers call it Qutub Minar of Maitripur. The structure was originally the village community well. The gradual erosion of land has given the well the shape of a minar. Severe erosion has forced many families to encroach on reserved forests.

The areas where the refugees are settled were once covered partially by the Public Distribution System (PDS), and ration cards were issued to some of them. But later these were snatched away by the administration, alleges Jayanta Chakma, finance secretary of the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh (CCRCAP), who preserves a ration card issued against his name, which was valid up to 1994.

The Chakma and Hajong refugee issue has been a cause of simmering discontent among the original inhabitants since the time of their settlement. The stated reason is that at the time of their settlement, legal protection to the indigenous tribal people and their traditions, culture and customs were not considered, according to the White Paper.

The State governments opposition to providing the refugees citizenship rights prompted a Central team of the Ministry of Rehabilitation on February 16, 1982, to visit the State and hold a meeting with Chief Minister Gegong Apang and others on the issue. On September 23, 1992, M.M. Jacob, Union Minister of State for Home and Parliamentary Affairs, in his reply to Laeta Umbrey in the Lok Sabha, referred to the visit of the team and the teams view that grant of citizenship would introduce an element of responsible social behaviour in the refugees.

On January 7, 1993, the Minister, in reply to a letter dated March 26, 1992, of the State Chief Minister, stated, In fact, the Central government is strongly of the opinion that citizenship should be granted to these refugees to which they are entitled under the Citizenship Act, 1955. In July 1994, P.M. Sayeed, Minister of State for Home and Parliamentary Affairs, reiterated in the Rajya Sabha that the government had decided that the Chakma and Hajong refugees who came to India from erstwhile East Pakistan before March 25, 1971, would be considered for grant of Indian citizenship.

However, according to the White Paper, the decision of the Central government to grant citizenship to these refugees without taking the indigenous people into confidence angered all sections of people in the State. In August 1994, the AAPSU served a Quit Arunachal Pradesh notice on the Chakmas and the Hajongs. Countering this, in July 1995, the CCRCAP wrote to the Union Home Minister demanding his direct intervention, on the plea that citizenship rights would enable eligible Chakmas and Hajongs to exercise their right to franchise in the 1996 parliamentary elections.

On September 26, 1995, an all-party rally in Arunachal Pradesh resolved to demand that the Central government deport the refugees by December 31, 1995.

On January 9, 1996, the Supreme Court, in its judgment on a writ petition filed by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 1995, instructed the State government to ensure protection to the life and personal liberty of every Chakma residing within the State and to enter the facts of the applications made for registration as citizens of India by Chakmas under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, in the register maintained for the purpose and forward the application to the Central government for consideration.

Between 1996 and 2006, as many as 4,677 applications for grant of citizenship were sent by the refugees through the CCRCAP. However, none of the applicants has been granted citizenship until now. The Election Commission of India, on March 3, 2004, ordered the inclusion of 1,497 Chakmas and Hajongs who were found to be eligible for inclusion in the respective electoral rolls by the Electoral Registration Officers concerned during the special summary revision of the electoral rolls with January 1, 2003, as the qualifying date. Accordingly, these voters could exercise their voting right for the first time in India in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

C.C Singpho, Health Minister of the State, who hails from the Diyun-Bordumsa Assembly constituency, reiterated the stand of the State government for immediate deportation of these refugees.

He further said: We are demanding that the welfare issues of these refugees, including their education, health, issuing of ration cards and others, should be borne by the Central government and not the State government.

While there are so many hurdles in providing basic facilities in the Chakma and Hajong refugee pockets as these people have not been considered as refugees or citizens of India, in the Choepheplling Tibetan Settlement, situated at Miao, around 30 km off Diyun across the Noa-Dihing, around 4,000 Tibetans are leading relatively comfortable refugee lives.

The settlement, which was originally set up in 1962 in Changlang and later shifted to Miao in 1977, has all basic amenities, including a creche and a middle school. The school is run by an autonomous body called the Tibetan Schools Society, set up by the Ministry of Human Resource in 1961.

Children can study here up to Class VIII and can go for further free education and free boarding in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. Children study here in the Tibetan language up to Class V, and in successive classes in the English medium. The school is equipped with teachers belonging to their own community.

For women, more particularly for girls who drop out of school, there is the craft centre, set up in 1977 to function as a cooperative society. They learn carpet-making skills there with the objective of preserving the unique carpet tradition of Tibet in India as well as to provide them secondary income generation, says Dorjee Rinzin, secretary of the centre.

It has tied up with the State government for marketing its products. The cost per square foot of the fine-tuned carpet is Rs.230.

The settlement is also equipped with a PHC. Every family has on an average four or five acres of land, Rinzin says. The State has two other such settlement centres, in Tezo and Bomdila.

The Indian Army has created a special reserve force for Tibetan refugees. Altogether 311 youth from the Miao settlement have been recruited in the regiment, says Yeshi Kundak, the office secretary of the settlement.

Such differential treatment to refugees has raised one pertinent question: Does India need a piece of refugee-specific legislation to address refugee issues? Apart from the Chakma and Hajon refugees, India has been accommodating millions of people who came in following the population transfer between India and Pakistan after Partition; Tibetan refugees who entered India in three different phases (in 1959, 1980 and 2000); Bangladesh war refugees, most of whom have returned after Bangladesh was created; and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Further, there are additionally 11,750 Afghan, Myanmar and other refugees under the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate in the country.

However, India lacks a clear policy on refugees and foreigners and in the absence of a piece of refugee-specific legislation, the genuine refugees staying in the country are often subjected to harassment and denied basic rights whenever the government toughens its stand on foreigners in view of heightened security concerns and fear among the local communities about refugees changing the demographic profile of areas where they are sheltered. Indian courts have often come to the rescue of the refugees, but judicial verdicts cannot be expected to be a substitute for legislation. The Foreigners Act of 1946 is the only piece of legislation that deals with all non-citizens within Indian borders, making no differentiation between tourists, economic migrants, and asylum-seekers and refugees.

The eminent legal expert and academic Rajeev Dhavan argues: The Indian legal framework provides incomplete and skewed protection to refugees inasmuch as there is no clearly defined category of refugee as a sub-classification of the general category of foreigners.

Dhavan writes that Indian governance has not devised any systematic policy to deal with refugees, but has dealt with each particular crisis differently. Although various practices and procedures evolved in India have been unique and creative, they are no substitute for a comprehensive law and policy to promote a consistency of practice based on due process norms and humanitarian considerations to achieve just ends (Refugee Law and Policy in India, Rajeev Dhavan and the Public Interest and Legal Support and Research Centre, pages 136-137).

The State Health Minister said that if a piece of refugee-specific legislation is framed in India, it must have clear provisions regarding responsibilities to be borne by the Central as well as the State governments on issues relating to the refugees.

The legislation should also have a provision that refugees be confined to the territory they are allotted. Dhavan also said that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been increasingly pressuring the government to accede to the international refugee protection regime and to pass domestic legislation ensuring the same.

The commission, in its ninth annual report, for 2001-02, stated that the Ministry of External Affairs had initiated the process of examining the question of treatment of refugees, including different possibilities such as the enactment of a national refugee law and/or the possibility of signing the Convention on Refugees and related protocol in consultation with other Ministries/Departments concerned. The need for a refugee-specific law is likely to get wider attention in the coming days as the problem facing the Chakma and Hajong refugees is getting more complicated owing to various push and pull factors.

(This article has been generated under a media fellowship awarded by the UNHCR and the Centre for North Studies and Policy Research. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the views of the U.N. or the UNHCR.)

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