Claims to identity and self-determination on the basis of ethnicity have found a platform in almost all the states of India’s Northeast. The region has witnessed significant uprisings and insurgencies, with many social movements questioning the legitimacy of the Indian state and its notions of sovereignty. Struggles such as these are termed as ‘sub-national’ or ‘local’ movements with their own agents and agendas. On the other hand identity claims of minorities within these states have also been problematic for the central, state and federal governments.
In Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, Bangladeshi Muslims, Chakmas and Hajong face political and social persecution from successive governments and majority ethnic groups, who insist on counting them as ‘outsiders’, ‘foreigners’ or ‘non-permanent settlers’. Nearly 100,000 Chakmas migrated from East Pakistan to India by 1964 because of ethnic violence, mistreatment at the hands of the Pakistani government and displacement due to flooding caused by the Kaptai hydroelectric dam.
From 1964, the Indian government began to resettle refugees without granting them citizenship. In 1972, the Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace, signed in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi Liberation War – which had resulted in a further 10 million refugees fleeing from East Pakistan to India – made provisions for those who had entered India before 1971 to receive citizenship, and resettled refugees into the Northeast Frontier Agency (present day Arunachal Pradesh). The continuing discourse around Chakmas provides a clear example of the discriminatory nature of the Indian government’s policies towards marginalized groups in India’s Northeast, particularly those who cannot claim a history within the Indian state.
It shows how majority ethnic groups use the mechanisms of democracy, and of elected governments, to isolate minorities. The Chakmas, treated as non-citizens, have had to face the cancellation of trade licenses, the denial of the right to employment, removal from electoral rolls, and the withdrawal of healthcare and educational facilities since the 1980s. Many Chakma students studying in different parts of India provide official documents that show their residence as Mizoram, since the Arunachal government and its people do not treat them as residents of the state. All of them either have to struggle to get any form of documentation or are denied the same. Dinesh (name changed) says, “I am from Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh but all my documents carry an address in Mizoram”.
Framework of exclusion
Due to the heterogeneity of communities student unions such as the All Arunachal Pradesh Student Union (AAPSU) have played a significant role in the growth of divisive and xenophobic politics in the region, through movements such as ‘Refugee go back’ and ‘Detect and deport’ foreigner programs, activist and philosopher Prasenjit Biswas points out. In the essay titled ‘Understanding ethnic perspectives’ he argues that “the new cult of the other allows a better representation of the self”. The sense of differentiation was the only category that could unite the different ethnicities and this was used to the hilt by different student unions and political groups in Assam. When the ‘foreigners’ issue reached its heights in Assam under the leaderships of the All Assam Student’s Union the movement also spilt over to Arunachal and the Chakmas were also targeted. In Subansiri, Lohit, Tirap and Changlang, the three districts of the former North East Frontier Agency where Chakmas were earlier resettled by the Indian government, the Chakmas are considered no more than refugees by all the groups that inhabit these districts.
According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), in 1992 more than 380 Chakma houses were burnt down by organized mobs led by organizations such as Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and Young Mizo Association (YMA) at Marpara, Hnahva and Aivapui villages in Mizoram. Subsequently, thousands of Chakma voters who were included in previous electoral rolls were omitted and deleted from electoral rolls published in 1995 and 1996. More than 2886 Chakmas were deleted from the electoral roll in Aizawl district alone. In 1997 there were communal attacks, again by the MZP and YMA, where over 30,000 Reangs or Brus fled from Mizoram to Tripura and Assam. In a recent case a few Chakma students who had qualified in State Technical Entrance Examination (STEE)-2015 conducted by the Mizoram Board of School Education were denied counseling. These are individual, visible cases of difference but many more invisible forms of everyday alterity persist in Mizoram and Arunachal against the Chakma community.
Economic, political and developmental categories are further deepening this differentiation. In many cases it is clear that such development programs – paid for by the Center but appropriated by local government – further divide and discriminate against who they see as ‘non-native’ or ‘late arrivals’, distinguishable by a sense of separate culture or difference. Mizos claim that the number of Chakmas increased disproportionately due to infiltration from Bangladesh. However the Mizoram Chakma Development Forum Research Group in its study of Census Reports from 1981 to 2001 of the Chakma-inhabited Rural Development Blocks namely Zawlnawm, West Phaileng, Bunghmun, Lungsen and Chawngte found that none of the Blocks have witnessed more than 45 percent population growth except Chawngte block (with 103 percent) which is the headquarter of the Chakmas in the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC). In fact, in the non-Chakma inhabited Rural Development blocks such as Tlangnuam, Khawzawl, Lunglei, Lawngtlai and Tuipang, the minimum and maximum population decadal growth is 83 percent and 164 percent.
It all seems to come down to the chronology of arriving at a space which seems to account for the power dynamics that is unleashed. The Chakmas appears to be the victims of late arrival.
