Ever since the Partition, the homeless Chakma tribes — be it under Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian rule — have been facing discrimination, negligence and even persecution
Tucked away in the middle pages, a small news article caught my attention recently. It reported that a Chakma Students' Union was agitating against a proposed census of only the Chakmas in Namsai district of Arunachal Pradesh, to be carried out from April 2022. The student body alleged that this amounted to racial profiling.
The genesis of the Chakma refugee crisis goes back to the pre-partition days. Chakmas are an ethnic tribe hailing from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. They have their distinct religious and cultural identity and are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. When the British colonial government agreed to the demand for independence of India, it also decided to partition India into two countries. The two nations were to be formed based on the premise that the Muslim majority areas would fall in Pakistan and non-Muslim majority areas would fall in India. By this logic, the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of undivided India should have been gone to India as it was primarily a non-Muslim area, consisting of 98.5 per cent ethnic hill tribes of Chakma, Bawm, Khumi, Khyang, Marma, Mru, Lushai, Tipra and others. But Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the chair of the Boundary Commissions, who finalised the delineation of the national boundaries for the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, completely disregarded this fact and Chittagong Hill Tracts was handed over to Pakistan.
Though the Chakmas and their leaders protested vehemently against this unjust decision, and its leaders made every possible effort to either retain CHT as an independent state or bring it under India but, unfortunately, Indian leaders were not proactive. Thus, Chakmas became one of the worst victims of partition, which made them stateless and among the most persecuted and marginalised races on the globe.
After the Partition, things were no better for Chakmas in the then East Pakistan; they lost large stretches of arable farmland which were flooded, and more than a lakh people were displaced when a dam was constructed over the Karnaphuli River at Kaptai in the early sixties. A large group of Chakmas fled to India from 1964 to 1969. Thereafter, Bangladesh was formed in 1971. In the late seventies, President Ziaur Rehman's govt. decided to officially resettle landless Bengali Muslims in the hilly region of Chittagong. There were innumerable instances of persecution of the Buddhist Chakmas by the fundamental elements in Bangladesh. Julia Bleckner, Senior Associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, writes that from 1977, the military moved into the region in response to the rise of local armed groups opposed to the "settlers" and the imposition of Bengali identity and language. In the years that followed, there were credible reports of soldiers subjecting the indigenous civilians to abuses including forced evictions, destruction of property, arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings. These conflicts mainly arose from the fact that the Constitution of Bangladesh did not recognise the distinct identity of the indigenous people although they have been living on the hills from time immemorial. The Chakmas fought back by forming a resistant group called the 'Shanti Bahini'. In 1997, a peace accord was signed by the Sheik Hasina government with the Chakma tribe of Chittagong Hill Tracts, recognising the indigenous tribes of this region and granting limited autonomy to them. However, the peace accord was not implemented on the ground and the persecution of Chakmas continued. Over the years, the Chakmas had to migrate to India. On the eve of independence, tribals constituted 98.5 per cent of the population in CHT but, in the 1991 census, the composition of tribal population declined at an alarming rate to 51.5 per cent whereas the Bengali population jumped up to 48.5 per cent. The Chakmas entered India through Lushai hills (now Mizoram) and sought asylum. Some settled there and others fanned out into Tripura, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In the past, a group of Chakmas had inhabited some parts of western Mizoram, as these were formerly within the boundary of the Chakma Kingdom of Chittagong Hill Tracts (Chadigang). It was only in 1895 that the area was sliced out of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bengal to the Lushai Hill District of Assam for administrative convenience by the British. The Chakma Autonomous District Council was formed in April 1972 to meet the long-standing demand of the Chakma community of Mizoram. Even then, the Mizos have refused to accept them and allow them their legitimate rights and benefits. There have been cases of violence and atrocities against Chakmas. As a result, some Chakmas had to flee from Mizoram and take shelter in southern Tripura.
In the late sixties, the Government of India settled the Chakmas in the then NEFA amid apprehensions that if they were settled in Mizoram, there would be clashes between the two communities. According to the Indira-Mujib agreement 1972, India had taken responsibility for migrants who entered India before 25 March 1971 and granted citizenship to the Chakma community.
The Chakma refugees left in Assam, Tripura and Mizoram were granted citizenship rights and recognised as a Scheduled Tribe. In Arunachal, citizenship for the Chakmas became associated with land rights. Therefore, most Chakmas were not granted citizenship. This has kept the Chakma issue open like a festering wound. The Chief Minister as well as all the political parties demand that Chakmas should leave the state. Arunachal Pradesh govt. is apprehensive that the Chakmas would disturb the ethnic balance and demography of the state and would put a strain on its limited resources. In short, the Chakma refugee crisis is a clash between the interest of the locals and refugees over land rights and resources of the state. For the Chakmas, the present state of affairs causes nothing but pain and despair. As a Chakma refugee laments "Even after more than 50 years of the partition, we belong to nowhere. We have become forgotten people."
Fearing discrimination and eviction, the Chakmas had approached the apex court from time to time. The Supreme Court, in its 1996 judgment, directed the state of Arunachal Pradesh to ensure that the life and personal liberty of each and every Chakma residing within the State shall be protected, and any attempt to forcibly evict or drive them out of the State by organised groups shall be repelled by requisitioning the services of police or para military forces to protect the life and liberty of the Chakmas. Once again in September 2015, the Supreme court directed the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Govt. of India to protect the Chakmas. It further stated that their citizenship should be considered as per procedure and they should not be discriminated against in any manner pending formal conferment of rights of citizenship. But the Arunachal govt. did precious little to process the citizenship of the Chakmas.
The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which facilitates citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and is criticised for being discriminatory, could have benefitted the Chakma and Hajongs, especially those who came after the cut-off date. But the CAA is not applicable to the 'Inner Line Permit' states under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873; that includes Arunachal and therefore would not in any way bring relief to the Chakmas.
To compound the refugee crisis, India does not have a law to protect over 2,00,000 refugees — including Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Bangladeshis and Rohingyas from Myanmar — residing on its soil. Nor is it a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. The law makers need to address this issue forthwith.
At a humanitarian level, we Indians must empathise with the stateless and displaced Chakmas and provide them a permanent place called home. After all, we have provided refuge to Tibetans, Sri Lankans and other people. The Indian subcontinent had to face colonial subjugation for centuries and was sliced off into two states, the fallout of these monumental events on the displaced people would have to be resolved with empathy. In the words of the journalist and activist Jorge Ramos, "The greatest nations are defined by their weakest inhabitants". If India aspires for global eminence, it must pay more than lip service to the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
The writer is a former bureaucrat. Views expressed are personal