Discourse of ‘development’
The Multi-Sectoral Development Plan (MSDP), Border Area Development Plan (BADP) and Backward Region Grants Funds (BRGF) are three major schemes and programs in which the Chakma and Reang people are supposed to be the direct beneficiaries as they reside in the areas of India bordering Bangladesh. The MSDP guidelines clearly state that in places where minorities themselves constitute a majority (as in Mizoram, Meghalaya, Jammu & Kashmir), the MSDP should be targeted at the minorities of those areas. However, a memorandum submitted in June 2011 by Chakma political leaders and civil society groups in Mizoram to the Vice Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities H T Sangliana during a state visit, states that “in Mizoram, this perspective plan for the Mamit and Lawngtlai district were prepared and approved in violation of the guideline as most of the schemes are concentrated in the non-targeted areas and benefiting the majority Mizo people and not the Chakmas and Reang”.
In the case of Border Area Development Programme (BADP) and Backward Region Grants Funds (BRGF), which are 100 percent centrally-funded programs, they are aimed “to meet the special developmental needs of the people living in remote and inaccessible areas situated near the international border”. The revised guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs on February 2009 stated that “the border block will be the spatial unit within which the State Government shall arrange to utilize the BADP funds only in those villages of the blocks, which are located ‘within 0 – 10 km’ from the international border. Those villages, which are located nearer to the international border, will get first priority.” casein this definition the Chakmas’ villages came under the first priority target group of such projects. However during a field visit, a local Chakma leader (village council head) told us that the beneficiaries of such projects and schemes are the Mizos or Mizo villages.
The Asian Centre for Human Rights in its 2007 report’s data presents stark figures that reflect this sustained practice of discrimination:
During 1994-95, the State Government withdrew whatever services left to the Chakmas and Hajongs. It withdrew the Government Middle School at Bijoypur I under Bordumsa Circle; the only Government Primary School for seven villages at Bodhisatta village under Miao Circle; Government Primary School at M-Pen under Miao Circle; and all 49 Anganwadi nutrition centers from the Chakma and Hajong villages in Changlang, Lohit and Papumpare districts. Apart from the Government Primary Schools in a few of their villages, admissions were banned to the Chakma and Hajong students in all Government schools in the State. While in 2006, a new primary school has been opened at M-pen village, neither the middle school at Bijoypur nor the 49 Anganwadi nutrition centers have been reopened despite repeated requests to the authorities to re-establish government services. Chakma and Hajong students are continually denied admissions in various schools. The only assistance that the Chakmas and Hajongs were getting from the state government was the appointment of one or two teachers in each Government Primary Schools in the six Chakma villages under the Diyun Circle, two Government Primary Schools in Miao Circle in Changlang district and one Government Primary School in Chowkham Circle in Lohit district. The school buildings and teacher’s residences were built by the parents’ committees in each village.
The result is a sharp drop in literacy levels among the Chakmas. According to the 2011 census reports, the literacy rate of the Mizoram tribes is 91 percent compared to the Chakmas’ literacy rate of 68 percent.
Of dams and tigers
On 17 September 2015, the Supreme Court, responding to a petition by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas, directed the state government and the Centre to give citizenship status to the Chakmas and Hajongs. In response, the All Arunachal Pradesh Student Union (AAPSU) demanded that the state government declare Chakmas and Hajongs as non-permanent settlers, to “protect the rights of ethnic Arunachalis”. The state government has granted indirect support to AAPSU and the demands they have been advocating for, which goes against these two communities. The language of ‘outsider’ is used by the state government as well as the students unions of the state. The population of over one lakh Chakmas is seen as a grave threat to the state whereas, ironically, the state government has let hundreds of hectares of its rich land be submerged under water due to dams and has not shown any regard to the downstream gross impact that these mega dams might have on life and living of its neighboring states.
In Mizoram, the Chakmas face displacement because of state and national projects like of the International Border Fencing Project and Wildlife Sanctuaries and Parks. Consequently, the degree of vulnerability to poverty and other social, political and economic factors is extreme. In fact, the Mizoram Home Department, in response to the complaint filed by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal People’s Network to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), refused to recognize them as displaced people, though the guidelines of the project prohibits people from settling just outside the fence and directs communities to create settlements far from the border fence. Apart from being treated as refugees, the use of a benign purpose such as conservation to push them out ing is indeed an alarming development and should not go unattended just as a mere manifestation of inter-ethnic strife. Replicating such a discriminatory policy is possible elsewhere and hence the case of the Chakmas also calls a detailed research on the various conservation projects in India and elsewhere. Since ethnic politics and regional politics are largely driven by construction of migrants as ‘foreign’, the Chakmas continue to remain outside the imagination and representation of the contemporary political processes from Northeast and the development process of the nation. Unless and until there is appreciation from the other people in the region, the issue will continue to haunt this region and so will the ‘slow violence’. Moreover, it is also very interesting to look at the trajectory of ‘refugees’ in both the states as the idea of exclusion remains the same but the means have changed over time.
Suraj Gogoi is a research scholar at the Department of Sociology, Delhi University
Shyamal Chakma is an independent researcher who works on conservation practices in India
This article first appeared at Himal Southasian. Click here to go to the original